Dan Tehan, Australian Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, was in the Somme for the Anzac Day commemorations. During his time here he visited Vignacourt to learn more about the new interpretation centre that is being built and the Underground City of Naours, where soldiers left inscriptions during the First World War.
Vignacourt during the War
Vignacourt was located behind the lines for the duration of the war. Despite being far from the actual fighting, the village still had a vital roll to play as a rest and recuperation area for soldiers coming to and from the battlefields and as a casualty clearing station. Attesting to the village's history, a collection of portrait photographs taken by Monsieur and Madame Thuillier was found in an attic in the village in 2011. Captured on glass, printed onto postcards and posted home, these photographs enabled soldiers to maintain a fragile link with loved ones back home. The Somme Departmental Council and the Australian Government are now supporting a project to open an interpretation centre and guest house themed on life behind the lines and photography during the war.
3000 photographs of WW1 soldiers and 1000 photographs of civilians were taken by the Thuilliers between 1915 and 1920. In 1988, during the inauguration of Rue des Australians, their son Robert Thuillier had 300 of the plates developed by Robert Crognier, a local photographer. Some of these photos now decorate the walls of the village hall. Then, in 1990, they caught the eye of Laurent Mirouze, an amateur historian writing for a magazine called Militaria. Struck by the quality of the shots, and the natural poses of the subjects, he published several in his magazine in the hope of attracting more attention to them. In 2010, 20 years after they were first discovered, Laurent Mirouze was contacted by Channel Seven, a major Australian television channel and on 24th January 2011, the Australian TV team came to Vignacourt. One of the team was famous journalist Ross Coulthart, who was accompanied by Peter Burness, a historian at the Australian War Memorial. They quickly uncovered 4000 plates, and their exceptional historic value. The new interpretation centre will open in April 2018 and will be included in the Australian Remembrance Trail.
The Underground City of Naours
The Underground City of Naours is a vast network of former quarries that were used from the Middle Ages as shelter during times of war. It is one of the largest networks of tunnels in Northern France. During the First World War, many Allied soldiers visited these tunnels during their leave. Many men even inscribed their names and regiments upon the walls!
In January 1917, Allan Allsop from Mosman, Sidney, wrote in his diary “Striking a hospital tent in the morning and erecting it again in another part of the grounds. At 1 p.m. 10 of us went to the famous Caves near Naours where refugees used to hide in times of Invasion. These Caves contain about 300 rooms, one cave being 1/2 mile long.” During his visit, Allan pencilled his name on one of the walls of the underground city. This moving piece of graffiti, which even a century later still looks incredibly fresh, is one of 2000 pieces to have been currently uncovered. It shows a less violent side to the war, to which we are less accustomed, revealing how soldiers occupied themselves behind the lines. Another soldier to have left his mark in Naours was Sergeant Samuel Meekosha VC of the 1/6th West Yorks. This recent revelation, currently undergoing academic research (since 2014), makes the Underground City of Naours the highest concentration of WW1 graffiti as yet uncovered.