carving of a WWI doughboy

An American doughboy, Archie Sweetman, carved this self-portrait while staying in a quarry at Chemin des Dames, France.
Photograph by Jeffrey Gusky; appears in National Geographic magazine June 2014

In my last post, I told you a little bit about the events commemorating the beginning of WWI which are taking place all across Europe. One of the events that I find most interesting is Lights Out. The Royal British Legion is encouraging people to turn out their lights from 10pm until 11pm, leaving on a single light or lighting a candle to mark the anniversary of August 4, 1914, the day that Great Britain declared war on Germany. It is a reference to the famous line by Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary. He looked out at the lamplighters in London the evening before the declaration of war and said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” This will not be quite so striking for those of us in Central Standard Time because it will be 4:00 in the afternoon, so perhaps it’s best to make it 10-11pm local time on Monday the 4th.

While you are sitting in the dark, you might think about the darkness in the trenches or carved-out quarries where soldiers waited before going into battle. It was undoubtedly miserable. Every book I’ve read so far talks about the dampness, mud, and cold in the trenches. Often, soldiers could not clear out their fallen comrades right away. The scene is sad and macabre, to say the least. So I was heartened, as much as anyone reading about WWI can be heartened, to read about an American photographer/ER physician/all-around fascinating man, Jeff Gusky, who is working to document the carvings that soldiers left in the walls of the trenches and quarries. National Geographic just did a story about his work. It includes some wonderful galleries of his photography. Men stuck underground carved their names, religious symbols, self-portraits, and patriotic images and sayings. There is something wonderful about the human impulse to make art in the ugliest circumstances.

If you have time, I highly recommend listening an interview with Dr. Gusky on “Think,” a public radio station out of Dallas, TX, linked below.  I especially enjoyed Dr. Gusky’s explanation of why we should care about WWI.  He noted that the soldiers who made this art were humans facing technology on an inhuman scale, something humans still struggle with today.  Here is the link to listen.  It’s about 45 minutes long:




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