Henri Barbusse, famous as a French Author for his book Le Feu (‘Under Fire’) published in 1916, documenting his time spent on the Western Front. At the age of 41, Barbusse volunteered at the start of the war, joining the 231st Infantry Regiment, part of the 55th Infantry Division of the French Territorial Army. From January 1915 through to the end of the year, Barbusse was positioned near Hill 119 in the village of Crouy just outside of Soissons. He took part in the First (17 December 1914 – 13 January 1915) and Second Battles of Artois (9 May – 18 June 1915), whereby the French suffered huge losses in the fight to prevent the German troops taking Arras.
Le Feu is penned as a fictional story, though many of the occurrences within its text are far too specific to be entirely fictional, leading one to believe some of the specific experiences within the book are autobiographical. One such account that draws attention for this particular study is when Barbusse writes of a comrade discovering a bronze axe in the trenches, resorting to use the prehistoric tool to continue digging his trench. The excerpt reads;
"Tiens, old man," says Tulacque, as he comes up. "Look at this."
Tulacque is magnificent. He is wearing a lemon-yellow coat made out of an oilskin sleeping-sack. He has arranged a hole in the middle to get his head through, and compelled his shoulder-straps and belt to go over it. He is tall and bony. He holds his face in advance as he walks, a forceful face, with eyes that squint. He has something in his hand. "I found this while digging last night at the end of the new gallery to change the rotten gratings. It took my fancy off-hand, that knick-knack. It's an old pattern of hatchet."
It was indeed an old pattern, a sharpened flint hafted with an old brown bone—quite a prehistoric tool in appearance.
"Very handy," said Tulacque, fingering it. "Yes, not badly thought out. Better balanced than the regulation ax. That'll be useful to me, you'll see." As he brandishes that ax of Post-Tertiary Man, he would himself pass for an ape-man, decked out with rags and lurking in the bowels of the earth. “
-Henri Barbuse, Chapter 2 of Le Feu (1916)
French author Henri Barbusse (image: telegraph.co.uk)
In early April 1918, Captain Francis Buckley of the 7th Northumberland Fusiliers was sent to ensure the completion of trenches around the small village of Coigneux, in Picardie, France, about 16 miles southwest of Arras, and 6 miles behind the British front line. The area around the village had three lines of shallow trenches that were partially dug by Chinese labourers in the months before, as hasty reserve line, known as the ‘Red Line’, and only lay at around four 4 feet deep. With the onset of the 1918 German Offensive, Buckley and his men were required to reinforce the structure of these trenches to 6 feet in depth. As an officer, Buckley had opportunity to inspect the excavation of these trenches, and would often keep a keen eye out for archaeological material, specifically flint implements.
Buckley was in acquaintance (how professional or friendly this acquaintance is unknown) with Reginald A. Smith. Esq F.S.A., an archaeologist specialising in European prehistoric and medieval material, who suggested to Buckley that he pay close attention to the ground around Coigneux, as they were known to be rich in prehistoric flint material. Smith went on to become Keeper of British Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum in the 1920s, and went on to write numerous publications concerning prehistoric flint implements.
Upon inspection of the trenches, Buckley does, indeed, happen across a variance of flint tools. Described in detail in his 1918 publishing, aptly named Finds of Flint Implements In The Red Line Trenches at Coigneux, 1918, Buckley describes that along the surface and just below, he recovered Neolithic implements that included polished celts, hammers, stones, and scrapers. Buckley also recovered implements he claims to be of Le Moustier culture all along the tops of the parapets along the Red Line, but nots that the these parapets were gradually built up by the soil thrown up and out of the trench below, noting their original level. Buckley also goes on to lament that, while he saw potential to excavate the parapets and was confident that further discovery would be made in doing so, military action made this venture quite impossible.
Buckley's sketches of the several neolithic flint tools he discovered (Buckley 1918).
In February 1915, Captain Pehlemann was inspecting a new communication trench his men had recently dug running from the Bucy Castle heading south, when Pehlemann found a bronze torque- 20cm in diameter with a hook enclosure- and several ceramic shards, which led to the further discovery of a possible necropolis. Pehlemann sent in a report to the director of the Prehistory Department of the Berlin Museum, Carl Schuchhardt, who saw interest in the tombs and ceramics for their quality and addition to the museum. Sapper Hans Niggemann, an archaeology student before being sent to the front, was chosen to to carry out a recorded excavation. Over the following three months, Niggemann and several other men, including Fanhrich Schulze and Private Bittner, recovered thirty-two burials, which were then transferred on 17 June, 1915 to the Pre- and Protohistory Museum in Berlin, along with the excavation report and associated diagrams.
Page taken from Niggemann's diary with notes and sketches of the excavation (Niggemann 2915).
In May of 1915, whilst the Germans were digging trenches just outside of the town of Berry-au-Bac, a German soldier- his name and rank unknown- discovered a substantial amount of Roman ruins as he and his men were cutting deeper into the earth. His letter, in which he recounted his finds and their historical context, is provided in English here;
“Our position here follows in the main important ancient road from Laon to Reims. This road is supposed to date from Roman times. We have cut through and undermined it at many points in order to prepare trenches or shelters. The massive blocks which were thereby struck far below the surface seem to confirm our supposition. Moreover, the neighbourhood is not uninteresting in other aspects. Exactly in our section Caesar fought his battle with the Belgians (B.G. 2.1-15), though of course facing the opposite direction. The crossing (of the river Aisne) took place at Berry-au-Bac or Pontavert, both being places heavily bombarded by us. And it gave me really immense pleasure to read Caesar: Palut erat non magna inter nostrum atque hostium exercitum (ch. 9). If we had looked up Caesar back in the autumn we would perhaps have been ,ore sensible in planning our first-line and communicating trenches, which have all been flooded since Christmas by the brook Miette.”
In 57 B.C., in the midst of his Conquest of Gaul (58 to 50 B.C), Caesar battled the Belgae tribe. Arriving in along the Belgic frontier in the territory of Remi where he was based in the town of Durocortorum (modern day Reims). Upon word that the Belgae were marching against him, Caesar quickly made for the Aisne river, setting up camp close to the river’s right bank. He defended the nearby bridge with a praesidium on the right bank, and a camp of six cohorts to the left. Meanwhile, the Belgae set up camp about two miles away- the two armies being separated by a marsh.
The Roman road that the soldier mentions known today as the D1044 -Avenue du Général de Gualle and Rue du Colenel Vergezac that runs through Berry-au-Bac from Laon to Reims.
Detail of 1918 trench map showing Ceasar's Camp along German lines (Ordnance Survey 1918).