“Such men never really die”.
Captain James Sprent, in a letter to the parents of Arthur James Adams in 1916.
THIRTY metres underground, Arthur James Adams stretches up. Slowly, carefully, and in extraordinarily neat hand, he carves his nickname into the cave’s stone wall: Chips.
Alongside he tags his best mate, “Kala”; their unit and the date: July 18, 1916.
The graffiti will become an unintended epitaph.
Three weeks later, the Gallipoli veteran and friend of the legendary donkey-leading Jack Simpson will die in the carnage of Pozieres — one of 23,000 Australian casualties in just 42 days — his story lost to his own family, his grave unvisited and even the inscription undeciphered for a century.
A century and more after Arthur, we visit the Naours caves: a network of tunnels used for centuries by local French communities first as a refuge, then by smugglers and by the 1900s as a tourist attraction.
During the war it became a haven for Diggers and Tommies on leave behind the lines, where thousands left their mark — the world’s largest collection of WW1 graffiti.
By using only his and Kala’s (real name Herbert Baker) nicknames, Arthur had foxed researchers trying to document all the signatures, until we spotted it — on a hunch and after hours of searching with battery-draining iPhone torches.
And discovering that scrawl — balancing in the exact same spot as he did, breathing the same cool subterranean air — we feel an extraordinary sensation.
Finding his signature has been the culmination of a journey through time: a journey that let us walk in the footsteps of heroes and stand in the shadow of evil; spawned friendships, created an online community of thousands and sparked at least one real-life romance.
And it brought home, running deeply underneath it all, a bond between Australia and France that does not just leap 100 years from 1918 to now, but flows through the dark days of WWII and still resonates in the very atmosphere here, in this foreign land so important to the Australian national character, where every corner seems to carry a story.
We first came to know Arthur four years ago, as we began the award-winning AnzacLive project: telling the stories of 10 real people from a century ago, in real time on Facebook, as if they were posting across the century.
Compared to them, British-born field medic Arthur was something of an enigma.
While his diary was archived by the Australian War Memorial (the notebook handed, in the 28-year-old’s dying moments, to his commanding officer — an act that made all the rest possible, documented by us here) his family in the UK forgot all about him.
It was only as we began to delve into the tale of this quiet, upright man, who loved carpentry (hence the nickname), painting and photography, that we were able to share it back with those relatives today, among them best-selling crime novelist Sarah Hilary, and with the Australian public.
With AnzacLive we brought the people of Gallipoli and the Somme to 2015 and 2016.
This year, as the centenary of WWI comes to a close, we wanted to do something equally bold: bring those extraordinary battlefields — the places and the people — to 2018 and beyond.
It was this ANZAC 360 project that let us finish the story of Arthur and learn so much more.
In collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Grainger Films we have created 360-degree, virtual reality films at key sites along Australia’s Trail of Remembrance.
Using drone and ground-level surround footage, period imagery, graphics and more, these place you right at the heart of the Aussie experience on the Western Front.
All your need is your mobile or tablet, the ANZAC 360 app and away you go to France and Belgium.
Whichever way you turn, you will be immersed in the sights and sounds of northwest Europe.
It was while filming that we found Arthur’s signature — noting that in his typical understated style, unlike many of the larrikins scrawling across the caves, he’d place his moniker almost out of sight.
That same day we found the overgrown chateau where he was billeted.
We were welcomed in by the formidable Madame de Francqueville, who showed us a portrait of the family patriarch who 100 years earlier had hosted Arthur.
He even sketched with our man in AJA’s last days before heading back to Pozieres … and a shell with his name on it.
It was Mme de Francqueville who opened the door to this Anzac connection running through WWII.
She told us that Germans had been her family’s uninvited guests two decades later, billeted in the same buildings that Arthur and his mates had used as a base.
They had carved their names on the walls, just as other Germans had at Naours, which they used an underground armoury.
And it was from there that we discovered a tragic footnote.
A woman that Arthur made friends in Wargnies, and her husband, were slain by the Nazis as members of the resistance — fighting, as Arthur did, for the freedom of France.
All of this we captured on camera — and so much more.
Filming at Pozieres we stood where Archie had watched men “driven stark staring mad — crying and sobbing like children” in one of the greatest German barrages of the war.
At Fromelles we take viewers to the killing ground where Alice lost her beloved, brave, Harry Moffitt.
Also at Fromelles we stumbled across a German bunker where a young Adolf Hitler is believed to have been on duty during that terrible slaughter, when 5533 Australians were killed or maimed in one calamitous night — our country’s worst military disaster.
Grainy images from 1940, when he visited his WW1 haunts as a conquering dictator, show him poring familiarly over the command strongpoint that overlooks the old Allied lines.
The act of standing where he had stood was to be as chilling as standing in Arthur’s space was thrilling.
And so it went. Connections to Aussies, known and unknown, everywhere.
Random discoveries and chance meetings, like Belgian Johan Regheere, who became our unofficial guide at Polygon Wood, telling us of his grandmother’s eight years under German occupation — four in each war, 10 per cent of her life; physical traces like bullet holes, shell casings and shrapnel still visible to the naked eye at battlefields and towns alike.
Then there were all the Australians we met.
With 295,000 Aussies serving in France and Belgium during WWI, there are many, many pilgrims to the past and the numbers are growing.
Each had a true family story to rival the last and each was gripped by the electric atmosphere.
Perhaps that is why discovering the places where Arthur — who has become to us like family, or even a friend — lived and laughed was even more poignant than when we found his grave: because the Australian Trail of Remembrance is a place not of ghosts, but where our people’s stories live on.
As Captain James Sprent, the officer to whom the dying Arthur handed his diary, wrote later: “Such men never really die.”