Bristol University student Chantel Summerfield has literally ‘carved a niche’ in the field of archaeology by becoming the world’s only expert on military arborglyphs – inscriptions carved into tree trunks by soldiers.
Chantel told the Bristol Evening Post:
“I’ve followed many of the First World War soldiers’ carvings from trees that once stood a few miles behind the front line on the Western Front, through to finding their graves in Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. But with the Second World War carvings – most of which were done by American GIs as they made their way through Normandy– I’ve sometimes been able to trace the soldiers’ surviving relatives.
Chantel found one such example on Salisbury Plain. It had been carved by an American GI waiting for the D-Day invasion and read: ‘Frank Fearing –Hudson, Massachusetts, 1945′ with a love heart and the name ‘Helen’. She was able to track down a Barbara Fearing in Hudson,Massachusetts, whose parents were Frank and Helen.
Chantel said that Barbara was delighted to see pictures of the tree:
“Her father had survived the war, and had lived until 2001. He had always told her about how he would carve his initials into a tree everywhere he went with the army – but she thought he’d made it up. It turned out he had married his wife Helen secretly just a few hours before leaving for Europe for the D-Day invasion, so that really gave a fascinating human story behind this seemingly unexceptional carving. Although she has sadly passed away recently, Frank’s wife, Helen, was also still alive when I got in touch, and so she was able to see a photograph of the tree her husband engraved for her on the other side of the world all those years ago.”
Chantel interest in arborglyphs began as an archaeology undergraduate, when she did a degree dissertation on tree carvings on Salisbury Plain produced by different soldiers going back more than a century. This sparked her interest in the lives behind the names on the trees, so, for her masters degree, she travelled to France to study tree carvings made by soldiers during the two world wars. Her thesis concentrated on the difference between the style of messages left by soldiers training on Salisbury Plain and those facing life-and-death on the frontline in France:
“The inscriptions become much more personal in France, where they were facing the very real prospect of being killed at any moment…Many of them are expressions of love for their wife or girlfriend back home.”
Chantel is now studying for her PhD with further research on military arborglyphs.