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London - They married in secret a few days before he went to war.
Frank Fearing had no idea if he would ever see young Helen again, but he made her a solemn promise. Everywhere the American GI went with his unit, he would carve their names into a tree.
The first was on Salisbury Plain, where he was stationed before joining the push towards Berlin in the wake of the D-Day invasion. The rest were spread across France and Germany, carved whenever time allowed.
Helen Fearing never knew if it was just a romantic bluff, or if he had simply made up the story to impress her. But they clearly didn’t reckon on the determination of British student Chantel Summerfield and her remarkable archaeological quest.
More than six decades later, and several years after Frank died, the 24-year-old specialist in military tree carvings tracked Helen down from the information on the Salisbury tree – and showed her the proof.
It was one of hundreds of tree carvings Chantel has documented as part of her Bristol University PhD research into military “arborglyphs”. Many tell the poignant stories of ordinary soldiers in the First and Second World Wars, some clearly composed by Tommies who feared they might otherwise be lost without trace in the mud of the WWI battlefields, or by Allied forces launched into bloody conflict in Normandy.
‘”rank Fearing – Hudson, Massachusetts, 1945,” was followed by a love heart and the name Helen. From that simple inscription, Chantel traced the couple’s daughter Barbara in America, and was eventually able to present Helen with a photograph of the message her husband carved for her all those years ago.
“It was amazing to be able to give her that and show her the carving,” said Chantel, who has recorded 1,500 trees in France alone since starting her research five years ago. She uses military and public records, censuses and other material to identify individuals .
“When you try to pick them out from thousands of marks, you start to get amazing stories,” she said. “To me, it makes the soldiers individuals. Some of them will have given their lives with hardly anyone learning anything about them.”
Chantel, from Malvern, Worcestershire, noticed a dramatic contrast between messages left in pre-battle training grounds and personal information she uncovered on trees in France. Soldiers in a war zone often recorded as much information as they could, carving names of girlfriends, wives, times, dates, thoughts and feelings.
She said: “In England, many of the inscriptions are simply initials. By the time the soldiers get to France, they are carving self-portraits, pictures of their houses, animals... anything that’s important in their lives.
“It’s as if people are saying “this is me, I was here, this is my wife, this is where I’m from – and tomorrow I’m going to face the enemy”.
One inscription made reference to France in time of war and added: “Hell”.’
Until she starts to research a carving, Chantel cannot tell if it will produce a tale of happiness or tragedy. “H Pearce, AIF, [for Australian Imperial Force] September 22 1916”, for example, turned out to be Horace Pearce, who joined the Army aged 22 but died just weeks before the war ended.
Another soldier – Clyde Henry Walker, who served in both World Wars – was deployed to England in 1918 and carved himself into history with this simple inscription: “C H Walker, Australia”. Chantel traced his family and discovered he had won a bravery medal in France before going on to serve with colonial forces in the Indian army.
Chantel, whose PhD is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is currently researching at Saltram House, Plymouth, where American forces were stationed in the Second World War. “Some carvings there have remained virtually unnoticed despite thousands of visitors,” she said.
“Unfortunately trees die or are cut down. That’s why I want to record as many as I can.” - Daily Mail