The end of the First World War a cen­tury ago meant the be­gin­ning of bat­tle­field tourism, says

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Jac­que­line Wadsworth

The fam­i­lies who made pil­grim­ages af­ter the end of the First World War to see where their loved ones had died

An en­ter­pris­ing in­di­vid­ual placed a small ad in The Times in early 1920 of­fer­ing to guide par­ties of sight­seers through war-torn Europe: “Bach­e­lor, late thir­ties, re­fined tastes, flu­ent French, fair Ger­man, re­cently toured whole front, France, Bel­gium, would CON­DUCT PARTY own­ing good car over bat­tle­fields.” He was ready to de­part at the end of Jan­uary and would ex­tend the tour to the Riviera, Switzer­land or the Rhine “if de­sired”.

This is just one of the hun­dreds of ad­verts that be­gan ap­pear­ing in Bri­tish news­pa­pers at the end of the First World War, of­fer­ing or­di­nary peo­ple the chance to see for them­selves where the bit­ter years of con­flict had been fought. For­mer Army of­fi­cers were be­hind many of the smaller ven­tures, but es­tab­lished hol­i­day op­er­a­tors were quick to see the op­por­tu­ni­ties too. In the spring of 1920 Thomas Cook & Son was of­fer­ing trips to the bat­tle­fields of Bel­gium and France with fares start­ing at £8 11s 6d. Mean­while the South Eastern and Chatham Rail­way Com­pany was launch­ing its own daily tours to the Bri­tish bat­tle­fields in France.

A Boom Be­gins

And so be­gan a boom in First World War tourism that matched any­thing we have seen 100 years later. Just as we visit the bat­tle­fields to dis­cover more about the part fam­ily mem­bers played in the con­flict, so too did our ances­tors. Some trav­ellers were sim­ply cu­ri­ous to wit­ness the sights of war (“sen­sa­tion seek­ers”, as one news­pa­per called them). Oth­ers were be­reaved fam­i­lies need­ing to see where their loved ones had fought and fallen, or veteran sol­diers han­ker­ing to re­visit old scenes of bat­tle.

Just 18 months af­ter the Ar­mistice was signed The Times was re­port­ing record hol­i­day book­ings to Europe, largely due to the pull of the bat­tle­fields. Never had there been such de­mand for tick­ets to the Con­ti­nent at Easter, ac­cord­ing to Thomas Cook: “Ev­ery one of

the 50 branches of the firm is work­ing at top pres­sure to deal with book­ings and in­quiries.”

Trav­ellers be­gan their jour­neys on cross-chan­nel steam­ers, land­ing at French and Bel­gian ports that not so long ago had been bristling with khaki uni­forms. They con­tin­ued by rail or mo­tor ve­hi­cle, star­ing out at a land­scape still rav­aged by war, with black­ened tree stumps lin­ing the routes, and vil­lages re­duced to rat­in­fested rub­ble.

“Bro­ken down, roof­less houses ev­ery­where.

Some of them were ac­tu­ally oc­cu­pied and a tar­pau­lin sheet was over the top to keep out the weather,” wrote one Aus­tralian lady in 1921 when she vis­ited the Somme vil­lage of Villers-Bre­ton­neux.

Buried Where They Fell

In those early months, graves were marked by wooden crosses and the dead were buried where they fell, or close by. Dur­ing the 1920s bod­ies were ex­humed and con­cen­trated in the larger ceme­ter­ies we visit to­day, with crosses re­placed by head­stones.

The wealthy hired cars for their sight­see­ing, per­haps ac­com­pa­nied by a guide such as our bach­e­lor ad­ver­tiser. In the evening they rested at com­fort­able ho­tels, and may have re­searched the next day’s trip us­ing one of the Miche­lin bat­tle­field guides for mo­torists that be­gan ap­pear­ing soon af­ter the war. The first went on sale in 1919 and cov­ered the area of France that saw fight­ing dur­ing the first Bat­tle of the Marne in Septem­ber 1914. Its fore­word en­cour­aged read­ers to take a se­ri­ous ap­proach: “See­ing is not enough, the vis­i­tor must un­der­stand; ru­ins are more im­pres­sive when cou­pled with a knowl­edge of their ori­gin and de­struc­tion. A stretch of coun­try which might seem dull and un­in­ter­est­ing to the un­en­light­ened eye be­comes trans­formed at the thought of the bat­tles which have raged there.”

Roads were of­ten rough and dif­fi­cult, but help was avail­able from en­trepreneurs like Henri Board­man of Paris, who ad­ver­tised his ser­vices in Lon­don news­pa­pers: “If con­tem­plat­ing a tour in Europe by Auto, write to me con­cern­ing a Garage and the Gen­eral Up­keep of your Auto… A1 me­chan­ics on all Amer­i­can and English cars.”

It’s in­ter­est­ing to note that Mon­sieur Board­man had picked up the new English phrase ‘A1’, which was used by re­cruit­ing of­fi­cers dur­ing the war to de­scribe men who were fit to fight at the Front. It soon be­came com­mon par­lance, and re­mains so to­day.

An al­ter­na­tive way of ex­plor­ing was on foot, and The West­ern Bat­tle­fields: A Guide to the Bri­tish Line set out ex­actly how to do this. Pub­lished in 1920, it was writ­ten by Lieu­tenant Colonel TA Lowe, a for­mer of­fi­cer. The guide gives a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the times. On cloth­ing, Lowe sug­gests: “An old golf­ing suit is the most suit­able, with stout boots and leg­gings: the lat­ter pro­tect the shins against sharp ends of wire… Ladies should wear strong boots, thick woollen stock­ings and short skirts, with a woollen jumper or jersey.”

He in­cludes plenty of help­ful warn­ings, in­clud­ing this gem: “I know of a lady who, in stoop­ing to pick up what she imag­ined to be a ‘sou­venir’, sus­tained a great shock in dis­cov­er­ing that it was an old boot, and in­side were hu­man bones.”

How­ever, not ev­ery­one could af­ford such ex­pe­di­tions. Many wid­ows bring­ing up chil­dren alone found it hard to make ends meet, and would never have had the chance to visit their hus­bands’ graves if it had not been for char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tions step­ping in to or­gan­ise large-scale ‘pil­grim­ages’. The St Barn­abas So­ci­ety, one of the best-known, aimed to al­low “ev­ery poor mother who wishes to do so to visit her son’s grave”. The par­tic­i­pants, or ‘pil­grims’ as they were known, paid what they could with the bal­ance met by the so­ci­ety, which in turn ap­pealed to the pub­lic for do­na­tions.

Travel con­di­tions were fairly ba­sic, but no­body com­plained. In April 1924, for ex­am­ple, 758 hardy souls landed at Boulogne at 6.30am af­ter a rough and stormy cross­ing from Dover (60 de­cided to aban­don the trip be­fore even start­ing). On ar­rival break­fast was pre­pared in goods sheds at the Gare Mar­itime; a fleet of mo­tor-lor­ries then took trav­ellers to the ceme­ter­ies. They re­turned to Boulogne just be­fore mid­night and trav­elled back to Eng­land.

Re­porters ac­com­pa­nied the St Barn­abas pil­grim­ages, and af­ter­wards wrote vivid and mov­ing ac­counts that can still be read to­day in pub­lic ar­chives. In 1926 Trevor Allen, who worked for the West­min­ster Gazette, joined one of the most am­bi­tious St Barn­abas ex­pe­di­tions, to Salonika, Greece and Gal­lipoli. Of the 274 trav­ellers, 113 were un­ac­com­pa­nied women. “We shall sit through the night and talk and talk…” he wrote as the group read­ied them­selves for a train jour­ney with few com­forts.

On ar­rival in Salonika a small party con­tin­ued on for an­other 44 miles “through blind­ing dust over the tor­tu­ous road, wind­ing over great hills and ravines” to find the graves they sought. “Some stooped and kissed the head­stones, and most of them wept qui­etly as they bus­ied them­selves about the graves,” wrote Allen. One mother cried: “I should never have re­alised the des­o­la­tion of the Front with­out see­ing it… Oh! My poor boy!”

When the ex­pe­di­tion landed at Gal­lipoli one mother climbed to the sum­mit of Chunuk Bair, where a sav­age bat­tle had been fought in Au­gust 1915, to lay a wreath on the spot where her son was last seen. Af­ter­wards she said: “I have ac­tu­ally walked the way he went, and been able to share a lit­tle of the hard­ship.”

The three-week pil­grim­age cov­ered 5,000 miles and 26 ceme­ter­ies, and must have been a huge feat of en­durance for those who had only known do­mes­tic life in Bri­tain. But for many it would lay ghosts to rest, and al­low life to re­sume.

As the 1920s pro­gressed, im­pos­ing new mon­u­ments be­gan to ap­pear on for­mer bat­tle­fields, pro­vid­ing a fo­cus for vis­i­tors. One pho­to­graph, trea­sured by her de­scen­dants, shows Maud Mar­wood of Leeds vis­it­ing the Es­sex Farm Ceme­tery me­mo­rial in Bel­gium (see box, page 74).

While many found con­so­la­tion on the for­mer bat­tle­front, one veteran re­turned dis­ap­pointed be­cause noth­ing was as he re­mem­bered. The ex-sol­dier had fond mem­o­ries of the times he spent with com­rades, par­tic­u­larly at Ar­men­tières in north­ern France. “But ev­ery­thing had

‘I should never have re­alised the des­o­la­tion of the Front with­out see­ing it’

A South African nurse places a wreath on her brother’s grave at Delville Wood

Bri­tish Le­gion ‘pil­grims’ emerge from the labyrinth of dug- outs pre­served by the Cana­di­ans at Vimy Ridge

Miche­lin pub­lished a two-vol­ume guide to the Somme bat­tle­field just af­ter the war

An in­dus­try sprang up to sup­port the fam­i­lies who wanted to visit their loved one’s grave

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