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