How the battlefields of the First World War became the tourist attractions of today

GRAVES REGISTRATION UNIT IN FRANCE AND BELGIUM 1914-1920 (Q 100481) Tourists in Ypres, Whit Monday, 1919. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

In this post, Professor Mark Connelly examines how Western Front battlefields became places to visit – both for tourists and pilgrims – after the Great War. For more blogs like this one, visit the Beyond the Trenches blog here.

In April 2017, Professor Mark Connelly of the University of Kent was joined by a team of volunteers to explore the experience of battlefield tourism to the Western Front in the 1920s and 1930s. Our major source for this project was digitised newspapers, particularly the local press, and it proved a treasure trove of fascinating insights. We wanted to find out who visited the battlefields, why, where they stayed, how they got about, and what they actually went to see.

Our research revealed that in the immediate aftermath of the war the devastated regions of the Western Front could make travel difficult, and some places barely accessible, while the standard of hospitality could be rough and ready. A significant influence on the experience was the amount each person or group could afford. For the wealthy, tours could be undertaken with personal drivers and guides.

The newspaper coverage of battlefield visits makes it clear that people undertook the tours for a variety of reasons. The vast majority of the articles highlight poignant stories of personal loss. Tens of thousands went seeking cathartic release by visiting a loved one’s grave, place of commemoration or death. For those relatives left without a grave to mourn over, the memorials to the missing were crucial.

Others visited for far more prosaic reasons creating a distinction between ‘pilgrims’, meaning those undertaking the visit due to bereavement, and mere ‘tourists’ seeking the weird, wonderful and macabre sites of the battlefields. The seventy year old Scottish lady who, it was reported by the Aberdeen Press and Journal, walked 17 miles to and from her ‘local’ railway station to join a group tour was most definitely a pilgrim.

In reality, the nature of the newspaper coverage makes the distinctions appear far less solid. This can be detected in an account in the Banbury Advertiser in 1921. After reverentially describing the condition of the battlefields, it also contained the frisson of excitement at seeing such things as ‘the Tank Cemetery’ [a collection of ruined tanks] on the Menin Road.

For people from the now-divided Ireland, the battlefields could be a place where the two communities met in common remembrance. A major pilgrimage was organised in 1926 to unveil the 16th (Irish) Division crosses at Guillemont on the Somme and Wytschaete near Ypres. The Dublin Evening Herald reported: ‘Catholic and Protestant chaplains intermingled in friendly converse (sic) and exchanged reminiscences of stirring days in the battlefields’. War remembrance was obviously made much easier when taken away from the island of Ireland altogether.

The cemeteries and memorials were, of course, the focal point of the landscape for visitors from Britain and the island of Ireland. Seeing the maturing work of the Imperial War Graves Commission usually evoked a deep sense of gratitude, reverence and peace. A veteran returning to the battlefields in 1926 wrote to the Berwickshire News and Advertiser stating that his whole party was ‘gratified to see the care taken’ and great peace and beauty of the cemeteries.

Battlefield visiting remained popular throughout the twenties and thirties. Indeed, such was the interest that some groups were almost caught out in August and September 1939. On 2 September 1939 the Aberdeen People’s Journal carried the story of a local woman who had at last visited her husband’s grave near Ypres. Although the party to which she belonged had no difficulty completing its itinerary, ‘in the last stages of the tour they saw great signs of military preparedness’. Within a few days a new British Expeditionary Force had arrived in France, and as the papers tell us, some of these men promptly made battlefield tours of their own. Our research revealed to us that for many a battlefield tour was a crucial way of coming to terms with the Great War.

The research team consisted of:

Peter Alhadeff, Mark Allen, Hazel Basford, James and Susan Brazier, Mark Connelly, Steve Dale, Charles Davis (Australia), Malcolm Doolin, Valerie Ellis, Tim Godden, Simon Gregor, Jan and Richard Johnson, Gill and Roger Joye, Pat O’Brien, Stephen Miles, Jon Palmer, Julie Seals, Jonathan Vernon.

About the author: Mark Connelly is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Kent, and Director of the AHRC funded Gateways to the First World War Engagement Centre.

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