Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Battlefield tourists; battlefield pilgrims

There was a new world that emerged blinking from four years of conflict at the end of the Great War.  At home, there was social awareness and the growing understanding of social welfare. The way had been paved to universal suffrage, and, perhaps against all odds, there was increased life expectancy for those at home - who had earned more money than ever before while the nation was mobilised for war. During the Great War this simply enabled the great mass of people to put food on the table - not altogether an easy task in pre-war, Edwardian Britain. One other change was the birth of mass travel to the continent. In the immediate postwar world, such travel was driven in part by curiosity, but also by a desire to seek out the sites of battle, and, all too often, those sites where a loved one was killed, and was buried or commemorated by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now Commonwealth War Graves Commission). Frontline towns like Ypres and Arras played hosts to visitors and pilgrims alike, with hotels, guides and tour companies offering facilities well into the 1920s. As often as not, visitors would bring back a memento of their trip; photographs, pieces of trench art, or books of postcards like these.

Easily carried, and often depicting the towns in question before and after the war, such souvenirs found their way back to Britain and across the Commonwealth. Today, the images these innocent books contain are stark reminders of the war and its destructive powers - and of human loss.

Peter Doyle's forthcoming book on home front life, First World War Britain, part of the Shire Living History Series will appear this year. It is available on pre-order here.


  1. Can I recommend the film by Bernard Tavernier 'Life and Nothing But' (La Vie et Rien d'Autre). The pilgrimage of a French woman to the Front to find out what happened to her husband, woven around the search for a representative unknown fallen poilu for the equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

    http://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2010/10/08/a-film-rumination-life-and-nothing-but-bertrand-tavernier-1989/ will take you to a discussion site. A film about the deep-seated need to have material things to grasp as aids to our acceptance of the incomprehensible; and how managing these through bureaucratic processes both enables and frustrates.

  2. Thanks - I will certainly follow up this link.