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A Different Type of Tourism

History Notes by Marion Bance

As the world slowly recovers from COVID-19, a lot of attention has been given to the question of where we should go on holiday, most particularly can we/can’t we, should we/shouldn’t we travel abroad. And what has been very noticeable has been the speed with which the travel industry has adapted to the (almost) post-pandemic environment.

After the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918/19 the fledgling travel industry looked, in just the same way, to innovate and take advantage of new opportunities for cross-border travel. And, as this global pandemic had overlapped with the First World War, what better idea than “battlefield tourism”! Mark Connelly, from the University of Kent, has examined this subject and says: “In 1919, the first tourist buses began to arrive in Ypres, and from then on it took off with an incredible speed.” Battlefield tourism had begun.

The very first trips were organised by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), followed soon after by the British Legion, Red Cross and other church and charitable groups. They were designed especially for ‘pilgrims’ – bereaved families willing to embark on what was then an extremely daunting and risky journey in the hope of finding some trace of their loved ones. Costs were kept to a minimum – £6 in 1920 - accommodation was rough and ready - often in huts belonging to charities located near to where the frontlines had been - and travel was generally uncomfortable and slow.

Modes of transport varied, depending largely on the amount each person or group had to spend. Pilgrims had first to travel to one of the channel ports before embarking on a cross-channel steamer (people travelling from Brighton might have taken advantage of the passenger service from Newhaven to Dieppe which resumed in July 1919). Travellers then passed through the devastated regions of Belgium and France by train and horse-drawn coaches; the wealthier hired motorised buses and, in the case of the rich, they negotiated the muddy and damaged roads in private chauffeured vehicles. Whichever way they travelled their aim was the same; to find where their loved ones had died and where they were buried, and to see for themselves how the graves were being cared for.

Reporting on the visit of a British Red Cross delegate to the battlefields in November 1919, the Hastings and St Leonard’s Observer (29.11.1919) told its readers of the “indescribable mass of abandoned war material, and incomprehensible chaos” physically and emotionally exhausted visitors were bound to encounter.

Despite the impediments (or perhaps because of them) travel companies, such as Thomas Cook and Henry Lunn, quickly realised the commercial potential of organising tours and advising on suitable accommodation. They wanted to provide a service for the bereaved, but their target customers were people interested in visiting the Western Front for other reasons. These tourists were seeking what Prof Connelly describes as: “the weird, wonderful, and macabre sites of the battlefields” and they were prepared to pay for the privilege. In 1919, Thomas Cook’s charges for a five-day tour in ‘standard’ class started at 25 guineas and included accommodation in distant cities such as Ostend, Lille and even Paris because, of course, every town and village in the battle zone was still just a pile of rubble: a “mere name on a board”.

National and local newspapers carried advertisements for battlefield excursions, brochures were printed, and buses and cars of all kinds were requisitioned and painted up in the travel companies’ livery. And, within 12 months of the Armistice, many thousands of people had made the journey; visiting the rudimentary cemeteries and memorials established in the immediate aftermath of the war, but also the ruins of towns and villages, battlefields, trenches, and abandoned tanks in their ‘tank graveyards’.

The Thomas Cook, July 1920 brochure boasted one aerial tour and itineraries with maps for eleven major battlefields, including Ypres, The Somme, Vimy Ridge, Argonne Forest, and Verdun. French and Belgian entrepreneurs conducted tours of battlefields complete with real trenches restored as a “visitor experience”. Farmers opened pop-up museums in their sheds which they filled with the debris of war found littering their land. Residents living on the tourist trail became inventive and created a massive souvenir trade selling decorated shell cases and art made from war “memorabilia”.

It goes without saying that not everyone thought such trips were either right or proper; the involvement of profit-making companies was undoubtedly controversial. Arguments raged between those who felt the places where so many had died were being distastefully “desecrated by the spectre of commercial tourism”; and those who argued that the tours provided a vital way of remembering and honouring the sacrifice made by that “lost generation”. Then of course there were those who reasoned that the visitors brought much-needed income to the local economy to help rebuild their lives. The UK press criticised as “thoughtless” a group who had pitched tents and were seen picnicking on ground containing graves; and tourists who travelled simply out of a curious desire for keepsakes were seen as “ghoulish and immoral”. In general, however, tourism to the battlefields was seen as a wholly positive thing.

As the 1920s passed into the 1930s, the civilian infrastructure was rebuilt; through the efforts of both man and nature the landscape began to ‘heal’, and the visitor experience improved. All sorts of buildings sprung up, including cafes, restaurants, and hotels specifically to cater for the increasing numbers of visitors. The work of the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) matured, and their beautiful cemeteries and memorials became, as they were intended, shrines of remembrance and the new focal point of the landscape.

And so it has remained. Families of the bereaved continue to make pilgrimages and tourism to the Western Front has continued to develop in sophistication and scope and, excluding the years of the Second World War, has stayed extremely popular.

Posted in History on Nov 01, 2021