Battlefield Tourism on the Western Front of the Great War

Term Paper, 2020

21 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Battlefield Tourism and the Western Front
2.1 What Is War Tourism
2.2 Motives to Visit the Battlefields
2.3 The Emergence of Battlefield Tourism at the Western Front

3 Duty or Pleasure — Tours of Tragedy
3.1 The Cathartic Pilgrimage
3.2 Modern Visits to the Western Front

4 A Tour to the Battlefields
4.1 Guidebooks to the Battlefields
4.2 The Influential Tourguide
4.3 A Home Away From Home
4.4 Souvenirs From the Battlefields

5 Trench Tourists
5.1 Join the Army, See the World
5.2 The Returning Soldier
5.3 The Female Traveller

6 Changing Battlefield Tourism

7 Conclusion

8 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Despite the Great War being over for more than 100 years, the promise of remembe­ring its dead is still fulfilled. The idea for this term paper came from a book that has been on my shelf for quite some time now. In Traces de la Grande Guerre, J.S. Car­tier has captured what is left of the Western Front during the 1990s in black and whi­te photographs, supplemented by short informative texts on the location or the pictu­re itself. I was surprised at the recency of the book, and how much is actually left of the war and omnipresent - not only in hidden places. In this contribution it is aimed at exploring the reasons why people from all over the world have been visiting France and Belgium, to see the old battlefields of the Western Front of the Great War over the last hundred years. What motivations did or do they have? Is it a general interest in historic places or do the visitors have a personal connection to the places because they have fought there or have lost a loved one there? Does a real tourism to the former battlefields exist at all? As a single term paper cannot be enough to answer all these questions in detail, the focus will be set on the British visitors. It be will be examined what war tourism, or rather battlefield tourism, entails and how it develo­ped after the Armistice. Finally, selected guidebooks and their typical features will be presented and how they prepare visitors for their journey into the past.

2 Battle fi eld Tourism and the Western Front

2.1 What Is War Tourism

War tourism has existed for a long time and distinguishes between the visits of actu­al ongoing fights and the visits to places of former fighting. This term paper will focus on the latter form of war tourism, which is related to heritage tourism and is therefore closely linked to remembrance and memory. Warfare tourism “includes visiting war memorials and war museums, ‘war experiences', battle re-enactments and [...] batt­lefield tours”, state Dunkley, Morgan, and Westwood (2010: 860). The last being the focus of so-called battlefield tourism, which will mainly be explored in the following.

Misztal (qtd. in Dunkley, Morgan, and Westwood 2010: 861) argues that du­ring battlefield tours the cultural memory “becomes institutionalised through cultural means, such as commemorative rituals, memorials and museums.” This cultural memory is of course part of the cultural meaning, which is reaffirmed by war as much as by touristic activities. “Tourists confirm their sense of national belonging in the ex­perience of being elsewhere among foreigners. In war, national culture is urgently reiterated as what it is we are fighting for”, states Malvern (2001: 49). Winter (2009: 609) argues that “the recognition of tourism's role in the process of memory-making about the Great War can help provide a better understanding of how we remember the events and people who made such enormous sacrifices almost a century ago.” According to Malvern (2001: 48) tourism in this case “is less a form of relaxation than an anxious ritualised performance for both tourist and guide, soldier and female civi­lian alike. The company of Thomas Cook & Son who offered tours to the battlefields advertised the trip as an obligation to everyone:

“We do not know—and we cannot know— what war really means until we have visited the Battlefields and the ruined towns and devastated miles upon miles in the North of France and Belgium. And it is our duty to visit them; it is a duty we owe to our manhood and womanhood and the common brotherhood which the best of us hope will now reign in the world.” (Thomas Cook & Son qtd. in Lisle 2016: 86.)

2.2 Motives to Visit the Battlefields

According to Foley and Lennon (qtd. in Dunkley, Morgan, and Westwood 2010: 861) war tourists are motivated by “education, remembrance, and entertainment.” Tarlow (qtd. in Dunkley, Morgan, and Westwood 2010: 861) similarly argues that the tourists are “attracted by a desire to pay their respects, out of curiosity or because it is ‘the thing to do'”, and Ashworth and Dann (qtd. in Dunkley, Morgan, and Westwood 2010: 861) classify war tourism into the following five categories: guilt tourism, roots tou­rism, edutourism, lest-we-forget tourism, and sado-masochistic-pornographic tou­rism. A very rough distinction of the travellers is made by David W. Loyd (qtd. in Lisle 2016: 84-85):

visitors should be categorized as either sacred pilgrims who traveled to the battle fi el­ds for the ‘higher moral purpose' of commemorating and honoring the dead or profa­ne tourists who traipsed across this hallowed ground seeking some kind of morbid sensation while collecting ghoulish souvenirs such as bullet casings, shrapnel, and discarded helmets.

Thomas Cook & Son (qtd. in Lisle 2016: 86) specifically aimed their early tours to the battlefields at “everyone who [was] desirous of paying due homage to the memory of the Glorious Dead.” Nevertheless, for a first visit to the battlefields an interest in fami­ly history seems to be predominant, suggests Iles (2011: 160). There are few people who do not have a far relative a few generations back who took part in the First World War. Most of these travellers carry with them photographs, diaries, service re­cords, or letters of the soldier-relative (Iles 2006: 172). Many visit the battlefields re­peatedly (Iles 2011: 160). According to McPhail (qtd. in Isles 2011: 161) most repeat visitors tend to narrow their focus onto the deceased relative, but by narrowing their lens they overlook the obvious suffering of the trenches and fail to see what civilians had to endure.

Other reasons to visit the old battlefields might be that the visitor has taken a literary interest in the War and the work of trench poets like Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, and Graves (Iles 2006: 165). Or simply because the area is easy to reach — this makes it a good destination for short trips (Mc Phail qtd. in Iles 2006: 165). Another reason for many to visit the former fighting grounds is nostalgia, argues Iles.

The seemingly simpler values the soldiers held, the belief that most of them fought unquestioningly for the cause of freedom and peace, that service for the one's coun­try was more important than the individual self, and the sense that today we seem to be existing in some kind of spiritual and moral vacuum, are common views mentioned by the tourists, states Iles (2011: 160). Even though we full well know that life on the front was not­hing to envy, the traveller of today has the above mentioned motifs in mind and goes to the battlefields to find them. Especially for Britons it is easy to obtain a nostalgic view of the Great War as it did not happen on their ground (McPhail qtd. in Iles 2011: 161). Apart from a few Zeppelin raids in the south Britains civilians remained untou­ched by active warfare. McPhail (qtd. in Iles 2011: 161) furthermore criticises that tourists “feed their thirst for the drama of war without having to endure the drawbacks of its realities, namely the violence, carnage, mud and lice.” Iles (2006: 176) summa­rises the motives to visit the Western Front as follows: “although battlefield tourism is honorific rather than maudlin in intent, there is an element of sentimentality, which some tourists and tourist operators are able to exploit.”

2.3 The Emergence of Battlefield Tourism at the Western Front

The First World War had created the groundwork for tourism in general, as it “had broken down international barriers, and it had resulted in fostering of an ideal, an op­timistic, peaceful internationalism — just the climate in which tourism was most likely to flourish”, argue Likorish and Kershaw (qtd. in Lisle 2016: 701). And not only that, the former battlefields themselves attracted tourists for various reasons. After the Great War the tourism industry expanded to the battlefields (Larabee 2010: 463), and “a market for organised tours to the actual battlefields and to the ‘Silent Cities' of British war cemeteries developed” (Malvern 2001: 47).

War tourism has changed over time like any other form of tourism, the modern form we have today enables large crowds from all over the world to visit the former battlefields of the Western Front (Lisle 2016: 72). This mass tourism began to grow significantly in the 1920s with the construction of memorials and museums (Lisle 2016: 83). Lisle (2016: 84) agues that mass tourism in the aftermath of the Great War “catered to large numbers of visitors who craved unmediated and individuated access to the ‘real' remnants of war, and it offered pleasures and delights to divert survivors away from the lingering trauma of war.” After the war, the remaining popu­lation felt a duty to honour the fallen heroes by visiting their graves and even 100 ye­ars later “numerous tributes are still made at cemeteries and memorials, including wreaths, photographs, silk poppies, field flowers, small flags and notes in the visitor books” (Winter 2009: 612).

The rise of tourism after the Second World War to the areas of Northern Fran­ce and Belgium, where the First World War took place was influenced by the 50th anniversary, the traumata after the Vietnam war, as well as television as a new me­dium to convey knowledge and meaning of the conflict. The arrival of organised tours to the battlefield, as well as the emergence of professional guidebooks further facili­tated the visits (Ahmad and Hertzog 2018: 2). The promise “we will remember them” (Binyon 16) of one of the most famous Great War poems, namely Binyon's “For the Fallen”, has largely been kept since the last shots were fired up to today. According to Williams (qtd. in Iles 2011: 155), the “Western Front in Belgium and France, which was the decisive theatre of operations for the Allied troops, has crea­ted its own iconic representation and mythology and has secured a firm place in mo­dern memory”. The legacy of the Great War still matters to “British society at large”, argues (Heathorn qtd. in Iles 2011: 155). Additionally, Connerton (qtd. in Winter 2009: 615) asserts that “[r]emembrance of the Great War has become enshrined in rituals of symbolic, formalised and regular practice”, and battlefield tours with the vi­sits to memorials and cemeteries are among these remembrance rituals. Neverthel­ess, when speaking of remembrance we always have to keep in mind “who wants whom to remember what, and why? Whose version of the past is recorded and pre­served?” (Burke qtd. in Winter 2009: 621). This issue will also be touched upon in chapter 4.2 The Influential Tourguide.

3 Duty or Pleasure — Tours of Tragedy

3.1 The Cathartic Pilgrimage

The post-war battlefield tours opened up spaces for civilians that were previously re­stricted to them (Malvern 2001: 50). Yet, “[f]or visitors arriving at the Front after the armistice, the destruction and devastation along the battle lines was so complete that there was very little to see. It was a countryside of former places, of missing woods and obliterated villages”, states Iles (2006: 163). In the 1920s and 30s there was a “massive popular movement to construct local war memorials, which were almost always local initiatives”, states Malvern (2001: 47). According to Saunders (qtd. in Saunders 2008: 8), the Western Front is composed.of industrialised slaughter houses, vast tombs for ‘the missing', places for returning refugees and contested reconstruction, popular tourist destinations, locations of memorials and pilgrimage, sites for archaeological research and cultural heritage development, and still deadly places full of unexploded shells and bombs.

When the Great War ended in 1918, survivors wanted to make sense of the terrible loss the conflict had brought “via a tour of culture of mourning and remem­brance that relied on traditional social and literary practices”, argues Ganaway (qtd. in Ahmad and Hertzog 2018: 1). According to Ahmad and Hertzog (2018: 7). “[t]he ruins became shrines and the vast stretches of battlefields transformed into a sacred geography, the visit to the battlefields was a pilgrimage not just a journey, and the pilgrim became a witness to the horrors of the war.” “In particular, large pilgrimages, such as the 1928 British Legion pilgrimage, were public journeys which united be­reaved relatives and ex-servicemen with political, military and often religious leaders in an act of mourning for an homage to the dead” (Lloyd 2014: 133-134). As can be seen from above the focus of the journey were the dead and they usually appear in the accounts of such pilgrimages, states Lloyd (2014: 134). Pilgrims went on the journey to visit the grave of a fallen relative and if no grave existed they went to one of the memorials to the ‘Missing' (ibid. 135).

Pilgrimages do not necessarily have to be religious experiences, argues Lloyd. The battlefield of the Western Front provided a secular surrounding (ibid. 140). According to Walter (qtd. in Lloyd 2014: 140) the pilgrimage to the battlefield could be compared to medieval pilgrimages, although “the war grave pilgrim's en­counter with the sacred, even if accompanied by a short religious service, may ap­pear to be less a religious experience than an emotional catharsis.” In addition to that, it also has to be considered that more than 100 years ago religion might not have been as important as during the Middle Ages, but it still mattered more than to­day.

In order for the pilgrim to feel close to and share something with their relati­ves, they often visit places their loved ones visited and walk the same roads in order to feel connected to them, asserts Lloyd. For them, it is a consolation to be as close as possible to the experience of the dead (Lloyd 2014: 136). The process of visiting and walking the battlefields is also a process of acknowledging the loss, says Lloyd (ibid. 136). Going on tours to the battlefield also meant encountering people who had experienced the same loss and they shared this experience over class boundaries, states (ibid. 142).

3.2 Modern Visits to the Western Front

“As the war became more distant in time and a new generation came of age, visitors sought to make a connection to its events through a trip to its actual sites”, asserts Malvern (2001: 57). According to Iles (2006: 162) the “Great War battlefield land­scape of the Western Front still exerts an enormous potency for tourists even though much of its geography required significant decoding to understand its not hidden nar­ratives.” After interest in the Great War had ceased during the 1950s and early 1960s, the 50th anniversary of the hostilities brought along new books as well as the BBC television series “The Great War”, raising again interest in the areas of the Western Front (Iles 2011: 155, cf. Ahmad and Hertzog 2018: 1). With the 1970s and the industrial crisis, battlefield tourism and war heritage have increasingly become local issues, state Ahmad and Hertzog (2018: 4). Ever since the that same decade the Somme and Ypres Salient have been popular tourist destinations with the British (Iles 2006: 163). Where the earth was once torn up and formed the unrecognisable “topography of Golgotha” (Owen qtd. in Iles 2011: 156), nearly 100 years later, most of the battle-scarred Front lines are replaced by agriculture and urban areas. This change of scenery, however, did not stop tourists from visiting the battlefields. Accor­ding to Lloyd (qtd. in Iles 2011: 156) tourists were and are not attracted to the land­scape but rather to the emotions of excitement and horror that go along the visit of the sites. McPhail (qtd. in Iles 2011: 156) also states that

today, again, the draw for tourists seems to be not so much a desire to sightsee but rather a wish to identify and empathize with its symbolic commemorative spaces in order to gain a greater feeling for the lives and experiences of an earlier generation tested by brutal and violent military combat.

The 1990s have brought a renewed interest in the battlefields of the Western Front (Scates qtd. in Winter 2009: 607-608), with countless visits to memorials, cemete­ries, battlefields, and the participation in ceremonies commemorating the war dead, such as planting a poppy cross or attending the ‘Last Post'1 at Menin Gate (Iles 2006: 172).

4 A Tour to the Battle fi elds

The region around Ypres, where one quarter of the British dead soldiers are buried (Malvern 2001: 58), is still popular among visitors today. For a British tour it is typical to visit the Somme and Ypres with Thiepval Memorial, Tyne Cot, Menin Gate, and Sanctuary Wood (Dunkley, Morgan, and Westwood 2010: 862). The focus of battle­field tours is on monuments and military cemeteries, in particular Tyne Cot and Thiepval. These two especially remarkable memorials will be looked at more detai- ledly in the following.


1 The Last Post is a bugle call of military tradition signalling the end of the day (Iles 2006: 178). Today there is a ceremony including the Last Post at the Menin Gate Memorial taking place at 8pm every day of the year (visitflanders 2020).

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Battlefield Tourism on the Western Front of the Great War
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
War Tourism, Battlefield Tourism, Trench Tourists, Soldiers, Western Front, Dark Tourism, Remembrance
Quote paper
Felicitas Deckert (Author), 2020, Battlefield Tourism on the Western Front of the Great War, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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