As someone who is currently researching Ypres as a memory site; as a place of competing narratives about the war and its meaning where each combatant nation whose men experienced the region sought to impose its own interpretation through memorials, books, maps and images, I am constantly led back to the experiences of the first generation of pilgrims to the Western Front. Sitting in one of the many cafes on the Grote Markt of Ieper/Ypres today, it is immensely difficult to imagine what it was like for those people. The difficulties are many. The first challenge is trying to understand their emotions and motivations. Despite mass literacy, despite the mass record keeping and record survivals of the modern age, we have only scraps from which we can piece together the intimate stories of the visitor to the battlefields in the conflict’s immediate aftermath. Many were bereaved and were coming to see where a loved one had lost his, or possibly her, life.

Tourists in Ypres

Tourists in Ypres, Whit Monday, 1919. Image from the Imperial War Museum collection. © Jeremy Gordon-Smith

What did they want the journey to achieve? Absence at the moment of death, not being able to offer comfort, love, peace as life flickered away, not knowing how those last moments passed must have gnawed countless numbers of bereaved people, and so perhaps going out to the sites was meant to achieve what we would now call ‘closure’. But, how did that process of closure work in making a visit? Given the fact that many must have gone out in the knowledge that their loved one had no known grave and that precious little was known about precisely where, when and how he had met his end, there was equally little chance of finding an exact spot on which to focus emotion and go through any kind of cathartic experience. Did some come hoping against hope that somehow their particular case was the subject of an administrative error and by wandering the cemeteries they might just stumble upon his grave? Perhaps they were spurred on by the The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Ypres Salient, published in 1920, which stated: ‘The work of arranging and recording graves and cemeteries is by no means finished’ and recorded the fact that graves were being found and gathered into cemeteries the whole time. Did some think that simply by visiting the general area where a loved one served his last days they would in some way gain insight and therefore comfort?

It is also difficult to imagine the challenges of the simple logistics of such a visit in the period 1919 to around 1922. Much of the fighting zone remained devastated with primitive infrastructure and much remained under direct military control. To gain access to Ypres and similar places, a visitor had to gain a special pass, and to have obtained precise information from the Directorate of Graves Registration/Imperial War Graves Commission about the burial place. They then had to gain a passport and make travel arrangements. Even King George V and Queen Mary had to be issued with the special War Graves’ Visitor Passes, which were introduced as a simpler form of passport, in order to make their pilgrimage in the spring of 1922. In the early days, such preparations and expeditions were the preserve of those with a healthy income. Realising this, charities soon stepped-in to assist poorer people, particularly women, make the journey to France and Belgium. The Church Army and St Barnabas Society established a chain of hostels across the Western Front using the ubiquitous army huts. They developed highly sophisticated systems offering the pilgrim, as they were rapidly labelled, full support undertaking to organise every aspect of the trip. The St Barnabas Society would meet each person as s/he disembarked (usually at Boulogne), provide an escort to the accommodation, arrange the itinerary, transport and subsistence. With many people from humbler backgrounds lacking experience in organising any kind of expedition from home, such an offer must have been deeply reassuring.

Such visitors would then have seen the near surrealism of the former fighting zone marked as it was by the combination of awful devastation and small pockets of life and activity as local inhabitants struggled with immense fortitude to re-establish their lives. This returning population clung to the edges of existence with the vast majority living in temporary accommodation often cobbled together from discarded military materials. Each day they exerted themselves in the seemingly endless tasks of draining, clearing and fencing as they inched back towards a resemblance of their pre-war lives. This world must have seemed a little like a frontier society, a European wild west in which ‘civilisation’ was being (re-) established in a seemingly random and incomprehensible manner. The inhabitants soon realised that British visitors were an important component of local life, and in particular were a major part of the local economy as they needed food and drink, drivers and guides, and bought souvenirs and postcards. In turn, this fuelled a market responsive to British tastes and cafes were soon serving tea, British beer and cigarettes and dishes designed to appeal to the British palate. In many ways, it was a continuation of the trade commenced in the war to service the demands of British soldiers. And the continuity was ensured by the presence of many veterans who had become employees of the Imperial War Graves Commission or gone into battlefields touring business for themselves. With remarkable speed a new Anglo-centric ribbon was laid down along the old Western Front with Ypres the centre of this world.

Today, thanks to the immense changes the landscape has undergone, the best way we can gain a glimpse of that original world is in the form of the first guidebooks. Some contain adverts for the Church Army which promoted its ‘escorted parties of relatives to visit graves on the Western Front. Only parents, widows and other relatives, or intimate friends are permitted to join these’, and private travel companies such as the ‘Franco-British Travel Bureau’, with its offer of ‘battlefield tours de luxe personally conducted… by ex-officers’ in ‘high-class private motor cars’. There is the common-sense practical advice, too: ‘Thick-soled stout boots are indispensable, and a good walking stick will be found to be of great service’; ‘personally I always carry sandwiches and something to drink on these journeys, and the tourist will be well advised to provide himself with a light midday meal’. These works become especially resonant of a past world if they retain their maps which include sites, and indeed sights, that have disappeared like the ‘Tank Cemetery’ on the Menin Road, the pipes of the watering point for regimental water-carts at Wieltje crossroads, the pillboxes, seemingly miles of trenches and the tons of metals, much of which was collected at a special dump near the Lille Gate. Visiting the Western Front now, it is often tempting to imagine the landscape of the soldiers during the fighting and their emotions and experiences. I think it is equally interesting and engaging to try to consider those who came back soon afterwards and how they dealt with this exceptionally strange world of ghosts and shadows, industry and endeavour and nature reclaiming the ascendancy.

Whit Monday tourists outside the Cloth Hall, Ypres, 1919. Image from the Imperial War Museum collection. © Jeremy Gordon-Smith

Examples of some of the earliest guides:

  • J.O. Coop , A Short Guide to the Battlefields (Liverpool: Daily Post, 1920)
  • Lieutenant-Colonel T.A. Lowe, The Western Battlefields. A Guide to the British Line. Short Account of the Fighting, the Trenches and Positions (London: Gale and Polden, 1920)
  • The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Ypres Salient (London: Herbert Reiach Ltd for Talbot House, 1920)
  • The Illustrated Michelin Guide to the Battlefields: Ypres and The Battles of Ypres (Clermont-Ferrand: Michelin, 1919)
  • Ministerie des Chemins de Fer, Aux Champs de Gloire Le Front Belge de L’Yser. Text du Grand Quartier Général. Illustrations de Urbain Wernaers (Brussels: Ministerie des Chemins de Fer, 1921)