One hundred years ago saw a publishing revolution in Europe, with numerous publishers cashing in on the peacetime dividend as they brought out new guides to the scarred lands of France and Belgium where some of the most terrible battles of the Great War had taken place.
For three long winter months, French attacks on German positions on the Western Front had successfully prevented Germany from focusing entirely on what was happening thousands of kilometres away on its Eastern Front with Russia. On 17 March 1915, the second Allied offensive against the Germans in eastern France — often known as the First Battle of Champagne — had come to an end.
Just two weeks after the end of the Battle of Champagne, the travel firm Thomas Cook — then a more illustrious name than now — advised readers of The Times that “to put a stop to stray enquiries, [the company] will not be organising sightseeing expeditions to the battlefields, at least until the war is over, owing to French opposition.”
The English have of course always been quick to blame the French. There’s no hint here of any sense of English decency or propriety. One wonders whether, had the French not been so implacably opposed to war tourism, Thomas Cook would ever really have managed to get clients safely to and from the battlefields — what with all the disruption to transport and everyday life in wartime France.
After the Armistice
Yet, within six months of the end of the Great War in November 1918, it was not just Thomas Cook but many other organisations which were heavily promoting battlefield tourism. On the very day of the Armistice, the Daily Chronicle reported that Thomas Cook had “practically completed their arrangements for visits to the battlefields by persons who have lost relatives.”
By March 1919, a steady stream of groups were crossing the Channel to view the battlefields of northern France. Many early travellers were bereaved widows and parents. Organisations like the Salvation Army, the St Barnabas Society, the YMCA and later the Ypres League took the lead in escorting thousands of mourning visitors to the battlefields, those organisations’ skilled guides simultaneously handling the practicalities of travel and a colossal legacy of grief.