As we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, millions of visitors will flock to the cemeteries and battlefields of Flanders and the Somme.
What is little known is that these tours actually began a hundred years ago. In 1919, within weeks of the Armistice, thousands flocked across the Channel on what was then an extremely daunting and risky journey, in a desperate search for news of their lost loved ones.
The very first organised trips were run for ‘pilgrims’ by church groups, but companies such as Thomas Cook and Michelin soon realised their commercial potential. Their involvement was highly controversial; furious arguments raged in the letters pages of newspapers about the way in which these ‘sacred places’, where so many died, were being so distastefully ‘desecrated by the spectre of commercial tourism’.
Others believed they provided a vital way of remembering and honouring the sacrifice made by that ‘lost generation’, arguing at the same time that visitors brought much-needed income to areas in desperate need of funding to rebuild their shattered lands.
I will be talking and showing photographs of the research into early battlefield tourism carried out for my latest novel, In Love and War, (published in the United States as The Lost Soldiers) at the Roman River Festival in my home town of Colchester UK next week (19th September). Click on the link for more details. The talk is free, but booking is advisable.