When I was just starting to research my novel In Love and War, I read to my astonishment that within months of the end of the First World War several thousands of tourists undertook arduous journeys to Flanders and the Somme in a desperate search to find out what had happened to their loved ones.
Why was I so astonished? Because these areas were inhospitable: the towns shattered, their roads and railways destroyed, fields and woodland churned up into hundreds of square miles of mud, trenches, shell holes, barbed wire, broken tanks, unexploded ordnance and . . . bodies. A quarter of all those whose died were never found.
Some tours were run by church groups but commercial organisations like the travel agency Thomas Cook were quick to respond to the new market, which was extremely controversial because many thought it distasteful to make money from people’s grief.
I wanted to write about people who undertook this tour, but I just couldn’t picture it.
So imagine my delight when, on a research trip to Ypres, I discovered this postcard. It shows the devastation of the beautiful town square with its medieval cloth hall and the cathedral in ruins. There, in the bottom right hand corner, is a bus with the words Excursions to the Battlefields written in English along its side. Inside, waiting for the tour to begin, it is possible to see a few ladies looking oh so Edwardian in their wide brimmed hats.
Suddenly, my novel had come to life.