To commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War in 2014, bands of Britons will seek to travel to the battlefields and final resting places of their forebears in France, Flanders and far beyond.
The journey’s end for some will be on the old Western Front in poppy-enflamed wheat fields, among silent armies of white headstones and at the foot of memorials dominating serene plains once reduced by war to a hell of mud, blood and stench.
Others will travel further: to the jackal-haunted slopes of the Dardanelles in Turkey, the grasslands and mountains of East Africa and Lawrence’s Arabia. And perhaps, for the more foolhardy or adventurous, to Mesopotamia -today’s troubled Iraq-the backdrop of a largely forgotten chapter of the war.
They will go by boat, car or bicycle and on foot, and they will go to, among other reasons, lay flowers on the graves of relations, to follow in the steps of war poets, to hunt down the spot where Uncle Bertie ‘bought it’ or won the Victoria Cross-or both-and, perhaps, to seek out lonely places to contemplate a doomed generation’s sacrifice and the folly of war.
‘We know that the public wants to remember. The question is how to help people do that and be able to interpret what they see,’ says Peter Francis, a spokesman for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), an organisation founded in 1917 by a Red Cross commander, which cares for the cemeteries and memorials of the two World Wars at 23,000 locations in 153 countries.
Travellers to these battlefields will enter a vast theatre of war. Between the shot that precipitated the conflict -the bullet that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 -and the armistice on November 11, 1918, 70 million soldiers were mobilized from 135 countries and 15 million people were killed. So where to start? The cavalier traveller may well embark on a tour by leaping into a car armed only with an unread copy of the late Prof Richard Holmes’s brilliant Tommy, a love of Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, a credit card and a vague notion of France’s location.
Once lost on the outskirts of Lille, they might curse themselves for failing to have consulted the CWGC, which supplies information about where victims of the war are buried, to have stocked up with bundles of Michelin maps and to have enlisted the aid of a ‘bible’, as Maj and Mrs Holt’s marvellous battlefield guidebooks are known in guiding circles.
Greater help is at hand. Things have changed markedly since retired soldiers led scarf-flapping, hat-holding tour groups in open-top charabancs immediately after the war. This field has been opened up by a century of guiding experience and by technology-for example, the CWGC’s new smartphonefriendly information panels, Flanders Fields Museum’s interactive poppy bracelets and digital maps of British trenches on which you can pinpoint your position with GPS. If you’re fiercely independent, you could do no better than to sign up for the highly acclaimed self-guided tours provided by James Power, a veteran guide of the Somme and Flanders.
His painstakingly researched itineraries and guides, tailored to individual interests, are the work of a master logistician. Aided by his package of easily intelligible maps, directions, plans, diagrams, narrative-driven histories and ‘then and now’ maps and photographs, a visitor has the freedom to linger and manoeuvre without being jostled, stalled or getting lost. They include information on where to park your car and the location of little-known footpaths leading to old trenches, shell craters and obscure memorials. They ‘talk you through’ exactly where to position yourself and what to look for as you stand on some of the most moving sites.
For those wanting to walk the terrain of, say, Serre (where many of the Pals’ Battalions went over the top) or Ypres (of which Winston Churchill said ‘a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world’) in small groups with an expert guide, Clive Harris and Julian Whippy’s company, Battle Honours, would be difficult to top. They lead visitors far off the beaten track up onto solitary promontories and through thickets to discover secluded cemeteries and forgotten corners.
Not only do Battle Honour guides have a spellbindingly deep knowledge of the main actions of the ‘The Great Unpleasantness’, the company organises tours based on specialist subjects (such as archaeology, strategy and chemical warfare), which are led by formidable academics. To mark the centenary, a range of walking tours is planned, including, among others, one that follows the route of the famous fighting retreat from Mons to St Quentin in 1914, and another that seeks to understand the conflict from the perspective of Kaiser Bill’s army.
They also research the stories of visitors’ relations who fought in the war and re-create their journeys into battle. An imaginative and singular approach is laid on con brio by Andrew Spooner, a military historian who leads evocative poetry tours. Standing at places with names now associated with suffering and annihilation, such as Beaumont Hamel and Mametz, he discusses the lives of the poets and sets the historical scene that led to such sentiments as the bitter disillusion conveyed in Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est and the stoicism of John McCrae’s call to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’.
To accompany his presentations, an actor brings the war to life by declaiming the war poets’ verse. There are other more unusual tours that leaven the fare of military history with lighter themes. The Beer and Battlefields Tour, led by Chris ‘Podge’ Pollard, combines visiting breweries and battlefields and shares stories and facts about the role of beer in the war.
More convivial still is that run by the epicurean-minded Bird Battlefield Tours, which takes small groups on a ‘wine and war tour’, blending a light serving of military history with some heavy feasting at the châteaux of some of the smarter vineyards. Bird Battlefield Tours also offers an Art and War tour, which involves spending a few days committed to culture and gastronomy in Istanbul before heading down to Gallipoli, where the Allies suffered a catastrophic defeat in the failed operation to wrest control of the crucially strategic Dardanelles from the Ottoman Empire. Kirker Holidays and Battle Honours are also planning visits to the Dardanelles.
For those reluctant to leave these shores, Kirker is marking the centenary with a weekend based at Wolfson College, Oxford, where experts will give an historical and military perspective on the war as well as hosting lectures and discussions on the period’s poetry, music, literature and painting.
The CWGC also wants to encourage stay-at-homes to travel to some of the 170,000 war graves in Britain and to discover the stories of Commonwealth soldiers buried in local churches or those of local men buried or commemorated in remote places such as Algeria, Iraq, Egypt, Africa and Turkey.
‘If you can’t go to witness the Last Post at the Menin Gate or can’t visit Lutyens’s Thiepval memorial or Tyne Cot,’ says Mr Francis, ‘it’s very likely you could find a piece of First World War heritage not far from your doorstep.’
How to visit the First World War battlefield sites
Before setting off, consult The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.org) to track down fallen relations. The CWGC will launch a new website for the centenary and has opened two ‘Remembrance Trails’
For themed tours, such as battlefields by bicycle or the role of women and the plight of animals in the war, contact The Guild of Battlefield Guides (www.gbg-international.com) The websites of relevant French dÈpartements or Belgian towns, such as www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance. com, have excellent information in English
MyFerryLink offers Dover-Calais crossings for a car and up to nine passengers from £29 each way. Visit www.myferrylink.com or telephone 0844 248 2100
James Power’s Somme Battlefield Tours Ltd (01202 880211 and 07776 195773; www.battlefield-tours.com) offers acclaimed self-drive tours
Battle Honours (01438 791020; www.battle-honours.eu) provides expertly led and intensively researched walking tours to Flanders, northern France and the Dardanelles Andrew Spooner’s Poets and the Somme tour (September 5-8, 2014) can be booked through Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com) and costs £1,320 per person, based on two sharing
The Belgian Beer and Battlefields Tour (01245 354677; www.podgebeer.co.uk) will take place in 2014 Bird Battlefield Tours (www.birdbattlefieldtours.com; 020-8752 0956) offers Wine and War tours to northern France and Art and War tours to Turkey
Kirker Holidays (020-7593 1899; www.kirkerholidays.com) has a weekend on First World War history and cultural themes on July 4-7, 2014, at Wolfson College, Oxford (three nights, from £995 per person) and battlefield tours to Istanbul and Gallipoli on June 3-11 (eight nights, from £1,990 per person) and the Western Front on September 29 October 5 (six nights, from £1,489 per person)