In the years between the First and Second World Wars thousands travelled to the battlefields in France and Flanders. Many were the families of those who had fallen, but some were also veterans of the war, going back to make sense of their past and perhaps pay their respects to an old comrade who hadn’t come home. Several of the veterans I interviewed had gone back in the 20s/30s and said it was hard even then to find some of the places they had known. Two veterans expressed their feelings in the poem The Road To La Bassée:
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine –
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know,
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
This photograph from the 1930s shows one such veteran, at New Irish Farm Cemetery, close to Ypres. He looks down on a row of graves of two Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Machine-Gunner and an Irish Rifleman. Which one was the grave he had come to see? Was it a family member or a comrade he had left behind on the battlefield? We will never know, but it was clearly a defining moment for him, and one he wanted to recall by having the visit photographed. This is not a tourist snap; it is an insight into loss, regret and no doubt a little guilt, at having survived when this man did not. What was passing through his mind as he looked down on the white stone? The beauty of a simple image that poses more questions than it answers.
When the early pilgrims to the Ypres battlefields in Flanders began to arrive from 1919, with a war shattered town and landscape finding accommodation for them was something of a problem; many stayed in nearby Bruges, Ghent or Ostend and motored down.
A testimony to the huge influx of visitors is shown in this image which is of the Hotel Excelsior in Ypres from around 1922. The ruined city was in its early stages of being rebuilt and this became one of the first substantial temporary buildings constructed, close to the railway station.
Battlefield pilgrims could stay here in basic rooms and as can be seen from the front of the hotel, it became a hive of activity for taxis and other touring vehicles who from 1920 onwards began to offer guided tours of the battlefields. Another reminder that the modern battlefield tour industry is far from new.