The documentary Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars is about to start on BBC4 and promises to be a fascinating insight into the archaeology of the war underground on the Somme in 1916.
Part of the programme will apparently feature the Lochnagar Mine Crater, perhaps the most visited British mine crater today on the Western Front. But this was not always so.
In the inter-war period the Somme was visited by hundreds of thousands of battlefield pilgrims, many of whom came to La Boisselle and many of whom visited a mine crater there, but it wasn’t Lochnagar, but the Y Sap Mine Crater. This was a major ‘tourist location’ in the 1920s/30s as it was close to the Albert-Bapaume road and easily accessible from the main road, which Lochnagar was not. However by the 1970s the Y Sap crater was hardly visited and the owner filled it in; leading to Richard Dunning saving the Lochnagar Crater when that too was threatened with the site now preserved by the Friends of Lochnagar.
It is easy to believe that battlefield tourism is a modern phenomena but in terms of the Great War it began as early as 1919 with the publication of the first battlefield guide. Today the huge number of travellers who went to France and Flanders in the 1920s and 30s is forgotten; at one peak it was estimated than more than 300,000 people travelled to the battlefields in one year, for example.
This image comes from a small album owned by a veteran of the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment (Cambridgeshire). The Cambs battalion took heavy casualties at La Boisselle on 1st July 1916 – the First Day of the Battle of the Somme – and fought in many other engagements on the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Hindenburg Line. This veteran returned to the battlefields twice in the 30s and in 1936 went on a special pilgrimage with his old comrades of the 11th Suffolks to attend ceremonies on the Somme for 1st July 1936 – the 20th Anniversary.
Our image of Great War veterans is now of old men, but here they are middle-aged in their 40s. There are some decorated men among them; one has a Military Cross and another a Military Medal. The older man in the middle of the group has campaign medals going back to the Boer War. The white disk they are all wearing has a chequer-board in the middle; the insignia of the 34th Division whose memorial they are standing in front of and with whom the 11th Suffolks served.
It is a poignant reminder that when we visit the Somme, we travel in the footsteps of earlier pilgrims.