Skip to content

Postcards from the Western Front: Pilgrims, Veterans, and Tourists after the Great War

Reviewed by Alison Fell

Mark Connelly’s wonderful new book would make a great companion for a tramp across the Western Front battlefields. It draws on an impressive range of primary sources: maps, letters, diaries, novels, press articles, battlefield guides and, of course, postcards, to evoke the landscapes of Northern France and Belgium that had been so devastated by the war. The landscape constitutes the point of connection between past and present, and makes you aware not only of the ghosts of soldiers who tramped the same battlefields, but of the thousands of ‘pilgrims’ – mourners, veterans and tourists – who followed in their footsteps.

There are enjoyable snippets of the practical difficulties of travelling to see the battlefields in the wake of the war – the barely passable roads, searching for petrol, navigation of French and Belgian paperwork, the need to find somewhere to sleep and eat. As was the case during the war, the infrastructure improved as the landscapes and people adapted to the needs of the pilgrims. Hostels developed in the war by the YWCA, Church Army and other organisations for British soldiers were re-purposed. Enterprising French and Belgian inhabitants offered packages to take visitors to the cemeteries. Connelly traces the development of these early visits into more established tourist trails, from the Michelin guides first published during the war to the tours established by Thomas Cook and others during the interwar years. Tourists and the commercial ventures that catered for them were often derided as an inauthentic ‘ghoulish survey’ of the battlefields, especially in contrast to the ‘pilgrimages’ of the late 1920s and 1930s organised by the British Legion and other veteran groups in which thousands participated. But, as Connelly demonstrates, the undeserving callous tourist was more cultural construct than reality.

There are also moving testimonies of the emotional journeys taken by pilgrims. By relatives unable to come to terms with their relative’s death, seeking consolation through a more tangible, visceral link with their lost loved one. And by veterans, whose motivations for revisiting old haunts and the cemeteries – the ‘fixed points’ and ‘emotional heart’ of pilgrimages – were as varied as their war stories. As Connelly notes, veterans often took on a number of roles during their travels, as jocular drinking companions, as introspective mourners, or as keen students of military history. When they wrote about their travels, they often wrote with an awareness of carrying out a duty to others, to pay homage to the dead, and to bear witness for the bereaved or for fellow veterans who weren’t able to make the journey. The uncanny quality of places and spaces that were once so dangerous and impassable was often mentioned by veterans. The strangeness was particularly acute in the account of one veteran who encountered a German tour when visiting Tyne Cot Cemetery, and ‘imagined the ghosts of British and German soldiers walking hand in hand’.

However, it is the landscape of the Western Front that is at the heart of this book as much as its visitors. Battlefields reverted to agricultural land interspersed with cemeteries, memorials were unveiled to mark key sites of memory, craters became tourist attractions, ruined towns like Ypres and Arras were rebuilt and repopulated. Connelly brilliantly describes the contradictory and competing emotional responses by visitors to the changing landscape as reconstruction and recovery gradually transformed it in the years following the Armistice. Some resented these changes, others embraced them. But the long years of destruction had made an indelible mark. As is still the case today, and as Connelly states in his final chapter: ‘the battlefields never fully shook off the scars of war’.

Postcards from the Western Front: Pilgrims, Veterans, and Tourists after the Great War by Mark Connelly (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022; 472pp; $42.95)

Alison Fell is Dean of the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures at the University of Liverpool. Her most recent book, Warrior Women: The Cultural Politics of Armed Women, c.1850–1945 was published by Cambridge University Press in 2023.

Image Credit: Graves Registration Unit In France And Belgium 1914-1920, ©IWM Q 100355, Licence: IWM Non-Commercial Licence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.