Starting immediately after the end of the Great War, travelling to the war zones along the Western Front flourished, especially from the Commonwealth countries. Ex-servicemen and families alike travelled to the places of war to find the graves of their loved ones and commemorate them. But this soon turned into a profitable form of tourism that remained very prevalent throughout the interwar years.
The Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries was set up in February 1916 to supply relatives with information and – where possible – a photograph of a specific grave.
The Imperial War Graves Commission, formed n 1917, administered the creation and care of British and Commonwealth war cemeteries’ in perpetuity’.
These were the institution that allowed families to try and locate the grave of a loved one after the war. In the Victorian era, the rituals of death had been very important, and now families were deprived of it and its consolation by a war that had scattered graves – when there even was a grave – all across Europe. For these families, crossing the Channel as soon as it was reopened and find their loved ones’ grave became a pilgrimage. And this is how they were called: pilgrims.
Pilgrims were people who travelled to the former war zone for moral and emotional reasons. There were families of the fallen among them, but also veterans who return to a place they knew well to commemorate their fallen comrades.
The first of these journeys were organised by churches, but soon other groups, like football clubs and veteran associations, stepped in.
But people who crossed the Channel to the battlefields were not only pilgrims.
The tourist busses first arrived in Ypres in 1919, when the civilian cross-channel services were restored, and work begun to re-established the railway network. An exponentially increasing number of people travelled to the former battlefields. This influx was generally kept out of the zones still controlled by the military. As for the rest, the authorities soon realised that they would better regulate it since stopping it seemed impossible.Zone (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) Starting immediately after the end of the Great War, travelling to the war zones along the Western Front flourished, especially from the Commonwealth countries. #WWI #HistoryMatters Click To Tweet
Besides, it created very profitable tourism. By late 1921 a framework for accessing and visiting the former battlefields of the Western Front was in place. Hotels were restored and reopened. Advertisements started to appear in Great Britain, France and Belgium, busses and car services were organised.
There was a massive souvenir trade, dealing in decorated shell cases and art made with debris from the battlefields. Locals farmers soon started to open so-called museums in their barns, full of stuff from the trenches and the battlefields and charged a small amount to show people around.
A very relevant business around the battlefield tourism was in the publication of guides and handbooks that allowed both pilgrims and tourist to visit the places and organise their movements.
These guides came in two forms: some of them – like the famous Michelin battlefields guide – were highly practical and flatly descriptive. Others were more complex and provided the traveller with the interpretation of the landscape and the British Army experience.
The involvement of profit-making companies was highly controversial. Furious letters against it appeared in all newspapers.
There remained a distinction between the pilgrims and the tourist. For example, while souvenirs were accepted as part of the experience of pilgrims, tourists who acquired souvenirs were seen as ‘ghoulish and immoral’.
However, it was always difficult to draw a line. Even the person who considered themselves a true pilgrim, might also buy souvenirs, send postcards, sit at a café for tea or coffee. Pilgrims fuelled the new industry of services just as much as tourists did.
But in general, journeys to the Western Front during the interwar years, whether for pilgrimage or just tourism, were seen as a positive thing, a way to cope with the loss and the harsh experience. It became a mature, truly remarkable expression of popular culture, keeping the memory of the war and its fallen alive.
It continued uninterrupted until right before the outbreak of WWII.
IWM – Battlefield Pilgrims: Why People Made the Journey to the First World War Battlefields in the Aftermath of the Conflict
Evening Standard – From bereaved families to curious tourists: How and why so many Brits visited the Western Front battlefields after the First World War
Western Front Association – Visiting and Revisiting the battlefields, 1919-1938 by Prof. Mark Connelly
Express – World War 1: How the Somme became a grim tourist attraction
Arts and Mind – How the Battlefields of the First World War Became the Tourist Attraction of Today
The Great War 1914-1918 – Battle Remains on the WW1 Western Front
The Atlantic – The Fading Battlefields of World War