The BATTLE Pilgrims


In this season of remembrance, Steve Snelling traces the beginnings of tourism on the Western Front, going on the trail with some of its early pilgrims

It was a puzzling encounter. A past strangely at odds with the present. As Alex Potter retraced his journey in the early 1920s across the old Somme battlefield, it was almost as though his memory played tricks with him. On the outskirts of Carnoy – where he and thousands more once spent an uneasy night waiting for the whistles to signal the start of the ‘big push’ – it seemed the fields hadn’t so much changed as been utterly replaced. Barely five years had passed since the guns fell silent and a little more than seven years since that July morning when a shell half-buried him, curtailing his involvement in a battle that cost the lives of many of his comrades in the 8th (Service) Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment.

Potter was among a growing army of visitors to the battlefields of France and Flanders in the aftermath of World War One, drawn by a mixture of grief, remembrance and camaraderie. What began as a steady trickle of widows and parents anxious to pay their respects would become a well-trodden tourist trail to an increasingly memorialised Western Front, soon be to regarded as hallowed ground and its myriad visitors as battlefield pilgrims.

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