Still today you can walk in the footsteps of those who visited the First World War battlefields of the Western Front in the war’s immediate aftermath: the broken-hearted in search of consolation, the veterans wanting to pay tribute to lost comrades, and the tourists desperate to get a good snap of themselves sitting on a ruined tank or on the lip of a great crater.

For the four long years of war the battlefields were a constant presence in everyone’s lives. On the home fronts of Britain and its empire, people read about it every day in the newspapers, they saw paintings, drawings and photographs, and could even witness it through the new medium of cinema. These glimpses at the realities of war stirred up the desire to the see the real thing, and, incredibly, a specialist tourist market was born.

london-hotel-and-cafe,-menin-gate,-1919.jpg

This urge to visit was only intensified among those desperate to see where a lost loved one had died, or understand more of what their friends and relatives had experienced.

hill-60-no-man's-land-canteen-1928.jpg

The heat of battle often left veterans with a detailed memory of tiny snapshots but no sense of the broader landscape. They came to view the landscape in safety, rather than from the confines of a trench, and understand their impact on the wider war. This perspective allowed them to commemorate their fallen comrades fully. They also brought friends and relatives to experience the camaraderie and atmosphere of places where they’d spent happy hours behind the lines.

hooge-tank-cemetery-1919.jpg

Even while the war was in progress, some people managed to cross the channel and get surprisingly close to the front lines. This trickle became a flood at the war’s end. What visitors encountered was almost indescribable; a sea of destruction and desolation that was particularly intense around Ypres and across the Somme front.

lrb-cemetery-1920.jpg

Shocked, stunned and amazed by turns, visitors were also gratified to see the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission gather pace and the cemeteries begin their slow transition to the sites of great beauty and peace we see today.

The towns, villages and landscapes of the Western Front have been rebuilt and transformed, but the imprint of the destruction encountered and explored by the first battlefield visitors remains for those who know where and how to look.

I spoke about this topic in an online talk to the Western Front Association in June 2021, available in the link above.