The Western Front - Landscape, Tourism and Heritage (Book) Review
by The Western Front Association, Jonathan Vernon
Publisher: Pen & Sword Archaeology
Author: Stephen Miles
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Many years ago while working in France I read a book called ‘White Gold’ (L'Or Blanc) about the exploitation of the Alps as a winter tourist destiny; it added an economic, human geographical and socio-political dimension to my annual trip to the Tarentaise which until then I had only seen in winter as a place to ski. The Western Front: Landscape, Tourism and Heritage achieves something similar for anyone who has interest in the Western Front and who until now has only seen it as a First World War battle zone - you begin to see the Western Front in context as an important series of destinies for pilgrimage, education, reflection ... and tourism.
Like so many of us, when visiting the Western Front, or rather a small fraction of the previously British-held part of the Western Front, my focus has tended to be on trying to see and feel it. I want to put its landspace in context having read the books, and while having listened to my late grandfather’s stories. Like one of the characters on a coach trip the author describes, I too am the person who prefers to ‘enjoy’ the landscape, the cemeteries and cemeteries alone - I feel these are sanctified places that like stepping into a church, should be treated with reverence. One of the problems addressed in this book is how this ‘sanctified ground’ is becoming (or has always been) a tourist destination, as well as a pilgrimage.
The Western Front: Landscape, Tourism and Heritage is about the period 1918 to the present day and considers the first pilgrims and visitors to the Western Front - tourists by another name as so many travelled with Thomas Cook. The book takes a multidisciplinary approach - it is all the more fascinating because it takes in the human geography of the landscape over time. In percentage terms most of the land fought over is back in the hands of farmers, urban and transport planners: there is potential 'conflict of use’ with each of these activities and the 'Western Front' industry.
There is, as the series editor Nicholas Saunders writes in the introduction a ‘spider’s web of issues that is part History, part anthropology, and part heritage and tourism’.
Anything that is the product of the First World War interests the author: His interest includes the kinds of items that now fill national museums to cafe museums and private collections, and ranges from machine-guns, to war memorials, whole battle-zone landscapes, to photographs, diaries, films and uniforms, as well as ceremonies, re-enactors and high-tech installations all financed to serve the perceived needs of visitors, as well as meeting national government obligations in these ‘Centenary Years’ of 2014-2018.
Stephen Miles provides a succinct history of the Western Front, then facts I was not aware of, and ideas that had not crossed my mind, fill the book. For example, I am intrigued to learn that out of 14,000 civil parishes in England and Wales there were only 53 where everyone returned. These ‘Blessed Villages’ are surely a succinct way of proving that it was a ‘total war’ - it touched everyone in the UK. I am intrigued to learn that Thomas Cook was taking visitors to the Western Front during the war, and only suspended trips in March 1915 due to French opposition. After the war the visitor figures picked up quickly, 60,000 visiting in 1919, though numbers fell away in the key years of the Depression then increasing up until the outbreak of the Second World War with visitors to France from 1921-1930 reaching 559,905 to 1,058,936 then peaking after the depression at 1,446,737 in 1937. In 1928, the British Legion organised a Western Front pilgrimage of 11,000 visitors, that included 6,000 ex-servicemen.
We learn how visitor numbers waxed and waned after the 'Great War', and we learn from the author how the visitor figures are calculated from amongst other things, signatories to visitor books at cemeteries, before we enter the ‘modern era’ which is bookmarked by ex-soldier Major Holt and his wife's organising a coach trip for the Military Book Society Tour in 1977 and ending in 2016 with the new edition of their 'Definitive Battlefield Guide'. Interest in, and visitors to the Western Front has increased greatly.
Can there be a substitute for being there? The author thinks not. There may be, in his words, a ‘poor physical legacy compared to stately homes, castles and religious buildings’ but increasingly there is enough information, in the form of 'markers' (site text often in the form of an information board) that helps each visitor engage with the location. Many, will of course, have a battlefield guide as their companion, or be attentive to a battlefield tour guide. One way or the other, they could well drift into that ‘tourist gaze’ which the author describes so well, as we in turn imagine our great-uncle, or great-great grandfather in a shell-torn landscape of a century ago.
I’d never heard of ‘Dark Tourism’ but immediately understand it. This is part of the nature of humankind, or morbid fascination, as well as our interest in past battles. It is an eye-opener to reflect on how Stephen Miles explores the reasons for our interest in the Western Front as a landscape: out of curiosity, entertainment, emphatic identification, compassion, nationalistic motives, pilgrimage, event validation, identity search, education and social responsibility. He suggests that this leads to tolerance, humanity, empathy, insight, and understanding - it should do, though as the author mentions, Adolf Hitler was one of these visitors, you could say the only one, during the Second World War. For most of us, whether by desire, or obligation as a school student, one appeal of a visit to the Western Front, as the author puts it is for ‘Travel with a deeper purpose’.
This is an academic book, but if it is based on a paper or dissertation, the outcome is nonetheless very readable, ‘heavier’ than an extended series of Sunday Colour Supplement articles, but just as enjoyable. We learn the meaning and value behind phrases that may not be familiar to us, such as the Western Front continues as a ‘mise en scene’ or the ‘lieux de mémoire’.
These are usual ways to see it, as a stage where the actors have gone, and much of the set removed - yet we still have to find a way to recreate in our minds eye the actions that took place 100 years ago and importanly to discover a way to find empathy with the soldiers’ experience. The museums, from the well-financed, recently refurbished and re-invented to the modest farm or cafe ‘museum’ or collection, each in their way, try to bring the First World War and the Western Front to the contemporary visitor, as the author says, ‘in a commercially driven consumer society war is a commodity like any other product or service designed, packaged and sold to the consumer in a competitive market. (p103)
In the final pages the author ponders the relevance of The Western Front as a visitor destination in the 21st century, and values it for how it cannot help make us reflect on conflict, nation states, soldiering and refugees, as he concludes, the Western Front ‘is a complex place and continues to shock, appal, intrigue or fascinate in a variety of ways’. (p142).
Not only is there more to the First World War then military history, battles, their tactics and statistics, so there is more to the Western Front, forever a battle-zone of the First World War 1914-to the present day, but increasingly a region, a series of destinies, islands of cemeteries and museums, strung out from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps like the Caribbean Islands, each floating in a sea of modern agriculture.
- Reviewed by Jonathan Vernon.
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