Visit, understand and never forget, says Paul Reed, head battlefield guide, Leger Holidays
I first worked as a battlefield guide thirty years ago when I ran a handful of my own tours, initially for friends, and then a wider public. But interest in either World War in those days was limited, especially in the First World War. You could spend all summer wandering up and down the Western Front battlefields and never see anyone; as happened to me one summer as I walked the old front line.
However, when Leger Holidays approached me to develop and then lead their first battlefield tours in 1997, what we did that year tapped into a cusp of change, a point at which the last handful of veterans from WW1 were fading away and public interest in the war was growing, largely driven by a fascination with genealogy and release of the personnel records.
The availability of such records, especially as the Internet developed, drove the public to visit battlefields not as part of some ‘dark tourism’ but as a pilgrimage, in the same way the generation which directly lost sons, brothers, husbands and fathers had done in the 1920s. And it just grew and grew as the years progressed to a point where Leger Holidays were taking passengers in five figure numbers by the start of the WW1 Centenary.
Battlefield Tours are not like normal holidays. Passengers feel uncomfortable when they say they ‘enjoy’ them, but nevertheless it is clear they gain an awful lot from the experience. They discover the eternal truth that war is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. But equally they uncover the fate of others through the ability of our Battlefield Guides to weave a fascinating and compelling narrative, which then gives them fresh insight into the fate of their own ancestors.
They return from these tours somehow different. They see the impossibly huge level of sacrifice in the vast soldier’s cemeteries of the First World War. They are appalled by the ages, often so young. They wonder how any survived, when in fact most men did come home; and they then have a better appreciation of what it meant to be a veteran of that war, living with the experiences, the sounds, the smell of trench warfare. What they witness can make them see the world in a different way, but certainly make them appreciate how lucky they are to have never experienced anything remotely similar, and as such visibly comprehend the huge debt we owe to all who have served.
A veteran of the Somme said in the 1930s, when it appeared the world was fed up with remembering the war, “… if these are the things we are to forget… what should we remember?” And that question is as valid today as it ever was. The past made us all, the sacrificial grounds we take groups to are not just fields; they are part of the pages of all our stories. We should remember, we should visit, we should understand, and we must never forget.
Paul Reed is a leading military historian who is the author of nine books on WW1 and WW2. He is Head Battlefield Guide for Leger Holidays and has also appeared in many TV programmes about the battlefields from ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ to BBC Timewatch, and Channel 4’s Secret History.