During the recent commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, I was reminded, by one of the television presenters, that over 350,000 people visit the Thiepval Memorial every year and possibly, that number, due to the public interest in the Somme centenary, is set to rise during 2016.
It is only right and proper that visitors continue to make, what is in effect, a pilgrimage to this most poignant of war graves, in order to pay their respects to the war dead. However, battle field tourism is not a new concept and soon after the Great War ended, tourists were already visiting the war sites as early as 1919. Most of the visitors wanted to see the places where their loved ones fought and died, whilst others, were simply curious to see the battlefields of Northern France for themselves.
I began to consider how the soldiers who survived the war felt about war tourists tramping over the blood and bones of the battlefields, and in my research, I found this poem, written, with poignant foresight, in 1918, by Philip Johnstone.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changes hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being ...
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company's property
As souvenirs; you'll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotten off.
Please follow me - this way ...
The path, sir, please,
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.
Philip Johnstone, 1918
This poem is attributed to British lieutenant, John Stanley Purvis, who wrote under the pseudonym of Philip Johnstone, and who was invalided out of the army after been wounded during the Battle of the Somme. Following the war he returned to Cranleigh School in Surrey where he had previously taught. He then took holy orders and at the age of 50 he settled in York. Here he gained an international reputation as the translator of the York Mystery Plays and was awarded the OBE for work on the York Minster archives. He died in 1968.
High Wood, in the Somme area, is still frequently visited by tourists. It is, by all accounts, an eerie place that still contains, by conservative estimate, the remains of some 8,000 German and British soldiers who were killed in action there.
I've visited the war graves of Northern France and seen for myself how lovingly these areas are tended by the CWGC. The cemeteries are emotionally charged areas, places of peace and quiet reflection. They are the everlasting reminders of what we lost on the battlefields of Europe, and beyond, and no-one who visits these lasting memorials cannot fail but be visibly affected by what they see and experience there.
The Commonwealth War Grave Commission commemorate 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who fought and died in two world wars.