The following is the English translation of a presentation I gave during a field trip with my university to Ypres. Because it’s a German university, there is a focus on German (language) sources and on the German approach to commemorating World War I. Still, I thought this might be of interest to some of my international readers as well.
Day trips to Chernobyl. Favela tours in Brazil. “Dark tourism” is the umbrella term for such trips, and many will dismiss is as the macabre idea of a time in which even death and suffering are exploited for business opportunities. But the phenomenon is not really that new.
The battlefields of Waterloo (Belgium, 1815) and Gettysburg (USA, 1863) already attracted visitors in the 19th century. The Western Front received visitors while the battles of World War I were still raging. Most of them were writers, but there were also some curious tourists. And the places that had been shelled for four straight years began to experience mass tourism as soon as the armistice was signed. In this article, I shall focus on Ypres in Belgium, because this city remains one of the most important “pilgrimage sites” on the Western Front until today – and because I went there with my university for a field trip in February 2020.
Battlefield tourism during World War I and immediately thereafter
Even though, as I mentioned in the introduction, battlefield tourism was no new phenomenon after 1918, it did experience exponential growth after World War I. One reason is the concurrence with mass tourism taking off at the same time. Technological advances raised the level of interest and curiosity as well as the opportunities to travel, beginning with cameras, with which the soldiers took photos, all the way to cheaper and easier transport, including the emerging all-inclusive package holidays.
Lieutenant J. W. Gamble, with the British Forces, predicted in December 1915:
Ypres will be flooded with tourists and sight-seers after the war, and they will be amazed by what they see.
During the war, it was mainly photographers, painters, journalists and writers who dared to visit the frontlines or get at least close enough to claim that they had “been there”. Some of the German book titles in particular read as if they wanted to encourage people to go on similar trips themselves: Five fronts. On the firing-lines with English, French, Austrian, German, and Russian troops by Robert Dunn , Durch Belgien zur Westfront by Ludwig Ewers , Reise zur deutschen Front by Ludwig Ganghofer , Reise in den belgischen Krieg by Heinrich Eduard Jacob , A Visit to Three Fronts, Glimpses of the British, Italian and French Lines by Arthur Conan Doyle , The unbroken line. Along the French trenches from Switzerland to the North Sea by Warner Allen , Un Tour d’Europe en temps de Guerre by Georges Verdene , Im Auto durch Feindesland by Paul Grabein , Mit Rucksack und Wanderstab durch Belgien an die Westfront by Karl Straub , Mit dem Auto an der Front: Kriegserlebnisse by Anton Fendrich , A Traveller in War-Time by Winston Churchill , Aus den Pampas Argentiniens nach Ypern. Eine abenteuerliche Kriegsfahrt zur Front by Leo Toelke .
Beginning with 1919, the first guidebooks were published, for example the Illustrated Michelin Guide to the Battlefields (1914-1918), pointing to frequent travel activity immediately after the war. Thomas Cook was one of the best known travel agencies to offer such tours, but by far not the only one. It has to be said though that the travel agency was cautious enough not to offer such tours while the fighting was still raging, despite repeated requests by customers. In March 1915, Thomas Cook announced in The Times that due to opposition from the French side, they would not yet offer any tours to the Western Front while there was active fighting.
But in 1919, the first coaches went to Flanders. In its brochures, Thomas Cook claimed that direct experience of the battlefields and the trenches was essential to get an authentic and complete picture of the “Great War.” The advertising was aimed at anyone who wanted to “pay tribute to the memory of the glorious dead.” In their 1920 guidebook, Thomas Cook portrayed the trip to the Western Front as a civic duty:
We do not know – and we cannot know – what war really means until we have visited the battlefields and the ruined towns and devastated miles upon miles in the north of France and Belgium. And it is our duty to visit them.
The battlefield is turned into the symbol of an entire war, where history is made tangible and palpable. And immediately after World War I, the landscape in Flanders was of course really and most visibly scarred by devastation.
In 1919, a bicycle race, the “Tour of the Battlefields”, also led through this scarred landscape. For obvious reasons, no German cyclists were allowed to take part.
German travel agencies also offered organized tours, as this example from the beginning of the 1930s shows:
Especially in the decades immediately after World War I, visitors often wanted to take home more than just photos or memories. Grenades, helmets, cooking utensils, everything that wasn’t nailed down was packed away, among others by the first curator of the Imperial War Museum, founded in 1917. From today’s perspective, this seems impious, almost like grave robbery, but how were these trips seen after 1918 by the participants and by those who stayed at home?
Contemporary reception of such trips
With ambivalence, is the unambiguous answer. Soon, a differentiation arose between seemingly “legitimate” visitors to the Western Front, such as veterans and relatives, and the “tourists”, who went for curiosity, sensation and even ghoulishness.
One of the most biting critiques against the latter group is the polemic “Reklamefahrten zur Hölle” (Marketing Trips to Hell) by Karl Kraus, written in 1921 and mocking the offer for the readers of the Basler Nachrichten, which advertised the trip to the Western Front like a jolly outing.
The dichotomy between “pilgrims” traveling for honorable motives and “profane tourists” was also reproduced again and again in English-language newspaper articles, poems, and literature of the time. A report in The Times of 7 June 1920 shows that quite some thought was given to how the journeys should be labeled:
The French have a better term for what are described in this country as battlefield tours. They call them pilgrimages.
Even the travel agencies were aware of the thin line of good/bad taste, along which their coaches were traveling to Flanders. Thomas Cook made it explicitly clear in their publications that the trips were in no way intended to serve the fascination of horror or other low motives.
In reality, such a clear separation between travel purposes may not have existed. In particular, visitors from overseas who could only afford a trip to Europe once in a lifetime combined visiting graves and commemorating with subsequent beach vacations or with Belgian beer.
Different purposes of battlefield tourism throughout the times
The less time had passed since the actual fighting, the more directly and immediately visitors felt connected to the countless deaths at the front. As long as trenches and battle debris were still clearly visible, there was no need for mediation by tour guides or museums.
Especially for the relatives and former comrades of fallen soldiers, places like Ypres were the cemetery where they could visit the grave. Ideally, this was a grave with a name, otherwise a memorial for unknown soldiers. This connection, even of the bereaved, to a particular place was probably more pronounced on the Western Front than in other theaters or in other wars, because here, in the trench war, soldiers were in one place for a long time, from where they wrote home again and again. Places like Ypres or Verdun thus became known names on the home front as well.
The surviving veterans were often only able to convey their memories to their family members while visiting the former frontline and the graves of their fallen comrades. In literature, too, one encounters the figure of the former soldier who must return (with family) to the front to overcome the trauma (Josefs Frau by Erich Maria Remarque, Douaumont oder die Heimkehr des Soldaten Odysseus by Eberhard Möller).
While during the war, the families of the fallen may still have hoped for a subsequent reburial, it soon became clear that this was not a viable option for logistical and financial reasons. This particularly affected German families because their loved ones were overwhelmingly buried in “enemy territory.” In 1921, the Reich government did allow the “repatriation of fallen soldiers,” but only under the condition that the relatives had to cover all the expenses. Very few could afford to do so.
The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK), founded in 1919, took over the task of looking after German military cemeteries abroad and had no interest at all in repatriating bodies. As a self-proclaimed advocate of the fallen, the VDK insisted “that all who stood and died side by side in battle remain united in death.” Thus, the role of soldier should supersede that of father, brother, husband or friend, even in death.
The association’s periodical Kriegsgräberfürsorge is a treasure trove of reports from relatives who visited graves located abroad. Practical advice such as how to obtain a passport, where to stay, what costs to expect, take up a lot of space, just as one would expect with “normal” tourist travel. As an example, the rather negative review of the travel agency Thomas Cook by a German tourist in 1924, who complained that the tour guides were “sprouting French propaganda”:
But they also printed emotive reports in the spirit of German nationalism and militarism, like this one in 1925, talking of “hotly contested fields who drank the blood of the best of the German youth” and so on.
And you know those German tourists who come up with proposals on how to improve things as soon as they arrive? Well, they too were already a problem in 1931, for example when they instructed the gardeners at the war cemetery to remove all the branches from the trees, making them look like stupid naked brooms:
For the Nazis, military cemeteries became symbolic places where vows were made to make up for Germany’s defeat in World War I. The town of Langemark, north of Ypres, had already become a myth in the German Reich during the war itself. In 1933, the VDK magazine wrote that it was finally possible to call out to the dead there “Behold: we are marching again, joyful and ready for more sacrifice!”
March again they did, invading Belgium (once again) in 1940. In the fall of 1940, by which time Langemark was under German occupation, the site served for a military memorial service. From the German perspective, only now had World War I come to its proper conclusion.
After World War II, which would have created enough new battlefield tourism sites, for example in Normandy, tourism to Flanders resumed, although initially without visitors from Germany.
The VDK, which was re-established in 1946, broke with the traditional heroization of war death that had dominated commemoration between the two world wars. It professed its support for reconciliation in Europe, but on the other hand remained silent about German war crimes in the two world wars. In this way, the VDK reinforced the idea that Germans were victims too, which was widespread in the early Federal Republic. It maintained the image of the supposedly “apolitical professional soldiers”, which ultimately persisted until the Wehrmacht exhibition in 1995.
Visiting the war graves was also of particular importance for remembrance in West Germany, because the country had neither a national memorial for fallen soldiers, nor a national ceremony for them. Volkstrauertag was not limited to fallen soldiers, unlike, for example, Memorial Day in the United States or November 11th as Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries. Public remembrance of soldiers in the Federal Republic of Germany took place either in a municipal (church) context or abroad.
Since World War I and again since the 1960s, the cult of the dead has changed. With the transition from a sacrificial to a victimological understanding of sacrifice, the suffering and death of soldiers was less and less glorified, understood more as a warning and increasingly viewed with distance and, in part, with incomprehension. The fact that this development took a noticeable turn at the time of the Vietnam War shows that the commemoration of the past can never be understood in isolation from the respective current discourses.
From the point of view of local communities, institutions and tourism associations as well, the focus has shifted from battlefield tourism, a term which they now frown upon, to cultural heritage tourism (including an application for recognition of the battlefields in Flanders, Wallonia and France as UNESCO World Heritage Sites) and to reconciliation tours. The focus is no longer on macabre fascination with death by the thousands or the military historians’ obsession with detail, but on remembrance and on lessons learned. Meanwhile, we look back as Europeans, proud of the integration and peace we have achieved since.
- More about World War I and about history in general.
- More reports from Belgium, a country where you are reminded of the two world wars wherever you go.
- Let me know if you are interested in a full report about the field trip to Ypres, Langemark, Diksmuide, Essex Farm, Vladslo, Koekelare, Zonnebeke, Kemmel and Poperinge. In between the cemeteries, museums and lectures, there’s plenty of good Belgian beer, too, I promise.
- The best book about the battles around Ypres, including the town’s history before and after, is probably the one by Mark Connelly and Stefan Goebel. On battlefield tourism, there is, for example, Battlefield Tourism by David Lloyd or Holidays in the Danger Zone by Debbie Lisle.