The inscription carved on countless headstones leaves a haunting impression of sacrifice and destruction. The battlefield tourist often has entrenched prejudices, fostered by family tales and images of ‘Scarlet Majors at the Base’. Three things – Sassoon and Owen apart – have led to the popular attitude that the Great War was unremitting incompetence and frightfulness, and nothing else: Sebastian Faulks’ novel about love and tunnelling, Birdsong; Alan Clark’s 1961 rant against château generals, The Donkeys; and the musical and film it inspired – Oh What a Lovely War!
One purpose of outfits like Bird Battlefield Tours is to counter this approach, by stressing that soldiers actually spent far more time training, in support, in reserve or on leave than being shot at in the front line. They had concert parties, enough to eat (often for the first time in their lives), drank themselves silly in estaminets, and enjoyed mademoiselles. I met an old soldier at Hooge forty years ago who told me that the war years were his best. And that, interestingly, the natural order of things for him and his mates upon being relieved after front line duty was – ‘wash, eat, sleep, drink, f*ck, find an Australian to fight…’ Perhaps these priorities say something about the human condition. My own priorities omit the Australian.