Going to the past…

Then and now

We have been going to (mostly) French and Belgian battlefields for over 30 years, and sometimes get it right. Guided tours needn’t be didactic, joyless exercises; they should offer access to corners of battlefields often overlooked, and convey something of what the soldier saw and underwent. You should ‘…go to the past, not looking for messages or warnings,’ as Pat Barker wrote in Another World [1998], ‘but simply to be humbled by the weight of human experience that has preceded the brief flicker of your own few days…’

My idea of hell is the sort of tour where you get lectured to death, and where ‘a complimentary glass of wine is served’ at dinner and that’s your lot mate. There are other things to fear. I met a man once who was still shell-shocked from a dreadful experience he had suffered years before. A distinguished tour guide wanted his guests to ‘feel’ the reality of trench experience, specifically of attacking at dawn. So he woke them at 4 a.m. in their modest Arras hotel, fed them some sweet tea and rum, drove them to the preserved trenches at Beaumont Hamel and at 5.10 a.m. handed them heavy packs, blew a whistle and told them to charge over the parapet and across no-man’s land. I think he might have thrown things at them to simulate shrapnel. Anyway, this was too much reality for my friend who buggered off to bed when he got back, to get some shuteye and recover from the rum and sweet tea.