Only Tyne Cot Cemetery attracted coaches in the 70s. Lijssenthoek Cemetery, outside ‘Pop’, with its beautiful cedars and flawless layout, with Remi Farm next door where wounded and dying Tommies scratched their names into its beams, was always empty. It was a place of contemplation. There is a Visitor Centre there today; as there is at Tyne Cot – where there is another new feature. As you walk from the new car park you activate a voice that reads out the names of the dead in the cemetery. It is meant to be moving but the timbre of the little girl’s voice makes it merely annoying.
Paradoxically of course, it is the popularity of these rites and sites that gives the guided tour its raison d’être. The enthusiast wants to avoid wasting time at preachy museums, needs to know the unspoilt places, the preserved trench system, how to dodge coach parties, where to eat and where to stay. The gullible tourist might spend a vexing afternoon touring the Citadel at Verdun, a puerile trip in a miniature railway around moronic waxworks, a sub-Disney waste of time. Above all, the competent tour leader can balance what is all too evident – hills pitted with shell holes, row on row of young men’s graves – with historical background explaining the story behind the battle.