As the centenary of the Armistice has come to pass, 4 years of popular historical fascination surrounding the Great War seems set to somewhat subside. Yet this instance of escalated remembrance is not without precedent – as the records relating to Mancunion Wilfred John Pegge, held at Manchester Central Library, demonstrate.
Pegge’s widow supplied his vastly comprehensive papers to the archives in 1974. Though later a legal adviser, Conservative Councillor and Conservative mayoral candidate, Pegge served in the First World War between 1916 and 1918, and the bulk of his papers are testament to this. Pegge enlisted with the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps in February 1916, and was appointed Second Lieutenant Territorial Force in the 6th Rifle battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. He was gassed in France in July 1917, and was raised to Lieutenant in September 1918. He was even awarded the Military Cross on the 2nd December 1918.
Amidst the wealth of photographs, books, diaries, training notes, postcards and maps in his collection, a small selection of pamphlets stand out:
These leaflets advertise trips to iconic battlefields on the Western Front to visit memorials and monuments, as well as to trace the movements of the troops who fought there during the war. Though the pamphlets held in Pegge’s collection are undated, the practice of Battlefield Tourism proved popular as early as 1919, and continued throughout the inter-war period.
In 1917, the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was established by Red Cross Ambulance driver Sir Fabian Ware. Its aims were to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the Great War through the creation of monuments and graveyards, with the aid of pioneering architects such as Sir Edwin Lutyens, and leading writers such as Rudyard Kipling serving as literary advisers for inscriptions. The Commission was devoted to the idea of an ‘equality of sacrifice’, meaning all gravestones – whether for private or officer – would be uniform and identical. The Commission also endeavored to commemorate those whose bodies had never been found, and this led to the construction of a number of monuments to the missing in France. The most iconic of these is the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which is inscribed with the names of 72,246 British and South African soldiers who perished in the battle without a trace.
Tours to these morbid sites proved incredibly popular, despite the early dangers of unexploded weapons. Many ventured there out of curiosity, while, for others, the journey represented something of a sacred pilgrimage. The nature of grief and bereavement in the period was utterly transformed by the Great War, owing to its unprecedented mortality rates, and the inconceivably horrific forms of suffering and death brought about by mechanised trench warfare. Crucially, the character of the war practically never allowed for traditional funeral services, while countless families were left clueless regarding how a loved had come to die. Consequently, droves of bereaved families and friends journeyed to the continent in search of answers, solace, and a chance to say something of a farewell. It was a profound experience. One post-war traveller asserted: ‘It is hallowed ground, this country of graves’, while a sign posted at Ypres in 1919 declared that travellers had entered ‘Holy Ground’. (Lloyd, 1998)
In 1920, Charles and Amelia Jones took a pilgrimage to France in memory of their son, Charles, who was killed at the Somme on the 15th September 1916. In their notebook, they described their haunting experience: ‘We continued our journey to Arras. Night was falling & through the mists & shadows one fancied they could he[a]r the tramp-tramp tramp of ghostly feet & see again as in a vision the loved faces of those heroic boys of ours, whom we had loved & lost, and who had made such an awful sacrifice for us.’ And in 1926, Tom Sams undertook the journey to visit his brother Jim’s grave, who had been killed on the Western Front in March 1918. In Tom’s postcards home he notes: ‘I am taking a wreath up to lay on poor Jim’s grave. It does bring it home very forcibly.’ (Faulks and Wolf, 2014)
Despite, and perhaps as a result of their mournfulness, pilgrimages served to unite the bereaved in the aftermath of war. Very often, those who visited war cemeteries and sacred sites developed affinities with parents, widows, sons and daughters like themselves – adding to ‘the kinship bonds already forged by war victims and their families’. (Winter, 1998) The opportunity to travel to France and Flanders was not only restricted to the wealthy, since those struggling to pay were offered subsidies or low-cost options by the YMCA, The Red Cross, The British Legion and Thomas Cook. As a result, visits to overseas war graves rose to around 140,000 per year by 1931. Even King George himself visited in 1922: to many, the highly publicised ‘King’s pilgrimage’ seemed to ’embody a profound expression of national grief’. (Robb, 2002)
The near-universality of battlefield pilgimrages – involving all classes and creeds – reflected the universality of loss, and acted as an expression of individual, communal and national mourning in the devastation of the post-war years. While post-war rituals served (and continue to serve) to unite the nation, console the bereaved and honour the courageous sacrifice of those sent to fight, it seems only right to memorialise such traditions with a conscious remembrance of the agonies and answerless sufferings of those left behind. Such are the true origins of the rituals of remembrance of the last century, a tradition we must acknowledge as we endeaver to confine such senseless suffering to an ever-distant past.
Faulks, S. and Wolf, H. (2014). A Broken World. London: Hutchinson.
Lloyd, D. (1998). Battlefield tourism. Oxford: Berg.
Robb, G. (2002). British Culture and the First World War. London: Palgrave.
The Times. (London, England). 15 May 1922.
Winter, J. (1998). Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. Cambridge: CUP.