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Visiting battlefields is not a new phenomenon, though since the closing years of the last century the growth of visitors has been unprecedented. Battlefields, military cemeteries and sites of mass violence or death have become big tourist attractions. In the trade this came to be known as ‘dark tourism’ and more recently with the increased financial importance of tourism and academic interest in such travel the term ‘thanotourism’ has been added to describe some of this activity and now forms part of some degree courses. While such tourism is world-wide, here we look at events closer to home as day or longer trips to sites of mass slaughter in Belgium and Northern France by British schools, often with material supplied by the British Legion, have dramatically increased in number and popularity in recent years.

The growing popularity of battlefields with travellers coincided with changes in attitudes to death in the mid 19th century when there was an increased sensitivity to the need to remember and commemorate the dead. After the battle of Waterloo in 1815 the dead soldiers were buried in mass graves and largely forgotten. The image ‘one is left with at Waterloo is one not only of anonymity but of complete individual dissolution’.

 Victorian battlefield tourists near Waterloo.

Attitudes were not much different after the Crimean war a few years later but as the action of a retired British officer who at his own initiative built walls around military cemeteries shows, attitudes were changing. Following the Anglo-Boer war acceptance of the need to commemorate the dead grew and a society with royal patronage was founded to locate and tend to the graves of dead soldiers. Added to the battlefields visitors’ itinerary were now the newly tended cemeteries.

The First World War with its mass armies accelerated the trend for more sensitivity to the death of individual soldiers. It also significantly altered the way in which travel to the battlefields would be imagined and described.

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