At the end of 1914 the War Illustrated printed photographs of civilians searching for German bullets and other souvenirs in the grass. The caption read: ‘Souvenir hunting has become quite an industry where the fire of battle has raged, and it is certain that the traffic in war souvenirs will flourish in the years to come when the battlefields are the haunt of summer tourists.’ It is these souvenirs amongst others that gave birth to the Imperial War Museum, which since those early beginnings has vastly expanded and grown from strength to strength. It now arranges battlefield tours of its own. In March 1915 as compulsory conscription was being introduced, due to French opposition Thomas Cook’s announced in the Times that they would not be organising sightseeing expeditions to the battlefields until the war was over.
Writers who visited the battlefields described the scenes (unexploded shell in the clock face of a church and so on) they expected would be of interest to tourists who would flock there after the war. Soldiers wrote about their dugouts and some ‘trench newspapers’ included advertisements for imaginary charabanc and railway tours of the battlefields. One writer writes that Ypres ‘will be flooded with sight-seers and tourists after the war and they will be amazed by what they will see.’
Many descriptions of the battlefields (increasingly after the war) imbued them with the quality of a sacred place, and future travellers to them as pilgrims. Ex front line soldiers were surrounded by death. This could lead to insensitivity to death but it also produced awareness that the death of their comrades on the battlefield had made the ground in some way a special place. This soon transmuted into a ‘sacred’ place. Propaganda, popular authors and churches used the language of pilgrimage to provide greater meaning to the loss caused by the war. But the pilgrimages were not only for the bereaved. A war correspondent who spent some time near the front claimed that every visit to Ypres ‘was for me a pious pilgrimage to the place of sacrifice of the best of England’s sons’. The battle fields of Ypres were described as ‘High Altars’ of Sacrifice, ‘holy ground the supreme sacramental place of our nation’ and ‘the most hallowed spot on the earth’. Churchill wanted Ypres to remain in ruin as a memorial to the war; needless to say the Belgians had other ideas and rebuild a replica of pre war Ypres. Instead the Menin Gate was built to serve as Britain’s premier war memorial and more recently the rebuilt Cloth Hall became a UK funded museum.