A walk along the Western Front
When my younger brother Peter was diagnosed with a brain tumour, a couple of years ago, I thought I would go on a long walk as a kind of pilgrimage. The Camino to Santiago de Compostella was the obvious choice. I got as far as buying a couple of guide books, and I signed up for a group from the Edinburgh Diocese who were walking the [significantly shorter] Camino Ingles last May. But it didn’t happen because it clashed with a twice postponed three-family holiday in Normandy. Which with hindsight was our last ever holiday with Joanna.
Our son Jem gave me Anthony Seldon’s 2022 book The Path of Peace: Walking the Western Front Way for Christmas. A perfect gift as it combines walking, France, and the First World War. And I have just finished reading it. Seldon is a shameless self-publicist and seemingly driven by ambition. He was successively headmaster at Brighton College and then at Wellington College, and then had a job at the [private] University of Buckingham. Along the way he has written, or co-authored, a good number of books, including biographies of most recent prime ministers, from Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson. As the book starts in 2021 Seldon has lost his wife Joanna to cancer, and stepped away from his job at Buckingham and the house that went with it. No wife, no job, no house. So the walk, of about a thousand kilometres, is a challenge and a personal odyssey.
From the Swiss border to Verdun
He chooses to walk northwards from the Swiss border and the Vosges mountains towards the sea. Which means starting in Alsace, where very few British and Allied forces were involved. And which was the only part of the Western Front where fighting took place on [what was after the annexation of 1871] German soil. The first French and German soldiers be killed in the war, Corporal Jules-André Peugeot and Lieutenant Albert Mayer, were both killed in a skirmish near Illfurth on August 2nd, 1914, even before war had been officially declared. The Vosges saw brutal and sustained fighting from late 1914 to late 1915, though these battles are little known in Britain. Here there fighting took place not in trenches but on exposed rocks and in extensive pine forests. Hartmannswillerkopf , a summit which changed hands regularly in 1915, is one of the four National Monuments that the French built after the war; the others being at Verdun, on the Marne, and at Notre Dame de Lorette, north of Arras in Artois.
Seldon generally is walking alone. But has back-up support from Sarah, a teaching colleague and French speaker, who will become his second wife. And he uses his phone to check regularly on the Test score at Lords, where Sam Curran a former pupil at Wellington is making his England debut. At night his sleeping is patchy; alcohol helps him to sleep, dehydration keeps him awake. He reflects that soldiers survived in the trenches for several days with very little sleep. He reflects that 449 British soldiers were sentence to death for sleeping on watch. But only two were carried out. But 346 soldiers were court-martialled and ‘shot at dawn’ for a variety of crimes, including cowardice and disobedience to lawful command, and most often for desertion.
In Lorraine Selsdon is troubled by blistered feet. At Saint-Mihiel there is mention for the first time of the American Expeditionary Force [AEF] under General John Pershing. Some 116,000 American soldiers died during the First World War, far more than the numbers killed in Vietnam. But the United States is more attached to the memory of the Second World War; and it was only in 2021 that a memorial to the First World War was unveiled on the National Mall in Washington DC. Not far away is where Alain Fournier, author of Le Grand Meaulnes, was killed in September 1914.
From Verdun to the sea
Verdun for the French symbolises the tragic cost of the First World War, as do the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele for the British. Ringed with a cluster of forts to the north and east Verdun was the strongest defensive position on the whole of the Western Front. But in February 1916 Douaumont, the strongest of the forts, fell bloodlessly into German hands. Nearby in March 1916 Charles de Gaulle was bayonetted in the thigh, gassed, and take prisoner. On the day Douamont fell, General Philippe Petain was recalled to take command at Verdun. He had a reputation for not wasting French soldiers’ lives. For months the city and the whole Verdun salient was supplied with food and ammunition by heroic convoys along the Voie Sacrée from Bar-le-Duc. In 2006 the [narrow and winding] road was renamed RD1916. Above the cemetery at Verdun stands the ossuary, a bleak building containing the remains of 130,000 French and German soldiers recovered from the battle-field in the early post-war years. At Verdun Seldon is bitten by a farm dog, and recalls that his mother’s first husband died of a rabid dog-bite in India.
Douaumont ossuary, Verdun
In spite of badly blistered and raw feet, Seldon presses on through Champagne-Argonne. Near the ossuary at Navarin is Souain, where four French corporals were shot for cowardice in March 1915. It was this shameful episode that inspired the 1935 anti-war novel Paths of Glory, which was subsequently filmed by Stanley Kubrick starring Kirk Douglas. From Rheims Seldon takes two days off for his daughter’s wedding down in the Dordogne. On his return he limps on towards the Aisle and the Marne. Robert Nivelle succeeded Joffre as Commander in Chief in December 1916. His ambitious offensive, the Second Battle of the Aisne, the following year had allowed for some 10,000 French casualties. In the event the toll was 130,000. And Nivelle was sacked and replaced by the more cautious Pétain. Near Berry-au-Bac the National Tank Museum occupies a large roundabout in the middle of a trunk road. This is close to the beginning of the Chemin des Dames, which follows the D18 along a ridge above the Aisle. Craonne is a village détruit, which inspired the song Chanson de Craonne, which gained fame among the exhausted poilus:
Goodbye to life, goodbye to love, goodbye to all the women,
Its all over now, we’ve had it for good with his awful war,
We’ve had it for good with this awful war …
We’re the ones they’re sacrificing …
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to explore this terrain last September [see TaGD, 82]. On that occasion I visited the underground museum at the Caverne du Dragon, and even have a hoodie to go with it.
Victory on the Marne
The feet are worse as Seldon limps on into Picardy. He passes the Chateau de Blérancourt, the headquarters of the American Committee for Devastated France, founded by the feisty Ann Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpoint Morgan, the American banker. It is now a museum dedicated to Franco-American relations down the centuries. [It was very firmly closed the last time I was there.]
As Seldon moves north the place names and the battle-fields become more familiar to the British. The Battle of the Somme in July 1916 was conceived in part at Joffre’s request torelieve the pressure on Verdun. Douglas Haig seemingly believed that a preliminary seven-day shelling of the German trenches would massively weaken the enemy defences and destroy their guns. It didn’t. The opening day of the Somme saw 19,300 British soldiers dead and 60,000 casualties. The worst day in British military history. Seldon stays in a hotel in Albert, known for the golden statue of Mary with the infant Jesus on top of the basilica. When a shell struck the statue leaving it hanging precariously, the British believed that if it fell the war would immediately end. The poet Ivor Gurney marched past the statue in 1916. After the war he was institutionalised in a mental hospital, where he died in 1937. He is buried in the churchyard at Twigworth, outside Gloucester, next door to a B&B where Susie and I stayed a few years ago, Few people visit his grave.
In September 1916 the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, visited the Somme battlefield. At Fricourt he met up with his son Raymond, who was killed nearby at Ginchy one week later. There is a monument to him in the cathedral at Amiens. [See TaGD, 91.] Seldon notes that four British Prime Ministers fought in the First World War: Clement Attlee, who fought at Gallipoli; Churchill, who following his demotion after the Dardanelles served as lieutenant colonel in the Royal Scots Fusiliers; Antony Eden, who fought at Delville Wood, on the Somme; and Harold Macmillan, who was severely wounded at Ginchy on the day that Raymond Asquith was killed. He wonders whether Blair and Cameron might have been more reluctant to intervene in the Middle East, or whether Boris Johnson would have been so eager to tear up international treaties, if any of them had experienced the horrors of war themselves. [And it is worth noting that the only two Prime Ministers who fought in the Second Word War, Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan, were both strongly pro-European.]
Thiepval memorial, The Somme
Seldon also reflects on he way in which the Somme influenced the imagination of many writers.
“‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water”, he said with horror. “”dead faces … they lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep under the dark water. I saw them; grim faces and evil, ad noble faces and sad … But all foul, all rotting. all dead.”’
These are the words of Sam Gamgee and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Presumably inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s four months fighting on the Somme between July and October 1916.
I enjoyed the book. But I found Seldon difficult to like. The journey is punctuated by requests for interviews from Radio Four [about Prince Charles’s valet among other things !] and by the need to correct proofs for his articles for e.g. The Times Literary Supplement. The impression is of a man shamelessly ambitious and spreading himself a bit thin. But I admire the way he presses on with severely raw and blistered feet, and a couple of unhappy visits to French hospitals. On Day Thirty Eight, he arrives at Nieuwpoort, smothered in antiseptic and plasters, Lynx deodorant and insect repellent, now walking in company with the UK Ambassador to Belgium and his Defence Attaché. And then he rushes home on Eurostar to speak at a literary festival.
For several years I have wanted to take a careful look at the First War battlefields. In May 2015, just after leaving Holy Trinity, Brussels, I joined a small group of Old Blues to lay wreaths at the graves of Old Blues who were killed in the war. We started at Ypres, where we attended the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate, and from where we visited Tyne Cot and Passchendaele. And then we drove south to visit the monument at Thiepval, and the Ulster Tower, and thence to Arras and Cambrai. A year earlier I had guested on an outing to Flanders with the Belgian Branch of the National Trust under the leadership of Nick Fern. We had lunch in Poperinghe, followed by an excellent tour of Messines with a local New Zealander as our guide. Much more recently, last September, I had a day exploring sites on the Chemin des Dames.
Wreath laying at Tyne Cot, 2015
Would I be up for walking the Western Front Way ? Sadly, probably not. It’s too far for me to walk, and I do not have Seldon’s drivenness. But I’d be happy to do bits of it. If we go back to Chantilly at some point, which is not a given, perhaps I could find a group of people to walk for a day or two along the Aisne battlefields, maybe starting near Craonne. But, according to Seldon, the way is better sign-posted in Belgium. Perhaps the Holy Trinity walking group might organise a day or two walking north from Ploegsteert [Plug Street to the British troops] towards Ypres and the sea. If they ever do, I’d be up for that.