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FROM TOURIST TO PILGRIM


A number of factors combined to shift the dominant description of the travellers from tourist to pilgrim. The unprecedented scale of death and bereavement and the inability of people to visit the graves of the dead or the place where they died played a central role. Wartime imagery often stressed the spiritual nature of the war; soldiers were portrayed as heroes sacrificing themselves for their country. One of the most popular hymns used at services of remembrance was ‘O Valiant Heart’ which identifies the sacrifice made by the soldier with that of Christ.

At this distance of time it is hard to know what precisely motivated most people to go to the battlefields in the post war years – how many were ‘pilgrims’, how many ‘tourists’. A notice on the Cloth Hall in Ypres ‘This is Holy Ground. No stone of this fabric may be taken away. It is a heritage for all civilised people’ suggests that not all travellers had spiritual matters on their mind.

Despite the greater freedom and ease of travel, going across to the continent was far from easy for most people. It needed money and free time, which the majority of working people did not have. Repeated requests to the government to provide free travel to relatives resulted in a small sum given to voluntary organisations; these struggled to provide meagre assistance to poor bereaved relatives. It is likely that the vast majority of battlefield tourists and pilgrims came from the upper and middle classes and the better-paid members of the working class. Neither money nor time was available to the majority.

One consequence of this was that pilgrimages within Britain became popular. Pilgrimages such as those to the grave of Edith Cavell in Norwich, to the Cenotaph in London or the National War Memorial in Edinburgh became substitutes for visiting graves. The revival of pilgrimages by the churches who also needed to attract custom, culminated in the ‘Great Cathedral Pilgrimages’; people paid to travel to cathedrals in order to raise money to assist people who had fallen on hard times as a consequence of the economic slump.

More closely linked to the war was the national ‘Peace Pilgrimage’ organised by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Supported by 28 other women’s groups it travelled around the country holding meetings on the way. Thousands of women participated in the pilgrimage, which attempted to persuade the British Government to sign the Optional Clause of the International Court of Justice, which meant accepting compulsory jurisdiction in all legal disputes. The pilgrims also called for a World Disarmament Conference.

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