For the past eighteen months or so I've been helping a former colleague and former pupil compile a record of the Old Boys of the school we all attended who fell in the First World War. The bulk of the work has been done by the former pupil who, as an ex Chief Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, has considerable investigative skills, so the finished compilation contains an astonishing amount of fascinating detail.
As a "post script" to our efforts the former colleague and I decided to go on a Battlefields coach tour, which lasted five days and from which we've just returned. Unfortunately the ratio of travelling time to time on the battlefields was exceptionally high- two full days of travelling to get there and back, and at least half the time spent on the coach on the two "battlefields" days, since it was an hour's drive from our hotel, in Zeebrugge, to Ypres and Passchendaele on the first day, and a two hours' drive to the site of the Somme battles on the second day. The third day was spent on touring unrelated to the battles, but included an obligatory visit to a chocolate factory.
I strongly advise anyone planning a similar trip to check that their hotel is central to the things they wish to see, and not, as I suspect may be the case on this occasion, the result of a good deal offered by the hotel to the tour company.
I've visited War Cemeteries several times before, normally alone, and found the experience very moving. Perhaps because of the Centenary of the start of the War there were in this week many school parties. I'm not convinced of the value of this. Youngsters are adept at turning whatever they do into a "fun" experience, and who can blame them? The more appropriate reverence and contemplation are not highly developed skills in adolescence, especially in large groups with mates to impress. Surely small family groups would be more appropriate. And surely primary school children are far too young to gain any real benefit.
Allan Bennett has, I believe, some trenchant things to say about touristic voyeurism on the sites of the concentration camps. I suspect the commercialisation of the battlefields similarly degrades the memory of the victims.
We passed between France and Belgium several times but I never noticed the frontier. This is what all Europe should be like: a merged Union with different customs and languages* and free passage from one area to another. The nonsense of passport checks, carried out by the British Border Agency officials in their sinister all-back uniforms before being allowed to re-enter the UK, marks us out as the Neanderthals of the Union.
I wonder how many of the two-thirds of our electorate who failed to vote in the recent EU election, or the third of those who did but voted for the party that wants to leave, realise that the founding purpose of the Union is that their children and grandchildren will not lie under grave stones in a beautifully-kept military cemetery, or have their names inscribed among the missing but "known unto God" on a future Menin Gate or Thiepval Memorial?
Both Conservative and Labour parties should challenge UKIP not by adopting its policies but by putting forward the positive case for Europe and peace.
*Both Zeebrugge and Bruges are aggressively Flemish. Having spent much of the last decade trying to improve my French I'd have appreciated some Canadian-style insistence on bilingualism on all signes and descriptions.
Post Script (added 18/10/14)
The following is a footnote, part of the poem In Parenthesis , the experiences of a serving soldier, by David Jones. It seems to confirm my unease about "battlefield tourism."
Cook’s Tourist to the Devastated Areas –
This may appear to be an anachronism, but I remember in 1917 discussing with a friend the possibilities of tourist activity if peace ever came. I remember we went into details and wondered if the unexploded projectile lying near us would go up under a holiday-maker, and how people would stand to be photographed on our parapets. I recall feeling very angry about this, as you do if you think of strangers ever occupying a house you live in, and which has, for you, particular associations.