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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Pilgrimages to Ypres, early 1920s



Who went to the battlefields after the war, and how was the experience described? The Ypres Times (not the Wipers Times, this was the magazine of the Ypres League, an association for veterans) for August 1922 carried a report of the annual pilgrimage to Ypres:



About one third of those making the pilgrimage are women, many of them in mourning, and some wearing the medals of a dead son or husband. Two or three, between 70 and 80 years of age, are taking this their first, and perhaps last, chance of visiting the graves of those belonging to them in one of the many cemeteries in and around the salient. Others, after years of private and official enquiry have yielded no more than that dread word “missing,” have come almost despairingly on what seems a hopeless quest. Several children, wide-eyed and wondering, are among the party. There is one V.C., and every rank of the war-time British Army is represented by men who could find their way about the salient in the dark.

During the afternoon many of these men go out to Pilkem, Voormezeele, St. Julien, Hooge, and elsewhere to see what that “old bit of trench looks like,” or to solve the problem of that position a few hundred yards in front of their section of the line which they could never look at in daylight before. But such is the industry of the Belgian that, with few exceptions, when the places are reached, its old defenders find themselves staring at a patch of corn, of unscarred pasture-land, or of crops; for trenches and shell-holes have been filled in and the land is cultivated.



A very economic piece of writing perhaps implies a little nostalgia for the trenches as they had been, a sense of loss that time moves on and the land does not display the memory of pain.



In May 1920 a report of a similar ‘Excursion to Ypres’ was published in The Manchester Guardian. It includes this:



On leaving Zeebrugge the first day’s journey by motor takes the visitor something over  a hundred miles, with Ypres as the turning-point, and every variety of war-striken lands and recovering countryside on the way there and back. It was a point mooted with wearisome frequency in the real days of the place – when it was “functioning,” as one would have said, - and among the front-line troops in the Salient, whether they would ever care to come back and see that foul place under a peaceful aspect. Agreed, there were those at home who might be taken, not without profit to themselves and the world in general, over the low ground under Kemmel, or where Passchendaele looked down on the swamps; and there were not a few of the arm-chair gentry, whose instant presence would have been welcomed. But, for himself, it was the common verdict of the man in the mud-hole that, once “out of it,” Wipers and he could be the best of friends – at a distance.


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