‘To anyone who knew this territory as it appeared after the battle, it is fascinating to stand at a point such as Dantzig Alley Cemetery, near Mametz, and take into view a wide sweep of country’, observed Captain H.A. Taylor in a travelogue of his returns to the old Western Front throughout the 1920s.
In his study of interwar battlefield tourism David Lloyd identified death as a focal point for many pilgrimages, with those who had lost a loved one the central actors in the rituals. Within this context cemeteries acted as one point within the microgeography of grief formed by each pilgrim. This narrative of interwar pilgrimages tends to merge the experience of veterans with pilgrims in a counter to the casual tourist. However, the excerpt from Taylor hints at a type of interaction with the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) cemeteries that distinguishes the act of veterans returning as unique from the bereaved pilgrims.
This paper will look at how the veterans’ experience of revisiting the spaces and places of their war experience differed to a pilgrimage group made up of bereaved families. How the variation in the interaction with the IWGC sites reflects greater differences between the two groups.
Specifically, it will examine the ways in which veterans interacted with the war cemeteries to clearly show a distinction in both intent and experience to that of the pilgrim. It will do this by utilising examples from the returning literature of the 1920s and 1930s, the journals of ex-service organisations and photographic records of visits to the battlefields. Moving beyond Pegum’s view that it was an experience defined by dislocation, and also distinct from an experience considered only in terms of grief and mourning, this paper will show that we should consider the veteran returning to the old front line as a palimpsest of experience and memory.
Images courtesy of Dan Hill.