Author, historian and educationalist, Sir Anthony Seldon talks about his new book The Path of Peace which is his memoir of walking the Western Front Way in 2021.
The route stretches 1,000 kilometres from Switzerland to the Channel Coast. The idea was inspired by a young British soldier of the First World War, Alexander Douglas Gillespie, who dreamed of creating a ‘Via Sacra’ that the men, women and children of Europe could walk to honour the fallen after the war.
Today, the Western Front Way is a trail of paths and hiking trails along what used to be the battlefields of the Western Front. Listeners to the podcast are able to get a £5 off the recommended retail price at Waterstones.com until the end of November 2022. by using the code PEACE22. This is published by Atlantic Books.
Tom Thorpe [00:00:33] It is the 3rd of November 2022 and this is Episode 276A. On today's 'Mentioned in Dispatches' podcast, I talk to author, historian and educationalist Sir Anthony Seldon about his new book, The Path of Peace, which is his memoir of walking the Western Front Way in 2021. This is published by Atlantic Books. Listeners to the podcast are able to get a £5 discount off the recommended retail price via Waterstones dot com until the end of November. You need to use the code PEACE22. Anthony spoke to me from his home in London. Anthony. Welcome to the Dispatches podcast. Could you start by telling us about yourself and how you became interested in the Great War?
Anthony Sheldon [00:01:34] I became interested, I think, at a young age at school. But then when I became a school teacher and saw the syllabus and started learning about it, there's nothing better than to learn about anything than to start teaching. So I started teaching it. In my first year I directed Journey's End, the famous J.C. Sheriff brilliant play .. and I I took my cast across. I remember phoning the Imperial War Museum and said, I've never been, and they thought I was very green and they told me where to go including Beaumont Hamel and Sanctuary Wood, Thiepval and La Voiselle. We went to all those and it was huge fun. And that was the first, I think, of 70 trips that I've taken in the 35 years since So I mean, a pretty high level of interest probably.
Tom Thorpe [00:02:39] So maybe start with some background. Could you tell us where the Western Front is, where it is and where the idea came from for its creation and where does it run from and who should add?
Anthony Sheldon [00:02:52] So it was the idea of a soldier called Douglas Gillespie and he was in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and he went across to fight and he found himself in trenches very close to where his brother had been killed in the first winter of war in 1914. And in early 1915 he wrote to his parents with an idea and expanded it still further in a letter to his headmaster and said, Look, if I survive, I would like to see created to as a reminder of of where war leads - to death, including the death of his brother , I'd like to see created a tree shaded pathway a 'via sacra' he called it all the way from Switzerland through the Voges to the English Channel, along which I'd like every man and woman in Western Europe to walk as a reminder that war leads to death and destruction. And so that letter was found by my co-author in a book called 'Public Schools and the Great War' by David Walsh. He'd been pointed to it by the archivist at Winchester College, where this young man went to school. And I, I just knew at once when David showed it to me that this was an idea that needed to be realised. It didn't need to be lying dormant as just a musty letter in an archive - it could inspire a whole vision. And that was the beginning. So the idea begins and ends with one soldier, Douglas Gillespie, who alone of the millions of soldiers, apparently in the millions of soldiers who fought in that war, had this vision of a walkway along the line of the No Man's Land. And so then a group of people, including Tom Heap, who is just about the closest surviving relative male relative to Douglas Gillespie, Tom Heap, who is regularly on screen with BBC One's Countryfile programme - he became very interested in his family. His mother and Rory Forsyth became very interested and he is now the chief executive along with Kim Hayes, a group of people built up and they have made all the running. They are the heroes. And because it is now absolutely happening, it's totally happening. It's a walking and cycling route. It's already marked out in the most northerly areas and it will become as big in time as the Camino through southern France and northern Spain as the pilgrims pass. It's a wonderful and remarkable path with a mission to help everyone walking it discover peace - as he intended.
Tom Thorpe [00:06:13] Which brings me to my next question. Why did you want to walk the way and why did you want to write a book about it?
Anthony Sheldon [00:06:20] So I hadn't originally thought about walking it myself. I was out in 2016 Brexit summer trying to get publicity for it and some lovely high profile people like the actress Cherie Lunghi and the actor Dominic West came out and walked sections of it with Rory and me and Tom Heap and the family - but then it would have been difficult. And it's quite a long way to do it. My wife then died and I was very busy running a small university and ... couldn't do it. But then that all came to an end in 2020. I always ... I wanted to do it on a very long walk. I had thoughts about that, say John O'Groats. But then the idea suddenly came, if I did it, this might give it added publicity and opportunity for an added focus. But it was difficult because it was COVID and I had to decide if I would walk from west to east or east west, and I decided to do that because it's the sense that I would be walking closer to home all the way. And there were many false starts because of COVID and trying to get a window when I could get out and eventually I was able to leave last August in 2021. I didn't think so. I thought at the time I'd write a book, but just keeping a log and keeping a diary, it gradually became clear there is a compelling story there, not just about walking a thousand miles ... of kilometres through soil, which is a million steps, by the way, which slightly it is 1.2 million steps through soil where 10 million who are wounded and bled often to their deaths. It's so poignant ... and finding parts of the Western Front, which I knew nothing about, history I knew nothing about stories and nothing about - the sheer effort of walking non-stop for 35 days to do it. And thinking about peace. Thinking about peace, my own life and how we find peace is not an absence of war, it has to be about more than that. The war finished on the 11th of November 1918 as we all know, but peace didn't break out. The war didn't finish in the heads of all those soldiers who were tormented for the rest of their lives, it didn't finish for all those families who lost the breadwinner - lost loved ones. The torment, the grief, the agony, the lack of income it didn't finish for so many societies. It had been destabilised and violence broke out. It didn't finish for those who were killed by the influenza plague - 50 million compared to some 17 million who died directly ... as part of the war and including my own grandparents who were killed. So it is quite as you know, there were many elements that just seemed to come together in the book with The Path to Peace and it is dedicated to the Western Front Way team and the profits of going to The Western Front Way.
Tom Thorpe [00:10:01] Now you describe a number of adventures on your walk. Could you tell us about some of them?
Anthony Sheldon [00:10:07] If you have you looked at it, have you read the book and you want to pick out any ask about anything in particular?
Tom Thorpe [00:10:13] I was just interested in you being bitten by a dog, which struck me as being rather unpleasant.
Anthony Sheldon [00:10:19] Well, I thought, you know, I've always had a good relationship with dogs, and I was walking just the other side of Verdun. And it was beautiful. The countryside farms reminded me of being in Wiltshire or the Lake District or Yorkshire, and I walked past a beautiful stone farmhouse and a dog came out. I thought it was smiling, but didn't notice it was foaming at the mouth. Then it occured to me that it kind of wasn't doing what smiling dogs do whatever that is, and I thought I'd better get out of here. But as I turned it locked its jaws into my leg quite sharply. And so I ran away ... I walked away with dignity as quickly as I could. And it was difficult then to know what to do because there was blood and I walked on. As I say in the book, a friend who's a nurse said, you're really going to have to get this looked at ... dog bites aren't - you can get all kinds of infections. So very reluctantly and helped by a fantastic Brit who lives in Verdun, who saw me tweeting and had got in touch with me and said, Can I help? And I said, Well, you can actually help a lot - his French is much better than mine, and they took me to hospital, and they were concerned about Rabies. But if I would have had a rabies jab, it would have been pretty much the end of the trip, because you need to go to places to have more jabs and they're not available everywhere. And the timetable was tight. So I just had the usual tetanus injections and others, but it was just a reminder of some of how when you're walking out of civilisation, animals tend to do or insects always do, what you want and never hold numbers of encounters with spiders and other insects - all to the good.
Tom Thorpe [00:12:36] How did your view of the Great War change as you walked the way?
Anthony Sheldon [00:12:41] Yeah, that's another great question. I think I realised war ... inevitably if you're a teacher or you're taking trips out to the trenches, you go to the most significant sites and they're the sites: Verdun, and the Somme and Arras ... and others where there are major fights happening. But when you’re walking the thousand kilometres ... you see far more of the ordinary day by day life. So I was reflecting about that lot when my feet were rubbing and blisters were forming. I was thinking about the soldiers' boots when my irritation got to say, I thought about the soldiers and their teeth. When I couldn't get water, I was thinking about it because during Covid places were closed due to some effort. Sadly, I thought about them and their impure water they often had to drink or when I couldn't sleep at night, sweating, very tired, physically, I often couldn't sleep. I thought of them and how they slept and the conditions they slept under. So it took me away from the major episodes, much more into everyday life. And also I experienced much more of the French and the Belgian story of the war ... and was surprised and saddened that the French didn't seem to have anything like the same desire to keep the history alive. I mean, extraordinary places like Le Linge, Hartmannswillerkopf ... over in the Vosges mountains which were the centres of fighting (there are) hardly any visitors at all, despite a wonderful museum and preserved trenches ... and the Americans also - the Americans lost in the fight the war over 110,000 soldiers (over half to the Spanish flu) but then they turned their back on the on the war. So I think it was. I think it just gave me a more rounded sense of the day to day life. And as part of the governments 1418, now 'Culture Commission for the Centenary' we'd helped bring into being Peter Jackson's film Theys Shall Not Grow Old, which was had colour added to the old film of the Somme, and that gave one ... you know, I was, I was thinking so much about those soldiers brought back to life and their lives and experiences. So yes, I mean it's a ... that roundedness. I think it's less about a machine gun or howitzers and more about the lived experience of life and death and what happened to the bodies ... I talk about the decomposition phases of bodies at one stage and why they're more about why there's so many unmarked graves.
Tom Thorpe [00:16:22] And did you learn anything about yourself during the experience?
Anthony Sheldon [00:16:26] Yeah. I mean, I think that life is a journey ... and so to concentrate physically on a journey, on a pilgrimage, it's helping one to realise the nature of the journey. And so all the time I was thinking and reflecting on 'what are we here for?' We have this opportunity in life. How can we use the fact that we are at peace? I mean, war might be coming, a third world war maybe. And reflecting about that, because my grandparents killed in the war came just from Kiev and they then left to get away from the persecution. And so I was thinking a lot about what life is for and how one can make the most of it, not see it go by in a series of regrets and hostilities. How can we make peace with other people and make peace with ourselves? And how can we find in our lives what we're really here for? ... How we can make the most of our lives by the horses just came passing, walking through a village in the Cotswolds. And I learnt a lot about horses. Michael Morpurgo very kindly worked together (with me) on an education project ... was in touch during ... and was very encouraging, as he was about the book ... and you thought about the intense suffering of so many horses, but also animals and livestock and ... the physical suffering they had from hunger and the noise, the terrible noise of the guns. So, yes, around that experience. It was a chance to think and I know in all our lives why I'd love people listening to this to themselves, perhaps walk, come out for a weekend, or walk it. It probably takes five or six weeks to walk, probably two weeks to cycle. But one could one could break that off and do it over five or six years of walking just going out a week at a time or a couple of weeks cycling to do it, but not just to do it, to say you've done it, to do it, to try and think through what this remarkable Douglas Gillespie, meant when he talked about we can reflect on what war but peace means and how we can lead lives, which are truly as good as it can be. Because, yeah, in the whole phrase, we all know that the to set is a life at taxes and death. And having seen my life slowly die over five years of cancer, that significantly brought home to me the whole reality of death without wanting to be an in a sense morbid, but equally just to be responsible about it and ... to be fully awake to the fact that that - we didn't get another chance with life. And to make the most of it, we should look for opportunities consciously to put ourselves in positions that encourage us to think about the deep questions of life.
Tom Thorpe [00:20:20] And my final question is, where can people get the book from?
Anthony Sheldon [00:20:24] My goodness, on the website, by the way, when everyone can find out how to do that? This is about the Western Front Way. The book is published by Atlantic at the beginning of November 2022 and is about 250 pages. I think it's £20. Always good to get it from a local bookshop rather than from Amazon or other direct means supporting local bookshops. And I hope it will make one think ... I was thinking a lot. I carried with me Patrick Leigh Fermor's 'The Time of Gifts'. I was thinking about him. He was 18 when he was walking though he wrote a book much later. I was 68. And I seem to be endlessly staying in castles. And find places. Although sometimes he was caught out in the cold and I was just flitting from BnBs, Air BnBs, and small hostels if I could find them. It was a much grander life. So it's ... and I was also thinking [ ] paths and and the difficulties that rain and wind had. It was just a privilege to be to feel one was part of that continuum of long walking and writing about it, but also knowing that I'm just a foot soldier in the end, realising. I think, the finest vision to have come out of the First World War, which was Douglas Gillespie's vision for this path of peace.
Tom Thorpe [00:22:22] And on that note, Anthony, thank you very much for your time.
Anthony Sheldon [00:22:26] Fantastic. Thank you so much for having me.