Battlefield Pilgrimages

Why people made the journey to the First World War battlefields in the aftermath of the conflict.

Sir Reginald Blomfeld’s impressive memorial arch was opened on 24 July 1927 and quickly became an important place of pilgrimage for visitors to the battlefields.

It bestrides the main road into Ypres along which thousands of soldiers would have passed on their way to the Ypres Salient, a key strategic objective and scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Composite image of three men commemorated on the Menin Gate. (1914/1918)Original Source:

The gate records the names of 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers reported missing in the Ypres Salient between 4 August 1914 and 17 August 1917.

They include the men pictured here - from left to right: Lieutenant Clive Alfred Le Peton, Private M L Lang and Lieutenant Leonard Nithsdale Walford.

Every evening at 8:00 p.m. the traffic stops and buglers sound the Last Post under the arch in their memory.

The tradition began in 1928 and has continued to this day, interrupted only during the years of the Second World War.

British Legion Pilgrimage in France. Service at the Menin Gate, Ypres. (1918/1939)Original Source:

A decade after the end of the First World War, 11,000 British Legion veterans and war widows set out on a pilgrimage to the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front.

The three-day tour culminated in a service of remembrance at the recently opened Menin Gate in Ypres on 8 August 1928 (captured in this photograph).

Organised tours of the battlefields were popular during the immediate post-war years.

For veterans, it was a chance to return to places they knew well and pay their respects to fallen comrades.

For relatives of the dead, the tours often provided the first and possibly only opportunity to visit the grave or memorial of a loved one abroad.

British Legion in co-operation with British Empire Service League Battlefields Pilgrimage 1928Original Source:

The British Legion was founded in May 1921 in response to the needs of veterans and their families.

One of the prime movers in its formation was Field Marshal Earl Haig, senior British commander during the war. He was also the Legion’s first President until his death in January 1928.

This guidebook was issued to assist veterans and their relatives during the British Legion’s first battlefields pilgrimage in August 1928.

As well as providing a detailed itinerary and transport arrangements it also gave helpful advice for ‘The Pilgrim Abroad’.

Topics included what to eat and drink, suitable clothing and footwear, currency, language and local customs.

Communication trench, Shrewsbury Wood. Private Claude Briggs, 21st (Public Schools) Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and 'B' Company, 26th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, died in the attack on Shrewsbury Wood (1914/1918)Original Source:

On 20 September 1917, Claude Briggs, a 23 year-old private with the 26th (Bankers) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, was killed in action during the Battle of the Menin Road.

Following his death, Claude’s parents, John and Louise Briggs, received a number of condolence letters from fellow soldiers which included detailed accounts of the attack.

One letter also included a rough sketch map indicating where Claude had died.

With this to guide them they travelled from their home in Harrogate to the battlefield in August 1919.

This photograph shows them looking at the overgrown remains of a communication trench at Shrewsbury Wood close to where their son fell.

Photograph of the grave of Rifleman J.D. Tomlinson in the 9th Battalion London Regiment (13th Brigade, 5th Division). He died in action on on 26 October 1915. (1915/1915)Original Source:

The Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries was set up in February 1916.

One of its key functions was to supply relatives with information and, where possible, a photograph of a specific grave.

This card relates to Rifleman James Daniel Tomlinson and gives the location of his grave ( in this case, Carnoy Military Cemetery, and the nearest railway station).

The photograph shows the temporary wooden cross with a metal plate bearing Rifleman Tomlinson’s name and army number.

Later, these wooden crosses were replaced by the distinctive Imperial War Graves Commission headstones in a network of landscaped cemeteries across France and Belgium.

Photograph of the mother of Rifleman J.D. Tomlinson kneeling next to her son's grave. He died in action on on 26 October 1915. (1918/1939)Original Source:

Rifleman James Daniel Tomlinson served with the 1/9th Battalion London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifle) on the Western Front.

He survived the fierce fighting for Hill 60 on the Ypres Salient in April 1915 but was killed by a mine explosion on 26 October at the age of 23.

In 1922, Rifleman Tomlinson’s mother Helena visited her son’s grave at Carnoy Military Cemetery in France where this photograph was taken.

The original wooden cross had yet to be replaced with a permanent headstone, but when it eventually was, the family chose to add the inscription ‘Always With Us’.

Page from photo album compiled by William Newbury, formerly a private with the London Regiment. (1931) by William NewburyOriginal Source:

Over Easter 1931, a group of ex-servicemen and former employees of Battersea Borough Council organised their own pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Western Front.

Calling themselves ‘Les Dix-Huit’ (‘The Eighteen’), they included in their number William Newbury, formerly a private with the London Regiment.

On their return, Mr Newbury compiled this memorial album: ‘...a slender record, with a few impressions of the visit paid to the Battlefields of Belgium and France’.

These are some of the photographs that were taken during the trip.

The album also contains a list of the graves they visited to pay their respects to fallen comrades.

Sign for the Regina Trench Cemetery in France. The cemetery stands on ground taken by the 4th Canadian Division on 11 November 1916. (1960/1960)Original Source:

The Imperial War Graves Commission, formed in 1917, administered the creation and care of British and Commonwealth war cemeteries ‘in perpetuity’.

Cast iron cemetery signs such as this one guided battlefield visitors to the cemeteries and were in use until 1960, when the Imperial War Graves Commission became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Many cemeteries were named after trenches or topographical features. Regina Trench was a German earthwork on the Somme, captured by Canadian forces in 1916.

The first burials were made there shortly afterwards and a formal cemetery, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, was subsequently built near the village of Courcelette.

Holy Ground' notice and sentry, Ypres. (1918/1939) by Ivan L BawtreeOriginal Source:

Whit Monday tourists outside the Cloth Hall, Ypres, 1919. (1919)Original Source:

From the very start of the war, Ypres was subjected to almost continual shelling by German artillery.

The town’s iconic medieval Cloth Hall was singled out for particular attention and by 1918 had been almost completely destroyed.

Despite this, a visit to the ruins still proved popular with locals and tourists alike, not least for the opportunity to acquire pieces of rubble as souvenirs.

Opinions varied on whether or not to rebuild the Cloth Hall after the war or leave it in its ruined state.

However, in 1928, the decision was taken for it to be restored as far as possible to its original condition, a process that was not completed until 1967.

The `White Cross' touring atlas of the western battlefields / by Alexander Gross. - London : `Geographia (no date). Specially produced for the White Cross Insurance Association (1918/1939)Original Source:

First published in 1920 by the White Cross Insurance Company, ‘The White Cross Touring Atlas of the Western Battlefields’ was aimed at the relatively new phenomenon of the independent motorist.

Packed with useful information including coloured route maps, photographs and detailed descriptions of battlefields and war cemeteries, it is typical of many such guides issued in the immediate post-war years.

Even for those not fortunate enough to have a car, these guides could still be a useful aid for the more adventurous traveller.

Walking and cycling tours were also popular among those wishing to make their own way to the battlefield, whether as pilgrim or tourist.

Poster advertising battlefield trips (1918/1939) by R Aubert, Imprimerie Crété, Société Française des Auto-MailsOriginal Source:

This French poster from the 1920s offers a choice of guided battlefield tours in a charabanc, a large motor vehicle fitted with wooden bench seats.

A colour-coded map illustrates the routes for a two-day circuit costing 250 francs and a five-day circuit for 700 francs, with board and accommodation ‘in the best hotels’.

However the poster also contains a more subtle message.

A stone marker by the roadside indicates that the passengers are only ten kilometres from Strasbourg, the principal city in the disputed Alsace-Lorraine region.

Under German rule since 1871, Alsace-Lorraine was only returned to France following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The message is further reinforced by a broken signpost for 'Deutschland' on the grass verge.

Credits: Story

Curated by Richard Hughes, Curator, First World War and Early 20th Century.

Discover more about the aftermath of the First World War at Making a New World, a season of exhibitions and events at IWM London and IWM North.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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