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Ghouls will be Ghouls: How the First World War became a tourist attraction

John G. Sayers

Since 2014 every tour agency throughout the Western World seems to have been offering tours to various First War battle and grave sites. It's more or less the business of History, and there's nothing better than a Centenary to bring out the tour crowds. But is this the first time that a First War Anniversary has been recognized?

Of course not. I have seen promotional booklets for tours to Gallipoli in the 1930s, and to the unveiling of the Vimy monument in the same decade. But how far back does this First War Tour stuff go?

Image of book mark

According to a two-sided Michelin Tyre bookmark acquired at a recent Ephemera Fair, it goes all the way back to 1919. Just imagine. It was less than a year since the war had ended and you could buy Michelin Travel Guides to Amiens, Verdun, and the Battle-Fields of the Marne! With many pages of text and profuse illustrations, you could drive in your vehicle - equipped with Michelins of course - to view Verdun. Presumably you would park your vehicle by the side of a shell-pocked road and visit the trenches, look for bullet-holed helmets, find scraps of uniforms, maybe even a regimental patch on a torn, blood-stained, and powder-blackened piece of sleeve…all that kind of stuff.

Image of detail from book mark As you travelled to other battle-scarred villages you could see the homeless, take photos of their ruined homes, and maybe even a few of any shell-destroyed churches.

Do I sound cynical? It just sounds so terribly macabre. Today we revisit history from the reverent perspective of a hundred years. In 1919, you would be revisiting death and destruction.

Of course, there would have been Military guides created and used in the various areas during the War. It probably would not have been difficult to adapt a Military map and guide into a 'civilian' application at the end of hostilities. But it bothers me that there would have been an early expectation of civilian battlefield 'tourism'.

I know that a 'business opportunity' is a Business Opportunity, but I'm not sure that the Michelin Man understood what he was promoting in 1919. However, they probably sold a lot of Travel Guides in 1919, including some to ghouls who wanted to 'see for themselves' the trail of carnage and misery.

A hundred years later, those guides are still of great interest - but just to ephemera collectors who have a historical interest in the First War.



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