French tourists swarming around the Western Front, Spring 1919
(Aussichtsfelsen, just below the Hartmannswillerkopf, Vosges,
altitude 930 m. Click here to see how this place looked in 1915.)
Soon after the war was over tourists from different countries travelled to the battlefields of the Western Front. Some wanted to know where their relatives or friends had suffered - others were just plain curious.
At least one of the soldiers of the Great War had an early foresight that the places where he and his comrades fought and died, would soon be flooded with nosey visitors. Lieutenant John Stanly Purvis summarized his prospective views in a bizarre poem called High Wood. He wrote it (using the pseudonym Philip Johnstone) in 1918.
High Wood, in the Somme area, indeed became one of the places that was - and still is - frequently visited by tourists. It is an eerie place that never has been thoroughly cleared of bodies and debris. A conservative estimate suggests that it holds the remains of some 8,000 German and British soldiers who were killed in action here.
Even today there are parts of the wood which contain live ammunition and it is unsafe to walk there. The top of the hill is fenced off.
In France High Wood is known as Bois des Fourceaux. It was a major German stronghold until it was taken and held by the British, after almost three months of heavy fighting. Various British attack methods were employed: cavalry charge, infantry assaults, gas attacks, flame thrower attacks, machine gun barrages, tanks - and mine warfare. Craters dating back to these mine attacks can still be seen when visiting the Cameron Highlanders and Black Watch Memorial at High Wood.
The final capture of the hill was not achieved until the 15th September 1916 when the 47th London Division (men of the Post Office Rifles and Civil Service Rifles among them) took the wood. Amazingly, it was felt to be a failure. Lack of Push, was the verdict on the Division by High Command and the Divisional Commander was replaced.
Two years later John Stanly Purvis wrote his poem, in which he pictures a scene wherein tourists visit High Wood:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changes hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being ...
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company's property
As souvenirs; you'll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotten off.
Please follow me - this way ...
The path, sir, please,
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.
PHILIP JOHNSTONE, 1918
British lieutenant John Stanley Purvis, who wrote under the pseudonym of Philip Johnson, was invalided out of the army after been wounded during the Battle of the Somme. Following the war he returned to Cranleigh School in Surrey where he had previously taught. He then took holy orders and at the age of 50 he settled in York. Here he gained an international reputation as the translator of the York Mystery Plays and was awarded the OBE for work on the York Minster archives. He died in 1968.
To a somewhat similar poem: The Road to La Bassée
To the frontpage of The Heritage of the Great War