The centenary celebrations of the First World War brought attention to the history of the conflict that spanned four years between 1914 and 1918, whilst national Remembrance Days have been observed ever since the end of then so-called ‘Great War’.
Tours of infamous battle sites aren’t a recent development; sites following the American Civil War and the French Revolution experienced an influx of people wanting to explore significant historical or socially important sites. In the 21st Century, there are battlefield tours to sites such as Verdun or Ypres, as well as possibilities to visit sites such as Auschwitz. Tours to these sites have received criticism due to the behaviour of tourists being deemed disrespectful, such as people being scolded for playing Pokemon Go at Auschwitz.
But while it seems that these tours are unnecessary, they have many benefits. The main one is that they allow the conflict to remain in popular memory. By remembering the conflict and the consequences of it, we remember the people who fought and died across the world. Every Thursday since its opening in 1927, the Menin Gate in Ypres holds a public ceremony where people from all across the world can come to pay their respects to the fallen.
When I attended the memorial in 2012, I stood shoulder to shoulder with people from Australia, Canada and further afield, all of us paying our respects. Some of these tours also allow the public to visit sites that might mean something to their families, such as a monument to the missing, or the grave of a fallen ancestor. Being able to pay respects right at their graveside can mean a lot to families of those deceased.
During the later months of 2017 historians and famous figures such as Dan Snow and Al Murray joined an international campaign to help preserve a battlefield site from building development. The “Dig Hill 80” campaign invited people to help crowdfund the required amount needed to allow archaeologists to visit the site and excavate an untouched battleground from almost a century ago. Primarily taking donations on Kickstarter, the campaign offered rewards such as invitations to the findings evening in November 2018, guided tours of the excavation site, or even the opportunity to spend up to a week as part of the excavation.
Within the thirty days that the Kickstarter lasted, the campaign was successfully funded, and excavations of the site occurred from April to June 2018. As a previously untouched site, the excavation unearthed artefacts and trench remains that have since been preserved. But it also allowed historians to recover the remains of over a hundred British, French, and German soldiers, many of which have been identified and begun to be reburied by CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) with full military honours.
Impacts of the First World War don’t just stay on the battlefield. Learning about the conflict where it happened can unlock avenues of information that you might not have originally associated with it, such as authors or painters. As the archaeological techniques develop, we can learn more from these locations and more accurately identify the remains of those rediscovered from the land. In remembrance, these sites can spark an interest in history, which I can attest to. Learning about the human side of the conflict allows us to relate to the affected individuals far more than simply reading statistics on a page.