Battlefields tours started soon after the end of the war; some wanted to visit the graves of their loved ones; others were curious about the places that had been mentioned in newspapers or in their loved one’s letter. For many of the returning troops, the visit created a mix of emotions, sadness for the loss of friends and joy for having survived.
At least one of the soldiers of the Great War had an early premonition that the places where he and his comrades fought and died, would soon be the destination for visitors with less than altruistic purposes. Lt John Stanly Purvis drew together his fears that the sites might become mere tourist attractions, in his poem entitled High Wood. He wrote it (under the pseudonym Philip Johnstone) in 1918.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Furneaux,
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 changed 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.... Madame, please,
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 rotted 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.
Born in 1890, Purvis had fought on the Somme with 5th Bn Yorkshire Regiment. He was invalided out of the army after been wounded at the Battle of the Somme. 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.
As a visitor, and occaional guide, I find the poem somewhat uncomfortable. How do others feel?