Book Review: S. Miles, The Western Front, Landscape, Tourism and Heritage (Barnsley, 2016)

Stephen Miles’ book examines how tourism to the Western Front has developed over the last century.

Stephen Miles’ book examines British tourism to the Western Front since the end of the First World War. It considers the motivations of visitors for going there from the family and comrades of fallen combatants to contemporary school children on educational tours. Miles argues that people can perceive the landscape of the Western Front in two interconnected ways.

 

The network of memorials and cemeteries dotted across the countryside can be seen as a commemorative landscape, which invoke memory, sacrifice and identity of the fallen and serve as an emotional, cultural, intellectual and political functions to individuals, communities and countries.[1]

 

Running parallel with this, the physical remains of war, such as trenches, pill boxes and mine craters, as well as commemorative structures, can be seen as part of a heritage landscape. These physical structures have emotional and historical meaning to individuals, groups and the country in helping understand personal family stories (e.g. the service of a great uncle), narratives of national struggle (e.g. the Somme) and explaining past events (e.g. understanding how the landscape shaped a particular attack).[2]

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Miles contents that the heritage is the past infused with present purpose.[3] For example, two examples from Ireland demonstrate the point. The Ulster Tower Memorial at Theipval, which commemorates the 36th Division’s attack on 1 July 1916, has great resonance for many present day protestant and unionist communities as it remains to them a potent symbol of their loyalty and blood sacrifice to the crown. Another example is the Island of Ireland Peace Park, near Messines, which is a memorial to peace built on the location of where the mainly nationalist and Catholic 16th Irish Division and 36th Ulster Division attacked German lines, fighting side by side on 7 June 1917 during the Battle of Messines. This maybe raises an unsaid question: if Irishmen could fight and die together in 1917 war, can not they live together in peace one hundred years later?

 

Miles then considers some of the tensions tourism on the Western Front poses to commemoration, heritage and historical interpretation of the Great War. Tourists bring considerable economic benefit to communities but it also brings problems like noise, traffic congestions and infringement of landowners’ rights. Miles asks the question whether it is ethical to commoditise symbols of the war, such as the poppy, for commercial gain by producing poppy related products?[4]

He concludes with a consideration about what impact future visits will have to the Western Front after the centenary. He suggests that tourism and trips will help shape new meanings of the Western Front landscape away from the original meaning attached to the commemorative landscape with the valedictory nature of some of the larger state-sponsored memorials.[5]

 

Overall, a thought provoking read which makes one reflect differently about the visiting the Western Front as a tourist.

 

Notes: 

[1] S. Miles, The Western Front, Landscape, Tourism and Heritage (Barnsley, 2016), pp.46-63.

[2] Ibid., pp.64-84.

[3] Ibid., p.64.

[4] Ibid., p.110-111.

[5] Ibid., pp.131-143.