The whole thing is hung on a letter written by a young British Second Lieutenant from the trenches in Northern France in 1915, shortly before he was killed. Douglas Gillespie, somewhat oddly writing to his old school headmaster, expresses a wish that 'when peace comes, our government might combine with the French government to make one long Avenue between the lines from the Vosges to the sea...' - this would be a 'Via Sacra' which would provide a pilgrimage route to enable the inhabitants of Western Europe to 'think and learn what war means.' Inspired by this, our author Anthony Seldon, who had recently lost his wife and reached a turning point in his career, set up a charity (which would close in 2022 to be replaced by a commercial venture) to work towards an end-to-end 1,000 kilometre 'hike and bike' trail called the Western Front Way. Seldon's walk, at the centre of this book, was in part a means of raising publicity for the venture.
As a travel writer, Seldon is not particularly effective - he is much more a historian, which means that there is no doubt that the reader gets a strong feel for what both soldiers and civilians along the Front experienced between 1914 and 1918. Early in the book Seldon comments 'I had noticed as a teacher how gripped my students were by the First World War - far more so than they were by the Second.' I can't say this reflects my own experience - when I was at school, the Second World War was far more prominent and engaging as a historical subject - but Seldon's passion for the horrific events of the period comes through strongly and I learned a huge amount. The repeated sets of details of numbers killed, atrocities and more certainly hammer the point home, though over time it can feel a little repetitive.
I did struggle a little to identify with Seldon's upper middle class, academic, establishment worldview. He notes that he was head of two public schools and then ran a 'small university' which his father had helped set up in 1976. Apart from his teaching and administrative work, his establishment credentials included being director for the National Shakespeare company, name dropping Boris Johnson as a contact and easy access to national newspapers and TV channels. (And, inevitably, he owns a house in France.) His walk had echoes of the exploits of nineteenth century explorers - not only did he undertake it when most of us weren't travelling because of the Covid pandemic, it seemed to involve very vague planning, carrying no paper maps, and the mad inspiration of not taking any spare clothing to reduce the weight of stuff to carry.
As for the realism of the idea of establishing the Western Front Way as a long distance footpath/cycle path, Seldon's struggles to avoid busy roads and to stay anywhere near the multiple lines of the front for stretches at a time, combined with the sheer scale of the project, made it feel unlikely ever to be fully achieved. The good news is it now seems well-established on the Belgian section, though. It was also notable that several times Seldon tells us how few people visited the various monuments and sites he came across - it does suggest that it is perhaps too late for this to be a project that will ever capture the imagination of massed pilgrims.
However, whether or not the romantic dream is achievable, the book is both informative and occasionally able to hit the emotional spot. I might not share Seldon's passion, but I can appreciate it and feel the importance that this walk traces a line that has a deep connection to the personal history of many European families. It gives the opportunity to think a little about the rights and wrongs of war and peace. And because of that, at a time when there is again war in Europe, I'm glad I read it.