Skip to main content

Review: The Path of Peace - Anthony Seldon ****

One of the best things about being given books as presents is that you get to read things that you would never buy for yourself and make interesting discoveries. That was the case for me with The Path of Peace - on one level it's a travel book, featuring the author walking (approximately) along what was the First World War's Western Front, from France's border with Switzerland up to Belgium - but there's more to it. We not only get an awful lot of detail about aspects of the First World War that are likely to be unfamiliar to most readers (certainly me), we also get to share in a romantic dream.

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.

See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here
You can order The Path of Peace from and

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Popular posts from this blog

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope