THE WESTERN FRONT WAY – VIA SACRA, a grand and unifying vision for the future of commemoration.

Lt Col (Retd) Andrew Gillespie RA

“A small group of determined and like-minded people can change the course of history.”

                                                                                                                                       Mahatma Gandhi.

For those of you into signage, there is a new kid on the block.  It is a sign that I hope will one day be as instantly recognisable as the Coca Cola logo or that of the International Red Cross.  It is a simple emblem with no words, just four flowers of remembrance; the Cornflower of France, the Forget-me-not of Germany, the Daisy of Belgium and the Flanders Poppy of Britain, the Commonwealth and the USA. Together they make up the emblem of the Western Front Way, a permanent, marked, walking pathway that stretches over 1000km from Nieuport on the Belgium coast to Pfetterhouse on the Swiss/French border along the route of the Great War’s Western Front.

The Centenary celebrations have reawakened the Great War in the public consciousness and amazing spectacles like the ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, one poppy for every British fatality, has driven home the scale of the human suffering. Even ‘Blackadder’ has added to the collective experience. But Edmund Blackadder and the enamel poppies are at best transitory. How can we now ensure that the first truly World War and its human consequences do not just morph into history like the Crimean and Napoleonic wars? The idea of a permanent, marked path was inspired by a letter written by Second Lieutenant Alexander Douglas Gillespie, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, shortly before his death in 1915. Alexander was a gifted individual and one wonders what the world would be like if he, and the many like him, had been allowed to live on and fulfil their potential.  He was the elder son of Thomas Paterson Gillespie of Longcroft, Linlithgow and elder brother of Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham Gillespie, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who fell on October 18th 1914. He attended Cargilfield School, Edinburgh, from which he won a scholarship to Winchester Collage. There he became Prefect of Chapel and won the King’s Gold Medal for Latin Verse, the King’s Silver Medal for Latin Speech, the Warden and Fellow’s Prizes for Greek Prose and Latin Essay and the Duncan Prize for Reading. In his last year he played in the College XV. He was elected in 1908 to a Scholarship at New College, Oxford, and took his degree in 1912 with a First Class in Classical Moderations and a Second in Literae Humanitores. By any measure, Alexander was an outstanding individual.

He was reading for the Bar when war broke out, and, like so many of his peers, volunteered his services at once, obtaining a commission in the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He went to the front in February 1915 as part of the newly formed Territorial Divisions. Before leaving he spent the evening of 20th February at Winchester College with a fellow school friend. “Hutchie (2Lt R.H. Hutchinson, 8th Black Watch, killed in action October 1915) and I had a very cheerful dinner with the Headmaster.”

What was life like at the front in February 1915? December 1914 saw the war deteriorate into stalemate along what was known as the Western Front with both sides digging in. But it takes time to establish a network of properly constructed and riveted trenches supported by dugouts, communication trenches, barbed wire entanglement, field hospitals, an efficient system of feeding, re-supply etc. In February 1915 the front line still consisted mainly of hastily dug fire trenches which rapidly filled with water; there was little protection from the incessant Artillery shelling or from the rain or the bitter cold. It was after all going to be all over by Christmas. Moreover many of the Scottish battalions had deployed in kilts, totally unsuited to fighting in the rain and mud. As well as becoming caked in mud and heavy, the pleats became infested with lice. (An officer’s kilt is reputed to have been made of 18-22 oz wool worsted with up to eight yards of cloth. Kilts were only finally abandoned when it was realised that Mustard Gas burned the sweatier parts of the body with disastrous consequences.) This was the environment in which Alexander found himself. As well as the constant danger, living conditions were nothing short of appalling with soldiers dying primarily not through enemy action but from dysentery and pneumonia. Despite the hardship he found the time to write many letters home describing the conditions at the front. His most famous letter, published after his death in the Wykehamist of 14th June 1915 was written to his Headmaster and it was subsequently picked up by the national press for its vision of what might be done with the Western Front after the War. The letter read:

 “These fields are sacred in a sense and I wish that when the peace comes, our government might combine with the French government to make one long avenue from the Vosges to the sea. The ground is so pitted and scarred and torn with shells and tangled with wire that it will take years to bring it back to use again. But it would make a fine broad road in the No Man’s Land between the lines, with paths for pilgrims on foot and plant trees for shade, and fruit trees, so the soil should not be altogether waste. Then I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on a pilgrimage along that Via Sacra so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side. A sentimental idea, perhaps, but we might make it the most beautiful road in all the world.”

Alexander went into the attack at Cuinchy on 25th September 1915 as part of the first day of the Battle of Loos, and was killed while leading a charge against an enemy position: he fell as he reached the German trenches. According to survivors, he was the only officer to get that far. With no known grave he is commemorated on Panels 125-127 of the Dud Corner Memorial near Loos.

And that might just have been the end of the matter had not the noted historian and biographer, Sir Anthony Seldon, working with David Walsh on a book titled ‘Public Schools and the Great War,’ discovered Alexander’s letter. In 2015 Sir Anthony wrote about it in an article in the Telegraph and laid down the challenge to turn Alexander’s wish into reality and make the path a grand and unifying vision for the future of commemoration. Rory Forsyth was so inspired by the article that he wrote a personal letter to Sir Anthony offering to take on the challenge. An ex pupil of Tonbridge School, a keen historian and director of his own events company, Rory had been a regularly visitor to the Western Front with his father throughout his childhood. But where to start? Funding! He co-opted Amanda Carpenter, the wife of his English teacher at Tonbridge who had experience of charity fund raising. To raise funds you need to be a charity and that charity must have a board of trustees.  The Western Front Way became registered charity Number 1174793 in September 2017.  The board of trustees followed with Rory Forsyth taking on the role of CEO and Amanda Carpenter that of Development Director.  Charles Pike joined as a specialist charities lawyer, and Tom Heap the television presenter and Lal Mills, respectively the Great Nephew and Great Niece of Alexander Gillespie.  Sir Anthony remained as mentor and the trustee’s ‘Big Hitter.’ I joined the small group of determined and like-minded people in March 2018.

As a group we had one aim and that was to establish a permanent, marked pathway from the Belgian coast to the Swiss boarder along the path of the Western Front.  A British charity attempting to establish a path across France and Belgium was always going to face a challenge. The initial strategy was to work top down, to engage with the French, British and Belgium governments at the highest level whilst at the same time raising sufficient funds to enable the basic running of the charity. Sadly we had missed the boat for any Government funding linked to the 1914-18 Centenary so much of the early expenditure was carried by the Trustees themselves. Talks with government were positive with statements of support from the British Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the 1914-18 Committee, the Prime Minister’s office, as well as from Hauts-de-France regional government office and from the French 1914-18 commemoration teams, the Belgian embassy, UNESCO and others, but promises of support failed to translate into action.

Walking visits along the proposed route convinced the Trustees that a bottom up approach should be adopted. To succeed we needed buy in from the people it would affect, the local stakeholders whose areas the path would transit. The area of the Front held by the British went through what had once been a prosperous coal mining region however, like in the UK, the collapse of the industry in the 1970s and 80s had impoverished the communities and left high unemployment.  The first real breakthrough came on a visit by Rory Forsyth to the village of Auchy-Les-Mines, coincidentally the village close to where Alexander is believed to have fallen. The Mayor was keen to bring tourists to her village and had kindly agreed to provide a translator, Laura Lestoquoy, an English language graduate now an English teacher in Bethune.  Proactive and enthusiastic, Laura proved to be a game changer. She was a volunteer ‘Guardian’ at Notre Dame De Lorette, France’s largest ossuary and understood the importance of preserving the memory of the fallen. She became the charities ambassador on the ground, marshalling support amongst the local Mayors and tourist offices and visiting walking groups in Northern France and in Belgium. Her message was “walkers will bring income to your region, don’t be the one to miss out”. Laura’s efforts were reinforced by visits from the trustees to confirm and cement the newly established relationships. Laura became a Trustee in August 2018. It had always been our belief that where France would lead, Belgium would follow. To our surprise it turned out to be the opposite. In November 2018 the Belgium tourist offices of Nieuwpoort, Dixsmuide and Ypres announced that they would mark and sign the path across the whole of Belgium.

The second game changer came in April 2018 when DCMS offered us a legacy grant from what was left of the Centenary War Chest, to ensure that commemoration lived beyond 2018. This gave the charity sufficient funds to enable it to keep running and free Rory and Amanda to focus on establishing the path. Shortly afterwards Kitty Buchanan-Gregory joined the Board of Trustees from the Cabinet Office. Like a snowball, the Western Front Way took on a momentum of its own to the point that the charity plans to hand over to French and Belgian custodians at the end of the year.

The Walking Route – Plaque to Plaque

The first plaque went up in Albert on 25th May 2019 and on 7th June 2019 the Mayor of Diksmuide, alongside the tourist offices of the three frontier towns (Nieuwpoort, Dixsmuide and Ypres) unveiled the first of three signboards, commissioned to mark the official launch of the Belgian section.  Plaques and signboards are also in place across France. The signboards are in German, French, Flemish and English. We are encouraging walkers to plot their own paths travelling from plaque to plaque the length of the over 1000km route.  Walking is mostly on gravel and dirt pathways; any tarmac roads are small with minimal traffic and have been avoided where ever possible. Not every junction is marked, as under French and Belgium law the charity risks  being sued if anything happened to a walker if we give an exact route but we are confident that the maps that can be downloaded from the website give sufficient information for walkers to find their way from village to village or Plaque to Plaque. We are indebted to 42 (Geo) Regiment, Royal Engineers for their help and guidance with mapping.

At the outbreak of hostilities, the Scots, slightly under represented in the pre-war Army, were the keenest within the British Empire to volunteer. By Dec 1915, 27% of Scottish men between the ages of 15 and 49 had volunteered. In all 557,618 Scots enlisted in the British Army, more than a quarter, 26.5 % lost their lives. Only the Serbs and Turks sustained more severe casualties.  The Western Front Way is their collective memorial.  Please now go and walk the path and also encourage others, particularly young people, to do so for it is impossible to walk this path and not be struck by the sheer horror of war and the joy and privilege of being able to walk in peace. The Western Front Way is the greatest commemorative project underway on the globe at this time and it is our hope that it will preserve the memory of the Great War for generations to come.

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