by Anthony Seldon, Atlantic Books, 2022
In 2011, Anthony Seldon was researching for a book on World War One when he found letters written by a young officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Douglas Gillespie had been posted to the front near Vimy Ridge in northern France, his younger brother, Tom, fought at La Bassée just one kilometer away.
They were both killed, Tom in October 1914, Douglas in September 1915.
Soon after his posting to the trenches, Douglas had written to his parents with his idea for establishing a path, after the war was over, running right along the Western Front. He expanded the idea in a subsequent letter to his former headmaster at Winchester College: “I 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… a fine broad road in the No Man’s Land between the lines [the area between the Allied and German front-line trenches] with paths for pilgrims on foot… Then I would like to send every man and child in Western Europe on pilgrimage along that Via Sacra so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side”. Witnesses of which Douglas Gillespie himself would soon enough be a member.
Anthony Seldon is no disinterested writer. Convinced that Douglas Gillespie’s dream was “the best idea that emerged from the war”, he set up a charity to create the Western Front Way – no simple task given that very little of the lines of the trenches remain and that much of the countryside destroyed by wars is now grassed over, planted with trees, or restored to working farmland. This book is his account of his own journey on foot along the route of the Western Front Way, from Vosges Mountains (Kilometer Zero) to the Channel, a total of 1,000 kilometers which he accomplished in 35 days in August/September 2021.
A respected writer on contemporary history and politics, Seldon had lost his wife, his job and his home in recent years; his plan to walk the whole route was therefore not only to publicise the project but also to help him find peace and a sense of direction. So this is a very person book, in which the reader learns much about the author’s mental health – and also about his blisters!
At first, I was irritated that the book was more about the author than about the Western Front Way. But as it progresses, a balance is struck. Seldon is a good observer of detail; he re-tells stories (some of them moving, some grisly, some actually funny); and he fills out the context of many of the lesser events of those five years of hell. The results is an informative and interesting account of the topography and features of the route of the Walk, and of the military actions that took place along its length. A map of the terrain, with major landmarks, prefaces each section of the Walk, and there are black and white illustrations throughout.
For me, reading this book in January 2023 revived memories of the research by the OSP History Group between 2014 and 2019 into the men of Old Saint Paul’s who fell in World War One. So it was with considerable interest that I followed Anthony Seldon as he pursued his own pilgrimage. There are many parts of the Western Front to which our soldiers did not go: I have learned about other battlefields, other towns and villages and buildings destroyed by war. Some restored, some left as memorials to many fallen men.
By coincidence, the battlefield around the village of La Bassée in the north, where Douglas Gillespie’s brother Tom died in October 1914, was where the first OSP soldier to be killed in the war also fell, in the same month. Douglas Gillespie himself was killed in the opening hours of the Battle of Loos, the first major battle on the Western Front, on 25 September 1915 – Seldon records “His body, mashed and mulched into the mud of northern France, was not recovered”. A similar fate befell no fewer than five soldiers of OSP. They, among over 20,000 with no known grave, are commemorated on the Loos Memorial to the Missing.
The two truly iconic British actions on the Western Front were, of course, the Somme in 1916, with its 12 bloody battles over four and a half months, and the Ypres salient where four major engagements stretched over four and a half years. Five men of OSP were killed on the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916; nine more in the following months. Walking the route near Mametz Wood, Seldon observes “it is hard to conceive that the gentle undulating soil saw such horror”. And at the end of this sector, he wrote “it took 20 kilometers to walk the length of the entire battlefield: 30,000 paces, 33 casualties for each pace”.
It is not without significance that Seldon’s ancestors fled from Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. As he finished writing the book, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine was well under way. He tells us “My grandparents’ home town… is in Putin’s firing line. I see in the faces of those suffering grievously in that country the faces of my own children, for they share the same blood. Our relatives too were among those murdered by the Nazis at Babyn Yar in Kyiv in 1941: the memorial to 100,000 gunned down in a ravine was shaken by a Russian missile during the  invasion”.
The world has not achieved the peace that those young men of 1914 believed they were fighting for; we saw a second world war start only 20 years after the first ended; now, in 2023, we must hope that we are not on the brink of a third. As our Rector said in his sermon on Remembrance Day, 13 November 2022, “There are no answers to the persistence of human destructiveness. But there are ways of responding”. Douglas Gillespie’s response, his vision of a Way of Peace, is surely more relevant and necessary than ever.
Reviewed by Brenda White