REVIEW by TOBY CLARK
During the First World War, a young soldier called Douglas Gillespie used a letter home from the trenches to expound on an idea for remembering the dead after the fighting was over. Gillespie proposed a path from the English Channel to Switzerland, following the route of the line that had formed to become the Western Front. Sadly, Gillespie could not act on his dream, as he was killed shortly after the letter was sent. Years later, while researching a different book, historian Sir Anthony Seldon found it. A few years passed and, gripped by his own annus horribilis, Seldon decided to break with all the surety of his previous life: his family, a permanent home, and his work. Instead, Seldon embarked on a solo walk of the entire route that Gillespie had proposed. This book, The Path of Peace, is the story of Seldon’s remarkable adventure. Reflecting on history, travel, memories of ancestors who had lived with the shadow of the Great War, and the nature of grief itself, the story has a lot to offer.
Others must have walked this route before, perhaps even in its entirety. It is also one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips that thousands of people must have contemplated. But those wishing to follow the route that Seldon took cannot use this book as a map. Not that you will need to have a map, hopefully – but more on that later. Seldon was also wedded to a strict schedule that could not be altered. Rest days and sightseeing were lost in a blizzard of injuries, dehydration, and no little amount of map work – though some of the steeper hills, Seldon notes, have become less punishing over time due to the effects of shell-fire.
With several philanthropic and honorary positions already on his CV, Seldon now adds another: a new charity, which will open this route across north-west Europe. Called the ‘Western Front Way’, it has in Seldon a truly excellent patron. He is so hard-working, even as he walks, taking phone calls and dictating articles en route. Once back in his accommodation in the evenings, there are emails and newspaper columns to write. And neither is he afraid to show his broad historical knowledge of this war, as we are shown areas of landscape that are forgotten about in Britain, or forgotten about by the French, or simply forgotten by everyone.
The book comprises many themes: there is the walk itself, the war, the unknown warriors in need of a champion, the charity too needing a champion, and the author’s own thirst for a drink and medical attention for his blisters. And swirling through this mix is the grief which Seldon feels after the loss of his wife.
This walk is best described as a journey. By continuing along its path, Seldon provides a rod that keeps this book from falling into a depressing litany of grief, blisters, thirst, dog and insect bites, angry motorists, and loneliness. Through fortitude and a little humour, Seldon keeps the reader upbeat; in one case, including an amusing interaction with a homeless Frenchman. It is encouraging, too, to read of individuals who showed kindness to Seldon on his way. After all, the walk was undertaken during the pandemic. You could forgive people for being wary of a stranger.
As an advert for the Western Front Way, The Path of Peace could not be better. Finding that for most of the way there is no path or signage to show the walker where the front line is, Seldon encourages countries to do better. Already, the walking route through Belgium is marked with signs, and there is considerable support in France. This is fantastic news, because it makes walking trips feasible, and will hopefully encourage tourists to visit, stay, and spend in these rural areas.
It is worth saying that, in a book market packed with every type of First World War tome, this one truly deserves to be read. As a memoir and an instructive account of history, The Path of Peace is still in this reviewer’s mind long afterwards.
The Path of Peace: walking the Western Front Way
Atlantic Books, hbk (£20)