In 2022, Sir Anthony Seldon published The Path of Peace: Walking the Western Front Way. The book was inspired by his discovery of a letter by a young Second Lieutenant, Douglas Gillespie (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders), written to his former headmaster at Winchester College before he was killed in action in the First World War. As Seldon explains, Gillespie had been posted to the frontline, between the Vimy Ridge in northern France and the Belgian border.
‘Soon after reaching the trenches, Douglas wrote a letter to his parents in Linlithgow, Scotland, with an ingenious idea for establishing a path along No Man’s Land from Switzerland to the English Channel after the war was over. I was immediately captivated, still more so by the expanded vision of the idea he wrote about to his old headmaster.’ (Seldon 2022, 5)“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. 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 I 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 pilgrimage along that Via Sacra, so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.” (A.D. Gillespie, Letters from Flanders, 3rd edn., London 2016, 324)
Striking in Gillespie’s letter to his headmaster is his ability – despite the horrors of the frontline – to visualise a time after the war, when reflection and learning might be possible. Aware of the profound damage already done (‘the ground is so pitted, and scarred…’), he could nonetheless imagine a different future, where trees and fruit would nourish pilgrims, on a journey to better understanding. Tragically, Gillespie’s brother Tom had already been killed in action in October 1914; in September 1915, he was himself killed in the Battle of Loos. Gillespie did not live to see the end of the war, let alone a time beyond war for walking, listening, thinking and learning.
Seldon first read Gillespie’s letter in 2012. As he put it, ‘with interest in the Great War surging as the centenary approached, I sensed something substantial and potent. Had the time now come to revive the proposal, to make it a reality?’ (Seldon 2022, 7) With the support of some of Gillespie’s great-nieces and great-nephews, among other significant collaborators, Seldon formed a charity called the Western Front Way, which has successfully established a 1000km trail (with a route for bikes as well as for walkers) that echoes the line of No Man’s Land along the Western Front. This route (described as ‘the biggest single commemorative project underway on the globe’) functions as both a memorial and a learning experience, with an app offering historical context en route.
Seldon’s book The Path of Peace narrates his own experiences of walking the Western Front Way, from the Vosges Mountains to the French coast, in summer 2021. It dives deep into the history of the places which Seldon encountered along the way; but it also represents a profound reflection on the meaning of peace:
‘I could never forget Gillespie’s dream was to create not just a walking route along the front, but a path of peace. I would be walking in part to explore what he meant by that elusive word ‘peace’. What had it meant to those who fought in the war and survived? What did it mean to those whose livelihoods had depended on the millions of hectares ravaged by war?
Fighting, as we know, ceased with the armistice at 11am on 11 November 1918… Work began almost at once on a peace treaty, requiring the armistice to be extended three times. Representatives of thirty-two nations met in Paris from January 1919, though the proceedings were dominated by just three: France, Britain and the United States. The Treaty of Versailles, which dealt with Germany, was signed on 28 June 1919, five years to the day after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The final of five peace treaties – Lausanne, focusing on the Ottoman Empire – was not signed until July 2023.
Five peace treaties.
Did they bring peace? Not to the millions suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. The guns might have fallen silent, but not the guns still raging in the heads of those poor souls…
Where too was the bounty of peace for the children, the women and the parents, like Douglas and Tom’s family, deprived forever more of those they most loved and needed?
On the very western tip of Europe, there was no peace in Ireland. Nor for the “cornermen”, returning soldiers, damaged in body and mind, without jobs or hope, begging on street corners year after year. Nor on the eastern frontiers of Europe was there peace for the Jews, victims of the collapsing Russian empire…
So much for “the war to end wars” as, following the title of a 1914 H.G. Wells book, the First World War came to be known. “Peace”, at least at a national level, held in Europe for twenty years after the armistice before forces, unleashed by the war and its aftermath, propelled the world into an even greater conflagration after September 1939. Before 1914, Europe’s great powers had been at peace, mostly, for a hundred years since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 had brought the last great continental war to an end. Is peace, then, merely the absence of war? Or is it something altogether deeper?’Seldon 2022, 22-23
Seldon’s book ends by reflecting on the tragedy of a world where history seems doomed to repeat itself: in this particular case, with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. (Seldon’s own family hailed originally from that region: ‘One hundred years earlier my grandparents had fled west from near Kyiv in search of peace. Now their descendants beat the same path.’) As he concludes:
‘Amidst such mighty forces at play, Gillespie’s gentle vision of a 1000-kilometre path along the Western Front, with people of all nationalities walking side by side, learning from the silent witnesses “where war leads”, feels like a drop in the ocean. But it is a drop which is becoming a stream, a stream which will become a mighty river, a roaring sea indeed, like the North Sea where I ended my walk, and I for one am happy to devote the rest of my life to seeing Gillespie’s magnificent roaring dream become a reality.’Seldon 2022, 322
One key aspect of the book is Seldon’s combination of geopolitical reflections with an ongoing quest to understand and achieve inner peace. He writes in the wake of deep personal loss (the death of his wife from cancer in 2016), and with a lifetime behind him of over-work, restlessness and anxiety (which he ponders may itself have roots in his parents’ and grandparents’ war-time experiences). It is rare to find this combination in a history book, but it is a very valuable dimension, because it reminds us of the profound connections between our inner and outer worlds. Conflict at large impacts individual experiences of inner peace (sometimes over multiple generations); and lack of inner peace can in turn help to drive wider conflict. By the same token, both Gillespie and Seldon remind us that geopolitical peace (so rarely achieved through high-level negotiations or treaties) can be sought and sometimes found through walking, thinking, listening to silence, and all the personal learning that flows from such activities.
What do you think?
- Would you like to walk the Western Front Way? If you did, what do you think you might learn?
- Do you believe, as Seldon argues, that from ‘drops in the ocean’ like Gillespie’s Path of Peace, great rivers and seas can flow? What makes you optimistic about this? What makes you pessimistic?
- In what ways has Seldon’s book or Gillespie’s dream changed how you think about peace and peace-building?
- Are there other places or contexts where ‘walking for peace’ has been suggested – or could be beneficial?
- What role can landscapes (and our physical experience of them) play in changing how we think about war and peace?
If you enjoyed this item in our museum…
Alice König, March 2023