Plan for ‘sacred path’ to run along western front

The entente between Britain and France may not be quite as cordiale as it used to be, but the 2018 centenary of the end of the First World War has inspired a unique cross-Channel initiative to commemorate the western front that once divided Europe to horrific effect. A two-year campaign to create a 450-mile memorial pathway that would trace the front lines of some of the bloodiest battles of the Great War has begun to attract wider European support, with French and Belgian officials signalling their interest in the project.

Sacred Path

A new charity, the Western Front Way, has for formal approval by European governments for a tree-lined via sacra (sacred path) that would stretch from the Belgian coast at Nieuwpoort, between Dunkirk and Ostend, to the Swiss border at Pfetterhouse, 25 miles west of Basel. Along the way it would pass the battlefields of Ypres, Arras and Verdun and many other museums, cemeteries and gardens dedicated to the conflict in which nearly 20m people died.

Pilgrimage

Led by Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, and Jean-Paul Mulot, a former managing editor of the Paris-based Le Figaro newspaper, the charity hopes to fulfil the vision of Alexander Douglas Gillespie, a young British Army officer who was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. In a letter to his former headmaster at Winchester College, Gillespie wrote shortly before he died that when peace came he would like to send “every man, woman and child in western Europe” on a pilgrimage along the front lines “so they might think and learn about what war means from the silent witnesses on either side”. He proposed “one long avenue . . . from the Vosges to the sea. 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”.

Enthusiasm

Seldon led a walk along sections of the proposed route in the summer of 2016, attracting support from several British celebrities, including the actors Dominic West, Cherie Lunghi and Elizabeth Hurley. The project’s main challenge was to try to arouse enthusiasm across the Channel at a time when any British initiative was being viewed — for the most part sourly — through a Brexit lens. “One of our main concerns was that it not be just an Anglo project, in which case it would probably never happen,” said Rory Forsyth, 32, chief executive of the charity and who also runs an events company.

Harmonious 

After Mulot became the project’s “torchbearer in France”, there were talks with the Belgian ambassador in Britain. The charity also met a Flanders representative before Christmas. It has put out feelers to German officials as well. “We didn’t want to make a lot of noise without Belgian and French support,” Forsyth said. “But we have obviously got to make the most of the 100th anniversary.” In the short term the group hopes to focus on existing pathways that can be easily marked as part of the project and gradually linked up. “The initial costs are quite light and the markers we put up and the trees we plant could be sponsored,” said Forsyth, who noted that the project was the “ultimate counter” to any Brexit-related animosity. “It’s quite a harmonious thing,” he said. “We are hoping to build paths, not walls.”

Reproduced from The Times