Mémorial Britannique et Sud Africain de Thiepval - Crédit photo : Tibo
Somme Battlefield tour guides Sylvestre Bresson, who is founder of the Terres de Mémoire tour company, and Vic Piuk, a British author, give us an insight into why they chose their careers.
How did you become battlefield guides?
Vic Piuk (VP): I had been working as a journalist for a daily paper in England for 15 years, when my wife and I decided to move to France and become battlefield guides. We used to come over here quite regularly on holiday and made many visits to the area, but that just wasn’t enough! We needed more; so we bought a house over here and opened a bed & breakfast.
Sylvestre Bresson (SB): I had spent nine years in Burgundy working as a chiropodist, but I had always been very interested in history. Eventually, I decided to become a battlefield guide so that I could make a career out of my hobby and passion. I put a lot of thought into it; it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision at all. I set up by myself in 2007, and now I run a small company with three employees.
And when you first started as tour guides, how did your debuts work out?
VP: My wife and I had no idea about how to go about becoming tour guides. It was just a dream for us; but we were lucky and received a lot of help from various friends and acquaintances, and the end result has been very successful.
SB: It is not easy to start up as a guide, but I was lucky enough to receive great help from the Historial, who approved me as a tour guide. I started by doing some work for them, guiding many of their school groups around the battlefields. This gave me a good deal of experience, especially in how to manage large groups. I then decided to buy my own tour guiding vehicle and acquire the necessary licences, etc. I sought to develop my own itineraries, which would be more flexible and adapted to the requirements of clients from different countries including Australians and Americans, etc.
Why did you choose this career?
SB: I enjoy meeting people; I especially like meeting people who have come from all over the world. I love this job because it enables me to convey messages adapted to different clientele and, consequently, I never carry out the same tour. What we call Remembrance Tourism is a very specific type of tourism; it can be very emotional. We’re talking to families - young children - about very sensitive subjects linked to death. There is a certain psychological element to the job.
And how about you, Vic Piuk?
VP: I love explaining history to our visitors, and researching their own family history. For example, recently I was with four English people whose uncle had gone missing at Pozières. I researched the history of this soldier and discovered that he formed part of a group of 28 men. I found the cemetery where they were buried: it includes 27 identified graves and one stone marked with words “a private soldier known unto God”. This discovery was very moving, both for myself and the visitors. I regularly carry out this type of research work because information can be relatively easy to find, and my 3000 books about the Great War certainly help too!
And does being a guide entail a lot of genealogical work for you as well, Sylvestre Bresson?
SB: We mainly carry out research concerning the regimental or individual soldier’s history for the visitors. We can find a great deal of information through the internet these days, especially about the Commonwealth countries; for example, the Australian military files are freely available on their National Archives website. So we try and adapt our visits to the family’s history, which can take quite a lot of time. The work also includes examining maps and pinpointing exact locations of events. It’s always very moving; we sometimes provide families with very personal, even sensitive, information that they had absolutely no idea about. At times, we find that the family’s received history greatly differs from the real story.
What is the profile of your clientele?
VP: We organise longer tours for the British, and shorter tours for the Australians. The Australians are visiting the area in greater numbers each year as there were more Australian losses in France and Belgium than in Gallipoli, and the Australian Government has now decided to put greater emphasis on the Western Front. It can also be said that the country hasn’t experienced the economic crisis.
SB: For my company, our clientele originate mainly from the Commonwealth countries such as Britain or Australia, but we are also receiving more and more Americans. A few years ago, the Great War held little interest for the Americans, but this is changing.
How do you explain this new interest?
SB: There is clearly a “centenary effect”, but cinema too has played a particular role, especially with the film War Horse by Stephen Spielberg, released in 2012. I also think there is slightly less interest shown towards the Second World War at the moment.
In regard to Remembrance Tourism, what differences have you remarked between the French and English-speaking visitors?
SB: There are differences in the type of service provided. The English-speaking clientele is a public that don’t generally have their own transport and thus need to be driven around the battlefields. The French, however, can visit the areas for themselves with the help of smartphone apps and guide books.
There is also a difference concerning the remembrance of the war; after the Great War, French families were allowed to repatriate their dead to their home villages. That wasn’t the case for the British; all British and Commonwealth soldiers are buried close to where they died. Therefore, family visits to the battlefields have an almost sacred quality to them. The sacrifice of their ancestors is here. British cemeteries can be found in greater numbers and a visit to the battlefields is often a form of pilgrimage.
Have you also observed this, Vic Piuk?
VP: It’s impossible for me to compare the two as I have never conducted guided tours for the French. Certainly the Great War touched most families in the United Kingdom, and many British visit the Somme because of the number of casualties sustained here: just on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the 1st July 1916, 60,000 losses were suffered by the British Army. It was the worst day in British history. This sentiment also exists for the French, of course, who lost twice as many soldiers during the war as the British. But for the French, this terrible grief is, I think, more greatly felt in the Marne or Verdun.
What is the particularity of the Somme Battlefields?
SB: In simple terms, this area was the junction between the French and British sectors. The English sector stretched from Belgium to Maricourt and the French sector from Maricourt to Switzerland. Both the French and Colonial Armies and the British and Imperial Forces were present in the Somme. Soldiers from all over the world could be found in this small area.
Is modern technology being used for visits to the sites of remembrance?
SB: The visitors are quite keen on using new technologies, but only to a certain point; it’s important to find the right balance. What I have remarked is that our visitors want to be better informed, to learn more. They want to learn about the war, picking up right from the beginning. When a surge in tourism to the battlefields began, the clientele was made up of a greater number of people who had knowledge about the individual battles, that isn’t really the case today. The centenary has increased the general public’s interest in the history of the conflict, especially its human dimension and the soldier’s personal histories.
And talking about personal histories, Vic Piuk, you have recently written a book about the life of a British poet who died during the war. Could you tell us about it?
VP: Yes, it’s called A Dream within the Dark, which talks about the life of poet Will Streets, who was born in Mansfield in central England. The son of a coalminer, he is a little-known poet with an interesting life story. He worked in the mine because he had no other choice, and wrote a small number of poems. He was a very intelligent man, and a promising poet. Like many other soldiers, for him, heading off to war was synonymous with escape. But this young man from a family of 12 children was killed on the 1st July 1916. He left behind poems and letters which illustrated the British Army in the Somme’s idealism during the early days of war, and explains why this intelligent and farsighted young man volunteered for war. With photos of the family, the book details his younger years and explains how his artistic sensibilities developed.
And why are you more interested in the First World War than the Second?
VP: The First World War changed everything. Still today, we live in the shadow of the Great War. Before 1914, the world was calmer, a changing place. After 1918, the world was totally different; many problems and discontent arose, directly related to the war. The Great War totally transformed the face of the earth.