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Seldon, Anthony, The Path of Peace, Walking the Western Front Way

London, Atlantic Books, 2022
Susan Finding
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Seldon, Anthony, The Path of Peace, Walking the Western Front Way, London, Atlantic Books, 2022

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1Anthony Seldon’s books on British politics, his surveys of premierships, are well-known to students of contemporary Britain. His most recent book is of a different mettle, as its title intimates. Having accomplished my own pilgrimage to the battlegrounds where my grandfather fought in 1917 and 1918 - on the centenary of the Battle of Amiens in August 2018 and again in September 2022, when we presented a map he had kept of the battle at Bullecourt (Pas de Calais) to the small museum in the village there (recounted on my blog) - I was interested to read of Anthony Seldon’s much longer trip, published this autumn.

2The Path of Peace, Walking the Western Front Way tells the story of Seldon’s epic 38-day hike, from one end to the other, along the line over which the opposing armies fought for those four long years over one hundred years ago. And yet, for many, and as Seldon reminds us, the First World War remains in living memory. Those of us who are old enough to be grandparents ourselves knew our grandparents who had been young men and women at the time.

3Why is it that we feel so drawn to explore the experience, visit the places they fought at, feel something of the despair at the horror and the futility of these endless poundings of positions that would only be taken back days, weeks, months later? Why does visiting the graves of those troops who are identified, the monuments to those who were not, seem so worthwhile and dignified, in spite of row on row of dates showing how young these men were, boys really, and how many died on the same day, in the same action?

4Seldon had led battlefield visits to Flanders as a teacher for decades. As a historian, he was almost duty bound to do so. He was also drawn to the history of the First World War, using literature and performance productions as a way of transmitting the message. Here, something else comes into play. He was retired, recently widowed, and looking for a purpose to his new life. The travelogue is therefore both a historical account of the battles that took place in the villages he traverses, an account of his hike, and an interior monologue about his own search for peace.

5The project, motivated by his wholehearted engagement with an idea that had emerged for an international path of peace, reaching from the Belgian Coast, through France, down to the old Franco-German-Swiss boundary, came from his discovery, ten years earlier, of the letters of a Second Lieutenant in the Argyll and Southern Highlanders who had perished in September 1915 at Loos. “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” where “silent witnesses” on either side would inform pilgrims, “every man [woman] and child in Western Europe” about “what war means”. Seldon, intrigued, found and enlisted the support of Douglas Gillespie’s descendants, and, with others, set up a charity to see through this vision. The Western Front Way is now a recognized long-distance path.

6This is not a guidebook. The maps illustrating each segment of the walk are illustrative and neither detailed, nor indicational. And yet, we accompany him, sometimes painfully, in this foolhardy endeavour, looking for paths where none exist, using busy highways at considerable risk, ploughing through bushes and brambles, forced to make detours to get round impassable barriers: army land, motorways… footsore, dehydrated, suffering from lack of or the wrong food – parallels to a lesser degree to what the soldiers experienced in the trenches. What a reckless trip this was, undertaken by a senior citizen with little rambling or orienteering experience. And yet, despite multiple setbacks, hardships and serious medical problems, he forges on, single-mindedly, till he completes the course. He regrets only having had to skip one stage, missing several detours to sights he had planned to take it, but not visited, having worn himself down almost to exhaustion.

7The reader is left awed by his determination. Seldon’s personal pilgrimage, like medieval counterparts, entailing physical pain, faith and redemption. All the while, he is enlightening us, as he no doubt did his charges on his school trips, about the conditions of the soldiers, the strategy (if any) decided on for battles, personal stories of the great and the humble, sons lost, future military and political leaders’ experiences, and more generally, about how the First World War “sculpted” the lives of so many, even if they were not directly involved. Along the way, accompanying his physical and mental progress, and in a powerful parallel to events unravelling in Europe as the book was written, we learn about his own personal story; his grandparents, on one side, Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, killed by an earlier pandemic in 1918, on the other, a severely wounded grandfather brought back to England owing to his grandmother’s determination.

8This is a deeply personal book which speaks to us all, as historians of Britain and France, as citizens of the world, as members of families who have experienced war, trauma, sickness. It is a book which brings no answers, but leaves a deep impression upon the reader. Seldon learns that he “must live better, and more in tune with my ideals”. I for one certainly hope to be able to continue to visit these places, as a historian, as a human being, as a living witness to those “silent witnesses”.

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Electronic reference

Susan Finding, Seldon, Anthony, The Path of Peace, Walking the Western Front WayRevue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVIII-2 | 2023, Online since 02 November 2023, connection on 30 November 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Susan Finding

Professeur émérite, MIMMOC, Université de Poitiers

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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