The Path of Peace by Anthony Seldon review – a trail of painful history

The writer’s vivid account of walking the Western Front Way illuminates the traumas of the first world war while reassessing his own tumultuous life

At the age of 68, the author and academic Anthony Seldon set out on a 1,000km trek in search of peace. He has always been restlessly ambitious. He has served as headmaster of Wellington College and vice-chancellor of the (private, though non-profit) University of Buckingham, while producing dozens of comment pieces for newspapers and books on recent history, including celebrated studies of post-second world war British prime ministers. But by 2020 his hyperactive life had started to unravel.

His beloved wife, Joanna, had died of cancer and, after disputes with the board, Seldon decided to quit Buckingham, leaving him with “no job, no home, no wife”. Though he had often promoted “the teaching of happiness”, he realised, “enduring peace had so far eluded me. As long as I was busy, I got by. The swirl of activity kept me from introspection, from confronting my demons. Fear had been my constant companion… Could I change to a less manic gear? Writing a book on Boris Johnson, as planned, if I was to keep up my rhythm of books on recently departed prime ministers, would hardly help me do this.”

Some of his problems, Seldon now suspects, can be traced back to the psychological aftershocks of the great war. His maternal grandfather was badly injured in December 1914 and seemed unlikely to survive, but his wife badgered the War Office to let her go to France and bring him home. Nonetheless, he was forced to give up his plans to become a doctor and suffered from violent mood swings. As a result, Seldon’s mother had a childhood that left her with a “lifelong sense of foreboding and constant anxiety” – “debilitating personality traits” that he believes he has inherited and has “never been able to transcend”.

In 2012, however, he was deeply inspired by a letter a young but soon-to-be-killed officer called Alexander Douglas Gillespie had sent his parents from the western front. This described his dream of creating a commemorative path after the war, along no man’s land all the way from Switzerland to the Channel. After that, he wrote, he hoped to “send every man 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”.

Convinced that this was “the best idea that emerged from the war”, Seldon set up a charity to realise Gillespie’s dream and create the Western Front Way, a hugely ambitious task, he explains, given that “far less than 1% of the lines of trenches remained, with the rest ploughed over to restore working farmland”. Now he decided to walk the whole route – both to publicise the project (which will receive all the profits from The Path of Peace) and, he hoped, to help him achieve more balance in his own life.

Alexander Douglas Gillespie, the inspiration for the Western Front Way.
Alexander Douglas Gillespie, the inspiration for the Western Front Way. Photograph: Imperial War Museum

There is much to admire in this account of his journey. Seldon gives us vivid descriptions of his aches and pains, blisters, moments of despondency and emergency visits to French hospitals, while making clear that they were as nothing compared with what the soldiers once went through. He has a historian’s enthusiasm and sharp eye for spotting and recounting good stories, many from the particular battlefields he is passing by. It is impossible not to be moved by a chaplain’s description of the last moments of a 19-year-old who had been court-martialled and sentenced to be shot: “I held his arm tight to reassure him and then he turned his blindfolded face to mine and said in a voice which wrung my heart, ‘Kiss me, sir, kiss me’, and with my kiss on his lips, and ‘God has you in his keeping’ whispered in his ear, he passed on into the Great Unseen.” Robert Graves, meanwhile, recalled an officer yelling at the men in his trench that they were “bloody cowards”, only for his sergeant to tell him: “Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they are all f-ing dead.” The book also includes some interesting wider reflections on Great War brothels, dentistry, dysentery, footwear, homosexuality and unexploded munitions – and whether “first-hand experience of war make[s] for better and wiser [political] leaders”.

It is unclear how far his arduous walk has brought peace to the author of this strikingly tormented book. (He remains “driven” enough to push himself to the limit towards the end because he has to get back to England to take part in a literary festival to publicise one of his books.) Yet even if it is unlikely to usher in an era of world peace, as Seldon occasionally tries to convince himself and us, there is something noble and impressive in the goal of realising Gillespie’s Western Front Way. The route through Belgium is now fully marked and open for walkers, though progress in France has been slower. Publication of The Path of Peace should play a major role in raising awareness and pushing things forward.

• The Path of Peace: Walking the Western Front Way by Anthony Seldon is published by Atlantic Books (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Matthew Reisz

The GuardianTramp

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