John Hughes-Wilson did his first battlefield tour in 1965, visiting the Gazala Line battles of 1942 and the Knightsbridge Box as part of the Foresters Battle Group training in Libya. His Commanding Officer, a second world war veteran, watched with interest as his young Intelligence Officer picked up what looked like an old torch battery from the sand.
‘I’d get rid of that if I were you, Hughes-Wilson,” he said dryly. ‘It’s an Italian hand grenade…’ It was, and left him with a lifelong lesson not to meddle with the rusting ‘iron harvest’ of war.
Ever since, the haunted acres of war have reached out to him in many ways. And he has seen and heard many things over the years. He has had to endure young female teachers telling their credulous charges that the reason there were so few officers’ graves on the Somme was because the officers drove their men forward at gunpoint; he has had to listen to would-be guides recounting versions of history that would have Blackadder blushing.
Eventually he paired up with the inestimable Professor Richard Holmes of the BBC’s Walks, and found a companion who shared his enthusiasm and his determination to put battlefield guiding on the map. This came to fruition in 2001, when what started as a meeting of about a dozen guides to discuss battlefield guiding ended as a Guild of Professional Battlefield Guides. Since then, the Guild has become international, and the badge of an accredited Battle Field Guide has become an international symbol of excellence.
Richard, sadly, is no longer with us; but John’s ten years as President of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, and the thousands of travellers with whom he had the privilege to host over the years, remains one of his happiest memories.