GUARDIAN 17: Colin Gillard
Colin Gillard and I have stayed in contact since my first visit. He always generously allows me to gatecrash his tours when I am wandering through, and patiently answers all my questions. It has become easier as social media has increasingly spread its tentacles between our countries.
During my 2017 trip to Europe, we catch up at the Menin Gate for a chat. Colin explains he has given his current tour-group participants an hour to wander around the monument and nearby shops.
As we perch on a low stone wall, I ask if he is still planning to leave at the end of the centenary commemorations in 2018.
‘When 2018 is over, I’m out of it,’ he says with a firm nod. ‘I was the first guide here – the first registered guide, the first taxpaying guide, the first one to have a transport’s license or anything official in France. I wrote the first brochure. I wrote the first itinerary. I have never started something that I couldn’t finish. It might have been hard, but I have seen it through. I finish in ’18.’
Colin blows out his breath and shakes his head slightly as he explains how the increase in popularity of the Western Front has changed, for him, the original character of the battlefields that drew him here for the first time as a teenager.
‘When you start getting a lot of tourists coming out, there is going to be commercialisation,’ he says. ‘But it is the way it is being sold. It doesn’t seem to care so much about the war and the people who were here – it has been turned into a money machine. It is bringing millions and millions of dollars into the area. I make money from taking people around, but I also do a lot of projects for Australia. That’s important for me. It’s a way of giving back for being able to make a living as well.’
He abruptly sits up straighter, and nods with a smile hovering around the edges, when asked about the Aussies who participate on his tours.
‘Oh, all my groups have a genuine desire to commemorate,’ he says. ‘For 90 per cent of my groups it’s a family grave they’ve come thousands of miles to see. Most of the ages in my tour groups, they have been through an era when it [World War I] was never talked about. When they were at school they talked about Gallipoli, Gallipoli, Gallipoli. The Western Front? Where’s the Western Font? Now they are seeing it on the internet, reading about it, and they realise they had family here in France and Belgium – someone they never knew about before. Now all this information is becoming available and they have gone to ancestry.com, and they can come to a war memorial and they find out everything from his injuries to everything. Often, when I get home at night, I find family histories for them. It is like giving people a closure.
‘Sometimes you get hugs and the kisses,’ he says with a shrug. ‘They put their arms around you and say we could never have done this without you, and you go away thinking, okay, today I’m gonna go home. I’ll have a beer and feel good.’
He has spent 20 years giving this familial closure to the growing number of visiting Australians.
‘There were no Australian flags on the Somme a few years ago,’ he says. ‘The English have always been here. In Australia it was a bit of a difference.’
Colin first started tours specifically for Australians when numbers of visitors were just starting to build.
‘I think travel has become a little bit cheaper, and I think people are not scared of travelling in Europe,’ he says. ‘We had visitors starting to come through not being able to get to graves or the battle sites. There were no Australian guides.’
Then came the hard part: trying to get Australian travel companies to back him.
‘About 20 years ago nobody wanted to know. We contacted nearly every major company and they said nobody wanted to go to battlefields. “No, but they will,” I said. “We are on the first rung of the ladder that nobody else has climbed – we’d like to invite you to climb this ladder with us. You will be the first.”
‘We nearly gave up, but then we got one letter asking, “What is the Western Front? We’ve had people in the last couple of weeks come into our [travel agent] office talking about the Western Front. What is it?”
‘We started to get some bookings, and a few more bookings. A few schools started coming. Then people started hearing about the tours.’
It has grown exponentially since those early days, and Colin says the resurgence is partly due to the plethora of television documentaries now being shown.
‘If you turn on the telly for more than 10 minutes something about Anzac comes on, or you pick up the newspaper and it’s about Anzac,’ he says. ‘It’s being thrust a little bit. And everybody has access to genealogy like ancestry.com to find out about their Uncle George.
‘A lot of years ago the Aussies didn’t come for the simple reason they were scared of getting to France, a bit scared to drive. So they had to take expensive taxis or hire a car and try and find the place themselves. Now they have a guide who can take them, pick them up from the station or the hotel and drive them around, drop them back again at night safe. It’s brilliant.’
It is an industry Colin did not plan to enter when he first arrived on the Somme as an 18-year-old backpacker.
‘It wasn’t what I came out to do all those years ago,’ he says. ‘I came just to take a look around the battlefields here in France. I didn’t know where they were. I got maps and I had read about the war, but I had never been here and nobody was doing it. I was sleeping in my tent, living on packaged soup, bottles of cheap grog and mashed potatoes. That was my staple diet for months and months – unless the French fed me. They sometimes took me into their homes or let me stay in their barns. I never spent one franc on transport from the day I started.
‘The French thought I was mad. When I was walking around, they were saying, “What are you doing?”
‘It was just a fascination with war – a young kid’s fascination with war. Since I was nine years old, I would sit there between my father’s legs and watch all the same war films over and over again. There was no PlayStation or Xbox or any of those new games. We went outside, we got dirty, we got our knees scraped. Your stick was a rifle, and every rock was a grenade. That’s what you did as kids – you played soldiers.’
It is a passion that has captured a new audience for battlefield tours.
‘People say to me, you talk about war every day, talk about death and cemeteries. Is that like promoting war?’ says Colin. ‘I say, no. I look at myself like a teacher. I can’t change history, I’m just passing it on. It’s happened. I’m not glorifying it. All I am doing is teaching it.’
Soon, Colin leaves me with a jaunty wave to go herd up his latest group of Australians seeking closure on a family member. He leaves me meandering about the monument, procrastinating and feeling a little sad to be leaving Ypres the following day to return to Australia.
Colin himself? Well, he is moving on to tell a new chapter of history, this time from his new home in Thailand. He says he will tell me all about it when he has things sorted.