How a reporter and photographer illustrated a war that’s a long time gone—on foot.

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For about two months in the spring of 2014, reporter Katie Daubs would close her laptop after a morning’s work, tuck it into her knapsack and go for walk. She and her hiking companion, photographer Richard Lautens, would often be alone—or with some cows—on scenic paths through farmers’ fields or along narrow highways with no shoulders. They’d chat about how best to get the day’s “modern colour” they needed to bring their project to life for Toronto Star readers. Or, they would discuss, say, their “first friend” on the trail: a farmer and WW1 aficionado who’d write regularly to update them about his chickens. 

“It was such a weird and wonderful experience,” said Daubs. 

Their series, Walking the Western Front, saw them retrace the steps of Canadian soldiers during WW1 from Valcartier, Que., to England, then on through Belgium and France. While they walked, readers followed their daily stories about soldiers and places—with a two-day time delay.  Upon their return, Daubs wrote a reflective overview as part of an interactive package that blended personal elements from their walk with the day-to-day stories, videos and maps. The package has been nominated in the best multimedia feature category at the National Newspaper Awards to be announced on May 22. 

 

The back story

It was Feb. 28, 2014 and then-features editor Alison Uncles (now deputy editor at Maclean’s) had a proposal for Daubs: in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of WWI, head out and explore the entire western front—on foot. Daubs had already been doing some archival research on the war. And she’d done an experiential reporting piece called “Toronto’s Pathologist” in November 2012 where she’d lived underground in Toronto’s PATH system for two weeks. “I said ‘yes,’ immediately,” Daubs said. 

Aside from having heard the expression “all quiet on the western front,” Daubs didn’t initially have a sense of the geographic scope of the project—nor how they’d manage the logistics. “You can’t file stories from a tent in the woods, “ she says with a laugh. (Although, initially, there had been talk about just that.) 

A first decision was to focus solo on Canadians on the Western Front, not the whole region. Secondly, they opted to suspend the war’s chronology.  So, for example, although the battles in Ypres and Passchendaele took place two years apart, they were beside each other in Belgium—thus their stories would live side by side for the purposes of the walk. The first segment in the series ran on Apr. 18 and continued until June 6. 

 

Creation

Immediately it was clear that the project’s premise had a baked-in flaw: “The landscape is not really suited to walking,” she said. While authors like Stephen O’Shea in his book Back to the Front or Nigel Jones in his book The War Walk have walked the entire route, it’s not a common or established tourist activity. Thus, the path wasn’t always clear. The route was planned in advance in consultation with their historical experts but on the ground, Lautens’ Google Maps got a lot of use. 

It would work like this: every morning they’d call a cab company to drop them off at the same spot they’d ended the day before. They’d then arrange for a pick-up anywhere from 2 to 25 km away. (Their average daily walk was 8 km.) They usually had the night’s Wi-Fi equipped hotel booked—often tricky, Daubs says, because of the frequent holidays and festivals in Belgium and France at the time of year. 

Setting out from Canada, Daubs’ biggest concern had been how it would feel carrying her backpack. “I’m a pretty whiney person,” she says with a laugh. Fully loaded, Daub’s pack weighed about 30 lbs. and Lautens’ more because of his equipment. They got savvier as the hike unfolded: they’d mail home books they thought they no longer needed or received as gifts. Daubs sent back a pair of jeans: they were heavy and hard to wash. (Lautens made a video demonstrating their hotel-sink laundry technique.) When they were staying at a hotel for more than one night, they’d edit their packs for the day to include only the necessities. But it was the days when they hiked the longest and carried all their gear that Daubs says she felt most accomplished. 

 

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The people they encountered—both in Canada and on the road—were best part of the trip. The large constituency of WW1 historical experts Daubs worked with was a great resource before, during and after the walk. Because Daubs and Lautens worked two days ahead of what ran in the paper and online, she had time to consult with, say, her military or map expert when clarification was needed.  

On the road, the tourists they met in the cemeteries, at the monuments and in the hotels were enthusiastic and thoughtful. The generous residents they met shared their stories and their time. “We would pick up and collect people as we would walk,” she says. And back home, Toronto Star readers avidly followed along and sent in their own thoughts and stories. When the pair visited the Menin Gate, a memorial to the missing, for instance, they laid a wreath and quietly remembered 20 individual soldiers on behalf of Toronto Star readers who’d passed along their names. In other places, they took pictures of graves on behalf of readers. Many wrote about how the journalists’ trip was one they’d long dreamed of doing—but likely never could: Daubs and Lautens were walking for them too. “That was kind of the magic of it,” she said. 

Although one of the best parts of walking was the fact that Daubs couldn’t do any “work,” it was at times frustrating too. “I just didn’t want to be unproductive,” she said. So she always had her laptop. She wrote in fields, cemeteries, at Vimy Ridge, everywhere. She’d write in the mornings and at night. And as she knew she’d be writing the large overview piece blending in their personal experiences upon their return, she’d work to add elements to that file every evening. 

“One thing that’s very challenging for this project,” she said, “is how do you illustrate a war that is so long past. There is no one from it who is alive any more.” For Lautens, this was especially difficult. There were beautiful scenes for sure, but he was always looking to have life in his pictures. This meant that along with a lot of walking, the team also spent a lot of time waiting: waiting for not just the perfect image, but waiting for people to populate that perfect image. 

Of course, this challenge—like the discomfort of heavy packs or the eagerness to return to much-missed families—was often easy to contextualize when they would pause for a minute to remember where they were and what they were doing:  “People who actually went to this war faced things far more unimaginable and terrible,” Daubs said. “There was no way I could even begin to whine as I normally would in my everyday life.”

Photos courtesy Richard Lautens.