Advice for those planning to visit the battlefields.
First of All
Over the 40 years that we have been conducting tours around, and writing about, the battlefields, we have seen far too many people, who have spent a lot of money to make their visit, miss much of what there is to see. Even if you have your own guide taking you around, or even if you are on a coach tour, there are many things that you could see if you had known about them before you travel. There is a military saying that, 'time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted'. Time spent in learning what there is to see will most certainly not be wasted.
Much of this advice is obvious but in our experience it is often the obvious which is missed. We do not benefit financially from any recommendations we may make but bear in mind that like recommending a restaurant, all depends upon whether the chef is the same one as when the tasting was done - and whether he kicked the cat in the morning. But the general principles do not change and they are what we concentrate upon.
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Here are the TWO MAIN HEADINGS of the topics which we explore in detail below -
A little preparation can make a world of difference to your understanding of the campaign whose battlefield you are visiting - and of course to your enjoyment of the overall trip. Here are some bull points that we examine in detail below - just scroll down to get the details.
How are you travelling - car, coach, train, bicycle or hiking?
Where to Stay
Family Grave or Memorial
Batteries and Medicines
If you are joining a conducted tour
If you want your own guide
Whether you are planning a tour of your own or going on someone else's, here you will find timing details that will help to plan your days -
Ypres & Passchendaele
Ypres and the Somme together
Other parts of the Western Front - Verdun, Meuse Argonne, Mons, le Cateau, Bourlon Wood etc
Gallipoli - Istanbul, Cannakale, Helles, Troy etc
Where are You Starting From?
Visiting battlefields in Europe generally involves more than going to one preserved site. American travellers who have visited their own Civil War Battlefields, marvellously preserved by the National Parks Service, may imagine that visiting European sites will be a similar experience. Not necessarily so. Where each American site seems able to stand alone with its own reception centre, Park Rangers and bookstall, many European sites are dotted piecemeal along an old front line or along miles of beaches and often only maintained by local enthusiasts in their spare time. Thus it is possible to turn up at battlefield area to find that any museum there is closed and that there is no-one there to explain things, though that is less likely in Normandy and Holland.
There are two main starting points- the UK via the channel ferries or tunnel and France from Paris. In both cases visits to the battlefields can be made using any of the methods of transport covered under the next heading. Clearly the longer it takes to get to the battlefields of your choice the less time you will have to look at the area. It is possible to make a visit in one day from both the UK and Paris to all the battlefields except those in Holland (ie.Market Garden).
So, wherever you start your journey, do some preparation. Sounds simple, but many people do not do enough and therefore miss many features and experiences that the battlefields have to offer, and waste a lot of time on the ground wondering how to get around and what to see. So what preparation should you do?
How are you travelling - car, motorbike, coach, train, bicycle, or hiking?
At this virus time we are updating this entry. Sorry about that. If you have a particular question relating to this paragraph please e mail us as above.
Contact any tourist office that might be able to give you some information (relevant contacts are given in all of our guide books). American travellers may consider flying into Paris if they do not have a particular reason to come to the UK first.
The growing high speed train service now makes it possible to visit Normandy and the Somme in one day from Paris or London but it is essential to check train times and to make car hire arrangements in advance. Tourist Offices may well be able to help.
If you are conducting yourself around then a guide book is essential and our battlefield guide books are generally acknowledged to be the best available for the sites that we have written about. We would say that would we not, but it happens to be true. Look at the review for our Ypres guide that said, ‘ A guidebook the quality of which it would be difficult (if not impossible…) to better.’ That was for the First Edition. The book is now in its Sixth enlarged and updated Edition. However, even if you are travelling on a conducted tour, having a good guide book and map with you to supplement any commentaries you may be getting, will add to your enjoyment and understanding. Such a book also becomes a pictorial memento of your trip. Watch quoted prices for some package tours. Some tour companies do not provide even the most basic of maps or support literature, so find out what your tour provides before you go.
You need good maps. Our books suggest the best general ones and you get our especially designed battle map wrapped with most of the books, or with the Western Front North and Western Front South books ,you get in-text sketch maps. Using a good map will add both depth and breadth to your understanding of what happened where and why. Good sources of general maps in the UK are Stanfords (London 020 7632 8920) www.stanfords.co.uk and the National Map Centre (London 020 7222 2466. www.mapstore.co.uk ) and both stock our Holt's battle maps as items separate to the guide books. Go for a scale of 1:100,000 or better.
Where to Stay
When you get the maps, find the places that you want to visit and mark the maps. You can then work out a central place to stay depending upon how long your trip is to be (see How Long below). Our guide books also give suggestions about how to travel and where to stay. Our Western Front North and Western Front South books suggest central places to stay if you are visiting a number of battlefields. We use a special type-face for hotels and restaurants that lie on our suggested routes to help you to decide where to eat or where to stay. We neither take paid advertisements nor commissions from any other commercial business that we may mention.
Family Grave or Memorial
If you are visiting the grave or memorial of a family member get details about the cemetery or memorial from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ( www.cwgc.org ) or the American Battle Monuments Commission
( www.abmc.gov ) well before travelling. Overseas private American Memorials are listed by the non-profit American War Memorials Overseas ( established by former West Pointer Lil Pfluke. European Cemeteries are not generally locked, but some (eg. Mons General) that are part of local French or Belgian burial grounds may have opening times and British Consulate cemeteries overseas may have them too, e.g. in Gallipoli.
Batteries, Medicines, Petrol, Cash, Motorway Tolls, Water, What You Must Take and GPS
Most people take cameras with them and in our experience many camera batteries go flat. Take one more than the number that you first thought of - or a charger. If you are travelling to an area that is less sophisticated than that which you are used to, take any medicines that you might need. Binoculars are a good idea and depending upon the time of year wellingtons and umbrella. We once forgot our passports. It is not recommended. Also make sure that you have the right converter for the electricity plugs so that you can charge your mobile phone (a vital companion when travelling by car), your computer, razor etc. Once you get off the motorways petrol stations are often few and far between. Stock up before you take off into the countryside. It as well to have some cash in case country shops/petrol stations don’t take credit cards. Many local shops shut for lunch and if you are taking a picnic make sure you get the components before you leave large town or motorway facilities.
We have found that a bottle of water is an essential because battlefields can be quite isolated places.
Using a GPS can make navigation easier. If you do not yet have one make sure that you buy one that can take decimal latitude and longitude input -preferably a portable one that you can carry and move from car to car. As isolated memorials often cannot be found by postcode, we pinpoint their locations by GPS. We have been to every one and researched and photographed them.
Most French motorways have quite heavy tolls, so make sure you budget for them when planning. Most toll booths now accept credit cards and using them greatly speeds up a motorway journey. Note that when driving on the Continent of Europe you are legally required to carry in your car a fire extinguisher, medical kit, spare bulbs and fuses plus a yellow or orange phosphorescent jacket per person to be worn if you break down. Speed traps are becoming more frequent.
If you are joining a conducted tour
Much of the above advice still applies but contact the tour company well in advance and ask for a detailed itinerary. By marking this upon your maps you will be able to do additional research about places to the side of the company’s routes, and if you find something of particular interest you may be able to have the company change its route to suit you (but this should be done well ahead). Tour companies vary a great deal in the quality of their guides and it would be a good idea to check to see if the guides are members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides http://www.gbg-international.com . These latter have all been trained and examined upon their skills. Do not assume that because a tour company boasts of having academically qualified guides that they know what they are talking about. What matters is the heart rather than the head. In the end you get what you pay for and so watch out for hidden charges ie. things that are not included so that the offered price of the tour seems cheap, but by the time that you have paid for museums and food etc the final cost is much higher than an all-in option.
If you want your own guide
Some people like to travel in a small or family group with their own personal guide. A few of the well known sites such as Ypres can provide guides once the traveller reaches their area (from In Flanders Fields Museum. Tel: 00 32 57 239 220 or email@example.com ). However, sometimes groups want a guide to travel with them from the start point. The best thing to do in such a case is to contact the Guild of Battlefield Guides firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://www.gbg-international.com ). This is an organisation devoted to the skills of professional battlefield guiding and those who have won its badge certificate have passed rigorous tests to confirm their abilities.
Something Very Important
All of us hope that nothing will go wrong when we travel - particularly when we are in a foreign country. But things do sometimes go wrong - with people and with their cars. How many of us prepare for such an emergency? We suggest that everyone puts into their mobiles the telephone numbers of their medical support (if insured) or the number of the nearest medical emergency and police service for the area that they are visiting. Also download a translator app that will allow you to communicate in another language. Similarly with cars - store the hire-car help line ,or your own breakdown service, and make sure that your passengers know about your precautions. A little time spent on such things can save much panic and heartache later.
2. WHERE THE BATTLEFIELDS ARE and HOW LONG IT TAKES TO GET THERE
Here we confine our comments to the Western Front, to Arnhem and to the D Day Beaches in Normandy and to Gallipoli. We also assume that visitors will be going to the more obvious sites. Our Major and Mrs Holts Battlefield Guide Books give precise timings and exact distances. Travel from the UK to the Western Front in France and in Belgium, and to the Arnhem (Market Garden) battlefields in Holland, is best done via the Dover-Calais cross-channel route, the Channel Tunnel or the Hull-Zeebruggge or Rotterdam sea routes.
There are now a number of high speed trains that can get you to France or Belgium from London but a hire car will be needed at the other end. No public bus transport is really suitable unless you are going to be satisfied with seeing very little of what can be visited, and taking a long time about it. An alternative is to hire a local guide who can meet you at the station and drive you around in their own vehicle.
Starting from London and the south-east (by car) it is just possible to visit Ypres in one long day but very little will be seen. The most emotive part of a visit to Ypres is to stand under the great British Memorial at the Menin Gate and to hear the buglers play the Last Post at 20:00 hours, something they have done every day since the end of the Second World War and every day since 1929 before it. In two days a substantial visit can be made, particularly if the overnight stay is made in the city. Two good hotels are the Ariane (Tel: 00 32 57 218 218) www.ariane.be (though the site is in French or Flemish, try the telephone as everyone speaks English) which has WW1 exhibits and books and a local battlefield guide service. Also there is the Novotel (Tel: 00 32 57 42 96 00). It takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to travel from Calais to Ypres. In our Major and Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide to Ypres we suggest three different itineraries around Ypres. While in Belgium, try having chips (French fries) with mayonnaise – you will never be the same again.
Driving time from Calais to the French town of Arras ,which sits at the top of the Somme battlefield, is about 1 hour 30 minutes. However, while a one day visit from London to the Somme is just possible, we do not advise it. The whole affair would be rushed. Two days would be adequate with an overnight in Arras (e.g. the Mercure, Tel: 00 33 3 21 23 88 88 ) or in Albert (e.g. La Paix, Tel: 00 33 3 22 75 01 64). A stay in a ‘battlefield B&B’ such as Avril Williams at Auchonvillers (Tel: 00 33 3 22 76 23 66) can add enormously to the experience. Australian visitors will find that an overnight at the Mercure Assevillers (Tel: 00 33 3 22 85 78 340) or the Novotel Amiens Est ( Tel: 00 33 3 22 50 42 42) will keep them nearer the sites where their countrymen were in action. In our Major and Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide to the Somme we suggest five itineraries each averaging some six hours, plus visits to the American and Canadian areas in the south.
Ypres and the Somme
Perhaps the best way to visit these battlefields is to do them on the same trip. The time taken to travel between them is under one hour and perfectly adequate visits can be made to both in a total time of three days from London, including a look at the preserved trenches and the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge. It does not matter in which order they are visited. We advise that two accommodation centres are used. Our Major and Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide - Western Front North covers Ypres down to the Somme and our Major and Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide - Western Front South covers the Somme and all the way down to the American battlefields of the Marne, the Meuse-Argonne and Chateau Thierry.
Other Parts of the Western Front
It is broadly accurate to say that in order to reach other parts of the Western Front the Somme battlefields have to be passed. Thus once you have marked your maps you can calculate your travel times from, say, Arras. Assuming that there are no severe delays in crossing the Channel it will take between five and six hours to drive from London to Arras. Usually there is an hour to add on for local time thus, if you leave London by car at 0800 hours, (without traffic jams) you should be in Arras around 1500 hours local time. To work out how long it will take to travel on to your destination of choice add one minute per kilometre. On motorways add 30 seconds per kilometre. To visit the American battlefields at St Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne from London needs at least two days as will any visit to Verdun. However, a one-day trip is viable from Paris. These battlefields are covered in detail in our Major and Mrs Holt’s Concise Illustrated Guide to the Western Front – South and those between the Channel and Arras are covered in the first volume, Western Front - North.
Arnhem & OPERATION MARKET GARDEN
The battle fought in Holland in September 1944 is mostly remembered for the epic struggle around the bridge at Arnhem, which inspired Cornelius Ryan’s splendid book ‘A Bridge Too Far’. However, the operation was much more than that and involved not just the British 1st Airborne Division but the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions as well as ground forces. Our guide book to the operation covers the entire 60-miles-long Corridor along which the Allied forces were supposed to travel, crossing bridges captured by the airborne forces. It is the only guide book to do so, and took almost a year on the ground and 20 years of visiting to write.
Journey time by road from Calais to the Belgian border at Leopoldsburg, where the operation began, can be about three hours, but it is wise to allow four hours because traffic can be heavy at times. Once on the ground at least two more days of touring are needed to do justice to the trip and then another half day to return to Calais – less if you are travelling via Rotterdam. which is about 1 hour away.
If driving from Paris it would be wise to leave around 5 hours for the journey to Nijmegen which is roughly in the middle of the Corridor.
As with all battlefield visits this trip is best done by car, otherwise a great deal is missed. If arriving in the area by train or air, rent a car if you are able and use a good guide book. But do some preparation before hand.
There are two road routes that can be taken from the UK in order to get to Normandy.
One is via Calais. The journey time from Calais to Bayeux, which lies behind the British beaches and to a first approximation is at the middle of the whole stretch of American and British landing beaches, is some three to four hours. The ferry crossing time from Dover to Calais is about 1 hour and 45 minutes. The Channel Tunnel takes about 30 minutes.
The other route is via Portsmouth. Here the ferry crossing time is around five hours (depending upon the time of day, and a couple of hours quicker by the new fast Portsmouth-Caen, Portsmouth-Cherbourg ferries). However on the Portsmouth route there is a choice of French arrival ports – Caen/Ouistreham is probably the best as it is only 20 minutes from Bayeux. Le Havre is about one hour from Bayeux and Cherbourg is the nearest to the American beaches and about 90 minutes from Bayeux. Recent road improvements have shortened journey times greatly and it is not now so important to find accommodation close to one’s preferred beaches. Once on the ground a day and a half will cover the British beaches and a further day the American ones (they are closer together). The Memorial museum at Caen is worth a visit if you have the time but there are many other museums closer to the beaches including the splendid new Visitor Centre at the American Normandy Cemetery which while not described as a museum carries out many of the functions associated with one. A Normandy trip from London and the north cannot be done sensibly in under four days total unless some overnight ferry travel is involved.
Starting from Paris, two days would suffice, though for those wishing to go to only one or perhaps two places a mad rush could do it in one day, either by train and then local guide, or by car from Paris. It will take around 2 to 3 hours to get to Caen so it will be a long day. It is advisable to book train seats in advance. Local tours can be booked at the Caen Memorial Museum or via the Caen Tourist Office but should be fixed before arrival. Our guide book suggests five comprehensive itineraries which cover both American and British beaches, including, of course, the airborne operations, which average around 6 hours each, but can of course be adjusted to suit. The local bus verts (green buses) will get you around the area but you will see very little if you only have a day or two and will spend much time wondering where you are and what to see.
Start in Istanbul. If you are going to Turkey do not miss the opportunity to visit Istanbul and the fascinating Haydar Pasha Cemetery. You can get the flavour in one day on the ground and then in the evening travel down to the Gallipoli Peninsula by bus or by car. Journey time is around four hours but that can vary a great deal according to the traffic. Sunday is the best day to travel. As for accommodation on the Peninsula there are two main options. The first is to stay on the European side of the Dardanelles at Eceabat (or perhaps further north at Gelibolu – the town from which the name Gallipoli derives). This is the side where the majority of the memorials are and where the ground fighting took place, and all are within about an hour’s one-way journey from Eceabat. The other option is to cross the Dardanelles (you must do it at least once in order to appreciate the narrowness of the channel and to form an opinion about the British idea of sailing warships up to Istanbul) to Cannakale where there are more sophisticated hotels and a naval museum as well as the ruins of Troy which most people take the opportunity to visit. At both sites there are local guides who can take you around the area. Our guide book is accompanied by a large fold out map which on one side shows the entire Peninsula and on the other in more detail the invasion areas. Both local and some visiting guides have vivid imaginations when recounting what happened here, and so take with even more than the normal pinch of salt what you are told. However, in the years we have travelled the world visiting battlefields, Gallipoli stands with Isandhlwana in South Africa, the site of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea and a 100-yards walk between the lines at Cold Harbor near Richmond in Virginia, as a spine-tingling experience. Our guide book suggests five itineraries covering both the European and the Asian sides of the Dardanelles. These vary from under three hours to over eight hours.
If you need help do not hesitate to get in touch. You do not have to buy one of our books, though they do make visiting battlefields easier to do, much more fulfilling and become a splendid memento of your trip. If you do go, we hope you have a good one.
Tonie and Valmai Holt