First of all
Over the almost 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.
Here are the THREE
headings of the topics,
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.
Where are You Starting
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
Something very important
WHERE THE BATTLEFIELDS ARE AND HOW LONG IT TAKES
TO GET THERE
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 and the Somme
Other parts of the Western
Arnhem & MARKET GARDEN
Normandy D-Day Landing
3. HAVE A
FOR THE DETAILS
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 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 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?
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Contact any tourist office that might be able
to give you some information (relevant contacts
are given in all 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. 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
Holts' 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
We are introducing 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
www.abmc.gov ) well before travelling. Cemeteries
are not generally locked but some 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 their locations are increasingly identifed by latitude and longitude.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org ). 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
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. 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.
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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.
Access 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 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 eg. Danielle Duboscq for the D Day Beaches.
Starting from London and the south-east (by
car) it is just possible to visit Ypres in one
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 2200
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 and 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 itineraries from Ypres
each one taking over 6 hours plus 2 long Extra
Visits and a ‘Crater Route’. 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 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
Mrs Holt’s Concise Illustrated Guide to the
Western Front – South and those between
the Channel and Arras are covered in the first
Front - North.
Arnhem & 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 at the middle of the Corridor.
There is a train service from Paris to Nijmegen which takes around 5 hours and may involve one change. Details at www.bahn.de/international/view/en/index.shtml
Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches
As wlth 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.
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 wonderring 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.
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