Visiting the Battlefields in Western Europe
February 29, 2024

By Ian Langworthy Historian and Battlefield Guide

As a Battlefield guide I take groups of adults and children of all ages to the battlefields in Western Europe and when people ask me about what I do the almost invariable response is that they remember going from school or that it is something that they have always been meaning to do.

There continues to be a lot of interest in our recent military history often because a near relative; father, grandfather, mother or uncle was involved in some way in the worldwide conflicts of the last century. Both my grandfathers served in World War I, my father and an uncle served in World War II as did my mum (as a nurse).

So if you are minded to visit the battlefields particularly in Holland Belgium or France for a specific visit or whilst passing through on your way to a holiday destination this article is intended to give you some guidance as to how to go about it. The first thing I always ask is do you have a relative who fought in WWI or WWII not who necessarily died but who served in either conflict? If they were killed then there may be a grave or memorial to visit. If they survived then you may wish to visit where they were involved or were stationed or visited.

In WWI one of my grandfathers fought with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry at Vimy Ridge, the other was stationed in Ypres as part of the Royal Garrison Artillery. In WWII my father served in the Rifle Brigade in North Africa and Italy and my uncle was in the RAF training pilots. All four survived. Many more were not so lucky. My point is though that it doesn’t have to be an interest in the dead and cemeteries that take you there but to see or yourself where the lives of your relatives were irrevocably changed.

So where are the principal places to go? It is essential if you are to be able to make the most of your time (and time is always the enemy on battlefield tours, not the Germans, there is never enough time to see all there is to see) that you have a plan of what you want to see and where you want to go arranged in a reasonably logical sequence either chronological or geographical order. But what if you don’t know what there is to see or the ‘must see’ places to go? You have some choices. One would be to sign up for an organised tour. You could arrange your own. In that event, you will need a good guide book and there are none better for the first-time visitor or returnee for that matter than Major and Mrs Holts’s series c of battlefield guidebooks. There is one for each of the areas that I have mentioned; Normandy, Operation Market Garden, the Ypres Salient and the Somme each for about £20.

In WWI the main sites to visit are the Ypres Salient and the Somme but there are other areas where you may have a connection. In WWII there are the Normandy battlefields and the attempt to capture the Rhine bridges as far as Arnhem. Dunkirk is worth a visit if you are passing and just south of Brussels lies the battlefield of Waterloo. For those with an interest in earlier conflicts, the sites of Crecy and Agincourt are within easy reach of Calais as are some of the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough in the War of Spanish Succession.

The Normandy Battlefields are about half a day’s drive from Calais although ferries from Portsmouth and Poole go direct. Here you can visit Pegasus Bridge the first area in occupied France liberated by gliderborne troops. American paratroopers landed at the eastern end of the landings and captured the town of St Mere Eglise. Both actions were immortalised in the film ’The Longest Day’. In between is the battery still largely intact at Longues sur Mere, the site of the US Rangers attack on the Pointe du Hoc, Omaha beach and the American cemetery at Coleville as seen in ‘Saving Private Ryan’. The films are worth watching not for historical accuracy but to give an idea of what was going on. There is a good museum in Bayeux and even the famous tapestry to see.

Pegasus Bridge

If you are in southern Holland there is the chance to follow the line of march of the army seeking to capture the bridges over the Rhine a far as Arnhem (the film ’A Bridge Too Far’ is worth watching for the same reasons as the others mentioned). Several of the bridges like those at Grave and Nijmegen are those fought over in 1944. The landing sites of paratroopers landed to secure the bridges are well marked. The sites around Arnhem and the museum at Oosterbeck tell the story of the failed attempt to get into Germany ‘by the back door’.

The town Square in Ypres takes my breath away whenever I go, the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate is a must as is the worlds largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Tyne Cot. In my opinion, the best museum in the salient is the Passchendaele Museum in Zonnebeck. There are others worth a visit like that at Hooge and Talbot House in Poperinge where troops went for rest and recuperation just out of range of German guns Essex Farm dressing station where the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ was written. It is impossible to list everything to visit. Just the words ‘The Somme’ conjures up pictures of the full horror of the fighting and loss of life in WWI. The Thiepval Memorial which dominates the surrounding countryside is a fitting tribute to the dead and missing.

Thiepval Memorial

The Lochnagar crater caused by an explosion under a German strongpoint is another must as is the Devonshire Trench cemetery. The whole area reeks of the atmosphere of the times.

All I have tried to do here is get you thinking about going and actually visiting the sites as you have often been promising yourself to do. You won’t regret it.