Touring the Western Front

With the recent death of the last veteran to fight in the trenches of World War One, one of the twentieth century’s most convulsive events has passed into history. From 1914-18, great armies battered at each other across a hellish landscape in which millions died. Old empires fell and new countries were born.

This photo gives an idea what it was like. A member of the Cheshire Regiment of the UK army keeps watch while his buddies sleep in the mud during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. Not only did he and his friends have to deal with enemy fire, but they had to contend with rats, lice, cold, damp, and disease.

Several companies offer tours of World War One battlefields, including Valor Tours, which recently announced a tour of many of the major WWI battlefields in France. It runs from May 4 to 11, 2010, and stops at Verdun, Champagne, Chateau-Thierry / Belleau Wood, the First and Second Battle of the Marne, Blanc Mont, St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. These last two are of special interest to Americans, because this is where the American Expeditionary Force got its baptism of fire in 1917. A young Harry Truman was among the tens of thousands of Doughboys to fight there, serving as an artillery officer.

The tour is run by Mike Hanlon, who has been doing these for many years. While I’ve never taken one of his tours, I’m acquainted with his work through the Great War Society. He edits the society newsletter and has written extensively on the conflict. I’ve heard through other members that his trips are very informative and can be personally tailored to detour to places of personal importance. Many people take advantage of this to visit spots where their ancestors were wounded or earned a medal.

The Western Front wasn’t the only theatre of war. World War One was the first truly global conflict, with battlefields in Eastern Europe, the Pacific, Africa, and the Far East. Valor Tours is planning a tour of the WWI battlefields of Italy in 2011. Several other organizations offer tours, such as Bartletts Battlefield Journeys Ltd., Battle Honours Ltd., and The Salonika Campaign Society. Tours generally take in one or more battlefields, several museums, graveyards, and monuments. They vary widely in price and what’s offered, so shop around. Questions to ask include whether there will be a translator along, how much time is set aside for personal detours, and what alternate plans are in place in case of bad weather. Also check to make sure your guide to published on the subject. That shows a level of expertise beyond the usual tour guide. You’ll also want to read up before you go and while there’s a whole library of books on the subject, a good single-volume history is The First World War by Hew Strachan. A Top 100 list of WWI books is available here.