Touring World War One battlefields

On the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the First World War ended. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in history and it redrew the map of Europe. As the 100th anniversary of the start of the war approaches in 2014, there’s been an increased interest in visiting the places where it was fought.

War historian Mike Hanlon is leading three tours next year that investigate the Great War. Hanlon is the editor of Trenches on the Web, the definitive site on the subject. He’ll be leading guests of Valor Tours on visits of the battlefields of Europe, including some that aren’t seen very often.

From April 30-May 7 he leads The Great War Experience, starting in Brussels at the Royal Military Museum (one of the best military museums in the world, and I’ve seen a lot of them) and continuing through some of the most important battlefields of the Western Front. From July 18-31 he’ll offer a rare opportunity to visit the Italian Front. High in the Alps, the Italian army held off the Germans and Austro-Hungarians until their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Caporetto, immortalized in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Included in the itinerary is the Isonzo river valley, scene of no less than eleven bloody battles. As my post on military museums in Rome shows, it was a tough fight. Frozen bodies are still being found to this day. The third tour looks at how warfare has changed in the past 500 years. From August 3-11 guests will see Agincourt, Waterloo, the Somme, and the beaches of Normandy.

While these tours aren’t cheap (they start at $2,950) you’re sure to learn a lot. I’ve been reading Hanlon’s work for years and he’s undoubtedly one of the top experts in military history today, especially about World War One.


[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

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.