This page is a bit on the long side but it's well worth reading. It tells you something about the background to battlefield tours in general, and more about the different options open to you.
As our name suggests, we specialise in self-drive tours to the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme. We spent many, many years organising small group tours to these two most poignant battlefields of the Great War 1914-1918, but in 2010 we decided to specialise in offering just self-drive tours as we found more and more visitors wanted to have the freedom to explore the battlefields without the constraints of being tied to the fixed timetable of a coach tour (whether large or small).
The first battlefield tours
Almost as soon as the Great War came to an end in November 1918 visitors flocked to the battlefields; either out of curiosity or to visit the grave of a loved one, or even sadder, to visit the general area where a loved one fell and whose remains had not been found. Some even made the journey whilst the war was still being fought.
The Michelin Tyre Company was one of the first commercial companies offering guided tours to the battlefields of France and Belgium . They published a guide to the battlefields in 1919 (yes – in 1919!) with fascinating pictures of the recently abandoned battlefields with all the material of warfare still littering the battered shell pocked landscapes such as shown here - have a look at the landscape, not to mention the editor's car! You can enlarge the screen (click on any of the 4 images to the right here).
Visiting the battlefields today
Perhaps the two most visited battlefields today are the Somme in northern France and Ypres in Belgium. Ypres is now spelt the Flemish way ‘Ieper’ (and that's with an 'i' not an 'L' as some often think).
It’s best for the moment to stay focused on these two hugely significant battlefields and perhaps venture further afield later in your travels. The closest English Channel crossing route for both the Somme and Ypres (Ieper) is Dover/Folkestone–Calais.
Visitors to the battlefields today are basically faced with one of three choices, namely:
Doing your 'own thing' by making your own arrangements from scratch.
Take advantage of a conducted tour such as those those offered by coach companies (small or large groups).
Have the freedom to explore the battlefields at your own pace using our self-drive battlefields guides/maps etc.
Let's look at these three options in more detail in the following sections.
Option 1 - Making your own arrangements
Those who are familiar with crossing the English Channel by either Eurotunnel or ferry and driving on the 'wrong side' may feel confident in making their own way to the battlefields. Ypres is about one hour's drive (east) from Calais. Albert (Somme) is just over one and a half hour's drive (south east) from Calais.
By far and away the biggest drawback to visiting the battlefields under one's own steam is that it can be very difficult to relate the battlefields today to the battlefields of 1914-18. The problem with the many excellent books that have been written on the subject of the Great War is that they invariably lack adequate maps and plans to the detail that the battlefield visitor really needs. Schematic diagrams commonly found in WW1 books are not enough. You need both detailed navigational guidance and an equally detailed battlefield guide to enable you to locate the exact locations, as opposed to just being in a general area. This is the biggest problem I first experienced when I first visited the battlefields and one I have strived to overcome with our unique Self-Drive guides to the Somme and Ypres battlefields. The battlefields of today look pretty much the same as any other part of rural France or Belgium – with the exception of the hundreds of Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries that now punctuate the landscape. If you know what to look for it's there to be seen, but not at all as easy as many think. You may just end up staring at cows munching grass, whereas beneath their feet may lie the front line!
Option 2 - Conducted Tours
People who wish to visit the battlefields of the Great War understandably may first think of a conducted tour. However, for those truly seeking to reveal the true legacy of the Great War, nothing can beat the freedom of exploring the battlefields without the constraints of a coach/minibus group dictating the pace.
Visiting the battlefields as part of a conducted tour can be frustrating as the tour organiser has to keep to a fixed timetable and itinerary, often limiting stops to 20-30 minutes or so (and we all know how long it takes to get off and back on a coach, which eats in to valuable time). As you look out of the coach window as you whiz along from one venue to another, you'll doubtless see things which just beg further investigation. The frustration at not being able to stop when you want and for as long as you want and 'follow your nose' can be quite exasperating! This is why more and more battlefield visitors are choosing to have the best of both worlds by driving themselves to France and letting us arrange everything for them. We arrange your Channel crossing (for UK based clients) and hotel accommodation, as well as providing our all-important self-drive guides/maps/plans/directions. Our written self-drive guide will take you on a journey to see the tranquil land today as it was all those years ago.
If you have your heart set on a large-coach conducted tour, which in fairness can offer good value for money, then there are many companies to choose from (as you may have seen when searching the Internet!), some better than others.... Most of these companies employ well qualified and experienced battlefield guides. Small-group tours comprising just six or so travellers, though more costly, are a much better way to explore the battlefields. Bartlett’s Battlefield Journeys has an excellent reputation and has been established (like us) for many years. Spirit of Remembrance offer both large and small group tours to many battlefields world-wide.
OPTION 3 - Self-Drive Tours
Either read on or jump straight to our page dedicated to self-drive tours by clicking here.
A variation on the 'DIY theme' is taking a self-drive tour where all the Channel crossing and hotel bookings are made on your behalf by a specialist in tours to the Somme and Ypres battlefields such as our small company. This way you combine the benefits of touring at your own pace, together having the all-important detailed battlefield guide material such as detailed maps and plans and descriptive narrative at your fingertips, crucial information so lacking in other publications.
This material includes all the maps, plans and directions you will need – so much so that you will be able to trace the exact course of the Front Line, even if it means following it across public car parks, housing estates or wherever! We are the only company offering these unique Somme and Ypres battlefield guides. . You can now combine the flexibility of a Self-Drive tour with the added appeal of having a personal conducted tour. We have teamed up with the few properly accredited and respected English-speaking guides living on or near the battlefields you wish to visit. We can easily arrange for a British guide to pick you up at your hotel to take you on a tour of most battlefields of the Great War, as an additional service to your written self-drive guide. You will not be expected to join a group as our experienced, independent guides specialise in providing a personal service, and focusing on areas of specific interest to you (such as Australian/Canadian/New Zealand battlefields).
Consider avoiding French (Somme) and Belgian (Ypres) public holidays?
This image is just some of the literally hundreds of thousands of epitaphs the next of kin were able to have added to their fallen warrior's headstone (most often at a cost…)
Paul Nash ‘The Menin Road’ . . .and today
“A devastated battlefield pocked with rain-filled shell-holes, flooded trenches and shattered trees lit by unearthly beams of light from an apocalyptic sky. Two figures pick their way along a tree-lined road, the road punctuated by shell-holes and lined by tree stumps. The foreground is filled with concrete blocks, barbed wire and corrugated iron, while columns of mud from artillery fire rise up in the background.”
Battlefield locations and driving times (click to enlarge) Click here for a PDF version
In Memoriam Years ago as a young father of two children I came across this poem by E A Mackintosh. I’m not a poetry buff but that said, this poem really did strike a chord with me. . . (click the image above)
Our helpful guide to planning your tour, including cost options and much more. (click above file icon to open a PDF file in a new window) (get free PDF reader here)