Advice on visiting the Western Front battlefields of the Great War

The battlefields of the Great War are evocative and fascinating places to visit. This section of the Long, Long Trail will be helpful for anyone planning a trip to the sacred ground of the Western Front in France and Flanders.

A view of the Messines ridge, seen from Nuve Eglise (Nieuwkerke) withWuvergem in the middle distance. Scene of iintensive fighting throughout the great war and the explosion of 19 huge underground mines on 7 June 1917. Now a peaceful but evocative scene.

A view of the Messines ridge, seen from Neuve Eglise (Nieuwkerke) with Wulvergem in the middle distance. Scene of intensive fighting throughout the great war and the explosion of 19 huge underground mines on 7 June 1917. Now a peaceful but evocative scene.

General tourist advice

My guides to each area of the Western Front give you specific information: how to get there, where to stay, local amenities and the sites to see. You can see them listed below: click through for all the detail.

How long do I need?

It obviously depends on what you want to achieve, how much you wish to spend and where you want to go, but you should probably budget on a trip of 2-5 days to either study one area in detail or to see some of the main sites of the British front.

Your travel options

There are many ways in which you can see the battlefields, and they have pros and cons depending on your own requirements and preferences.

Organised package tours (UK departures)

Several specialist and some general coach tour operators run trips to the battlefields of France and Flanders. They will cater for parties of all sizes. This category includes some specialist firms that cater for school trips. Generally these tours operate to a fixed itinerary and have little opportunity to add in a special visit on your behalf. It is difficult to generalise as these companies cover a broad spectrum, but remember to check not only their tour itineraries but where the accommodation is (it can be many miles from the battlefields) and the standard of the battlefield guides who will conduct the tour. A quick internet search for “battlefield coach trips WW1″ or similar will take you to the operators websites.

Organised tours (local battlefield departures)

Based mainly at Ypres and Albert (Somme) are a number of tour operators that operate frequent local day or half day tours of their area. These are generally minibus- or people-carrier-based so cater for parties typically between 1 and 10 travellers. Many will organise special visits to, for example, a chosen cemetery and blend it into their pre-determined travel itineraries.  It goes without saying that to take advantage of these tours you need to get to the area first and that these trips do not include accommodation. Do whatever you can to determine the standard of the battlefield guides who will conduct the tour.

Independent travel

This is so broad an area that all I will say is – it is easy to travel to France and Belgium from the UK; easy to travel by car or public transport to your chosen area; accommodation is plentiful and generally of a good standard. The battlefields are easy to travel by car, motorcycle, bike or on foot as long as you have good maps and take advantage of my advice in the area-by-area pages linked above.

Get a good guide!

If  you plan to travel to the battlefields independently or perhaps have not been before, remember this advice: take a good guide book. You will get much more out of your visit. If all you do is go to the main sites and stick to the main roads, you will definitely miss out on the most interesting places and sights.

There aren’t too many good general battlefield guide books. This is what I consider to be the first and still the best: Rose Coombs’ “Before Endeavours Fade”. A series of routes covering the areas in which the British Army fought in France and Flanders, describing what happened, the sites to see and the route to take. A classic.

Also a very good guide, full of photographs: Major & Mrs Holt’s “Concise illustrated guide to the Western Front – North”. This book not only covers the British areas well but also takes us into the areas occupied and fought over by the French and Belgian armies.

Similar in style and taking us all the way down to Verdun: Major & Mrs Holt’s “Concise illustrated guide to the Western Front – South”. This book covers the area of the Somme battlefields, one of the most popular areas for British, Australian and Canadian tourists.

 

Maps

You will need some good maps during the planning of your trip and quite probably while you are there. You can find a selection of campaign maps and sketch trench maps on this site, but here are some other ideas:

Safety and legal notes

Iron harvest

You are sure to see signs of the “iron harvest” – the tons of steel and ammunition that come up from the ground to this day – when you go to the battlefields. If you go to France or Flanders after ploughing you will see places where the farmer has piled the unexploded shells and grenades until the army take them away. These things are dangerous and it is illegal to bring them into the UK. Do not touch them: take photos instead. Photo: author’s collection.

It is not legal to use metal detecting equipment on the battlefields.