This year’s anniversaries are boosting demand for battlefield tours, reporst Joanna Booth

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It wasn’t someone walking over my grave – more vice versa – but it still sent a shiver down my spine. On a drizzly day in Ypres, I stared up at the names engraved on the Menin Gate and saw my own: J Booth.

It’s hardly surprising. This memorial to those lost in Belgium’s Ypres Salient during the First World War bears 54,896 names, so the chance of finding your own is pretty high. That mind-boggling number is just a portion of the total dead. These names are only of Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies have never been identified or found.

And they are only of those lost before August 15, 1917 – an arbitrary cut-off point chosen because there was simply no more room on the memorial. A further 34,984 of the missing Britons have their names inscribed in nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery instead.

Nothing brings home the reality of war like seeing those “crosses, row on row” first hand, and with 2014 marking not only the centenary of the start of the First World War but also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings of the Second World War, this year will see a surge of interest in tours that take in sights with military connections.

Yes, customers can do it themselves, but frequently it’s the expert guides that escort tours who give clients a real window into the past. Leger Holidays marketing director Huw Williams says: “Our guides have spent decades studying and they can offer a real insight into the personal stories behind the history books, bringing the conflict to life.”

FIRST WORLD WAR




Most tours focus on the theatres of war of the Western Front in Belgium and France – particularly the Ypres Salient and the Somme, though many also visit Arras and Verdun. In Ypres, highlights include Essex Farm Cemetery, where John McCrae wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields; Tyne Cot Cemetery; the lunar landscape of the much-fought-over Hill 60; and the Menin Gate.

In the Somme, most tours take in Thiepval, home to the Memorial to the Missing; Ulster Tower, a visitor’s centre dedicated to soldiers from Northern Ireland; and the preserved trenches at Newfoundland Park.

Leger Holidays, with its specialist battlefields focus, has a wide choice of tours, with general itineraries including All Quiet on the Western Front, available as a four or five-day itinerary starting from £269 or £345 respectively, and visiting Flanders and the Somme.

More specialist options include walking tours over the battlefields, tours focusing on Victoria Cross winners and military executions, and trips that visit areas beyond the Western Front, including northern Italy and Gallipoli in Turkey.

Great Rail Journeys and Treyn have both produced standalone brochures for 2014 battlefield tours, plus dedicated rack cards and window posters. Great Rail Journeys offers itineraries combining Flanders and the Somme, and trips visiting them individually, which give clients the chance to see more, with the latter including a ride on the P’tit Train through the heart of the Somme.

Cosmos Tours & Cruises has launched a four-night tour of Ypres and the Somme, starting from £1,059 including Eurostar travel, and the operator has plans for a series of tours with special departures around Armistice Day in November and the re-enactment of the famous Christmas Day football match between German and British troops. Newmarket Holidays has added an extra six dates to its four-day Battlefields of World War One tour, which travels by coach and starts from £209.

Clients travelling alone may benefit from a booking with Solos Holidays, whose tours offer automatic single occupancy of rooms. The operator has availability on a two-night break to Lille and Ypres departing May 24, from £529, and a three-night visit to Arras and the Somme departing August 30, from £729. Both tours include travel on Eurostar.

Clients who wish to pay their respects to a fallen relative could consider Back-Roads Touring’s WW1 Battlefields Weekend, a three-day trip starting from £485 where the small group size allows the tour leader to tailor visits to specific cemeteries.

For those who want to touch on, rather than be immersed in, military history, Riviera Travel offers a four-day Bruges by Eurostar break with a day visit to Ypres, from £269.

Clients needn’t leave the country to commemorate the Great War. Kirker Holidays’ The Centenary of World War I is a three-night weekend break spent at Wolfson College in Oxford examining the conflict from many perspectives, including poetry, music, literature and painting, with a host of experts and a musical programme. The trip, starting July 4, starts from £995.

SECOND WORLD WAR




This year marks another significant date in Europe’s 20th-century history – the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.On June 6, 1944, Allied troops stormed the Normandy coast in the biggest amphibious invasion in history.

In the first 24 hours, 156,000 troops landed on five beaches, opening up a channel into Nazi-occupied Europe. The D-Day landings were the turning point of the war – eleven months later, the war in Europe was over.

Anyone who has watched the intense first 27 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan will appreciate the scale and chaos of the operation. Tours visit key destinations, from the beaches themselves and the seaside town of Arromanches, where there are remains of the ‘Mulberry harbour’ structures built to land troops, to the Caen Peace Memorial, German gun batteries and Pegasus Bridge, which was captured by glider borne troops.

Travelsphere’s four-day Normandy D-Day Landings by Rail starts from £549 including Eurostar travel. Leger’s D-Day focused coach tours have special departures in June that will attend the D-Day commemorations on the 6th, and the operator offers two seven-day D-Day Anniversary cruises, from £739 on Marco Polo and £909 on Discovery.

Over-50s specialist Grand UK Holidays offers UK-based breaks with a Second World War focus. Its five-day Bournemouth and D-Day itinerary (from £329) offers the chance to see key UK locations including the command post at Southwick House and the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, while a new Cambridge, Duxford and Bletchley Park five-day itinerary (from £349) explores the work of the famous code-breakers at Bletchley – instrumental in the success of the D-Day landings – as well as the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.

Newmarket Holidays has a two-day trip to Bletchley Park from £109, and Shearings has introduced a five day Enigma Code & The Blitz tour (from £369) that visits Bletchley, Coventry Cathedral and the Blitz museum.

Battlefield

COMBINING CONFLICTS




Some operators give clients the chance to tick off battlefields from both World Wars in one fell swoop. Trafalgar’s 12-day WWI and WWII Battlefields itinerary, from £2,350, journeys from southern England, where there’s a visit to London’s Imperial War Museum and a stop at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, through Normandy and the sites of the D-Day landings to the Somme and Ypres and on to the Netherlands, where the tour stops at Arnhem before ending in Amsterdam.

Shearings Holidays has added to its large programme of battlefield tours with two cruises that visit sights from both wars. The longer, the 10-day Battlefields Commemorative Cruise, makes its way along the Rhine and Dutch and Belgian waterways, visiting Arnhem and Ypres. Prices start from £999 with coach travel, but clients can opt to reach the continent by air or rail if they prefer.

Rail travel specialist Ffestiniog Travel has a 10-day tour that visits not only the battlefields of the Somme and the sites of the D-Day landings but also Jersey, to see the impact of the German occupation between 1940 and 1945. Departing June 30, the tour starts from £1,525 including ferry and rail travel.

A world of wars




Battle of Bannockburn

Pro-independence Scots – or merely those with an interest in 14th-century conflicts – may want to book Great Rail Journeys’ new Battle of Bannockburn 2014 tour. The five-day trip (from £398), departing June 28, includes a visit to a 700th anniversary re enactment of this 1314 battle at its site near Stirling, plus a visit to Glasgow and a Loch Lomond cruise.

Battle of Waterloo

Another anniversary re-enactment is offered by Leger, this time commemorating the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. The four-day Waterloo Anniversary Re-enactment coach tour (from £289) visits the scenes – complete with gunsmoke, cavalry and soldiers – where the British and French clashed under Wellington and Napoleon. The 2014 departure date is June 20; in 2015 it’s June 19.

Kosovo

Regent Holidays’ eight-day Kosovo In Depth tour (from £1,295) brings together conflicts ancient and modern, visiting both the Memorial Complex of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, and sites key to the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.

American civil war

Collette Worldwide’s 11-day Heritage of America tour (from £2,324) focuses on the States before they were united, following the story of American democracy and visiting, among other sights, Gettysburg, scene of one of the pivotal battles of the civil war.

Hiroshima

Travellers can get a sense of the vast destruction wreaked by the nuclear bomb in 1945 on VirginHolidays’ 11-day Japan’s Golden Route tour (from £2,470), which spends a day in Hiroshima, visiting the Peace Memorial Park and the skeletal Atomic Bomb Dome, which became a symbol of the ruined city.

Boer war

The late 19th century saw the Boers, the Zulus and the British clash on the plains of South Africa. Cox & Kings’ 15-day Splendours of South Africa tour (from £3,495) spends two nights in Kwa-Zulu Natal and includes visits with a historian to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – the site of the battle that resulted in more Victoria Cross medals than any other in history.