As far as remembrance of past conflicts go, 2014 constitutes one of the most poignant, anniversary laden years that it is possible to imagine. From the onset of the mindless brutality of the Great War to the cataclysmic battles fought in Italy and Northern Europe during 1944, right through the escalation of the senseless Vietnam conflict from 1964 onward, there is ample reason- and scope- to reflect on the sheer stupidity of what ‘civilisation’ has actually achieved these past hundred or so years.
For many surviving veterans of World War Two, and/or their descendants, sometimes visiting these places brings a kind of closure. In addition, fans of military history often find it enthralling to get ‘up close and personal’ to such blood soaked touchstones as the Normandy Beaches, the Hurtgern Forest, or the famous Nijmegen bridge.
The problem for many potential visitors lies in the sheer logistics involved in getting around and, indeed, to, the main sites. Especially in the European campaign of 1944-45, the big commercial hubs of most nations were seldom the scenes of apocalyptic battles. Paris was spared massive bloodshed, and Amsterdam and Brussels were eventually liberated more or less intact. Rome was declared an open city. And, while Berlin went down in flames, the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich was the exception, rather than the rule.
For our American friends, the huge cost of air fare is another contributing factor to consider in coming to see the landmark battlefields of Europe.
Happily, a few specialist operators have been working on organising and creating battlefield tours for several years now. And, although I have not sampled their product for myself, I would certainly flag up the UK operator, Leger Travel, as being worthy of consideration if you are planning a pilgrimage to any of the famous sights of those major battles.
Typically the company books hotels and coach travel, as well as ensuring that each trip is accompanied by an experienced historian, there to bring the sobering, salient points of a battle into sharp relief, usually at the very sites themselves.
Because travelling long distance by coach in Europe is not something to be undertaken lightly, Leger ensures that all of its vehicles has more than average leg room, leather head rests, WC and refreshments. Some coaches even allow you to watch DVDs en route- a good primer for some of the upcoming highlights of your tour.
Hotels used en route vary from comfortable two to four star properties; again, proximity to the sites you are visiting will play a big part in determining the style and facilities of the hotels available to your tour group.
The company also arranges the porterage at most hotels, to and from the coaches, as well as cross channel ferry travel and, for those who would prefer it, the option of air travel to and from the continent.
Some of their offerings for 2014 include:
D-Day 70th Anniversary is a four day tour, running from June 5-9 inclusive. Among the highlights it covers are major ceremonies, scheduled to take place at Arromanches and Bayeux, as well as visits to Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches, as well as the famous Pegasus Bridge.
Arnhem 70th Anniversary Tour is another four day foray back into the territory of A Bridge Too Far, running from September 19th through 22nd. Among the sights you will visit en route are the original parachute drop zones, the Oosterbeek Cemetery, the Hartenstein Museum and, of course, the famous Arnhem Bridge itself.
There are also several departures to take in the highlights of what came to be known as the Battle Of The Bulge, which also celebrates it’s 70th Anniversary this year. This was the last desperate lunge of the German army in December 1944, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht attempted to force a ‘second Dunkirk’ on the Allied armies.
Four and five day tours of the battlefields showcase the remnants of the Siegfried Line, La Gleize, and the bloody route march of Kampfgruppe Peiper, as well as the scene of the US 101st Airborne Division’s legendary stand at Bastogne. The five day tour also adds in the Battle Of The Bulge Museum, and also highlights the previously unsung British contribution to what was, in essence, a mainly American combat arena.
Another- and often unsung factor- is that many actual combat veterans take part in these tours. Their personal recollections have got to be worth hearing- assuming that they wish to share them. They would provide an added sense of poignancy and perspective that no dry military history text could ever equate to.
All things considered, Leger Travel does seem to incorporate a good mix of comfortable travel and accommodation, convenient travel options, insightful, experienced historians, and an attitude of respectful remembrance. Whatever your area of interest, the company would seem to have most bases covered.