'They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them' - The Fallen, Robert Laurence Binyon
There are many reasons why people visit the sites of historic battlefields: sometimes it’s a keen interest in military history or a wish to learn or understand more, and sometimes it’s more personal, perhaps to visit the place where a family member fought, or to simply pay respect for those involved in some of history’s bloodiest and most significant battles. Joined by an expert guide, visiting the site of a battlefield will help bring history to vivid life. There are many escorted tours which specialise in these special interests, taking place over several days, but one-day excursions to battle fields can also be offered as part of a river or ocean cruise, or a rail tour. Tours can sometimes be timed to coincide with re-enactments, while there’s usually renewed interest and specially curated tours for anniversaries.
Although Britain has not been successfully invaded since 1066, there’s still interest in British Battlefield tours (and re-enactments). The Battle of Hastings (1066) is one of the most significant and pivotal events in English history, and for that reason attracts battlefield tours and re-enactments, particularly with the recent 950th anniversary in October 2016. Immortalised by Shakespeare and ushering in a new dynasty and era in English history, another significant battlefield which is popular is the battle of Bosworth Field (1485), particularly with interest enjoying a recent upsurge after Richard III’s body was found in a Leicester car park in 2012 and reburied in Leicester Cathedral in 2015. Three-day tours specialising in each of these famous battles can be arranged.
First and Second World War
The most visited battlefields belong to those of the First and Second World Wars. Predominantly found in France and Belgium, excursions marking some of the most significant battles are available as part of a river or ocean cruise, as well on special interest escorted tours or rail trips. Because of the global nature of these wars, travellers from many countries all over the world can find some connection.
In 2016, the centenary of the Somme was marked. Some tours will focus solely on this battle, but there are also some which may combine the Somme with other key First World War battles, such as Ypres and Flanders. Of course, there are also tours which specifically deal with Ypres and Flanders respectively. As well as visiting the sites of these battles, visits to military cemeteries and dedicated museums and sometimes lectures by historians specialising in the First World War, will also help give a deeper insight into the experiences of the Great War.
The Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches marked a significant turning point for the Western Front of the Second World War, and while there are escorted tours available, river and ocean cruises and rail trips also offer excursions and tours here. Usually depending on the general nationality of the travelling guests, tours or excursions to the D-Day Landing Beaches will perhaps focus on the American Beaches (Utah and Omaha), or the Canadian (Juno) or British (Gold and Sword). While there is one American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy (and another in Brittany), because of the American practice of offering families the option of repatriation, there are many other cemeteries for British and Commonwealth soldiers, and other nationalities. Tours taking in the Normandy Beaches may also visit Pointe du Hoc, a strategic promontory as the highest point between Utah and Omaha Beaches and heavily fortified by the Nazis, which was assaulted and captured by the United States Army Ranger Assault Group as part of Operation Overlord on D-Day.
Some of the events of the First and Second World War can be discovered more on a river cruise during a day excursion or tour. For example, many river cruises sailing along the Dutch Waterways will stop at Arnhem, which during the Second World War was part of Operation Market Garden in 1944. The events of the First Battle of Arnhem have been dramatized in the film 'A Bridge Too Far', and you can find out much more about this battle and the capture and withdrawal of British Forces, and how the local Dutch population suffered, during walking tours and visits to the fascinating interactive museum at Arnhem.
Of course, these were both global wars, and during the final stage of the Second World War, the US notoriously dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagosaki. To this day, you can visit Hiroshima and discover a city which has risen out of the ashes phoenix-like, with leafy, wide boulevards, laid-back friendliness and a thriving community. However the tragic events of 6 August 1945 have not been forgotten, and you can visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to learn more in the museum, and to reflect. The former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, built to promote Hiroshima's industries, was one of the few buildings left standing and today serves as a striking and poignant reminder.
Fans of American history may be keen to visit some of the most significant US Civil War battle sites, which can be experienced both on special interest escorted tours and even themed river cruises on the Mississippi, including visits to Vicksburg and special onboard activities and lectures. Escorted tours also tend to include significant places such as Gettysburg - the site of a decisive Union victory in 1863 and associated with Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address given at the Gettysburg National Cemetery just four months later – and Washington D.C.
Some escorted tours – including a rail itinerary – also take in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal Battlefields, which remember the bloody battles between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Although the Zulu famously defeated the British army at the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – both key sites to visit on such tours – the war ultimately led to a British victorious and the end of the Zulu’s dominance in the region. Tours visiting these battlefields may also include lectures and visits related to the later Anglo-Boer War, such as the bloody Spion Kop battlefield and Paul Kruger’s former homestead, which has since been converted into a museum.
Further afield again, and a much more recent war, is the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong famously used a sophisticated underground network of tunnels at Cu Chi – about 25 miles from Ho Chi Minh City – in their resistance to American forces. Today you can visit the Cu Chi Tunnels on an excursion as part of a Mekong river cruise, a rail or escorted tour, or even an ocean cruise calling at Ho Chi Minh City. They provide a fascinating insight into this recent history and clearly show the Viet Cong’s resilience and determination; you can see a variety of ‘booby traps’ as well as crawl through a portion of the tunnels yourself. In Ho Chi Minh City, a visit to the harrowing War Remnants Museum tells the sobering story of the Vietnam War.
Historic European Battles
Over the course of our history, England has engaged in many battles and wars, primarily it seems with the French. Perhaps the two most famous wars which come to mind are the Hundred Years War (something of a misnomer for a war which began in 1337 and ended in 1453, and it was more a series of conflicts than a continuous war) and the Napoleonic Wars. Perhaps one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years War was the resounding English victory at Agincourt (1415) under King Henry V. Agincourt was another battle immortalised by Shakespeare, this time in the play Henry V, but is also notable for the pioneering use of the English longbow, a decisive factor in the English victory over a numerically superior French army. The 600th anniversary in 2015 stoked further interest in the battle, but for keen military historians and medieval historians, it’s easy to see the appeal in visiting the site and area around such a key event.
400 years later, the famous Battle of Waterloo (1815) was the decisive moment in the ‘Waterloo Campaign’ and Napoleon’s last battle, ultimately marking the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Themed tours visiting the main sites surrounding the Battle of Waterloo sometimes include excursions to Ghent and/or Brussels.
If you would like to commemorate a battle or learn more about a historic war, speak to our travel specialists to find a tour or excursion for you
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