Battlefield Netherlands by Jonathan Ball

In the autumn of 1944, the Allied forces found themselves advancing on a wide front across the Netherlands. The famous Operation Market Garden, leading to Arnhem, took place but there were many forgotten battles along the eastern corridor of Holland. Find out first hand about our brand new tour, Battlefield Netherlands, from our specialist guide Jonathan Ball.


Operation Blackcock was a large scale methodical mopping up operation. It was not planned to make any deep thrust into the enemy defences or capture large numbers of Prisoners of War. It proceeded from stage to stage almost entirely as planned and was successfully completed with minimum casualties.

That was the official 21st Army Group take on the events of February 1945. Lt-Col Frank Coutts of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers held a slightly different point of view…

I would very much like to meet that staff officer from 21st Army Group sitting in his caravan or chateau outside Brussels with a large whisky and soda on his table. He had the cheek to add ‘with minimal casualties’. What in Heaven’s name is minimal? One mans life is precious and XII Corps suffered over a thousand killed and wounded.

For our BRAND NEW four-day tour, Battlefield Netherlands, we aim to take our guests very much off the beaten track in the Netherlands which to most British minds ends on the banks of the Neder Rijn at Arnhem. On the recent recce, we looked at the Battle for the towns of Overloon and Venray as the Allies pushed eastwards from Nijmegen towards the River Maas and beyond to the borders of the German Reich. First attacked by the US 7th Armored Division, the Americans found Overloon too tough a nut to crack. In 7 days they advanced little more than 2 kilometres suffering 452 casualties and having 35 Tanks destroyed, 13 of them in quick succession in just one day by a solitary German 88mm Anti Tank Gun. Following the withdrawal of the ‘Lucky 7th’ the task of taking Overloon was given to the British in the shape of the veteran 3rd Divisions’ 8th Infantry Brigade. The Battalions involved lead the British assault on D-Day in Normandy landing at 0730 hours on Sword beach and it’s their fortunes we followed. Firstly with the Suffolks on their start line north of Overloon. We looked at the story of Nelson Brown, a Dunkirk veteran and a bit of a character. The night before the attack on Overloon he shaved a swastika in his hair. By the next morning, he was dead. Scythed down by German machine gun fire literally yards from where he emerged from the trees at the beginning of the attack.

Overloon Cemetery
Overloon

We followed the Suffolks to the site of a windmill, destroyed during the fighting on the Oploo road. All around the fire-swept, flat terrain gives the visitor a first-hand impression of what it must have been like on that October day to advance under heavy fire with so little cover. George Rayson, a Suffolks veteran was later to remark of the fighting around the Windmill “It was bad enough on D-Day but this was one of the worst days of my life, why I’m still here today I don’t know”

After the Suffolks, we followed the story of the East Yorkshire Regiment from the perspective of the defending German Paratroopers. In a wood, there is what a colleague of mine described as some of the best-preserved trenches of the Second World War he’d ever seen. Amongst these trees took place bloody, hand to hand combat as the East Yorks battled through to their objective.

Suffolks start line - CWGC Cemetery in Overloon
Suffolks start line – CWGC Cemetery in Overloon

Then it was on to the beautifully maintained CWGC Cemetery in Overloon before lunch and a visit to the superb museum in the town. There’s lots of original battle damaged kit recovered from the Battlefield in there that again illustrates the ferocity of the fighting.

After lunch, we walked in the footsteps of George Eardley. A Sergeant whose actions in destroying 3 German Machine Gun Posts was to culminate in the awarding of the Victoria Cross. After that, we travelled to the crossing of what is today the peaceful Loobeek River. It was no easy objective in 1944 and for good reason did the locals later know the river as the ‘Bloodbeek’.

Loobeek River
Loobeek River

Venray CWGC cemetery visited on the Battlefields Netherlands tour

Later, after paying our respects to the boys in Venray CWGC cemetery who fell liberating the town we moved on to end the day at Ysselsteyn German Cemetery. The only statistic you really need to know here is the number of men buried, 31,598. Everything else pales into insignificance after that.

The following day took us around what was known as the Roer Triangle with Operation Blackcock, arguably one of the most interesting series of battles you’ve probably never heard of?

We started at Brunssum CWGC cemetery with Brigadier Gerald Mole, killed when 700 mines that had been lifted detonated next to his Headquarters. When Mole was buried the British guns fired in salute using live ammunition on carefully selected targets across the border in Germany, an act that Gerald Mole would no doubt of approved of and incidentally our next destination on the tour.

Brunssum CWGC cemetery with Brigadier Gerald Mole

We crossed the border to look at the Battle for Geilenkirchen and in particular the fight for the woods west of the village of Tripsrath. What took place in these woods was described by one senior officer as being akin to scenes from the First World War. The assault was made by 5/Dorsets and the wood with the trenches and dugouts which remain to this day was named in their honour as Dorset Wood.

Following our brief foray into Germany it was back across the border and to the Dutch town of Sittard for lunch. We took time at the towns CWGC cemetery to look at the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to its youngest recipient of WW2, Fusilier Dennis Donnini, just 19 years old. Think about what you were doing at 19?

After lunch, we moved along the eastern bank of the River Maas to the town of Susteren. A superb and very original German 88mm Anti Tank gun awaited us there plus the scene of the bitter street fight for control of the town.

Leaving Susteren, we headed on to take in the site of another VC action, the only VC of WW2 awarded to a man of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Eric Harden, the Commando Medic. When men from 45 RM Commando were pinned down Eric Harden went out unarmed on at least three separate occasions to bring in the wounded. On that fateful third trip out he was shot and killed. As Derek-Mills Roberts was to write to his widow later, “it’s easier to be brave with a rifle in your hand than a stretcher”.

Eyewitness WW2 Museum visited on the Battlefield Netherlands tour
Eyewitness WW2 Museum

WW2 Museum visited on the Battlefield Netherlands tour

So those are some of the less explored Battlefields of the Netherlands. We finished with a flourish though at the simply staggering Eyewitness WW2 Museum in Beek. It’s a private collection, beautifully presented which tells the story of the war in the Netherlands and doesn’t shy away from some uncomfortable truths from those years of the German occupation.

Jonathan Ball – Specialist Battlefield Guide for Leger Holidays

If you’d like to join us on this tour, click here for more information.

GP90: The Great Pilgrimage | Leger Holidays

In August 2018, thousands of members and representatives helped The Royal British Legion recreate the 1928 Battlefields Pilgrimage to mark the centenary of the launch of the ‘Hundred Days Offensive’.

A decade after the end of WW1, the British Legion organised for 11,000 veterans and war widows to visit the battlefields of the Somme and Ypres, before marching to the Menin Gate in Ypres on 8 August 1928.
In 2018, exactly 90 years on, the Great Pilgrimage 90 saw 1,150 branches, and thousands of members and representatives from the UK and abroad, help The Royal British Legion recreate their original pilgrimage.
Here at Leger Holidays, we are immensely proud to have been a part of this magnificent event. It was an absolute honour to have helped make this happen, and not only are we thankful to our many coach crews and Battlefield Guides who took part, but also each and every person who joined us and make this one of our most memorable moments of Leger history.
To commemorate the event, we have put together a moving collection of accounts from our Battlefield Guides who joined us for GP90. Read all about their fascinating stories, below.

Terry Whenham

It all started for me one day in 2001. I was in a military cemetery on the Somme battlefield staring down at my own family name on a headstone. On a cold, blowy April day I then found myself walking, as he did, across the same field 85 years after he was mortally wounded. He was my Great Uncle Henry who had died in August 1916, leaving behind a fiancée called Dolly.

Fast forward 17 years ago and I found myself on the same Somme battlefield guiding 40 enthusiastic British Legion members as part of their GP90 commemorations. Although I had been organising and leading battlefield tours for many years, it was the first time I had been asked to guide such a large group and, being part of the Leger Group, I was determined to make the tour a success, although I was a bit apprehensive!

As we toured such iconic places such as Vimy Ridge, Delville Wood, Hill 60 and Arras, it was an exhilarating experience. I was able to share my passion and knowledge with everyone on board, many of who were veterans from recent conflicts. The impact of the stories I told the passengers was immense, and everyone shared in the shock, amazement and grief of the Victoria Cross winners, boy soldiers, shot at dawn men and ordinary soldiers who carried out incredibly brave actions.

I told the story of how 3 Victoria Crosses were won on Hill 60, in the midst of a gas attack. The group stood at the graves of 2 soldiers in Arras, buried next to each other, who were “shot at dawn”. On the Arras Memorial, they discovered Walter Tull, a professional footballer from my home town who became an officer, despite suffering dreadful racism. At the Thiepval Memorial, they learned about Private John Dewsbury who wrote a beautiful letter to his mother as he lay mortally wounded in a shell hole. I told these stories with tears in my eyes. It was an experience that nobody who was there on those very hot August days will ever forget. Or me either.

Private John Dewsbury who wrote a beautiful letter to his mother as he lay mortally wounded in a shell hole
Private John Dewsbury who wrote a beautiful letter to his mother as he lay mortally wounded in a shell hole

A GP90 group at Thiepval MemorialLeger Battlefield Guide Terry Whenham guiding his GP90 group


Ste Lingard

Being part of the Royal British Legion’s “Great Pilgrimage 90” last August was a highlight of all my time on the battlefields.  I joined more than two thousand men and women from across the United Kingdom in marking the 90th anniversary of the original “Great Pilgrimage” when 10,000 veterans and relatives made the same trip, just 10 years after the war.

On Monday we visited Ypres (now Ieper) and the surrounding area, including Hill 60, Messines, Zonnebeke and Tyne Cot Cemetery – the final resting place for almost 12,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen.

We spent Tuesday on the Somme and at Arras, visiting Delville Wood (where we found a large howitzer shell sticking out of the ground – and left it well alone), Thiepval, Vimy Ridge and the Arras Memorial.

Wednesday was the focal point of the pilgrimage.  The veterans paraded through Ypres: 1,200 standard bearers and 1,200 wreath layers, led by the Royal Marines Band. All took part in a service beneath the Menin Gate, remembering the sacrifices made throughout the war and the anniversary of the Battle of Amiens in 1918, which marked the start of the greatest series of victories in the British Army’s history.  It was an impressive and moving day.

Towards the end of the trip, one of the group asked me if I had enjoyed it.  Yes, I had, and listening to the veterans was the best part: the Guardsman who had been part of the Guard at King George VI’s funeral and Elizabeth’s coronation; the 79 year old physical training instructor – still a fine runner – who had served in the Royal Marines, Lancashire Fusiliers and Royal Air Force; and the quiet gentleman who kept himself to himself, but paraded in the sand beret and winged dagger badge of the SAS, and turned out have been a Colonel in that most elite of regiments – veterans stood as he passed, and in the pub after the parade, beer appeared in front of him as if by magic.

As a freelance historian and guide, I was fortunate to be working with Leger.  They handled the complex logistics involved in such a large operation with great professionalism and provided support to those who needed it at all hours of the day.  You can relax knowing that you are in safe hands.

I hope you find your pilgrimage rewarding and enjoyable.

Ste Lingard


Phil Arkinstall

Leger Battlefield Tour Group during GP90

As a history teacher, I have led tours to the battlefield before for my school, but when I was given the job as guide for Coach 928 for GP90 I was over the moon. This was my first tour working for Leger and I couldn’t have been more thrilled and proud. My role was to lead members from the British Legion to historic sites around Ypres and the Somme before their parade. My favourite activity was taking a series of photo cards of soldiers who had come from Wiltshire and whose bodies were never found; their names being on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. My group loved the idea and were keen to get involved. At the end, we had a photo taken with all members holding a soldier – for so many it was powerful to see the faces of those who don’t have a known grave and helps to represent a small number of the scores of men who gave their lives.

For me though, it was parade day that I was most looking forward to. The sheer sense of determination from the Legion members who either carried a wreath or held the standard was very moving. For each person who took part they were not just representing their branch, but their county, the nation as a whole and the memory of the men and women who gave their lives for the freedoms we observe today. That is the reason so many took part and the reason why I wanted to be part of this anniversary. It will be one of the proudest moments of all our lives. The weight of responsibility each person must have felt was equalled with their own sense of pride and can be seen in photographs and on the televised screens. A special mention must go to Bill Dobson, the standard bearer from Edington was one of the oldest members of the group and his sense of duty and regard to his standard saw that he held it throughout the entire march. It is this level of respect and utter sense of duty that I will take away from GP90 and I hope that I get to pass this on to all the pupils that I teach at my school. The legacy of this event is that in another hundred years, younger generations are still paying their respects for the generation that sacrificed it all

Phil Arkinstall Leger Battlefield Guide


Shaun Coldicutt

Leger Battlefield Tour Group

From Sunday 5th August – Thursday 9th August 2018 I had the pleasure of taking and guiding a group of 47 Royal British Legion members on a tour of the Western Front for the “Great Pilgrimage”; commemorating both ninety years since 11,000 Royal British Legion members (Veterans, widows and officials) toured the battlefields in 1928 culminating in a parade in Ypres through the Menin Gate and to overall, commemorate those involved in the First World War.

Not only were the footsteps of 11,000 strong some ninety years previous retraced through the battlefields of France and Flanders, but this trip also witnessed new legacies, stronger bonds forged and lasting memories for all involved.

As one of the sixty unprecedented battlefield guides to accompany the trip, it was our job to ensure both the smooth running of such a vast logistical operation and to provide our groups with information and all-around care.

The trip was split between a two day guided tour of the major areas and battles of the Western Front visiting locations around the Battle of the Somme, Arras and the Ypres Salient. As a first time guide at 25, it was incredible to see and speak to so many people in one location for the same purpose of commemoration. Hundreds of pilgrims would make their way to a site where the mood would often be lively and vibrant both on the coach and within the vast crowds walking the ground, yet when congregating at a location the atmosphere would be one of quiet, personal reflection.

The final day before departing witnessed all pilgrims form up to march through the Belgian town of Ypres where 1 in 4 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought during the First World War were killed in defence of. 2200 standard bearers and wreath layers; now closer friends and comrades who had shared the tides of emotions often experienced on a battlefield tour stood side by side whilst their proud guides who became more and more attached to them waved them past and wished them well. As sixty coaches departed from the town, a sense of accomplishment and pride could be felt by everyone involved. The Great Pilgrimage of 2018 had achieved all it had set out to do and more.


Tom Saunders QGM

On 8 August 2018, I had the honour, privilege and pleasure to guide one of the many Leger Coaches in Flanders and on the Somme, as The Royal British Legion commemorated the 90th Anniversary of the Great Pilgrimage of 1928. Legion Standard Bearers and Wreath layers travelled from across the commonwealth to recreate the first pilgrimage of 1928. In many cases, 1928 was the first time widowed mothers and wives had a chance to visit their loved ones’ graves. What a sad occasion it must have been when 11000 pilgrims made the long journeys to France and Belgium.

We guided the GP90 clients on a battlefield tour of France and Belgium on a strict timetable selected specifically by the Royal British Legion in conjunction with Leger Tours.  We visited iconic memorials like the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme. It contains the names of over 72,000 soldiers whose remains were never recovered for formal burial.  It’s the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial in the world and was designed by the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. It stands tall and proud on the Thiepval Ridge and can be seen from across the wide-ranging battlefield.

We visited Tyne Cot Cemetery and Tyne Cot Memorial in Flanders.  This cemetery is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world with almost 12000 burials and designed by eminent architect Sir Herbert Baker. On an arched stone wall at the rear of the cemetery stands one of four memorials to the missing within the Ypres Salient. The memorial contains the names of almost 34000 missing soldiers who died in Flanders.  The cemetery and memorial stand overlooking the town of Ypres on what was the gentle ridge leading up to the nearby village of Passchendaele.

The final parade in Ypres was led by Northern Ireland man, Norman Espie as the legions National Standard Bearer. What a day we had in Ypres (Wipers). The GP90 Pilgrimage and parade were amazing. The colour, music, the splendour and the dignity of the parade was outstanding. The emotion of the occasion got to many visitors and participants and many a tear was shed during the beautiful service of remembrance. The Menin Gate itself was surrounded by over a thousand wreaths.  The ghosts of Menin Gate no doubt looked on with great satisfaction and pride that their sacrifice in 1914 to 1918 was never forgotten. We will remember them.

The story of the Schindler Factory Memorial Aircrew Plaque by David McCormack

Many visitors to the Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow stop for a moment to read the inscription on a plaque commemorating the crew of a B24 Liberator which crashed onto the barrack area in the factory compound (other parts of the aircraft landed on the far side of the River Vistula).

The aircraft from 178 Squadron (KG933) was involved in a large-scale operation to supply Polish Home Army forces involved in the Warsaw Uprising. Very few of the visitors who stop to look at the plaque are aware of the circumstances which led to the aircraft crashing, even less the fate of the surviving crew members.

Aircrew Memorial Plaque at the Schindler Factory Museum
Aircrew Memorial Plaque

At 17.00hrs on 1 August 1944, a bomb exploded in the headquarters of the Krakow Gestapo. This explosion signalled the beginning of the uprising. Within hours, an urgent appeal for supplies was sent out to London by the Poles.
Whilst this appeal received a sympathetic hearing, the practicalities of ferrying supplies by aircraft presented serious difficulties. Warsaw lay approximately 1,500 km from London, a long and perilous journey across flak-infested skies. An additional hazard was that the aircraft involved would have to expose themselves by flying in at low speed and low altitude over the designated drop zones.
There was no other alternative as it was imperative that the precious supplies didn’t fall into German hands. Whilst the problem of distance could be solved to some degree by flying from Italy, the remaining imponderable was the vulnerability of these slow lumbering aircraft as they made their approach to the drop zones.
At approximately 19.55 hrs on 17 August, KG933 took off from Foggia in southern Italy. The designated drop zone (Nida 504) was near the city of Piotrkow (120 km north of Krakow).
There were no incidents on the outbound leg and the drop went as planned. However, as the plane was heading homewards via Krakow it was picked up by a German night fighter (Bf 110 of 1/NJG-100) piloted by Oberfeldwebel Helmut Dahms. In his subsequent report, he claimed two Lancasters shot down (one over Ratibor, the other over Krakow).
It can be said with a high degree of certainty that the Lancaster which he claimed to have shot down over Krakow was in fact KG933.
The burning aircraft was picked up by searchlights in Krakow’s factory district. It was then hit by flak which caused it to disintegrate in mid-air.
The tail section landed over on the far side of the Vistula on the old abattoir, whilst the main fuselage crashed onto the abandoned barrack area of the Schindler Factory. Three crew members were killed outright (Squadron Leader Liversidge, Flight Lieutenant Wright and Flight Sergeant Clarke). Miraculously, three others survived. Sergeant Blunt and Sergeant Helme became prisoners of war in Stalag Luft VII, their war effectively over.
B24 Liberator
B24 Liberator

As for the other survivor, landing in a field approximately twenty-four km east of Krakow was the start of an incredible six-month odyssey. Despite being wounded in his arms and legs, Flight Lieutenant Hammett managed to evade capture for two days.
Then, by a stroke of luck, he was able to make contact with a local partisan group. By late September he had fully recovered from his wounds. He then took an active part in partisan operations from a base in the woods near Slaboszov.
The following month, his group shot down a German scout plane. The German authorities then sent out a force of 100 Ukrainian auxiliaries to hunt down and destroy the partisan group. A fierce firefight ensued with heavy casualties being inflicted by both sides. Hammett survived and later took part in an attack on a barn where several of the Ukrainians were hiding out.
In November, Hammett was moved to a safe-house near to the partisan’s base. Here, he was later joined by two former British POWs. The area was finally liberated by the Red Army in mid-January.
On 23 February, the Soviet authorities placed him in charge of a large group of POWs who were to be transported by train to the port city of Odessa. On arrival, Hammett and the group boarded the SS Moreton Bay for their repatriation to England.
The plaque commemorating the three crewmen killed can be seen on the Understanding the Holocaust and Story of Anne Frank and Oscar Schindler tours at the Schindler Factory Museum.

Paul Reed: Exploring the Secret Wehrmacht Bunker

Getting prepared for new battlefield experiences is all part of the work Battlefield Guides carry out in readiness for the tours we do for Leger Holidays.

When there are new tours we always go out on a Battlefield Recce to check the fine details and make sure it all runs smoothly for when we have the groups with us. It’s all part of the professionalism with which we all approach how we operate Leger Battlefield Tours.
I was recently in Germany on such a Battlefield Recce with fellow Battlefield Guides David McCormack and Bill McQuade for the new Peenemunde, Baltic Coast and Berlin tour, which has its first departures this summer. This promises to be an excellent tour looking at different aspects of Third Reich history from the ‘Strength through Joy’ site at Prora to the development of secret weapons at Peenemunde, which will include for the first time having access to the actual rocket test stands and launch sites.

Zossen-Wünsdorf

However, one of the highlights of this Recce was our visit to Zossen-Wünsdorf to the site of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht: the Headquarters of the German Wehrmacht. The Wehrmacht wasn’t just the German Army: it was the overall governing body of the Army (Heer), Airforce (Luftwaffe) and Navy (Kriegsmarine). All of these had personnel at Zossen in a massive series of underground bunkers and tunnels.
While some wartime planning was done here, it was in essence the wartime communications hub of the Wehrmacht, a site once buzzing with the orders, commands and information relating to every key battle in the war from Poland to Stalingrad to the final battles.
Zossen-Wünsdorf

Zossen-Wünsdorf is a ‘book village’ where there are a large number of second-hand bookshops, and we started our tour there with the group that runs the bunker site. Our guide took us in through the main gate, dating from Cold War days, but which immediately put us into the heart of the above ground bunkers.
These all resemble houses as they were used to disguise the site as a residential area; in reality they were the way into the underground structures used by the various branches of the Wehrmacht. Some had been damaged in bombing but most had been blown by the Russians. They stand as decaying monuments to the failure of the Thousand Year Reich.
Cold War entrance door at Zossen-Wünsdorf

From here we went through the woods to the entrance of the main underground section. Initially we went through some Cold War period doors, which were amazing in their own right, and then into what was the entrance area during WW2.
It was very wide and when we questioned this, it was so that small vehicles such as Kubelwagens could drive in and enter the lift to take them to the lower levels. It was at this point we began to get an idea as to how big this site was!
From here we made our way through the tunnels, rooms and corridors. Because of occupation as a Soviet Airmobile Headquarters during the Cold War, the site is in very good condition and easy to access: it is fully lit and there are easily manageable stairs. No crawling through tunnels or roping down holes! Health and safety on these visits is something we do have to think about as Battlefield Guides!
Cold War remains at Zossen-Wünsdorf

As we made our way through the bunker site we got some sense of the importance of it and also the scale, and just how modern it was. Having an integrated internal messaging system, it had the WW2 equivalent of email whereby everyone in the complex could message others through a message pod system powered by compressed air! Anyone in the complex could speak to any headquarters on any battlefield.
As you walk the corridors you just wonder what it must have been like when the surrender at Stalingrad came through or when it was clear the fronts in both East and West were collapsing.
Message pod system at Zossen-Wünsdorf

Coming back outside from the Wehrmacht Bunker we realised we had been underground for well over an hour, seeing a site not normally open to the public because of the safety issues and which we know will fascinate those who travel with us on this new tour that focuses on many areas of WW2 history we have not been able to discuss in such depth before.


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Paul Reed: The Legacy of Passchendaele

This year marks the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, a name that will be forever synonymous with our knowledge and understanding of the First World War, but more than that it is part of our collective consciousness of the war. When we think of that conflict we imagine endless miles of water-filled shell craters, thick glutinous mud, and everything from men, mules, guns and tanks disappearing into this mud.

All of this happened at Passchendaele; at times the landscape was as dangerous to soldiers as was the enemy shooting at them. Arguably it was the worst battlefield on which British soldiers served between 1914 and 1918; both in terms of the physical conditions and also the terrible scale of the fighting.

Hell Fire Croner 1917

What made Passchendaele such a terrible battle? It is not widely known that the first day of the battle, 31st July 1917, was a success. Most objectives were taken, and the Germans pushed off the high ground at both Pilkem and Bellewaarde. But it was a costly day, too: more than 6,000 British soldiers died at Ypres that day, one of the worst in Flanders during four long years of war.
Success, but at a cost: but another factor came into play that first day: rain. It began to rain that evening and pretty much did not stop raining for a significant period of the rest of the battle. It was the wettest summer in living memory, with huge amounts of rainfall. That in combination with the unparalleled use of artillery by both sides, the shells just destroyed the Flanders landscape.
Trenches, buildings, and the drainage systems all pulverised by warfare on an industrial scale. The water had nowhere to run except into the holes in the ground occupied by soldiers, or into the lunar landscape of shell craters. The mud became glutinous, in places almost liquid; and everything from men to every man-made object disappeared into it.
Shell Smashed Landscape at Passchendaele

Attacks failed, and the bodies of the fallen could not be recovered; with the mud and shell-fire, all trace of them was lost and Passchendaele is a battlefield that has one of the highest levels of soldiers with no known grave, now commemorated on the Menin Gate or Tyne Cot Memorial.
A century later it is easy to think that the mud, and men disappearing forever are one of the many myths of the First World War. But I have witnessed both in my work with archaeologists in Flanders.
On a dig in 2012 I saw how liquid mud, even after minimal rainfall, could drag us down and how the effort of dealing with a mud-filled landscape was almost impossible at times; and we had modern clothing, tools and no-one shooting at us!
A Century Later, Archaeologists Still Bailing Out an Old Trench

Back in 2001 I saw how the work of The Diggers at Boesinghe demonstrated that Flanders is still one large cemetery; and every year since more and more soldier’s remains are found. It will be one of the almost permanent legacies of the Great War at Ypres, along with the Iron Harvest of shells which are still being found by farmers on the old battlefields.
Archaeologists Working in the Mud of Ypres

To understand more of what Passchendaele was and what it means to us a century later you can travel to Flanders with Leger Holidays on several different tours in 2017. Join us for the actual anniversary commemorations at Tyne Cot on 31st July, or take the They Called It Passchendaele tour which looks at both Messines and Passchendaele in some depth.
You can walk the Passchendaele battlefield on Walking Ypres, and see it from ground level in some detail, and in November we commemorate the end of the battle with a special Passchendaele themed Armistice tour.
The Iron Harvest

The war poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote, ‘I died in Hell… They Called it Passchendaele’. A century on we owe to the generation which marched to Flanders in 1917 to understand that Hell and never let it happen again; and that is perhaps the real legacy in an ever changing world.
 
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Paul Reed: The Real Dunkirk

With the upcoming release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk movie, the newly released trailer gives us an exciting insight into what the film is about.

In quite a long clip of men on the beaches, ships under fire, the little boats taking men home, it is clear that the focus is on Operation Dynamo: the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the beaches between Dunkirk in France and Nieuport in Belgium, in May and June 1940.
The cast looks tremendous, and the scenes depicted in the clip very convincing. There is no doubt this will generate a lot of interest in Dunkirk, but how to cut through the Hollywood take on it and really understand what happened here in 1940?

abandoned-british-equipment-on-the-beach-at-dunkirk-1940
Abandoned British equipment on the beach at Dunkirk 1940

One way is to dip into the many books on Dunkirk, but nothing beats actually going out to actual visit the ground as it is today. For 2017 we have our usual 5 Day Dunkirk & Fortress Europe tour which looks at the campaign in France, the withdrawal to the coast and the evacuation from the beaches in some detail, as well as looking at the years that followed with the building of the Atlantic Wall.
However, we have a new 4 Day version of this tour that focuses on 1940 and follows pretty much the story seen in the new film: the destruction of the British forces by the German Blitzkrieg to the point where they were taken off the Dunkirk beaches and the Mole. Along the way we see a typical battlefield area at St Venant where the Durham Light Infantry and Royal Welsh Fusiliers fought, look at the massacre of British soldiers by the SS at Wormhout, and then move on to the Dunkirk story itself.
wreck-of-the-ss-devonia-at-dunkirk-small
Wreck of the SS Devonia at Dunkirk

In Dunkirk we look at Operation Dynamo in some detail. Many do not realise that most soldiers were evacuated out via the Dunkirk Mole, the jetty that struck out from the harbour area. Here ships could dock in deep water and more quickly load up.
The beaches were then divided up according to the organisation of the BEF, and here we discuss how not just the Navy, but ships of many shapes and sizes were used to evacuate the men. One of the great things on this tour is that, low tide permitting, we are able to see the wrecks of some of these on the beach, and even after 75 years they are very impressive.
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Wreck of the Crested Eagle at Dunkirk

In the Dunkirk War Cemetery we see the graves of those who never made it off the beaches or who died in defence of the perimeter which held the Germans at bay while over 300,000 got home. Among the graves we find old, experienced soldiers, as well as young lads who had only recently joined up, medics killed aiding the wounded and even a chaplain.
The Dunkirk Memorial is also here which commemorates over 4,500 service personnel who have no known grave. Many died in ships off the coast, or were swept out to sea on the beaches: so many sad tales that will be brought alive in the film by the look of it.
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At the Dunkirk Memorial

Dunkirk has always been a special battlefield for me: my grandfather was here with the RAMC in 1940, which brought his 22 year career as a soldier to an end. I have walked all over the 1940 battlefields with our team of guides, and learned a lot about it from some of our 1940 specialists like David Warren, and in 2009 I did a lot of BBC work for the 70th Anniversary, including the Dig 1940 series where we filmed a local French group doing archaeology work on the beaches. It was amazing what was still left in the sand!
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Artifacts found on the Dunkirk beach by archaeologists in 2009

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British Gas Mask found on the beach at Dunkirk in 2009

This new film will undeniably mean that Dunkirk and the men of the BEF will suddenly be back in the public eye again, and if Hollywood can help generate interest in the Second World War that has to be a good thing. But what better way to really understand the events depicted in Nolan’s Dunkirk than join us on a Leger Dunkirk battlefield tour, in the company of one of our team of specialist guides to see, visit and understand, as well as remember a battle that changed world history.
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The German victors on the beach, showing of the ships depicted in the new film

 

Watch the Dunkirk trailer below:

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Beer and Battlefields: The Man Behind the Concept

Looking ahead into 2017, we’ve got big events coming up. From the Centenary of Passchendaele to the 75th anniversary of Dieppe, there’s an interesting year ahead on our Battlefield tours. Yet, there’s one itinerary that really stands out. New for 2017, this tour isn’t focused on a big anniversary, neither is it visiting new ground, it’s just a whole new concept that has really got people talking. Beer and Battlefields.

Mark Hope: Beer and Battlefield creator
Marc Hope

Designed by our very own Battlefield Guide Marc Hope, our Beer and Battlefields tour combines battlefield sites from both World Wars with visits to a selection of the best breweries in Belgium. And, who better to give us the inside scoop than Marc himself? In this exclusive interview, find out just why this tour is going to take 2017 by storm.
Q: Beer and Battlefields, it’s certainly an interesting concept. How did it first come about?
A: It came about several years ago when I used to do Brewery Tours around Belgium and France. Originally we concentrated on the Trappist Breweries and then onto various other establishments which took us over the Battlefields of WW1 &WW2. People then started to look at the Battlefield side of things as I used to give a running commentary as we passed through these sites. It snowballed from there with us doing the Battlefields in the morning and Breweries in the afternoon as; believe it or not, people didn’t want to spend all day in Breweries. It’s a more relaxed kind of Battlefield tour where we can digest the Battlefields over a great beer.
Q: What significance does beer have to the stories of World War I and World War II? Is it something that is often overlooked?
A:  A Medical Officer once said “Had it not been for the rum ration, I do not think we should have won the War.” Winston Churchill would acknowledge alcohol by saying “It saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the Doctors in the Empire.” Therefore alcohol and the role it played are very much overlooked, as it played a significant part in Soldiers and Civilian lives during both Wars.
Alcohol, particularly Rum was administered as a treatment for everything from Shellshock, wounds, hypothermia, flu right through to exhaustion! Most commanders issued double rations when men were going ‘over the top.’ Alcohol was also used as a motivational tool, a reward and a cure. It was a great way for men to unwind behind the lines in the local Estaminets and cafe’s.
On the downside it led men to be Court Martialed and imprisoned for drunkenness. It could also lead to forfeit of pay up to 28 days. Officers could also be forced to give up their commission or ‘Cashiering’ as it’s known.
The British Government became very concerned that drunkenness was affecting War production back at home so they introduced the Defence of the Realm Act. This meant that licensed premises could only open between certain hours and this wasn’t overturned until 2005, so affected us up until quite recently.
Q: How did you choose the breweries that are featured in the tour? Are there any that really stand out?
A: I picked these Breweries as they represent the Battles of WW1, WW2 and what the troops, and civilians, got up to behind the Lines. These Breweries are all establishments I’ve visited in the past. They are connected to the War by either producing alcohol for the troops or being associated on the Battlefield themselves.  For instance the Kazematten Brewery in Ypres is housed in the old Ramparts where once upon a time they used to produce the ‘trench gazette’ for the troops. It still produces the Wipers Times, but now in a form of a beer. It still retains the medicinal Saint Mary’s Thistle (blessed thistle) on the label of the beer which was originally found on the front page of the newspaper. They all have something unique.
Q: Compared to the other Leger Holidays Battlefield tours you have guided, how will Beer and Battlefields stand out to you?
A: It gives a different concept to the Battlefields themselves. It gives an insight as to how alcohol, food and tobacco influenced and shaped these soldiers in their everyday lives. It’s not all about Battles but rather what the troops did to relax and how they integrated with the civilians behind the lines. It’s also a look into how alcohol got a lot of Soldiers into trouble and also how many won Bravery Awards whilst under the influence.
Q: Whilst researching the tour, did you come across any interesting stories that you can give us as a sneak peek into?
A: As with Alcohol in general, it leads to some very bizarre stories and circumstances. All I can say it led to one particular soldier nearly marrying a cow to another nearly winning the Victoria Cross! These and many more stories will be told on the tour.
Q: Do you think the premise of the tour will attract people to the battlefields, who may not have considered it previously?
A: Yes indeed as not everyone wants to do a full day Battlefield Touring. We’ve had it many a time on tours where ‘the other half’s’ have bought a Battlefield Tour, as a present, and they feel obliged to come along. This way they get the best of both worlds. Supporting their partner’s and then going for drinks and guided brewery tours after. They can even chuck in a bit of shopping! It’s far more relaxed. It will also, hopefully, attract people who like their beer but would like a bit of culture and history to go alongside it. They complement each other very nicely.
Q: What is your favourite beer sampled on the tour?
A: I can’t remember! That’s a very tough question. As Belgium alone has over a 1000 beers it’s hard to narrow it down to one particular beer. Can I just say it’s still ongoing research?
Q: You’re quite active on social media, have you had any interesting comments or questions regarding the Beer and Battlefields tour?
A: It certainly seems to be going down very well, just like beers I expect! It’s very much straight forward as the title does what it says on the tin, or bottle in this case. I think a few people were concerned how this itinerary was going to pan out. Once I told them it’s going to be Battlefields in the morning, followed by the Brewery tours in the afternoon, it seemed to put their minds at ease. We didn’t want it getting too messy doing it the other way round! You can’t go wrong with Battlefields and then beer after.
Q: What are you most looking forward to when the tour gets on the road?
A: Meeting old and new faces. It’s great to be going to new places and the Hop Museum is a fantastic place to visit. All the Breweries offer something different with their own regional beers. It certainly gives a very different aspect to the two Great Wars from both sides.
Q: What three words would you use to describe this tour?
A: ‘Hoppy’ times ahead.
Our Beer and Battlefields tour will be hitting the road from June 2017 on either a 4 or 5 day break with executive and Silver Service travel Available. Staying at the 3* Novotel in the heart of Ypres, join us from just £399pp.
Follow Marc on Twitter: @Thegr8war
 

Paul Reed: Being a Battlefield Guide

In my capacity as Head Battlefield Guide for Leger, every year I get dozens of letters and emails from people asking how they can become battlefield guides, or could they come to work for us.

However, what is clear is that often few of these prospective guides have any real idea of what is involved, or what we really do. So what is a battlefield guide, and what do we do?!
I did my first paid job as a battlefield guide in April 1987 when I took members of the Henry Williamson Society around the WW1 battlefields, and I am lucky to have been working pretty much continuously ever since.

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Early Days with Leger on the Somme

How did I get into it?

It was simple, living in the south-east I had been in a good position to visit battlefields since the late 1970s and I had a good knowledge of the ground. First friends asked me to take them, then groups like this.
How I guided then was very different to how I do it now but certain things never change: it is not all about baffling groups with military terminology, rattling off lists of units, dates and commander’s names… it’s about people – and as I often say, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Most groups want to hear about the experience of war: what it was like, what people went through, how long they were there, what the conditions were like, what did they eat, where did they go to the toilet?
In that respect battlefield guiding is like story-telling, and that is not a bad analogy. I find that the most successful tours are ones that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Groups like to see a logical and understandable sequence to their visits, they like to understand how they are connected, they enjoy big themes, with some micro-detail to lighten the dark corners or blurred edges.
What they generally don’t want are ‘stands’ – a military style of battlefield tour that is fine for staff-rides but not for civilians, especially when discussing World Wars when the average British soldier was a civvie in Khaki themselves.

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Paul Reed Talking to WW2 Veteran in Italy

Reading, Talking and Knowing your Roads

Reading, reading and more reading is always the best approach for battlefield guides. Read everything, read the new books because people will ask about them, read the old books, the ones by those who were there – those are very important, because they give the ground-up viewpoint. But don’t ignore the historians: battlefield tours can be a way of educating a wider public, so being aware of recent historiography, new thoughts on your period: that is very important too. It also means you can never have enough books, which is a bonus as well.
Talking, talking and more talking is also the best approach too. If you are shy, or not good at public speaking, this is not a job for you. Don’t just talk when you are on the ground, either. That is what the microphone on your vehicle is for: tell people what they are seeing as you travel, link these places with stories from the books you have read. Which means you have to know your ground: perhaps the thing new guides invest the least in, is knowledge of the battlefield as it is today.
You need to know the roads, the tracks, the best routes and the worst ones too: and more importantly how this terrain fits into the picture of the conflict you are guiding. Without that, you could just be driving around in circles and no-one would really be the wiser. And with the technology we have now, there is no excuse: a far cry from the days when I poured over paper maps and tried to re-imagine the places I had been on the last trip over.

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Guide’s Recce at Waterloo

In the end, your work as a battlefield guide should always be an evolving process. Never be afraid to change, or listen to advice from others. Most working guides are happy to share knowledge and contacts, and help people out. As guides we should have a common bond, and we have a duty to share what we have learned not just with groups but with fellow guides, too.
I often get asked do I get fed up with it: doing the same thing, visiting the same places? But how could I, when you consider what these places are and what they stand for. I consider myself blessed being able to be among them so often. Fortunate to have spent so many days in the company of veterans of both World Wars on the ground where they fought as young men. Honoured to have helped relatives visit a family grave, and shed a few tears with them over it.
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Taking a Family Back to a Wargrave in Flanders

And lucky, so lucky, that what has driven me for most of my life is also my job: a job where I have watched the ashes of a last veteran scattered across a Somme field, seen an old man weep over the grave of the man who saved his life, and experienced the comradeship of common experience as I’ve walked the ground with groups where so much took place: a landscape which in itself is a last witness that speaks to us if we care to listen.
Because, finally, the joy of battlefield guiding is not what the guide gets from it, but what the group experiences, sees and understands. None of us are bigger than the subject; perhaps one of the best mantras any perspective guide should always bear in mind. Be true to your passion, and never forget the debt we owe the men and women we discuss: with that approach, you can never go wrong.
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Leger Coach on the Battlefields

 
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Paul Reed: Arnhem and Its Forgotten Battles

This month marks the annual commemoration of Operation Market Garden, a battle fought in Holland in September 1944.

And, normally associated in most people’s mind with the Dutch city of Arnhem, where the Airborne forces battled on bravely for nine days until it was clear the ground troops would never reach them, and just over 2,000 out of 10,000 men who were dropped on Arnhem got away over the Lower Rhine, either swimming through the rapid currents or evacuated in assault boats.
But what is the Battle of Arnhem? What is it about this aspect of Operation Market Garden we should remember and are there some forgotten battles of Arnhem during the Second World War?

Veterans at Arnhem70 in 2014
Veterans at Arnhem70 in 2014

Anyone of my generation, born in the 1960s, grew up on a diet of Airfix kits, battle action comics and war movies. One of the defining war films for me was always A Bridge Too Far and I went to see it countless times at our local cinema.
From an Arnhem point of view the focus is on the bridge, the final of the road bridges that need to be reached by the ground troops of XXX Corps to allow Operation Market Garden to be a success.
Arnhem Bridge 1944
Arnhem Bridge in 1944

But, is Arnhem just about the bridge? John Frost and his party of Airborne troops, which defended the bridge, went beyond the call of duty in holding on. But, the bigger battle, and the often forgotten one was that to the west of Arnhem, in Oosterbeek.
Walking round Oosterbeek today, it is a quiet suburb just as it was on the eve of WW2. There are some nice houses and clearly some wealthy people live here.
Go back more than 70 years, and this was the real Arnhem battleground. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting took place in gardens where children play, grenades tore apart front rooms now full of books and music, but you don’t have to look far to find railings bent by shrapnel or bullet nicks in the brickwork.
Battle damaged railings Oosterbeek
Battle damaged railings Oosterbeek

Here, in some respects, was the real Battle of Arnhem: urban warfare in and around the Oosterbeek perimeter, the place where most Arnhem veterans fought and where most of the casualties in the battle occurred.
Walking just beyond the Oosterbeek Perimeter you cross a railway bridge and follow a tree lined road to what many call the Airborne Cemetery.
Airborne graves at Arnhem
Airborne graves at Arnhem

More than 1,700 British and Commonwealth soldiers lie here, in a quiet glade, the majority of them the ‘Airborne carpet’, men of 1st Airborne Division who guard the dropzones for ever more. But, to the rear are other graves, from the final and perhaps most forgotten Battle of Arnhem: the one from April 1945 when Canadians supported by British troops liberated this part of the Netherlands.
This was the moment of victory and among the blood and sacrifice of Arnhem Bridge, it should never be forgotten and no trip to the battlefields here is really complete without following in the footsteps of all those men of Arnhem who passed this way in the last year of the war.
Arnhem Drop Zone
Arnhem Drop Zone

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Paul Reed: What The Somme Means to Me

I grew up on stories of the First World War from my grandmother: in 1916 she was a young girl in Colchester and remembered the wounded at the local station still with Somme mud on their uniforms, and recalled, often with tears, her own lost generation of cousins who never came home.

On the Somme 1988After years of reading about it, one summer more than 35 years ago I found myself walking the dusty tracks out from the town of Albert onto the fields and through the woods where this momentous battle took place. Walking the ground added a new dimension to my understanding not just of the Somme, but the whole First World War.
The ridges and the woods, and how they dominated the battlefield all made perfect sense and as I visited the area more and more it was clear the Somme was like many battlefields: it was a huge jigsaw of many pieces and gradually through visiting and researching, it’s story unfolded, the pieces came together, and it all made sense.
So many places on the Somme hold special memories for me during these early years of visiting: at Gommecourt I got access to a wood where one of the Great War veterans I knew had been dropping shells from his siege guns. Incredibly I found shell holes among the trees caused by his very guns!

Serre

the killing fields of Serre
The Killing Fields of Serre

Serre was always a special place to walk the ground, as I had interviewed veterans from Accrington, Barnsley, and Sheffield who had fought there. One thing they all recalled just before the whistles blew were the sound of skylarks singing high in the summer sky above the carnage that was about to unfold: and skylarks still sing at Serre, evoking those memories even a century later.
With veterans on the Somme 1985
With Veterans on the Somme 1985

Delville Wood

The woods of the Somme are incredibly atmospheric. In Delville Wood nature has triumphed after the place known as Devil’s Wood to the troops was reduced to mere matchsticks by the bombardments.
One tree from the original wood survived, but today the wood has regrown and is alive with flowers in the spring, and deer walk the rides where once battalion after battalion was destroyed. Somehow it all seems incredibly appropriate: that the return of the land to what it once was makes the sacrifice bearable, if not worthwhile.
Delville Wood 1916Among the trees of Delville Wood today
 

Newfoundland

Few trenches remain on the Somme, but at the Newfoundland Park a whole battlefield landscape was preserved not only making it possible to understand the static nature of WW1 but it is a place where you can sit and imagine the whistles blowing and men walking into machine-gun oblivion on the black day of 1st July 1916.
Here I think of my grandmother’s brother: shot through the legs as he went Over the Top that day.

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The Trenches at Newfoundland Park

I’ve walked the Somme a thousand times, and I hope to continue to walk and visit it for many years to come, whether for television, with a Leger group or just on my own. It is a place that haunts you, and along its dusty lanes, and under the trees of its many woods, the voices of a generation of men still resonate.
The Somme will stand for so much to so many: sacrifice, tragedy or sheer bloody murder. But for me, it will always be a place where I can focus on the essence of the Great War: ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances, doing their bit in something they knew was bigger than them, and which defined the deaths of those who fell and the lives of the majority who came home. The Somme changed them all, and a hundred years later it can change us.
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