Guidebooks for the WW1 Western Front Battlefields
The First World War touched the lives of many thousands of people at the time around the world, both on the fighting fronts and on the home front. As a consequence, it has also touched the lives of over three generations who now look back at that time, some 90 years past, and who want to know more about what the men and women went through in the so-called “war to end all wars”. The recent growth over the past ten years in the number of visitors to the First World War battlefields may well be the result of a growing fascination with family history and the inclusion of First World War studies in the United Kingdom school curriculum. With the passing of the last few Veterans of that war our personal connection with that period of history has, sadly, finally been broken.
The history of touring the WW1 battlefields and guidebooks produced for non-military visitors dates back to 1919. Soon after the end of the war many people wanted to make the journey to Belgium and France to see the battlefields of the Western Front for themselves, to mourn, to remember or to re-visit. The cost and time to make such a trip meant it was impossible for some, but others did manage to do it. There would have been ex-servicemen visiting places where they had served in the military, others were wanting to make a pilgrimage to find the grave of a father, son, uncle or brother. Welfare organizations such as Toc H, the Ypres League and the British Legion assisted people with some of these journeys in the form of organized tours.
Guidebooks to the WW1 battlefields made an appearance soon after the war to assist people with their travel arrangements, accommodation and to tell them what there was to see in the ravaged landscapes of the Western Front. The local people of the destroyed towns and villages were beginning to return to their properties, many of which were in ruins. In starting to rebuild their shattered lives, the visitors coming to see the battlefields were indeed a source of income in the difficult years immediately after the war.
The following guidebooks are recommended as sources of useful information about the battle sites, overviews about the battles, what there is to see there and how to find the locations. They are useful to read and study before a visit aswell as helpful to have with you on your trip.
Battleground Europe Series
Battleground Europe is an ever expanding series of excellent guidebooks focusing on particular places and actions. They are especially useful if you are wanting to focus your visit on an area where a relative was in action. The series is edited by Nigel Cave, who is also the author of a number of the volumes. These books are a handy A5 size, so are easy and light to carry. They are each written by an author with a specialist knowledge of each specific area, which offers the reader in-depth historical information with accompanying maps, sketches, and photographs, together with tourist information, suggested walking and vehicle routes. These guides are suitable for the first time visitor, for family historians wanting to follow in the footsteps of a relative in a specific battle area, and also for the serious student of First World War history.
For more about Battleground Europe: Airfields & Airmen, Arras by Mike O'Connor and to see other books in the series see Guidebooks to Buy Online below.
“Before Endeavours Fade”
In 1976 Rose Coombs published Before Endeavours Fade, a guidebook to the major battlefields of the First World War in Belgium and France. This book has been revised and reprinted several times since Rose's death in the mid 1980s and has become the most popular, user-friendly, well-thumbed and, for many regular battlefield visitors, the most treasured, of all the First World War guidebooks. It is highly recommended for first time visitors to the battlefields, and is likely to be the one book that is always packed for repeat visits.
Rose worked as an archivist at the Imperial War Museum for many years. She dedicated much of her own time to compiling this guidebook. She used current Michelin maps to guide the visitor by car on routes around the battle areas visiting the significant cemeteries, memorials, museums, battle remains and sites with a First World War connection. Her father served in the 1914-1918 war and she was amazed to visit the tunnels under Arras one day and find her own father's inscription carved into the chalk of the tunnel wall. The title of the guide book, “Before Endeavours Fade”, is said to represent the letters B.E.F., which stands for the British Expeditionary Force. The front cover has a black and white photograph of the British 41st Division memorial at Flers on the Somme battlefield.
For more information and to buy this excellent guidebook see Guidebooks to Buy Online below.
Australian Forces Battlefield Guidebooks
A good guidebook published in 1994 is the Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front, 1916-18 by the late John Laffin. Copies are relatively rare to find but it may be available from second hand booksellers or on loan from libraries.
This book is highly recommended as a very good guide to the Australians on the Western Front, what to visit and where to find the Australian actions in France and Belgium.
Holts Battlefield Guides
Tonie and Valmai Holt are the authors of a number of popular guide books for visits to the First World War battlefields. As the founders of Major and Mrs Holts' Battlefield Tours in the 1970s they took many hundreds of travellers on coach tours to visit the memorials, cemeteries and places where the battles took place. In those early days they were the only company providing this opportunity for the general public, and as such were the forerunners of the modern battlefield tours which take visitors on Remembrance pilgrimages and study tours. In the early 1990s the Holts sold the battlefield tour company in order to concentrate on their writing. They embarked on a series of illustrated guide books and accompanying maps for the First and Second World War battlefields.
For this guide and other Holts guides see Guidebooks to Buy Online below.
One of the most comprehensive series of guidebooks, the earliest of which were published even before the end of the First World War, was that produced by the Michelin Tire (tyre) Company. Some of the guides were also printed in German. The guides contained many “before and after” photographs, historical information from authentic official sources, tourist information and maps useful to visitors.
Although orginal copies are becoming harder to find and accordingly more expensive, some of the original volumes have been reprinted by G H Smith & Son of Easingwold, York. These are now available at a very reasonable price and are recommended reading for the first time visitor to the battlefields and are a “must have” for any First World War bookshelf.
To buy copies of the Michelin Guides see the G H Smith bookshop website at:
On the Trail of the Poets
A number of guides in the Battleground Europe guidebook series describe the places where some of the most well-known British poets served on the Western Front. Renowned WW1 historians Helen McPhail and Philip Guest have contributed books to the Battleground Europe series. They have played a major role in discovering the places on the battlefields where Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon were inspired by their experience of war to write their poetry and prose.
Titles in the series:
- Edmund Blunden
- Wilfred Owen
- Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves
Bonneton Tourist Guide & Mapbooks (France)
The maps listed below offer sites of historical, natural and archeological interest and curiosity for visitors to these regions in France.
- Somme - 100 lieux pour les curieux by Jean-Francois Leblond. Publisher: Christine Bonneton (8 Nov 2010), 192 pages, Language: French, ISBN-10: 2862534900 and ISBN-13: 978-2862534909.
- Marne by Georges Clause, Nicole Fiérobe, Michel Tamine, Jean Pappe, Danielle Quéruel, Roland Choiselle, Claude Duménil. Publisher: Christine Bonneton, 320 pages, Language: French
- Champagne-Ardenne Patrick Demouy, Roger Tebib, Renée Tebib, Michel Tamine, Alain Devos, Claude Duménil, Christiane Choiselle, Roland Choiselle. Publisher: Christine Bonneton, 320 pages, Language: French
Visiting the WW1 Western Front Battlefields
Information and advice for visitors, especially those visiting for the first tiem, on planning a trip to the Western Front battlefields in Belgium and France:
If you are thinking of visiting the battlefields of the Western Front, especially as a first time visitor, it is worth considering travelling with an organized tour or joining a half day or whole day tour once you are there. There are lots of sites to see but learning about what happened and why some of the battlefield sites, memorials and cemeteries are where they are will be enhanced by the knowledge and expertise of a guide. For a listing of battlefield tour operators and guides local to the battlefields see our page at:
WW1 Publications and Book Sellers
For a list of online book sellers specialising in a wide range of original publications, modern guidebooks for the battlefields and military history for the First World War see our page at:
Airfields & Airmen of Arras (Battleground Europe) [Paperback]
by Mike O'Connor
Published by Wharncliffe Books (28 April 2004). 144 pages. ISBN-10: 1844151255, ISBN-13: 978-1844151257
Before Endeavours Fade [Paperback]
by Rose E B Coombs
Published by After the Battle (May 2006). 248 pages. ISBN-10: 1870067622, ISBN-13: 978-1870067621
Major and Mrs. Holt's Concise Guide to the Western Front - North (Holts Battlefield Guides)
by Tonie & Valmai Holt
Pen & Sword Books Ltd (6 Jun 2002). 283 pages. ISBN-10: 0850529336, ISBN-13: 978-0850529333
Major and Mrs.Holt's Battlefield Guide to Ypres Salient (Major & Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide)
by Tonie & Valmai Holt
Pen & Sword Books Ltd; Pap/Map edition (14 Feb 1997). 272 pages. ISBN-10: 0850525519, ISBN-13: 978-0850525519
Major and Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide to the Somme [Paperback]
by Tonie & Valmai Holt
Pen & Sword Books Ltd 6th edition (25 April 2008). 254 pages. ISBN-10: 0850524148, ISBN-13: 978-0850524147
Wilfred Owen: On a Poet's Trail - On the Trail of the Poets of the Great War (Battleground Europe) [Paperback]
by Helen McPhail and Philip Guest
Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd; illustrated edition (12 Aug 1998). 160 pages. ISBN-10: 0850526140, ISBN-13: 978-0850526141
Sassoon & Graves - On the Trail of the Poets of the Great War (Battleground Europe) [Paperback]
by Helen McPhail and Philip Guest
Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd; First edition (15 Mar 2001). 160 pages. ISBN-10: 0850528380, ISBN-13: 978-0850528381
Somme - 100 lieux pour les curieux (Encyclopedies Bonneton)
by Jean-Francois Leblond
Published by Christine Bonneton maps. Edition: November 2008. 192 pages. ISBN-10: 2862534900 and ISBN-13: 978-2862534909