Posted by: sommecourt | 31/12/2013

Long Journey: Battlefields, Books & 2013

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It has certainly been a busy 2013. I started the year having just taken over as Head Battlefield Guide for the entire Leger Holidays range of battlefield tours, having previously been just responsible for their WW1 programme. This new development was about to take me on a very long journey which by the close of the year saw me travel over 35,000 miles around Europe visiting sites from the two World Wars.

Having a free hand to develop the Leger range of tours meant revisiting what we already did and bringing much of it up to date. This began with a couple of weeks travelling round Europe following the story of the Holocaust, a particularly poignant one for me as my grandmothers French family died in Auschwitz in 1944. From here I moved on to a whole scope of WW2 battlefields in Belgium, France, Holland and Germany, and it was great being able to share these many travels with friends and followers on Twitter.

While working on the WW2 tours I also had one eye on the Great War as the WW1 Centenary drew close. Aside from bringing in the obvious 1914 related tours I wanted to use the centenary to tell the wider story of WW1 and developed the ‘Western Front End to End’ tour which over seven days would take travellers along all 450 miles of the Western Front getting a greater concept of its geography and that the war was more than just the Somme and Passchendaele. It proved to be one of our best-selling tours for 2014, which was pleasing.

Outside of battlefield tours a lot of work for 2013 revolved around TV projects in preparation for the WW1 Centenary. Highlights included working on all four episodes of Jeremy Paxman’s BBC flagship WW1 series with a range of producers and production staff, all keen to do a good job and not to re-tell just the obvious WW1 stories, which was refreshing. This TV work continued off and on all year with a trip to Flanders in December to be filmed by 360Production for a programme about Ireland in the Great War.

Work on my own books has been slack for 2013 but I have almost completed a new edition of Walking Ypres and have started work on some eBooks for 2014. It’s been good to see some friends bring their own books to a finish, with Alex Churchill’s book on Etonians in WW1 soon to come out. Good friend Professor Peter Doyle has been very prolific this year with his Remembering Tommy being one of my favourite books of the year for not only its quality but superb production values making it a handsome book to own in every respect.

Twitter and Blogs have kept me busy in 2013. With over 8,500 followers as the year comes to an end I’m pleased and excited by the way history has developed onTwitter, and really enjoy interacting there sharing travels, photos and knowledge, and often learning so much myself, which is fantastic. Great War Photos has gone from strength to strength with over a quarter of a million unique visitors since it opened and my WW1 Centenary blog getting more and more visitors. Both of these will be very active indeed during 2014.

Next year I might not do as many miles, but with the anniversaries of both 1914 and 1944 to look forward to it, it is likely to be even busier, if that is possible! Next year is a wonderful time to spread knowledge, enthusiasm and also educate, and while the dissenting voices about the WW1 Centenary do grow – and I have some fears myself – I hope many will take it as a great opportunity to do all these things and more.

See you on the battlefields!

Posted by: sommecourt | 04/11/2013

Book Review: Heroes Of The Line

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Scott Addington is an enthusiastic amateur military historian with a strong presence on Twitter and someone keen to make the complex world of military history understandable to the ordinary person. As such he has produced an interesting general account of WW1 and a good iPhone App using infographics; he currently has some more titles in the pipeline for the WW1 Centenary.

This book is somewhat different as it chronicles a journey he made and which few ever have – following the entire length of the Western Front from the far end in the Vosges mountains on the border of Switzerland up to the Belgian coast where it petered out in the sand. The journey was made in October and November 2009 and rather than walk it as others, such as Nigel Jones, have done they instead decided to cycle the route. The book is an entertaining and engaging account of this journey, and regular visitors to the battlefields will find much to enjoy here. It is not a literary masterpiece but it is a good read and gives an insight into the changing, and often challenging nature of the Great War battlefields. One of its strengths is that it dips in and out of personal stories of men connected to the places Scott and his friends visited; these are the ‘heroes of the line’; and in some cases he goes into great detail about them. A recommended title for anyone even remotely thinking of a similar journey!

The book is available in Kindle format, although I reviewed a printed version. It can be purchased via Amazon: Heroes Of The Line.

Posted by: sommecourt | 14/10/2013

Book Review: Western Front 1914-1916

Over many periods of British military history commanders in the field have written up immediate accounts of their operations and sent them home to the War Office and politicians back home; these were the so-called ‘despatches’ and where the phrase ‘mentioned in despatches‘ comes from.

This continued at the time of the Great War and British commanders like Sir John French and then Douglas Haig both compiled despatches from the front, as did other commanders in the various theatres of war. These were often published in the London Gazette but this new volume brings together the main despatches from the period 1914 to 1916 and puts them in one complete volume. In doing so it covers key battles from Mons to First Ypres in 1914, the British offensives of 1915 through to the Battle of the Somme.

This is a very useful book and while the despatches were written with one eye on wartime censorship, they give a good, contemporary account of some of the key battles of the First World War.

A book very good for family historians wanting a readable and accessible overview of the first two years of the war.

Posted by: sommecourt | 01/10/2013

Leger Holidays: Battlefield Guides Wanted

Leger Holidays is the leading UK Battlefield Tour Operator for adults and we have been organising specialist battlefield tours since 1997. Annually we take thousands of people to the battlefields and have a much envied and respected group of battlefield historians who guide our regular tours.

The year 2014 sees a number of anniversaries including the Great War Centenary and the 70th Anniversary of the Normandy landings.

As we have very high demand for this period, we are currently looking to recruit battlefield guides to work on the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, a tour that departs just prior to the 6th June 2014, and also a special tour around the same period that covers aspects of both WW1 and WW2.

Prospective guides need to be physically fit, aged 21 or over, have a full UK passport, the right to work within the EU, and have no criminal convictions.

Applicants must have a passion for military history, a good knowledge of operations on D-Day and in Normandy in 1944, knowledge of the Normandy battlefields as they are today and ability to project their knowledge to a group in a meaningful way. Those for the combined WW1 and WW2 tour need to have a good knowledge of these periods and battlefields in Flanders, at Dunkirk and in Normandy.

Applicants should send a covering email introducing themselves and attaching an up to date CV to: legerguide@gmail.com

Interviews will be held in either London or Rotherham during the winter of 2013/14 and will be conducted by Paul Reed. In some cases interview by Skype or Facetime is also possible.

The closing date for applications is 31st October 2013.

Posted by: sommecourt | 28/09/2013

Book Review: Somme Intelligence

Somme Intelligence, Fourth Army HQ 1916 by William Langford (Pen & Sword Books 2013, ISBN 9781781590829, 160pp, illustrated throughout, £19.99)

This rather curiously entitled book is in fact a fascinating insight into what the British Army knew of the German Army in terms of its activities and morale during the Battle of the Somme. The material is based on notebooks compiled by an Accrington Pal who served on the Fourth Army Intelligence Staff and despite the book’s title it in fact covers a period from October 1915 to October 1916.

The material is largely unedited and there is a brief introduction from the author about intelligence work in the Great War. Oddly there is no index and the work stops abruptly nearly a month before the end of the Battle of the Somme. The book is heavily illustrated with images from German sources, many of which come from wartime publications like An Der Somme but they are relevant and well placed within the text. The documents reproduced are not given any context and some aspects discussed in them not explained, but they do give a good idea of what sort of intelligence information on the Germany Army was filtering back to headquarters. Documents like these are not unique – there are many thousands of them in the National Archives – and the selection of them here might appear random but it is likely they were what the original wartime compiler was able to keep.

Not a book for everyone, but for those with a detailed interest in the Battle of the Somme this is a useful addition to the library.

The book is available from the Pen & Sword website.

Posted by: sommecourt | 27/09/2013

Book Review: The Marne 1914, A Battlefield Guide

The Marne 1914: A Battlefield Guide by Andrew Uffindell (Pen & Sword Books 2013, ISBN 978-1-84884-801-6, 215pp, Illustrated throughout, maps, £15.99)

The Battle of the Marne was the first decisive battle of the Great War and although British troops were involved, there have been few published works in English and the last battlefield guide dedicated to the area was published by Michelin in the 1920s.

This new guide by respected military historian Andrew Uffindel fills a massive gap in our knowledge of this battle and the battlefield today. It is well written and the illustrations are a mix of contemporary images along with those of the ground as it is today. There is a colour section, and the maps are detailed and clear.

The book is broken up into seven tours looking at the area where the first fighting on the Marne took place, the Battle of the Ourcq and key areas connected with the rest of the operation. There are separate chapters on locations further afield along with advice on further reading and sources.

This is a fascinating book and an important contribution to our understanding of the Great War battlefields as it gives a clear lead to those who want to explore beyond Flanders and the Somme and do not know how. Highly recommended.

The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

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Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to Operation Market Garden (Third edition, Pen & Sword Books 2013, ISBN 978 1 78159 378 3, illustrated throughout with colour fold-out map, 278pp, £16.99)

Major & Mrs Holt are well known for kick-starting the revival in battlefield tours in the late 1970s when they ran their very successful Holts Battlefields company. While they have not been associated with that company for some time, they have put their many years of experience into producing very popular full-colour battlefield guidebooks to both WW1 and WW2 battlefields, often along with an accompanying full colour map.

This new 2013 edition of their Operation Market Garden guide comes with such a map and while the main body of the text is largely unchanged since the original 2001 version, there is a whole section of updated information at the start of the book, again with colour images of many of these new sites or memorials. GPS locations are given in this section, but not in the original text, which is a bit of a shame. Personally I would have preferred this information in the main book, but of course that would have meant a complete re-write.

The main body of the book starts with a good, concise historical introduction to Operation Market Garden and then moves on to five battlefield itineraries which can be used to follow a specific route with the aid of the map, or are easily dipped into if you are doing your own tour. The tours cover the whole of Market Garden’s area of operation from the Belgian-Dutch border through the advance of XXX Corps and on to the area around Arnhem. Each tour area is then broken down into stops with information on each location, interspersed often with personal accounts and sometimes photographs or sketch maps. The information is clear and readable, and presented in a very accessible way. There are also separate sections on Allied and German wargraves and a section on Tourist Information.

In the past I have found some Holts guides more useful than others, but my feeling when this book originally came out was that this was one of their finest volumes, and that feeling has not changed on reading this new edition. It remains the only complete guide to the battlefields of Operation Market Garden and the map arguably the best for any battlefield they have ever examined. I cannot recommend this book too highly for anyone thinking of making a journey following the ground troops from Joes Bridge to Nijmegen or the Airborne forces at Arnhem, remembering one of the greatest – and fascinating – British gambles of the Second World War.

Copies can be ordered from the publishers website: Pen & Sword Books.

Posted by: sommecourt | 27/08/2013

Book Review: The Gallipoli Oak

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The Gallipoli Oak by Ian Dawson & Martin Purdy (Moonraker Publishing 2013, ISBN 978 9554472 1 1, paperback, 174pp, illustrated, £10)

When I first visited Gallipoli many years ago I came across a memorial at the foot of an English oak tree in the Redoubt Cemetery at Krithia to a young officer who had been killed there. I had often wondered what the story behind the tree and this memorial to Eric Duckworth was, and now this new book brings the background to it into sharp focus.

Duckworth was from a middle class Rochdale family who served with the local Territorial battalion, the 1/6th Lancashire Fusiliers, part of the 42nd (East Lancs) Division, as an officer commanding a platoon of men. The book is not just a chronicle of Duckworth’s short life, but it also retells the story and experience of the whole battalion during their trying time in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. The book is highly readable and there are many accounts from local lads relating their experiences of the conditions at Gallipoli and the loss of local men; indeed in that respect it is a very personal account. The fascinating story of the tree, carried to Gallipoli in a bucket of water by Duckworth’s father in 1922 is also related and there is an excellent account of the Gallipoli battlefields in the 1930s which will be of interest to anyone with a fascination for the post-war battlefield pilgrimages.

A highly recommended account, and a book that has many unique photographs and a complete list of men from the unit who died at Gallipoli.

The book can be ordered from the authors: www.thegallipolioak.co.uk

Posted by: sommecourt | 15/04/2013

A Tribute To John Dray

The generation of the Second World War are fading fast; several WW2 veterans I knew passed away this winter and now comes the news that my old friend John Dray (above) has died.

John Dray grew up in the shadow of the Great War, a period in history that would fascinate him for the rest of his life. His father was a Kitchener’s Army volunteer who was wounded three times in the war, wounds that would eventually kill him when John was only twelve. For John his father was always his hero, and he became obsessed with reading about his father’s war.

During the Second World War John watched his elder brothers go to war; one in the artillery, one later in the LRDG and SAS and one in the Glider Pilot Regiment. John initially joined the Home Guard and made several attempts at enlisting under-age, finally joining up aged only 17 – although he had convinced them he was 19 – in 1943. He was proud to be posted to the same regiment his dad had fought with, the Northamptonshire Regiment, and served with their 5th Battalion in Italy at the Sangro River, Monte Cassino and later in the Liri Valley, where he was wounded by a sniper. In late 1944 he was transferred to the 2/7th Queens and was badly wounded by an S-Mine in the attack on Faenza in December 1944. That was his war over.

John at the grave of his old company commander, Cassino 2002

After WW2 John returned to his interested in the Great War and met Tony Spagnoly when they worked together; Tony would go on to write many books on WW1 and John took him across on his first trip to the battlefields. Together John and Spag began to take veterans back to the battlefields when few others did and in the 1960s during the 50th Anniversary he went on every major anniversary trip, with a coach load of veterans behind him each time. The things he saw and heard then would fill a book.

I was lucky to know John for more than 25 years; we went on many battlefield trips together from Gallipoli to the Western Front and many WW2 sites as well. Ten years ago I went with John back to the places where he had fought in Italy and the recording below comes from those trips, standing on the Snakeshead Ridge in front of Monte Cassino.

John was also one of the original team of Leger holidays battlefield guides who worked with me on their tours from 1997 and until he retired in 2003 took many thousands to the old battlefields and gave them the benefit of his incredible knowledge and amazing stories.

I realise each time I write one of these tributes to old friends and veterans I have known that they must sound the same, but for John I find it hard to put him into words. He was simply one of the most incredible men I ever knew; a tough soldier, a man who lived the ‘good life’ in rural Devon and was at one with nature and an incredible raconteur and good drinking buddy. And I shall miss him terribly.

Posted by: sommecourt | 19/03/2013

Crumbling History: The Nuremberg Stadium

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Nuremberg stadium for the first time; it’s sheer size is overwhelming and when you consider what it symbolised and who once stood there, on a cold March day it was chilling in every way to walk around the site.

Nuremberg 1945

But one thing I noticed was this landmark of the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ is crumbling, and in places falling down. It took battle damage in 1945 and much of the original structure has been removed over the years; as such it appears to have damaged the integrity of much of the stonework. A main road runs close by with heavy traffic and the site is regularly used for public events, although not the type it was originally built for. While scrubbed out, graffiti and vandalism are obviously commonplace.

Crumbling Nuremberg

What to do with such a structure? Given what it once represented should it perhaps be left to turn to dust?

Some damage was done during the fighting in 1945.

I can hardly be called an apologist for the Nazi regime, as this post will show, but as an historian I view any form of history crumbling away as this is as a bad thing. Buildings are as important as documents in a dusty archive and to let such a structure fall to pieces is a crime; to understand what the Third Reich was and what its aims were we have to able to show future generations places like this. Sadly it seems locally there is little desire to do anything; but it was once like that in Berlin and now there is active interest in preserving Nazi period buildings. One can only hope it will change and as we move towards the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War there might be a  local initiative to ensure important locations like the Nuremberg Stadium are preserved.

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