Major & Mrs. Holt’s Concise Illustrated Battlefield Guide – The Western Front- North (book review)

Major and Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guides

Major (Tonie) and Mrs (Valmai) Holt are generally acknowledged as the founders of the modern battlefield tour. Also they are founder members of the Western Front Association and Honorary Member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. Major and Mrs Holt have been writing a series of guide books since the 1990s. The series includes travel directions, military history, anecdotes and tourist information. Since then they have published a huge series of guides as well as maps about battles in the First and Second World War.

Their tours have a sound reputation because of the depth of the research. The Holt battlefield guides have become a household name.

Check out the overview of guides and maps available on Amazon.

The guide

This guide is part of a series of two volumes about battles on the Western Front. One of them is about Northern fronts, and yes you guessed right, the other part is about battles in the South. The latter contains the Battle of the Somme and Verdun, as well as Cambrai, and the Marne. Below you may find an overview of the battles in this part.

The guide starts off with directions how to use it, such as setting your mileage trip to 0 before starting. Other important directions are the usage of waterproof footwear and clothing, taking binoculars and a torch. Further reference is made to Michelin maps you can use. Also restaurants and hotels are described. However it is wise to sometimes bring food with you as once in a while you may not find a restaurant.

The book guides gives a brief background of the German plan to conquer Belgium and France made by field marshall Von Schlieffen, as well as the reasons for First World War, which started off with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. (After the initial failure of the assassination Franz Ferdinand decided to go to the local hospital to visit the victims of the initial grenade attack by Cabrinovic. By accident the car took a wrong turn. At that moment Gravilo Prinzip just left the café he visited. Prinzip spotted the car an immediately drew his FN Model 1910 pistol and shot the royal couple who died soon afterwards. ( note))

Also each tour includes personal accounts of the people involved.

For example: ‘Early on that memorable day the Cornwalls, after wretched night course after stood to arms. It was still dark and their clothes were still sodden with rain: many had not slept at all. Stand To was the worst hour of the day: chilled through and drowsy’ (DCLI Regiment history).

The guides contains information about the following battles:

  • Mons (1914-1918)
  • Le Cateau-Ors (1914-1918)
  • Notre Dame de Lorette, Artois (1914-1915)
  • Yser (1914)
  • Ypres (first (1914), second (1915), third (Passchendaele) (1917), fourth (Lys) (1918)).
  • Neuve Chappelle (1915)
  • Aubers Ridge (1915)
  • Festubert-Givenchy (1915)
  • Loos (1915)
  • Fromelles (1916)
  • Vimy Ridge (1917)

Each battle starts with a summary, followed by a detailed description ( opening moves, what happened).

Each tour includes a route, the distance, the expected time, extra places to visit, the duration, the base town and a map. A recommended stop is indicated by clear marker on the map and the probable time you wish to stay there. Also the GPS location this mentioned so you can easily find it. For each point of interest you may find a detailed description.

A brief example of the guide: Third Battle of Ypres (June 7th 2017-November 10th 2017)

‘Rain has turned everything into a quagmire and the shell holes are full of water. Duckboards are everywhere leading to the front line, but Jerry has these well taped and frequently shells them or sprays them with indirect machine gun fire … Guns of all calibres are everywhere, in places wheel to wheel. The debris of war is lying about. Broken guns, limbers, horses blown to blazes. But very few human bodies, for they have all been swallowed up in the mud and water of this horrible sector. It seems madness on the part of Higher Authority to expect and advance over this indescribable morass.‘ (The diary of a Sergeant in the Somerset Light Infantry).

Than the guide summarizes the battle. The British are able to capture Messines Ridge. On July 31th the British attacked again but this without success. They got stuck. The assault earned General Haig the title of  ‘Butcher’. Still the British are able to seize Passchendaele after 16 weeks of bloody fighting.

This summary is followed by a more elaborate description of the battle. The passage also puts the battle in a strategic perspective.

The directions contain (all) places to visit, among others well known places as Yorkshie trench, Langemarck German cemetery, Tyne Cot British Cemetary, Passchendaele Memorial Museum, Zonnebeke, Polygon Wood,  Hooge Crater, Menin Gate, Hill 60 and  Spanbroekmolen (Pool of Peace).

Also the Flanders Field Museum is extensively described. (I have been there and it is worth a visit).

All places of interested are described, mostly in detail.

If you study this guide, and stick to the directions, you will see everything the battlefield has to offer.