There a number of reasons for wanting to visit European battlefields. A desire to see where a father, grandfather or great-grandfather fought, a passion for military and regimental history or simply an interest in seeing where the battles that changed history took place.
I have focused on a few 20th century battlefields in Europe that changed the course of history.
Around the Belgian town of Ypres Allied troops faced the German during the First World War, in what became known as the Ypres Salient.
The scars of war still remain in the form of remnants of trenches and bunkers. A visit to the trenches and tunnel at Sanctuary Wood (Hill 62) and to Essex Farm where a bunker which was used as an Advanced Dressing Station has been preserved are well worth a visit.
In Ypres there is a newly renovated In Flanders Field Museum which focuses on the First World War and its impact both across Europe and more locally in Flanders. Elsewhere The Memorial Museum, Passchendaele focusses more on the fighting in the Ypres Salient and in particular the battle after which it is named. It includes reconstructed dugouts and, outside, a trench system which gives an insight into the conditions the men fought in.
No visit to Ypres would be complete without attending the Menin Gate Memorial Service. Every evening at 20:00 the Last Post is played in remembrance of those missing. It is a very simple and moving ceremony and a fitting end to a visit to Ypres.
The Somme, France
Another of the great battles of the Great War was the Battle of the Somme. The battle, one of the bloodiest of the First World War, will always be remembered for the staggering loss of life on both sides. The Thiepval Memorial designed by Edward Lutyens commemorates the 72,246 soldiers with no known grave. There is a visitor centre close by.
Close to the memorial is one of several preserved trenches. The devastation that scarred the land can be seen at Melville Wood where the craters, now mostly covered in grass can still be made out. This wood was utterly destroyed by German artillery except for one hornbeam tree which is still flourishing today.
There are museums at almost every memorial sight but the two worth visiting if time is short are the Historical de la Grande Guerre in Perone and in the town of Albert the Museé Somme 1916.
In just over two decades Europe was embroiled in yet another war with Germany. In 1944 the Allies launched a counter-attack in Normandy.
It was on the beaches of Normandy on the 6th June 1955, during World War II, that Allied forces once again set foot in Western Europe. The fighting was fierce but the allies gained a foothold and formed a beach head from which they advanced inland.
The beaches, still known by their codenames, each have their own memorials and museums dedicated to the exploits of the men who fought there. However, for a more general overview of the D-Day landings visit the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église, the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum in Bayeaux and the Landing Museum in Arromanches.
Arnhem, The Netherlands
The battle at Arnhem will always be known as A Bridge Too Far after the two films of the same name. Operation Market Garden was a plan to capture three bridges over the Rhine and Maas rivers at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. The first two were captured but troops never reached the bridge at Arnhem. British paratroops at the bridge fought until they ran out of ammunition. Meanwhile in Oosterbeck near Arnhem more paratroops faced unexpected resistance and were forced to withdraw.
The battle is commemorated all over Arnhem even in people’s front gardens. Following the Liberation Route is a great way to see the important sites in the battle. The bridge, named after Major John Frost who commanded the troops taking the bridge is a good place to start. There is a small visitor centre that explains the battle for the bridge in some detail.
There are two museums worth visiting; The Arnhem War Museum 40-45 and the Airborne Museum Hartenstein in Oosterbeck. The latter is housed in the Allied headquarters which is set in extensive parkland. It is here that you will find the Airborne Experience; a multi media experience that puts you in the middle of the battle.
There were other lesser known battles across Europe that only those with a passion for military history may have heard of.
On 30th November 1939, not long after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. Despite overwhelming odds the Finnish Defence Force held the Red Army at bay along much of the eastern border. Known as the Winter War there are a number of museums and trench systems to visit. Taking a tour is the best way to see these as the distances are further than the World War battlefields. Two war museums, one in Kuhio and one in Suomussalmi depict the story of the war. On the Raate Road, between the two towns are preserved trench systems, dugouts and restored armaments.
Soča Valley, Slovenia
In the Great War this beautiful steep-sided valley was the scene of bitter and bloody fighting between Italian troops and those of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The Isonzo front, as it was known, was reputed to be the bloodiest frontline of the Great War. Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver there and used his experiences to write A Farewell to Arms.
There are numerous relics of the fighting along the valley and one of the best war museums I have visited is in Kobarid.
If you are planning a trip abroad don’t forget to take out suitable travel insurance beforehand.