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Battlefield Tour Guide

John Lee is a Battlefield Tour Guide

You cannot be interested in military history for long without realising that, to truly understand operational matters, you must visit the ground and see how the terrain shaped events. If one good picture “is worth a thousand words”, then one visit to a battlefield is worth a library of books on the subject!

There were youthful excursions to Waterloo, Quatre Bras and Ligny, besides several sites in Britain. But it was the friendship with Brian Bond after my time doing the War Studies MA at King’s College London that began my long association with the major battlefields of Europe. After I graduated there was a period of some years in which I took students and staff to the Somme as part of the study course.

Then I made a series of three tours for the London Branch of the Western Front Association. We looked at the London Regiment and the Royal Fusiliers on the Somme, in the Ypres salient and at Arras. There were also annual tours by the British Commission for Military History where I often gave one or more ‘stands’, usually related the First Word War, but where my interest in the Napoleonic Wars was renewed.

As my reputation as a military historian grew, so the visits became ever more interesting. On two occasions the staff of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra teamed up with the staff of the Imperial War Museum, London for hugely beneficial joint tours. The first was to the Western Front in France and Belgium, covering Ypres, the Somme, Bullecourt and the advance to victory in 1918. I was asked by the IWM team to accompany them as an expert on the Salient. The second was a trip to Gallipoli, where British and Australian historians gave a joint tour of those great 1915 battlefields.

By various means of contact, three military organisations have used me as a tour guide – 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment asked me to conduct a tour of the Somme for their officers’ Professional Advancement Training (PAT); the Army Presentation Team got me for a short trip taking in Ypres, Vimy Ridge and the Somme; and the Office of Strategic Planning at the Ministry of Defence asked me to accompany a ‘Staff Ride’ to the Gallipoli Peninsula, where it was intriguing to hear modern officers suggest ways they might have tackled the strategic and tactical problems of that controversial campaign.

The most important of these military professional tours was my involvement with the British Army’s OPERATION REFLECT, its commemoration of the 1916 Somme campaign. There was a full scale recce in 2015, in which I headed a syndicate of 9 officers all newly returned from combat in Afghanistan. In 2016 the full centenary tour saw me lead a syndicate of 12 officers, including one each from Australia, France and Germany.  They greatly increased their understanding of what soldiers had to cope with in 1916; I came greatly to understand, and admire, what our soldiers have to put up with today.

My principal work as a battlefield guide was, however, through the justly famous Holt’s Tours. From small beginnings in 1998 (when an anniversary Great War tour filled suddenly and needed a second coach and guide), my work with them steadily increased, especially since I retired from full-time work in 2006.

First World Tours have included the introductory Ypres-Vimy-Somme (YVS) four-day tour (including one memorable weekend where I stood in at three day’s notice for a guide who had fallen ill), and more detailed tours on the Ypres Salient 1914-1918, 3rd Battle of Ypres 1917, Flanders 1918, the Lessons of the Somme 1916, and the Road to Victory 1918. Perhaps the most memorable, though, was the one following the work of the Civil Service Rifles (15th Londons) based on the wonderful book by Jill Knight (see ‘Book reviews’ section). Many travellers who had relatives in the battalion came along, with letters, diaries, photos etc – a tour guide’s dream!

A particular pleasure is the increasing involvement in conducting tours for schools to the Western Front, either one-day dashes to the Ypres salient or two/three day tours taking in Ypres and the Somme. The children are very attentive, full of fascinating questions and it is a joy to see them soak up the lessons of history on these trips. A trip to Berlin to study the impact of the Holocaust was especially poignant.

My long study of the Napoleonic Wars saw me very happy in the bi-centenary season of Napoleon’s campaigns.  Tours  covered Italy (1796-7 and 1800) Austerlitz 1805, Poland (and Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg) 1806-07, the Danube Valley for aspects of the 1805 and 1809 campaigns against Austria, Aspern-Essling and Wagram 1809, the battles of Jena and Auerstadt (1806), Napoleon in Russia (1812), in Germany (1813) and France (1814)and the Waterloo campaign 1815.  

I am also heavily engaged with the American Civil War tours. The first was a highly successful venture in 2005 entitled ‘In the Footsteps of the Iron Brigade’, a remarkable unit of the Army of the Potomac in action from 1861 to 1865. Then came the Shenandoah Valley and its environs and, most recently, Shiloh and Vicksburg.
The 150th Anniversary season saw annual trips in 2012, 2013 and 2014 studying the war in the East for the relevant year. Further tours have taken in the Chattanooga, Chickamauga and Atlanta campaigns, and the battlefields of northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky.

Staying with America, in 2013,  I also had to step in at short notice and replace an unavailable guide to cover the American Revolutionary War in the South. I was wholly familiar with the campaigns and battles and we arrived just as the US government ‘shut down’ and all the national parks were ‘closed’. That did not stop us visiting every single one of them anyway!

The Battle of Blenheim 1704 was covered in the Danube Valley tour, and  a novel approach in 2012  looked at ‘Great Captains and the Art of War’ – a chance to see warfare evolve under the leadership of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Frederick the Great of Prussia and the great man, Napoleon, in his Jena-Auerstadt campaign.  Another interesting tour was in 2014 to study Ireland’s military history. Great mirth amongst the traveller’s as they had bought places on a tour of ‘Ireland’s rebellions’ that I insisted on calling ‘Ireland’s Fight for Freedom’!! 

The Second World War is not neglected. Every year I take the 8th Grade of the American School in London on a five-day tour of Normandy, looking at American, British and Canadian actions in June 1944.
In 2004 I had the great pleasure of conducting a tour to Arnhem and the other bridges in Operation Market Garden (September 1944), when some veterans of the campaign were among the travellers. A more modest and admirable set of men you could never wish to meet.

I also do the occasional ‘private’ tour, for family groups who have a particular connection with the Great War.  My close association with the historian Andrew Roberts has seen some very fine battlefield visits. if you see the Acknowledgements in his “Napoleon the Great” you will see we have visited no less than 43 of the Emperor’s battles together. In addition i took him along the front line of 1st July 1916 for his book on the Somme, and to places in Belgium and Germany for his new biography of Winston Churchill.  He also ‘makes me available’ to specialist tour groups that have taken me to Toulon, the Ardennes, the Hurtgen Forest, Berlin, Portugal and Spain, and many more battle fields in Holland, Belgium and France.

If you, the reader, need this customised service, contact us through this website.

As a postscript, it is sad to report that Holt’s Tours were forced out of business by the sharp downturn in the post-2008 economy.  The name carries on as the schools tour division of Leger Holidays, which flourishes under the superb leadership of Tracey Morgan.