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SOMME - 100TH ANNIVERSARY - Seventh GPS Edition

Tonie and Valmai Holt used to own and run the splendid Holts Battlefield Tours, sold some years’ ago and now absorbed into another tour operator. Right until the end, the company retained the ethos of its founders, and is still sadly missed in an otherwise over-crowded ‘battlefield tour’ market. Tonie and Valmai Holt virtually invented the concept of the modern battlefield tour and there are now many imitators, some good, some not so good.

Fortunately, however, Major and Mrs Holt are still in the business with their excellent battlefield guidebooks, proving that it is not always necessary to hire a personal guide to make sense of the battlefields and what they have to offer a visitor. The Holts have covered the Western Front with a number of comprehensive guidebooks, and this one is the latest revised edition of the Somme battles that took place exactly a century ago.

The book is literally packed with useful information about all aspects of the Battle of the Somme that began on 1st July 1916 and lasted for over four months. For those who want to visit the battlefield without the burden of too many books on the subject, this one will suffice. There is a good narrative here on the battle itself and numerous short vignettes about people, events, and places. The book also gives useful tips on where to stay and eat and how to make the best of a visit. The Somme is a very rural part of France, so some local knowledge can be extremely useful. Don’t, for example, assume that every village has a shop or bar; they don’t. Stock up in a town with the obligatory baguette, cheese and red wine before venturing into the countryside, and never set off with a half empty petrol tank!

The guidebook includes a ‘Battle Map of the Somme’ which also has GPS coordinates of the key locations. The map is something of an acquired taste since there is so much information on it (cross-referenced to the book) and various tables and indexes which can take time to decipher. It’s all pretty comprehensive, but a good old fashioned road map will not go amiss as an addition; and for those who want more details on the trenches themselves, the book gives guidance on digital trench maps.

There can be no other single-volume guide book which is as thorough and detailed as the Holts guide, and there are other equally excellent Holts guides covering different battlefields (for example, the Ypres Salient). For those visitors who think that the battlefields are gently fading away as they enter their second century, they would be very wrong. Firstly, the traces of the war on the landscape itself are indelible, and the cemeteries and memorials will, thankfully, be there in perpetuity. Secondly, there has been an extraordinary renaissance of interest in the First World War that is not entirely related to the centenary, since this has been going on for the last 20 years or so. More memorials are appearing on the battlefields, as well as museums and visitor centres, and the cemeteries of the Commonwealth War Commission are cared-for like no others in the world.

The Holts guides are doing well to keep pace with how the battlefields and their surroundings are changing and evolving, and their guidebooks are invaluable. Finally, try and avoid late June and early July 2016, unless you fall into the ‘VVIP’ category of visitor! By all accounts, most of the battlefield will be in ‘lockdown’ mode, and if you are fortunate enough to be there for the commemorations, take a good book, since you will not be allowed to move around too much!

The Editor

Major & Mrs Holt’s Definitive Battlefield Guide, Somme - 100th anniversary - Seventh GPS Edition Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Tel: 01226 734241. www.pen-and-sword.co.uk

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