|John Lee as 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.
My principal work as a battlefield guide is, 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 has 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 has seen me very happy in this bi-centenary season of Napoleon's campaigns. So far tours have 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 and the Waterloo campaign 1815. 2012 will see trips to Jena and Auerstadt (1806) and, of course, Moscow for Borodino 1812. Future trips will cover Germany 1813 and France 1814, and Waterloo is an annual event.
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 Battle of Blenheim 1704 was covered in the Danube Valley tour, and there will be a novel approach in 2012 to look 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.
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.
I also do the occasional 'private' tour, for family groups
who have a particular connection with the Great War, or for well-known
writers who are working on new books and need some experience of the ground
and what it tells us.