Holt battlefield guides have been around for some time now. They provide an entertaining and informative look at the battlefield in question and I have built up a mini-library of them in recent years.
Battlefields evolve and there are many more memorials and places of interest on the history trail than when the first edition of this volume appeared in 1996. I wish I had been able to use it in those far off days when battlefield tourism was still something of a novelty. But I have no complaints and have been able to do a lot since; using Holt guides in Normandy, Flanders, the Netherlands and Gallipoli. But the Somme is my favorite place and I will be out there a few weeks from now. This new edition will be traveling with me.
One of the things that always impress me about these guides are the separate maps. They are a work of genius taking a leaf from the great Frank Beck who designed the London tube map that has been copied by so many cities down the years. My late father-in-law was a map aficionado and he always said the best map designers put more effort into what they leave out than what they include. The Holt map does this with bells on being totally free from clutter. The Somme map is easy to follow and does a lot to emphasize the intensity of the history of the battlefield. They can be bought separately, but the concept of inclusion with the guide is something I have appreciated for well over ten years. The complete package of map and guide is incredibly practical and the format allows them to fit in a backpack or even a large pocket of your waterproofed coat.
My old copy of the guide is the fourth edition dating from 2003. It has been well thumbed and is quite tatty. The map is torn and has my own annotations of places added to it. Maps and guides are working things and it is generally true that they are out of date as soon as they are printed. Mine has been loved and I would not part with it. I am a great believer that older guides are worth keeping because things often disappear from newer versions for a variety of reasons. Some older memorials on the battlefield have been replaced because they crumbled away or became a liability. Brand new memorials seem to appear regularly and I do wonder if battlefields are becoming a little crowded. Archaeology offers other possibilities and it seems likely that the process of discovery and memorialisation will continue for years to come.
The Somme is a beautiful part of the world with rolling farmland and small picturesque villages. Even without the Great War it would be a lovely place to see, but like a lot of France it would have remained firmly off the beaten track had the war not occurred. There is a deeply rural feel to the place. You hardly see a soul when out walking or driving around and there is little in the way of cafés or bars to divert your attention. The guide suggests places to find sustenance in between feeding your imagination.
At the heart of the guide is a set of suggested itineraries to get you around. These work very well. I haven’t used any on the Somme but did so in Normandy a good while ago. A book like this is generally aimed at new or occasional visitors. Those with a stronger interest will soon be driving around a lot of it without maps. The battlefield is ‘only’ fourteen miles long and this book would get you to most of the important stuff within a couple of days. There is a lot to see. Although I plan to get off the beaten tourist trail this time round there is always time for a visit to the Thiepval Memorial. It is a place I love and always used to say a bad year would be one when I hadn’t visited it at least once. I haven’t been there since 2012.
This new guide is a little more grand than its predecessors, being a limited edition in a tougher hard backed cover, but it is still a working book and I would always encourage you to annotate yours with interesting stuff you want to recall. This publisher produces a range of other guides and I strongly recommend finding room for as many as your bookcase can hold. If you really get the bug you could always get yourself a Linesman digital trench maps system to enhance your experience. The nice thing is, even if you know you will never get to the Somme, this book will help you get a feel for what remains a stunning place from history a century after the events that took place there.
So, all in all, this is another winner for Tonie and Valmai Holt and their team. It has all the spirit and class of older editions and at twenty-five British pounds it represents excellent value for money. A quick look on a well-known online retailer shows it can be found very much cheaper than the cover price. Out of interest, I see that my 2003 edition cost £14.95 telling us a bit about recent economics. But to learn about the Somme and all there is to see, you really can do no better than start with this gem.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
MAJOR & MRS HOLT’S DEFINITIVE BATTLEFIELD GUIDE TO THE SOMME
By Tonie and Valmai Holt
Pen & Sword
ISBN: 978 1 47388 7 534