December 19, 2009:
No one knows when the first battlefield tour occurred. Certainly in Classical antiquity veterans, tourists and professional soldiers are known to have sometimes visited places like Marathon and Thermopylae, and the custom was probably old even then. For the professionals, such trips were part of their education. This exists to this day. But given the difficulties and dangers of travel, visiting battlefields was something only the rich could engage in, unless the sites were close to home. It was in the nineteenth century that what we today understand as battlefield tourism really got its start, with the rise of railroads and steamships.
In the United States the Civil War made organized battlefield tours popular. Within a few years of the war's end, veterans began visiting the sites of their former glory and pain, soon to be joined by the curious or historically minded, a practice that continues today. Following World War I the U.S. government even got into the battlefield tourism business, sponsoring visits to the Marne, St. Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne, and other sites for Gold Star Mothers (those who had lost a son in the war).
Following World War II battlefield tours expanded enormously especially in the West, as prosperous American and European veterans sought to revisit the places they'd seen during the war, and show their families where they'd spent their heroic youth, often with amusing consequences when former Allied personnel and former Axis veterans by chance turned up at the same place at the same time.
With so many American troops stationed in Europe during the Cold War, there was a time, until the last World War II veterans retired, that groups of troops would be taken around to the sites of, often obscure, battles, where one or more participants explained what happened there, and sometimes out the younger troops on the spot, asking them what they would have done. These "tactical rides" (for those on horseback) or "battlefield walks" (for the rest of us) were particularly useful for the professional education of young officers and NCOs. Jim Dunnigan participated in one of these while stationed in South Korea during 1963. His battalion commander had been a 2nd Lieutenant during the opening weeks of the Korean War (1950-53), and he took each battery of his battalion, during one of the units regular field exercises, to one of the areas where he had been, and described, to the hundred or so assembled troops, in very personal detail, a 1950 action that was fought in the valley below. Memorable stuff for a bunch of baby boom GIs.
Today there are even specialized tours, covering a particular campaign or period, as well as survey tours, visiting a variety of sites in a particular region. There have even been wargamers' tours, beginning with the "Millennium of Mayhem" tour, some 20 years ago, when tour manager and wargamer Bill Owen and SP's own Jim Dunnigan led an intrepid band of gamers across Wales, England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, visiting everything from Roman walls and medieval castles to World War II battlefields.
Which brings us to the subject at hand. From July 23rd through August 5th of 2010, Tour-of-Battle (www.TourOfBattle.com), is sponsoring a tour for gamers and military history buffs to be guided by Al Nofi, editor of SP's "CIC" column. The tour will begin at Paris, go on to Poiters, then to the Saumur tank museum, numerous sites in Normandy (the Atlantic Wall, Arromanches, the beaches, Pegasus Bridge, and more), Dieppe and Dunkerque, and then on to Ghent, and then various Battle of the Bulge sites, Verdun, and the Maginot Line, ending in Strasbourg. With the cooperation of French and Belgian wargaming clubs, there will a number of gaming get-togethers. A number of optional side-trips will be available, including visits to the French chateaux country and Bruges, and for spouses, "parallel" events such as cultural sites and shopping options have been arranged.
Persons interested should contact Bill Owen at 877-386-4777 during Central time zone business hours or online via his website, www.TourOfBattle.com.