What better way to review a book than on an actual road trip of the area? Excellent idea! Well, actually It proved to be tougher than I at first thought. Why?

OK. I’m going to come clean here: A while back I decided to tell my wife (whom I love very much) that I was taking her on a romantic trip for her birthday. Great!

“Where are we going? London? Paris?”

“Ermmm … actually we’re going to Belgium”

“Oooh. I’ve always wanted to go to Brugge”

I’m sure you can guess the rest. So, after booking into a ‘military themed’ hotel (when in Rome!) right in the heart of Ypres one of the first things I did apart from nurse a bruised eye and get my hearing back was to unpack Major &Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient.

I’ve had a copy of this book for about fifteen years now so I was keen to see how, if at all, it had been amended. I wasn’t to be disappointed.

Admittedly at first glance a lot of the pictures in the guide lookvery familiar, possibly even dated, but there is a flutter of newer more relevant pictures in included for old sweats like myself. The routes around the Salient are pretty much the same as before but apart from a few new roads why wouldn’t it be? The same goes for museums and places of interest.

For those of you who have never picked up a Holt’s Guide you’ll never do better. The research and detail is second to NONE and the time and knowledge poured into this book is noticeable from page one. The book comes with a handy map of the Salient to give you a sense of direction and to make organising or planning suggested routes or your own variations easy. I will say this though, it is a simplistic map and NOT like Ordnance Survey (the Belgian equivalent is IGN) or Michelin maps so you may want to consider purchasing one of those as well if you’re a newbie to the area. That said the map supplied by the Holts is full to bursting with all the cemeteries, museums, monuments and places of interest along the way and boy is it some list!

Now, for the majority of you, if you’re considering visiting Ypres, you’ve probably got an interest in the First World War or at least know a little of the history of it. In Ypres there is NO getting away from it. The town was totally flattened during the four years of the war and was completely rebuilt brick by brick in the decades following it. Hard to imagine when you’re stood in the GrotteMarkt looking up at the impressive Cloth Hall or St Martin’s Cathedral that this town was once rubble.

The guide helps with hotels and bed &breakfasts and even gives you suggestions for restaurants and bars. Nothing is missing from the guide and you can rely on it’s accuracy as you can the bells ringing. Ypres is all about remembrance and no one does it as respectably as this Belgian town. It wears its heart (or poppy) on its sleeve and doesn’t shy back from past horrors. Never have I met a more hospitable and welcoming people than those in Ypres.

They are kind, generous and, above all, thankful.

There is NO wrong turn in this area and no country lane to nowhere or dark alleys to venture down. It’s touching and poignant  and after a long day across the fields, touring the sites to be able to stand at the MeninGate and witness the Last Post is simply humbling.  Don’t leave this guide at home and the same goes for your wellies. If you do, however, when you get to Ypres you can easily pick up a copy, such is the respect for this book. It’s almost a bible. The guide is well bound and sturdy so fear not when clambering over pillboxes and down into trenches. It gives advice on safety (the place is littered with unexploded ordnance so be careful) and gives you a concise but thorough history of where you are. You will, at times, be amazed and speechless, saddened and tearful but with guide in hand you’ll feel like a military historian with the knowledge you’ve learnt.

Just be aware, a day is never enough in Ypres and you’ll be sure to want to come back. Just don’t forget your guide!

Reviewed by Phil Hodges for War History Online

Tonie and Valmai Holt
Pen & Sword
ISBN: 978-085052-551-9

Phil Hodges

Phil Hodges is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE