Book review: Fatal Avenue

Fatal Avenue is the book every student of military affairs and history should have when visiting France or Belgium. Indeed, the reviewer had it in his backpack when he visited Brussels in June and was delighted to discover on the flight over that the next day – which he had set aside to find and visit the Waterloo battlefield on the city’s southern outskirts – was in fact the 193rd anniversary of the battle.   
Subtitled A Travellers History of the Battlefields of Northern France and Flanders 1346-1945, it gives an excellent account of both the conflicts fought across Flanders, Artois, Picardy, Lorraine, the Ardennes, the Sambre-Meuse, Champagne and Normandy in that period as well as explaining the ground. Even better, it relates today`s geography to yesterday`s battlefields, explaining how to find Crecy, Agincourt, the Cambrai and Somme battlefields, and many more, along with suggestions to how to best explore them.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating and author Richard Holmes was spot-on with his description and commentary. How one envies him the joy of writing this book…     
Holmes should be familiar to many readers blessed with access to The History Channel, where he has often appeared. He is a keen long-term student of warfare in France and its surrounds and in this book brings to life the Hundred Years War, the wars of Spanish and Austrian succession, the conflict between Protestant and Catholic, the wars of the French revolution and the campaigns of Napoleon, and of course the slaughterfields of World War One and battlefields of World War Two.
While the maps are somewhat deficient, the towns and even the individual monuments and graveyards marking the highwater mark of so many attacks are easily found on the Michelin roadmaps sold in any French bookshop or supermarket – or their derivatives readily available at any tourist or information bureau. A joy to read, this book explained – for example the to-and-fro of Napoleon`s campaigns in Champagne with great aplomb, and in such a way that the tourist, armed with this book, the appropriate map and a motorcar can easily follow the cut and thrust on the ground, following the appropriate routes, stopping at the appropriate villages and monuments and developing a feel for the battle, something that is often only possible on the actual ground.
Of Ramillies (1706) Holmes remarks that we “may doubt whether Villeroi`s eye for the ground was as keen as Marlborough`s. The Plateau of Jandrenouille, where the Allies were to deploy, was creased by a shallow re-entrant running north-south opposite Ramillies. It was invisible to observers in Ramillies church and on the rising ground west of the Geet. Indeed, even today it is only by walking eastwards out of Ramillies, past the cemetery, that this fold of ground shows itself: it was to enable Marlborough to shift troops covertly from flank to centre.”      
Holmes advises that the best starting point to visit the British Loos battlefield of 1915, is Dud Corner Cemetery and memorial on the N43 highway just west of Loos town, near Lille. “Its observation platform gives a good view of the whole battlefield…” Holmes also takes his readers into the many towns in his Fatal Avenue, exploring the fortifications and main military-cultural artefacts. He notes the forest near Laon that was the site of the “Paris gun” that shelled that city in 1918. The citadel of Lille is “rightly known as Vauban`s masterpiece”; the fortifications at Montmédy, between Sedan and Verdun, “are in excellent order, and the tourist office issues a short guide which enables the visitor to walk the ramparts.”           
In Artois, the Chemin des Dames ridge of World War One infamy was also a battlefield during the Allied 1814 campaign against Napoleon. Sedan was the fulcrum of two French defeats: 1870 and 1940; and the highwater mark of the American advance from the Argonne in 1918.    
In Normandy, the German “batteries at Longues-sur-Mer and the Pointe du Hoc are worth visiting despite the damage they received from bombing or shelling before the invasion.” … “In addition to numerous coast defences, the Cotentin contains V1 [cruise missile] launch sites, and several good examples survive between Cherbourg and Valognes, notably near La Glacerie and Le Mesnil au-Val. Granville, at the base of the Cotentin, has a cluster of intact bunkers up by its lighthouse.”       
To conclude then, Holmes` book should be an essential part of anyone`s luggage when visiting Flanders and Northern France – and was when the reviewer earlier this year visited Waterloo on the southern outskirts of Brussels, the northern boundary of this excellent work.  
The Fatal Avenue
Richard Holmes
Jonathan Cape