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The young Digger squeezes his shoulders further into the tunnel. He's twisting at an angle to get through but he has to go on. Someone is coming up behind him, judging by the grunts and scuffles, but thankfully not approaching too rapidly. Sweat is pouring off him makes it marginally easier to slide through the narrowing passage. He stops for breath.
He can fairly hear the rat-tat-tat of a Vietcong AK47 rifle, just a few metres away above ground, punctuated by the occasional thud-thud-thud of a belt-fed American M-30 machine gun. This tunnel was built by and for diminutive Vietcong guerillas, who could scamper through at a trot, not big-boned Australians forced crawl half the way.
Finally he sees the dim light at the tunnel's exit into a hospital bunker. One final, abrasive lunge and he is out. "You didn't tell it got narrower at the end," he says accusingly and I, being more typically Vietnamese in height, if not in girth, reply, "I didn't notice". I make a mental note to warn the larger and more gung-ho members of future tour groups that the Cu Chi tourist tunnel gets more real, the further you go.
That afternoon, the Digger, whose name is Jason, a former infantryman in the Australian Army – would be more relaxed and a lot less sweaty, standing beneath the rotors of a giant Sikorski helicopter in the courtyard of a Saigon museum.
Battlefield tours like this one are, of course, nothing like war itself but they can have their odd challenge too. The next day Jason would be underground again, clambering through the caves that were once the Vietcong HQ in the Long Hai mountains. That afternoon he would be saluting the fallen at the Long Tan Cross, on the site of the recent controversy, in the proper military manner.
We have recently witnessed a succession of major battle commemorations as diverse as Gallipoli in Turkey, the Somme in Europe and Long Tan in Vietnam. Add the American Civil War, Waterloo and D-Day, and tourists have been invading foreign lands in force in recent years
So what is the attraction with battlefield tours? If you're fascinated by the tactics, heroism and even horrors of ancient conflicts, it can be a thrill to leave a footprint in a place that made an indelible mark in history. Honouring those who lost their lives, of course, is one of the main attractions of this form of travel. Family connections run strong here too. Nostalgia, for sure and, for those connected to more recent conflicts, the possibility of some sort of healing is also drawcard. For others there's chest-puffing patriotism and machismo. In the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, you can actually go underground and fire real bullets from AK47 rifles.
"Our military history is so ingrained in the Australian psyche," says Mat McLachlan, who runs one of Australia's largest and most successful battlefield tourism companies. "You can understand why people have called it our secular religion." McLachlan, who wrote Walking with the Anzacs, a guide to the battlefields of Europe, 17 years ago, has watched the appeal of battlefield tourism grow over the decades.
"It's mainly baby boomers with a family connection of some sort," he says, "but then you get young people who may be backpacking in, say, Turkey and decide to head down to Gallipolli because, well, that's what you do."
There was a downturn in battlefield tourism numbers immediately after the peak of the Gallipolli centenary last year – simply, he says, because so many people had done the pilgrimage – but now it's starting to pick up again with interest in the European theatres from World War I.
"So many Australians died there that it will always be important to us," he says, adding that the upcoming centenaries of the battles in Flanders will just renew existing interest.
Meanwhile, his company is attracting interest in World War II battlefields in North Africa and recently took a group to a remote island in Borneo where their relatives had fought and been held prisoner by the Japanese. And the cycle is just beginning to pick up again for Vietnam, he says.
This follows the debacle over this year's Long Tan commemorations, which saw a last-minute clampdown by the Vietnam Government on visits to the memorial, when just a few hundred of an anticipated 3000 visitors were allowed to visit the site on the actual 50th anniversary of the battle.
"There was a lot more outrage in the Australian media than there was on the ground in Vietnam," he says. "All we had to do was be sensitive but, to be honest, I think the way some of our people handled it was unfortunate. The Vietnamese had made it clear that they didn't want us to make too big a deal of it, keep it low key, and we just ignored them. It's amazing that they allow us to have the Cross there at all. They lost a lot more soldiers there than we did."
However, Harry Smith, who commanded Australian forces in the battle of Long Tan, noted that the Vietnamese government's wishes that there be no triumphalism or over-exploitation had been largely ignored. "If the Japanese wanted a memorial in Darwin for the pilots that they lost in the bombing of Darwin and they sent 3000 people to that monument we'd be up in arms too," he said.
What you will experience on a battlefield tour depends on the war, who won and what is being remembered. If your trip coincides with an anniversary you could be part of a memorial ceremony (or not, in the case of Long Tan) but you will also be competing for space, hotel beds, food and toilets with thousands of others. So the ideal time to go may be after a major anniversary when all the facilities and displays will have been brought up to scratch but the crowds have gone home.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: FOUR TIPS FOR BETTER BATTLEFIELD TOURISM
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE Don't use racist slang, or anything that may be perceived as such when you are talking about locals, and don't loudly relate stories you've heard of excesses on either side.
DRESS APPROPRIATELY Singlet and thongs may be an Australian uniform but they look out of place at memorials, especially those with a religious connection. Shorts should not be too short. Shoulders should be covered. This applies to all genders.
SHOW SENSITIVITY Remember that lives were lost on both sides of battles so don't complain when, for instance, you find a Buddhist memorial urn at Long Tan Cross.
BE RESPECTFUL If your tour guide wants to take you to a memorial for local fallen, go as a mark of respect, at least to your guide.
MIND YOUR STEP Remember that you may literally be walking on someone's grave. These are not places to stop and drink, smoke or sunbathe. The dead can't be offended but their living relatives may well be.
WAR FOOTINGS – A GUIDE TO BATTLEFIELD DESTINATIONS
THE BATTLE THE FALL OF SINGAPORE
WHAT IS IT February 15, 2017, marks the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore and what was the start of one of the bleakest periods of recent military history. The brutal excesses of Changi Prison and the Burma Railway still cast a shadow over Australian-Japanese relations, especially with older generations.
TELL ME MORE Many of the historic areas have been erased by Singapore's expansion into a global economic hub. But there are still battlefields to visit as well as the Ford factory where the surrender was signed, Kranji Cemetery, Changi and more.
THE TOURS Mat McLachlan's Battlefield Tours is conducting a four-day Fall of Singapore flexi-tour (McLachlan also has a range of battlefield tours covering Europe, the Middle East and Asia). Phone 1300 880 340. See battlefields.com.au.
THE BATTLE: FLANDERS FIELD
WHAT IS IT World War I anniversaries move to Belgium next year, when various ceremonies will recall the battles of Ypres and specifically Passchendaele which took place from July 31 to November 10, 1917. It was the major Allied offensive in Flanders in that year and Australian troops suffered more than 11,000 casualties in just over a week.
TELL ME MORE Before you book any tickets, have a look at a moving video produced by VisitFlanders with Brendan Nelson, Australian War Memorial director and former ambassador to Belgium (Google "Brendan Nelson visits Flanders Fields (2016)" to watch). Nature and agriculture have reclaimed most of the land but you will see massive cemeteries, with fields of white crosses, as well as the Menin Gate, Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 and Polygon Wood Cemetery. The Lijssenthoek visitor centre, on the site of a massive field hospital, has a "listening wall" where you can hear whispered voices reading letters from combatants to their loved ones.
THE TOURS There's any number of organised tours, including a Third Battle of Ypres memorial tour between September 21 to October 1, 2017. Phone 1800 663 220. See battlefieldtourspecialists.com.au; visitflanders.com.
THE BATTLE: WATERLOO
WHAT IS IT Just 90 minutes from the battlefields of Flanders is the town of Waterloo near where, 200 years ago last June (2015), Napoleon was defeated in his final battle by the Duke of Wellington.
TELL ME MORE The Lion Mound and its 226 steps have been there since Wellington's time, allowing you a view over the entire battlefield. The circular panorama painting, created in a purpose-built building for the 100th anniversary is now a piece of history itself. What's new is an underground interactive museum with 4D film of the battle. A free bus will shuttle you to Hougoumont Farmhouse where another visual feast awaits. History buffs and casual tourists alike give the whole Waterloo experience the thumbs up.
THE TOURS Professional guided tours are available from Brussels but expat Brit and "Waterloo tragic" Alan Lindsey shares his knowledge on customised tours from the nearby town. See waterloobattlefieldtours.com.
THE BATTLE: THE FALL OF RICHMOND
WHAT IS IT The American Civil War ended 150 years ago in May this year. The war raged across the southern states so there is no shortage of battlefields to visit. But Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and this is where the surrender was signed so it got itself gussied up for the anniversary. Its museums provide a modern narrative for what was and, to some extent, remains a divisive issue.
TELL ME MORE There are a dozen museums in Richmond but the Civil War collection of three buildings and thousands of artefacts gives the broadest perspective of the war, the politics behind it and the issues at stake. One floor of the Tredegar Foundry building is dedicated to Black American and liberated slaves' contribution to the war.
There is even a tour of this charming city by Segway. You look like a dill (trust me) but it's great fun and easy on the feet.
A detour to Washington DC, only two hours away, can take in some of the many Civil War trails. You'll find information and can download detailed maps from civilwartraveler.com
THE TOURS Among many options Civil War Tours' Virginia Circle package starts from Washington DC (Dulles Airport) and takes in Fredricksburg, Lynchburg and Richmond across eight days. See CivilWarTours.net.
THE BATTLE: THE VIETNAM WAR
WHAT IS IT Vietnam has been invaded and colonised so many times that there are very few places in the country that you can go and not bump into some sort of memorial museum, cemetery or preserved piece of military hardware.
TELL ME MORE If you are looking for references to Australian troops in the various "war tourism" sites in Vietnam, you will be disappointed. There isn't even a mention of our sappers at the Cu Chi tunnels – and they discovered them (as described in our book Tunnel Rats). And Diggers don't rate a mention on the memorials at the Coral-Balmoral battlefield, even though it was our biggest battle in the war, and the American involvement was peripheral.
The Cu Chi tunnels north of Saigon (both sets – don't let your guide tell you they are the same) are a must, as are the War Remnants Museum and the former Presidential Palace both in the southern capital.
The Long Tan Cross is about two hours south-east of the city, and nearby is the former Australian base at Nui Dat. The Viet Cong HQ caves in the Long Hai mountains provide an interesting detour for the fit and flexible.
In Hanoi, the former prison nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, is worth a trip. You will find US Senator John McCain's flight suit on display alongside pictures of his rescue from Truch Bach Lake, near the city centre, after his plane crashed. There is a small stylised memorial on the lakeside (to his capture, not him).
THE TOURS Tunnel Rats and Sappers Tour (with Sandy MacGregor) visit all the key sites led by the captain of the original Tunnel Rats. May 13-21, 2017. Phone 1300 450 436. See battlefieldhistorytours.com.au.