A Rare Jewel

About six weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting one of the most pristine battlefields I’ve ever seen, that being Towton, in Yorkshire, England. The battle was about 550 years ago - one of the bloodiest engagements in English history - and yet today one would scarcely guess what happened there. I was able to stand at the spot of some of the fiercest combat ever known, and look out at rolling, vacant farmland. There were no houses, no buildings. Where I stood there was one lonely, interpretive sign, and to my left was a thin ribbon of a roadway with very little traffic. I might have been a Yorkist on a snowy, windy day in 1461, watching the Lancastrian arrows fall short. With the benefit of an expert on the battle – Helen Cox – explaining everything from the weather, to the topography, to the troops and their movements, it could have been no better.

Towton Battlefield - As viewed from Lord Dacre's Cross
I asked a dozen questions as I gazed on the panorama, and pondered at least a hundred more as we made the short hike through the weeds, back to her car. We then trod along a muddy lane to see the severe slope down to Cock Beck, and a perfect chance for me to learn about the rout, and the pandemonium toward Bloody Meadow. I had read about this, but it was different than I had imagined. Finally, I could envision how this battle headed toward its eventual ending, and the horror that the fleeing soldiers must have known.
The whole thing was captivating, to be honest, and as we stood back at Helen’s car – parked at the site of the Towton Cross - I took a few more pictures, and marveled. Not only was this place free of the buildings we so often see, it also wasn’t cluttered with monuments and signs. It’s a significant battlefield, and it’s practically perfect.

Towton - Center of the Line
And then not long after, I read an article shared by the Towton Battlefield Society, and it seems as if there are possibly changes creeping into the area. It didn’t seem much, maybe just a little development, the best I could tell. But it would be a start, and when things start eroding, they’re hard to stop. I’m always empathetic to the rights of property owners, but this is a different situation, with better options. Obviously I’m going to favor most battlefield preservation, and I will go on record as supporting what I believe to be the position of the Towton Battlefield Society, and others who want to save this incredible piece of history. As much as we criticize politicians – and often rightfully so – they do often have tough decisions to make. And I hope in this case they will work to understand the priorities of the historians and preservationists. The Towton Battlefield Society and others are working through their elected officials and other appropriate channels, and their efforts should be applauded. It won’t be easy, but this matters to them, and they won’t quit. I wish them victory, and hope to visit again some day, and view the results of their success.  

Richard III proves the past isn't dead.

The past is never dead. It isn’t even past. So said the novelist William Faulkner, and right now I’m inclined to agree. It appears that we may finally know for certain what happened to the body of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, and a grave discovered in a long-suspected location might soon yield an answer for historians. Archaeologists have discovered in Leicester, England a grave that has yielded bones that may very well be those of the Yorkist king. And with that discovery, and the worldwide media coverage, there has come an interest that goes beyond the usual historical community. There are now debates as to where – if this is, indeed, the king – he should be reburied. And the discovery also brings forward old disagreements, with some maintaining that King Richard was no villain, but merely a victim of the old axiom that the victor writes the history. In this case, there are literal examples of that, practically from the time of his death, and extending down generations into the work of Shakespeare, and beyond.

Leicester, England
The Battle of Bosworth put an end to the Wars of the Roses, for the most part, and it featured all the aspects that make a compelling story, or a good argument. Some see a villainous Richard III; others see a king willing to personally lead his knights directly at a pretender. Some see a man, unable to flee from a quagmire of a battlefield; others see a man with the courage and conviction to stand and fight and die a king. Some see the fortunes of battle shift from one side to the other; others see treachery.

As many do, I usually pick a side when I study these battles from the past, often choosing the underdog when there’s not a clear “good guy” fighting. With this battle, as it relates to that war, I can’t even pretend to have a good argument as to who should have won. But I admit that I feel a certain connection to Richard, unhorsed and standing in the mud, fighting to his last, his crown toppling from his head, knowing that the final blow would soon come.

The bones found underneath the car park across from Leicester Cathedral showed signs of such a blow, and more, as well as other physical characteristics historically attributed to King Richard III. DNA testing is underway, and by Christmas we might know whether he has finally been found. If it is proven to be him, then the argument of where he should eternally rest shall begin in earnest. And the other arguments of the past will continue on, but gradually losing their vigor, I suppose. I stood there a few weeks ago – after strolling down Grey Friars and St. Martins streets – and contemplated the passion of those making their respective arguments. To some, the names behind the events of the Wars of the Roses are hazy images in a misty recollection from the past, and they will fade as media coverage subsides: Lancaster, Tudor, York. But these heroes and villains – choose your side – will always be with us. After all, the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.

In Formation!

One windy day in the spring of 2011 I was on my second day of an incredibly informative guided tour of the Flanders Fields battlefields in Belgium, and had enjoyed the knowledge – and passion – of my guide. Most of our tour had been to places that the typical “double-decker” tour doesn’t go, but we were now at Hill 62 – Sanctuary Wood – and apparently this stop was a requisite of school groups.
Near Hill 62 - Flanders

On the site is a museum that might be described as a jumble of interesting items brought in from the battlefield, and behind that is a series of trenches that likely date from the war, though I understand some historians argue as to whether they’re “real.” Still, there is no debating that Hill 62 was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the Great War. And as we stood there that day, among those trenches, young teenagers were bounding about, laughing, and having a great time on a field trip. Their actions felt inappropriate to the place, but having been young once upon a time, I was perhaps a bit more forgiving than I might otherwise have been. Suddenly, having seen enough, our guide spoke up: “Have some respect. Men died here.” And that was it. And that was enough.

For as long as I can recall I’ve enjoyed military history. I grew up with stories of my Confederate ancestors, told as only a grandmother can tell, and would listen intently to any old man who would start into a tale from “the war”, regardless of which war it was. And as I read their stories from the history books, and gazed at the battlefield maps, I realized that I couldn’t quite “feel” the battle. I wasn’t there – I didn’t see the elephant, as the saying goes – but I wanted a better understanding of so many of these actions. To me, they were more than just military tactics and maneuvers. They were a glimpse into the human psyche. What makes a man step forward into almost certain death? What compels a soldier, against all he thought sacred, to turn and run from the field? How do battlefield mistakes – so obvious in hindsight – happen? Was history turned because one side took the high ground, or even mistakenly placed with a river at its back?

Perryville, Kentucky 
I decided that I could never exactly picture the battlefield, until I stood on the battlefield, and for over 30 years I've been visiting these “fields of glory” to give myself the best understanding I could. It mattered: To see the hill at Battle (Hastings) where Harold’s right flank impulsively charged, the contours at Perryville where cannoneers were confused, the slope of King’s Mountain where the Overmountain Men slipped from tree to tree, the flat plain of heather at Culloden where Highlanders ran into cold steel, or Omaha Beach at Normandy where I could envision scarcely anyone surviving.
And a few years ago I realized that I had so much to learn, still, but also maybe something to teach. And I decided to put together a website of some sort, to help fellow historians know where to go, and what to do, and what not to miss. And, frankly, I wanted to help folks know what not to expect, or what to avoid. There is nothing more disappointing than planning a visit to a battlefield, and then finding practically nothing there. If there’s anything more frustrating, it’s visiting a site and then later discovering that you missed something.
My goal is to put together a list of places I’ve been, with some hints as to how they might be best enjoyed by others who enjoy military history. And because so many times we’re traveling with others, from time to time I might also give a general description of what to expect when traveling in the area. My hope is to – over time – also put together a decent series of videos and maps that might help folks understand the topography and nuances of specific battlefields. They won’t be perfect, because I’m not, but I will do my best to showcase the things you’ll want to see. And just as importantly, it’s my hope that others will help me out by posting replies (video and otherwise), and letting us all know where we should go, and what we should do there.

Picacho Pass - Arizona, USA
This type of historical travel can be fascinating and enjoyable, and it’s so often a thrill to visit the places that have previously been known to us only in books. We plan long weekends to see reenactments, we work tours of these historic fields into our normal vacations, and sometimes we save and plan for years to see that particular place we’ve always read about. Because so often we’re traveling to see the ground where our ancestors fought, or where our heroes stood, there is a particular relevance that really can’t be described.
You understand these places matter, and I hope you’ll enjoy my humble attempt to interpret these battlegrounds from the past. I expect we’ll talk travel, books, guides, battles, and any number of related topics, while having fun all along the way. But, through it all, every time I tread upon one of those fields, I will remember to have the mindset that my guide so eloquently voiced.  Have some respect. Men died here.