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.