The grass is green and neatly mowed today on the Somme Battlefield. The trenches are clean and dry, with smooth round gravel for you to walk upon. The sandbags are made of concrete. The place is neat and silent. Even tourists seem to talk in hushed whispers.
On July 1, 1916 there was no silence. The French were under heavy attack at Verdun, as the German commander von Falkenhayn sought to bleed the Gallic army white, and perhaps bring an end to the war in the West. Under pressure French Marshall Joffre persuaded British General Douglas Haig to attack. A week's bombardment by hundreds of guns would destroy the German fortifications and allow the British 4th Army under General Henry Rawlinson to win.
Clausewitz once wrote that a plan does not survive contact with the enemy. Joffre's plan did no better. A million artillery shells failed to do the job. So did a sapper’s mine so big the explosion was heard in London. German trenches, dugout shelters-- even barbed wire remained. Machine guns reached out to meet the slow moving lines of British soldiers. Rifles barked and rockets brought pre-planned artillery fire down upon Tomlinson's tommies. The British troops advanced into a hailstorm of burning steel. They kept coming until 20,000 were dead and the advance thrown back. Not a blade of grass remained on the battlefield. And that was just the first day.
The battlefield of Antietam lies about a half hour’s drive south of Hagerstown , Maryland. The grass is green on the rolling hills were George McClellan's Army of the Potomac confronted Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.. The Stone Bridge stands silently as tourists cross it to move between Union and Confederate positions. When I walked that hallowed ground, the corn was high in the fields, just as it was back on September 1862. The church is there, and the low stone wall Lee’s troops sheltered behind.
As I walked the low road I could imagine what Uncle John Sedgewick’s troops must have seen, marching through rows of corn so tall only their bayonets could be seen. The field the union soldiers advanced through rises as and then crests just before the Confederate positions. A soldier would tell you the Johnny Rebs were defiladed by the Earth, or hidden the terrain until the Union soldiers were very, very close. Then minnie balls swarmed like gnats and cannon barked out grapeshot until no corn stood upon that ground, and the land was draped in blue clad bodies and drying blood.
A battlefield is a place where men meet in war. It is a place of decision. In war any place where men fight is a battlefield. History usually reserves the title for a place where great armies clashed. The Somme, Verdun, Stalingrad, El Alamein, Okinawa, Pusan, Thermopylae, Yorktown, Rorke's Drift, Kursk and Agincourt are battlefields we remember out of many.
Battlefields have certain things in common. They will always, always be located at or near a major transportation feature. This only makes sense. Battles only occur when one army wants to move one place and another seeks to stop them. But the reasons go beyond that, soldiers must be fed, trucks require fuel, horses fodder, and all need arms and ammunition. So supply routes are paramount. At sea, all but a very few major battles took place farther than 100 miles from land, and often took place in sight of shore, though at sea only sunken wrecks mark the battle. On land you fight for roads and mountains, anything that will permit your movement and deny it to the enemy. During the Battle of Bulge Bastogne became a battlefield because it had the most extensive road net of any town in the region. If Bastogne could be denied the Nazis then they would be bottled up. If they controlled it the road net would allow them to move in many directions, multiplying the defense problem.
Battlefields are dominated by their terrain and the land itself often dictates the shape of the battle. Defenders will try and choose to offer battle at a place that multiplies the size of their forces. Attackers move in places that maximize their ability to maneuver and can be supported .
The Battle of Gettysburg began as a meeting engagement. A regiment of Union cavalry commanded by John Buford was out looking for the Army of Northern Virginia and found Harry Heth's division marching toward Gettysburg. Buford looked at the hills and slopes around Gettysburg and saw that it would be a whole lot easier to defend those peaks than to assault them. He threw his troopers in front of Heth’s Carolinians and sent for help. Thanks to John Reynolds it came in time, though Reynolds was quickly killed, the only General to fall there. Hoping to break the Union line before it formed Lee threw more men into the battle until both armies were fully engaged.
The monastery of Monte Cassino rises is located on a mountain with sheer sides above the Italian terrain. One look at those imposing hills makes it clear that even a weak force could hold it against great armies. Which is why the Germans chose to defend there during World War II., The commanding view it gave of the area, and made it the lynchpin of the Gustav Line. Its commanding position explains why Mark Clark lost so many troops to trying to take it.
Weather shapes the battlefield. In World War II the Germans soon discovered that most of Russia was near impassable in the spring and fall when the fields had flooded and the grount was soft. Winter drove Napoleon back from Moscow. Snow and ice almost led to George Thomas' removal as his army waited for good weather before moving out to destroy a Confederate Army in the the Battle of Nashville.
Battlefields are chosen because the terrain will serve advances elsewhere. Iwo Jima was seized to give a fighter base for B-29 bombers on their way to attack Japan. The Somme was fought to relieve pressure on Verdun. But the bigger reason is the need to feed and arm soldiers. Until the magazine system was established armies in the field were limited to a size capable of living off the land. Armies had to move constantly after the lands they occupied were stripped of plunder. Today ports, railheads and roads matter more.
There are lots of places battles are not fought. Armies don’t go where they can’t feed. If a battle was ever fought in Antarctica it was fought over a lady penguin. Same above the arctic circle or the deep desert. The desert battles of World War II all took within a tens of miles of the Mediterranean. Many spots are fought over again and again because the geographic features that make it desirable apply from one generation to the next. It is no accident that during the Civil War that there were two battles of Bull Run. Same for the Wilderness. The French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine are dotted with fortifications built across many centuries. Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness are almost adjacent.
Battlefields are very large places, even if the preserved sections left today seem small. The routes armies took to arrive at the battlefield shape the battle as the armies discover each other. They have often been shaped. The Vicksburg battlefield was smoothed by the Park Service to make it easier to mow, but that obliterated many of the terrain features used by soldiers on both sides, and most particularly the union. Other sections have been swallowed up in urban sprawl. Today the battlefield where Negro troops first fought and died for their freedom may become a condominium. Today only the plaques, monuments and military cemeteries stand tribute to the men who fought and perished there.
Battlefields cannot be captured on maps or photos. The stone bridge at Antietam looks like any other bridge of the era on film. Viewed from the Union lines it is one thing, with a slight chance visible if you could get across it and work around to the right. From the Confederate rifle pits such thoughts are purely suicide. Redoubt 9 at Yorktown seems so much larger on a map than it does once you have stepped between the concrete logs that simulate the Revolutionary war abatis.
If you walk a battlefield begin by reading. There is no substitute for preparation when you approach history. Guides to the battlefield are often available, and U.S. Army Center for Military History maintains many online. Study the battle, the campaign it was part of, and the goals of the combatants The downturned cannon that mark the spot where generals fell will mean more when you know their name and deeds. Knowing allows you to put yourself in the place of the combatants, to see as they saw, to strip away the manicured lawns and remember the days when the earth was chewed up in man's fury. Look out across the trench lines and imagine how they must have looked on those fateful day when men were loading their rifles and making last minute checks as the bug guns boomed around them.
It is that original view which makes walking a battlefield so valuable. Staff Rides are a regular part of military training. Manuals for trips are maintained. Take the docent tour. The U.S. Park Service pays so little that no one stays for the money. The rangers know their park and I cannot imagine it being different outside the US.
Keep your eyes open. Small monuments often mark important events. Walk into the woods to see those rifle pits, scraped hastily from the soft earth. See how things must have looked to the gunners as they sent cannonballs screaming outward. Sight down the old cannon.
And visit the cemeteries. The Somme River runs through Amiens, France and it served as an important supply center for the British and French Forces in the region. As you approach Amiens from the south you will first see the spire of the great Gothic cathedral. You will see road signs to Arras, Cambrai, Albert , St. Quentin. Then you will pass the cemeteries, French, German, American, Canadian, Australian, sometimes more than one. Today the little white stones stand in neat rows, each marking the final resting place for the casualties of two world wars. These cemeteries were built after the war, some were built in haste. Unburied bodies spread diseases. Ovillers Cemetary began as a temporary resting place behind a battalion aid station that was expanded.
Most cemeteries will have a memorial to the men who fought there, and in particular to a unit that suffered terribly on some fateful day. Here you will see an 18 year old private—far too many of those--- there a major in his thirties. And far too many will have no name, for the soldier who sleeps below will never be known.
Many still sleep on the battlefield where they fell. Too little was left of them to gather or bury. At Verdun bones are still being gathered, almost a century after the guns fell silent. A big shell leaves very little. Sheep graze today on land where unexploded shells still lay. On his way to open a cemetery at Gettysburg Abraham Lincoln wrote these words ". . . in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate... we cannot consecrate ... we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” Though they sleep beneath the poppies of Flanders Fields, the Khyber Pass or the bluegrass of Virginia these men hallowed their own ground. We cannot share their pain or experience, nor should we seek to. But as we walk the battlefield where they struggled and fell we can, for a moment, remember their struggles, their pain and their courage and perhaps pray that such sacrifices would never again be asked.