Thursday, 25 December 2008

Digging into the past 3

Reflecting on the problems thrown up by researching a new book has made me realise how very differently each country can preserve its militant past. The usual practice seems to be is that if you won, you preserve the battlefield; if you lost, you don’t - although, commercial considerations can alter that rule of thumb.

Take the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, for instance, in The Hundred Years War. I first went hunting for these sites some twenty five years ago. I eventually found Crecy, marked only by a small plaque, erected by the “Friends of Old French Windmills,” which announced diffidently that on this site stood a windmill that (and almost by the way) had been used by the English King Edward III as a command post during the battle of Crecy in 1346. On the same trip I finally pinned down the second battle to a small wood, a couple of miles south of Poitiers. Some twenty paces inside the wood a tiny, hand-painted sign nailed to a tree announced it to be “Le site de la Battalle de Poitiers, 1356.” The British had won both battles and, it seemed, the French weren’t over anxious to commemorate the encounters. Fair enough, but five years later, when I was researching for my book “Masters of Battle,” Crecy had been marked by the erection of a splendid, tall, timber viewing platform, showing the disposition of the two armies, set opposite floral reproductions of the two kings’ coats of arms. At Poitiers, however, even the sign had gone. The difference? Crecy was much nearer the soon-to-be-opened Channel tunnel, with its anticipated stream of English visitors.

A couple more examples from my diggings. The forest clearings where the American longwoodsmen gave the British redcoats a thorough beating at Saratoga in 1777 – so swinging the American War of Independence decisively towards the “rebels” – is beautifully
maintained. Old cannons show artillery emplacements and illuminated signs explain the depositions. (See “Masters of Battle.) Trying to find the site of the Battle of El Kebir in Egypt, however, where the British defeated the Egyptians to begin a 75-year occupation of the country, (“The Guns of El Kebir”) is an unrewarding business. There is no indication that this small village saw a turning point in Egypt’s history and nobody locally wanted to talk about it.
Now that Wembley has gone, what will be left to indicate to future generations where England defeated Germany so decisively to win the World Cup in 1966? We must, we really must, stir ourselves!

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