Legacy of war
Warfare, and the sites of major battles, appear to leave a legacy behind at their site; perhaps this is merely through coincidence of their preservation as memorials, but I believe there is more to it than that. The synchronicity with the recent blog post covering the Delville Woods site (Happy New Year Jan 2017) is accidental, my most recent visit to Towton battlefield in early-February was a short-term decision, however, there are too many similarities with other battlefields observed over many years for the visit to pass unremarked upon.
The battle of 1461 is fully described by the Towton Battlefield Society on their website with an excellent 3D graphic of the site and the disposition of the armies. One of the bloodiest days of war in British history; 75,000 men at arms fighting hand to hand in appalling winter weather conditions on Yorkshire terrain that contributed to the appalling casualties. Although the numbers are disputed it is likely around 28, 000 died that day either on the field itself or in the rout that followed.
In numbers of dead the battle at Towton outstrips the figures for the first day of the battle of the Somme (19,280) by nearly half as many again (circa +45%) but for many reasons it is the Somme that is embedded within the British psyche as the battle which epitomises slaughter in war. In other ways too the Towton field has some similarities with the Somme, the battle was fought on rising ground and one army had begun with their backs to a river. For the fallen on the Somme, however, the river was not the nemesis the River Cock was to become for the Lancastrian forces at Towton, many fleeing the field either drowned or were slaughtered as they attempted to cross.
Each battle site has its memorial, that at Towton small and low-key, that for the fallen on the Somme at Theipval major and significant. The Lutyens memorial and the modern museum are excellent examples of their type. The museum on the site is a recent construction and an apt legacy for those who fell. It brings knowledge to a modern audience and also separates the inevitable commercialism of souvenir retailing, and the necessary functionality of parking and toilets etc., from the solemnity of the memorial itself.
The horrors and bloodshed of fighting on days like Towton and the first assault in the battle of the Somme can only be imagined by those, like myself, lucky enough to have avoided direct experience of warfare. For the combatants the horrors were too real, is it coincidence that J R R Tolkien, who was at the Somme, wrote so darkly in his descriptions of the battles fought in Middle Earth. At Towton the forces on both sides were representing English combatants, just one battle in the conflict which has subsequently been labelled as the Wars of the Roses. The saddest aspect of Towton is a more modern one; over the years the site became known for the Towton Roses growing on the battlefield; a rare, and possibly unique variety, with white and red petals credited by legends to the blood of the battlefield. Almost 500 years after the original conflict, another conflict was to destroy them; after ploughing of the site in the second world war no traces remain.
A first civil war on English soil, the lessons not learned sufficiently to either prevent the second or the bloodshed to follow in Ireland. These words may appear to be random, topics not truly linked, but they are linked by observations on these sites over many years.
However, visiting Towton recently reminded me of how often such sites retain an aura of tranquillity after the battle has passed into memory. Animals seem to sense it even more than humans, I first came across this as a teenager, a friend of my father had horses that wouldn’t be ridden, only led, on the bridleway across a local battlefield (Cheriton, Hampshire).
Towton: The day in question, sunny but cold, the skylark singing adding to the sense of calm despite the presence of heavily trafficked main roads visible not far off. Obviously some of that ambience was down to the site’s general location; a rural field is often quiet, therefore, whether or not it is a battle site that ambience will prevail. However, this aura is the “something” over and above that which is difficult to describe but can be felt. My seven year old granddaughter clearly felt it, after talking about the battle and reading the explanatory signage she was sufficiently moved on the way back to the car to want to place a tribute on the simple memorial. In the absence of flowers a bunch of grass had to suffice; the act simple but moving.
Sadly as this post was being finalised mainland terror in the UK was once again running as the major lead in the news alongside other ghastly occurrences elsewhere. The first the death of Martin McGuinness leading the media to rehash the IRA’s activities alongside his later life, the second the appalling atrocities in London, all unfolding as I was loading the vehicle to head to the capital. Having only the previous week been to a public lecture about the life of Eric Lomax, who despite his appalling treatment by the Japanese during WWII, managed to meet and forgive his torturer, it all seems so pointless. Whether major battles, or smaller scale terrorist activity, when will we ever learn that bloodshed just begets more bloodshed and violence? Many, I am sure, will disagree, but surely we have to learn from Eric Lomax, and not the terrorist, to quote the last line of his book – ‘Sometime the hating has to stop.’
Image Copyright John New 2017.