A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Monday, 17 October 2011

An Unpractised Eye

I've been very busy for the last few weeks, partly because I've been in the process of selling a small publishing business which had begun to take up too much of my time. Selling is easy, but handing it over in such a manner that it continues to function is not unlike changing the engine in your car while it is going along. Tricky. I'm still involved a bit in supporting and answering questions, but things are starting to quieten down.

A number of people have warned me that I am going to have to make serious arrangements for something else to fill my days - I don't see that as a problem. I'll be able to get back to hillwalking and cycling, spend more time with my family, get the garden under better control and keep an eye on my other business interests. Oh - and there's wargaming, of course. I could do a lot more of that.

Manor Water from Cademuir Hill

On Saturday, I spent the day with three former work colleagues, walking over Cademuir Hill and thence along the Tweed near Peebles. We had intended to go to Killiecrankie, but the weather forecast was not good for Perthshire. On the walk, conversation turned to the Killiecrankie battlefield, and had any of us ever seen it, and from there we went on to battlefields in general that any of us might have visited. One of our number was lucky enough to have been to Austerlitz a few months ago, so he was far and away the star expert. I mentioned that I enjoyed visiting Culloden (of which more in a moment), and I also owned up to the fact that I have a real struggle to visualise actual battlefields from the ground. It turned out that this appeared to be something of a difficulty for all of us, and I got to thinking about why that should be.

Postcard from Austerlitz

I am very comfortable with maps, and I have spent very many hours reading campaign atlases and looking down on miniature battlefields from the infamous helicopter height. In the real world of fresh air, I also do a fair amount of walking in the hills, I live in an area which is heavily agricultural (I have a view across to the Lammermuirs from my bedroom), and I used to take part in competitive cross-country running, so I am pretty good at looking at a distant object and estimating how far away it is. I would regard my spacial awareness as pretty good, in fact. Maybe it is the two-dimensional nature of a battlefield which complicates things, but if someone puts me on an observation post with a guidebook in my hand - even a telescope - then things get out of proportion quickly. I can see the near distance and understand it - no problem. Then that very slight elongated bump over there is actually a significant ridge, and is 2 miles away. Is it? - it doesn't look it. Then that other bump which looks about the same distance away is actually the famous such-and-such heights, and that is 4 miles away, and in the undiscernible space between these two smudges on the horizon there were 40,000-odd men on the Great Day.

Erm - Dunbar battlefield?

Well, I can imagine what 40,000 men might look like, and I'll accept, as an act of faith, that this is where it all happened, but to me the map in the guide doesn't seem an awful lot like what I'm looking at. Suddenly, you begin to understand why there used to be official guidelines of how far away troops were when you could distinguish horses, when you could see their faces etc. It always seemed over-helpful to have such an instruction, but it makes more sense now. Visualisation is not helped, either, by later additions to the battlefield - the Lion Mound at Waterloo, a motel at Manassas, a modern housing estate at Bannockburn, the cement works which dwarfs everything at Dunbar, the motorway at Vitoria. However, my difficulties seem to boil down to two main things:

(1) Battlefields are big and convoluted - they are not football fields

(2) I am not used to assessing the lie of the land in this way, and am very much aware that it is a difficult skill.

I have to presume that the generals of history were trained in this stuff, and were rather good at it. I followed with great interest the series of battlefield visits which featured on thistlebarrow's blog , and make no secret of the fact that I would like to do more of this sort of thing myself, but I have a little education to think about first.

A very long time ago I visited Flodden Field in Northumberland, and found that it was just a piece of farmland that went up and down a bit, with a monument - I hadn't prepared for the trip, so knew little about it, and at that time I couldn't find anything very helpful in the way of visitor guides (though I believe it is very good now). Culloden was different. Since they cleared the trees off the battlefield (planted after the battle, to avoid the place being preserved as a Jacobite shrine), this is a marvellous place to visit. It also is small enough to make sense to me. Knowledgeable guides in appropriate highland dress will walk you around the field in the rough order of events, so you get to walk up the area covered by the Highlanders' charge, stand where the Hanoverian line was (checking out the position of the various units), look at the wall which enfiladed the highland troops etc. It is all really very clear, even to a klutz like me. That is all very well at Culloden, but I would not be confident about Austerlitz, though I am assured it is a fantastic place to visit.

Leanach Cottage, at Culloden

I talked to the Austerlitz man (who has also seen a lot of the ACW historical sites) about my half-baked dream of doing a leisurely battlefields and beer trip down the Danube, following Napoleon's 1809 campaign. Now that the pesky publishing business is gone, I might actually have a chance to do it, and we agreed that maybe we could go, while our legs, hearts and livers are still up to it.

We also agreed that we'd have a fair amount of homework to do first, to get the best of it.


  1. A commendable ambition - I hope to get to the Boyne soonish. I did Lansdowne ( must post the pictures from there) which is field that is very well preserved while on holiday in Bath this year.

    I think the key to a successful visit is good boots, good company and a good guidebook.

  2. I remember getting to Waterloo as a young fellow, looking around and wondering "where are the ridges?" At Queenston Heights,a small but pivotal battle in Canadian history, the key events are marked by a series of plaques on a trail through the woods which say things like "The British battery may have been around here somewhere" and "The trail climbed by Captain Wool's company might have been somewhere over there".

    Gettysburg was much more satisfying. The areas that have been preserved and not built over are well marked and look pretty much as advertised so that one can picture the battle lines.

    Still doesn't entirely explain why it took 3 days to make a 30 minute walk.

    Getting to Gettysburg was