We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


Understanding Battles: Walking the ground
12 February 2011, 13:10
Filed under: Gettysburg, Normandy, Tours, Understanding Battles

The other day, I was driving out to Camp Highroad for a Boy Scout event and I smiled, because my drive was taking me through the Aldie battlefield. The Battle of Aldie was a rather smallish affair, with just two cavalry brigades involved (2000 Union and 1500 Confederate soldiers). Having been to the battlefield a few times now, it makes more sense how the charges up the Snickersville Turnpike could both be so deadly and be repeated. The twists and turns of the road, the tightness of the walls and the suddenness of the elevation changes all generated confusion and created opportunities for ambushes.

When one reads about battles without visiting them, it is very easy to misunderstand what happened and why. Many times, I’ve been out on a battlefield and looked around, feeling the light bulb inside my head flick on as the movements suddenly made sense. Until I walked the ground and saw what they saw, the actions of the various commanders and soldiers didn’t always make sense. Often, it’s about what can be seen and not seen. Sometimes, it explains why an advance was either easy or difficult.

A fine example is on the first day’s battlefield at Gettysburg. I’d been on the battlefield dozens of times from the early 1990s until 2007, when I organized a training hike for my Philmont crew. I’d never walked the Confederate approach from Chambersburg to GeneralBuford’s lines on McPherson Ridge. I’d driven it dozens of times, but since my Scouts needed some training on ground that was a little “bumpy”, we hiked from the first shot marker eastward. As we cleared Willoughby Run and began hiking up the slight incline, with light packs on our backs, I realized that the slight incline felt a whole lot steeper than “slight”. I’d only looked at it from the top of the ridge (from Union lines) and it never seemed that steep. However, carrying gear and walking up it while imagining musket and cannon fire cleared up a great deal about how Buford’s troops were able to hold the Confederates off that morning.

Similarly, when I was on Omaha Beach in Normandy, it was an eye-opener. Standing on that wide beach, with a perfect curve to it, I realized what a killing field that they landed on. Going to the extreme right of the German line, up on the heights at the east end of the beach, you can visit (if you get the right guides, like Paul, Dale and Allan) WN60 – the German resistance net up on those heights. When you look down across that vast expanse, it’s a wonder the invasion didn’t fail right there.

There is no substitute for walking the ground. Looking at maps or even sampling Google Earth’s views might give you some ideas, but nothing like the stunning effect of standing where the men who fought did. As General Buford said in the movie, it was lovely ground.

Advertisements

3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great post. I agree fully. One of the reasons I remain active in battlefield preservation efforts.

Aldie is an interesting battlefield, and in my “back yard” so to speak. However, my favorite spot in the Loudoun Valley is the Goose Creek Bridge.

Comment by Craig Swain

We should all have or make the opportunity to “walk the ground”….it puts a new perspective on things.

My first trip to abroad included a visit to the town of Arromanches. I quickly realized that no amount of reading, movies, or documentary watching on the television enables you to begin to imagine the true scale of the D-Day operation. Only after standing next to the actual remnants on the beach and watching the movie in the museum did I begin to fathom the enormity of it all. It is something that is beyond real comprehension if you do not walk at least a tiny piece of the ground. I was forever changed after that experience.

When I visited Oradour.. on my next trip to France, it seemed the logical next step in “walking another tiny piece of ground” from WWII’s history. Subsequent trips abroad continued to provide me with opportunities to “walk more ground”.

Comment by baworldtraveler

[…] The Marines weren’t the only ones there, as Army units were on both sides of them, but this fight really does deserve credit for “The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps”. It remains legendary in the Corps and I hope to be able to some more research to learn the stories of these Marines and share them with you. If my cards fall right, I’ll be in Belleau Wood next year, walking the ground. After all, that’s the only way to understand it. […]

Pingback by 99 years ago, Marines, north of Paris | We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in ... France




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: