British battlefield heritage is a national disgrace. There is no other way to describe it. The great majority of our battlefields remain largely devoid of visitor centre, signs, paths, maintenance, and protection. This despite the best efforts of the Battlefields Trust (www.battlefieldstrust.com), set up in 1991 in response to government vandalism – the driving of a motorway link-road through the site of the Battle of Naseby. What they actually destroyed was the line of Prince Rupert’s famous cavalry charge.
This – for the information of American readers who may be unsure – is the equivalent of driving a major trunk-road across the line of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. This is the sort of thing they do in Britain. That this could not happen in the States is largely thanks to the superb National Parks system. And I can tell you, as a British visitor to a fair few of the Civil War sites, coming from the poverty of battlefield heritage over here, they are a stunning national achievement, a monument to public service and Americans’ respect for their nation’s history.
In Britain, there are one or two places where we have something to compare with a minor Civil War site in the States – though nothing that comes anywhere close to sites like Antietam, Manassas, or Gettysburg. Hastings and Culloden spring to mind. Otherwise, if there is no castle or fort or underground bunker or other substantive structure, you will be on your own, hacking through the brambles and nettles, entirely dependent on your guidebook. So which one?
Choosing a guidebook
Nowadays there are many to choose from, among them Howard Green’s Guide to the Battlefields of Britain and Ireland (1973), William Seymour’s Battles in Britain, 1066-1746 (1975), and David Smurthwaite’s Battlefields of Britain: the complete illustrated guide (1984). In addition, there are more detailed period guides, such as Martyn Bennett’s Traveller’s Guide to the Battlefields of the English Civil War (1990), or Peter Bramley’s The Wars of the Roses: a field guide and companion (2007). But all of these are in some sense derivative; and there remains something unique and special about Burne’s Battlefields.
Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Higgins Burne (1886-1959) was a professional British Army officer who became a military historian. Educated at Winchester School and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1906, saw active service during the First World War, and ran an officer cadet training unit in the Second.
His interest in British battlefields went back to the interwar period, when his researches made him aware not only of the obscurity of battlefields in the landscape, but also of the lamentable lack of battlefield guides. The best he could lay his hands on was C R B Barrett’s Battles and Battlefields in England (1895), but ‘this book contains few and inadequate maps; moreover, his conclusions are in my opinion frequently erroneous’.
This, however, was only part of the problem. ‘Not only is the pasture barren, but amid the scant herbage there is… an undue proportion of weeds.’ This included the work of Sir James Ramsay, who, while a painstaking historian, was ‘not a soldier’, such that ‘on military grounds many of his conclusions are open to criticism’. These errors had then been, in the way of such things, fossilised – both in later works, like Barrett’s Battles and Battlefields, and in monuments erected at some of the sites, which turn out to be in the wrong place.
Alfred Higgins Burne
Born: 26 September 1886
Died: c.June 1959
During the First World War, Burne was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). In the Second World War, he was Commandant of the 121st Officer Cadet Training Unit. A prolific author in later life, he lived in Kensington, London, until his death in 1959. His funeral was held in the area’s St Mary Abbots church.
Inherent Military Probability
Burne’s contention was that good battlefield identification needed to involve three elements: use of all the original historical sources; thorough exploration of the ground; and, crucially, a soldier’s sense of what he dubbed ‘Inherent Military Probability’ (sometimes contracted to ‘IMP’). He explained it thus:
My method here is to start with what appear to be undisputed facts, then to place myself in the shoes of each commander in turn, and to ask myself in each case what I would have done. This I call working on Inherent Military Probability. I then compare the resulting action with the existing record in order to see whether it discloses any incompatibility with the existing facts. If not, I then go on to the next debatable or obscure point in the battle and repeat the operation.
So Burne’s Battlefields is much more than a guide to the actual sites. It is a method of fieldwork and a presentation of the results thereof. Needless to say, there has been criticism, but this seems misplaced. He has been accused of making the unjustifiable assumption of attributing to past historical actors a modern military understanding.
But this will not do. The historical sources are often woefully inadequate, and detailed knowledge of the actual sites has often been lost. So we are compelled to reconstruct in precisely the way Burne describes, and there is nothing to prevent us making due allowance for different ways of thinking about war in the past, presumably in consideration of differences in weapons, tactics, military organisation, attitudes to war-making, and so on. We know that Cromwell commanded shock cavalry, not tanks, and we can at least make the attempt to understand his war as he understood it.
Burne’s guidebooks – originally The Battlefields of England (1950) and More Battlefields of England (1952), but later reissued as a single volume (1996 and 2002) – are not fully comprehensive: many battles are missing. But the total – 37 sites – is impressive, given that each involves much archive research and field reconnaissance. Each chapter provides general historical context and a detailed reconstruction of the battle based on Burne’s researches, often with discussion of particular ‘problems of the battlefield’ wherever interpretations are disputed.
The text is supported by crystal-clear plans, including, where necessary, plans of the approaches to battle as well as of the battle itself, sometimes supplemented by handy panoramas.
One or two of the early entries seem a little tendentious. I am not convinced that we can locate a battle like that of Caratacus against the Romans in AD 51, nor that the Battle of Mount Badon in c.AD 500 (it is supposed to have been one of Arthur’s battles) even happened.
But you are not obliged to follow Colonel Burne there if you, too, are sceptical. And, for the most part, we are on much firmer ground: generally speaking, we know roughly where medieval and civil war battles were fought. The devil is in the detail. Can we pin it down to the point where, in effect, we can redraw the lines on the map and thereby understand more about how things fell out as they did?
The test is practice, so I took myself to Barnet not so long ago, equipped with flapjack, flask of tea, and copy of Burne’s Battlefields in the rucksack. As you walk from the railway station at the end of the metro line, you pass through a suburb on the very edge of London, and soon you are heading into open countryside.
I had a modern map, but did not really need it. The main roads on 14 April 1471 are still the main roads today. I could find the route just by using Burne’s plan of the medieval battlefield.
I headed for the battlefield monument to get my bearings – an obelisk erected in 1740 to mark the spot where Warwick the Kingmaker, the greatest figure of the Wars of the Roses, was supposedly cut down, inscribed with the words, ‘Here was fought the famous battle between Edward IV and the Earl of Warwick, 14 April 1471, in which the Earl was defeated and slain’.
Everything fitted. Burne had worked out that Warwick must have deployed where the high ground north of Barnet extended into an east–west ridge about a mile wide. Further north or south, his flanks would have drooped into the surrounding low ground and been, in military terms, ‘in the air’. Only in one place could he have deployed his full battle-line on the heights.
And there was the proof. The hedge-line that Burne had found – reported by the chroniclers, but missed entirely by earlier investigators – was clear as day, running across the local golf course (a very friendly golf club, by the way, that welcomes walkers), with bank, ditch, old trees, and even part of the medieval holloway that ran along it.
I walked the whole Lancastrian line from right to left, eventually dropping down into no-man’s land at the far end and crossing the ground over which an 18-year-old Duke of Gloucester (the later Richard III) had led his Yorkist division in the assault that turned Warwick’s flank.
At several points, there were clear views across the surrounding countryside – views that confirmed the match between chronicle, ground, and Inherent Military Probability.
It was a magical day. The sun was shining. There were a fair few people about, but I was the only one exploring the battlefield, walking in the footsteps of no fewer than three English kings – for Edward IV, as well as bringing Gloucester, his younger brother and successor, also had the deposed Lancastrian King Henry VI in tow – and, of course, in the footsteps of the great Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker himself. A magical day thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred H Burne. •