Sunday, 30 June 2013

Of Men, Motivation and Morality

I think I may have to retract some of the things I said in my last post.  Perhaps I was a little too quick to dismiss the value of studying battlefields as a way of getting close to the past.  What I learned on Saturday morning, in a lecture delivered jointly by Chris Skidmore and Professor Glenn Foard at the Chalke Valley History Festival, is that a survey of the terrain on which a battle was fought, when combined with a discussion of the personal history and motivation of the participants, can be quite fascinating.

Of course, I was aware that events in history are usually less straightforward than they appear.  We all know that the human misery brought about by the First World War was not a simple case of stupid, incompetent generals disregarding the outcomes of their strategies, or even of youthful, public-school-educated officers innocently leading fearless working-class Tommies to their deaths.  The combination of circumstances that led to Siegfried Sassoon's protest of 1917 is difficult to unravel, and he recognised, later in life, that he might have been seeing things in black and white when in reality they were varying shades of grey.  Nevertheless, we don't often think too deeply about what was behind the bad decisions of politicians and military leaders, either in the First World War or any other tactical situation.

Skidmore, being an MP, perhaps has a better handle on this than I have, but his analysis of the historical context of the Battle of Bosworth was a masterly one.  A study of the personal histories of the battle commanders leads to some interesting conclusions about why the battle went the way it did.  Whilst it is true that it could have gone either way, and that the death of either Richard III or Henry Tudor would have ended the battle immediately (as in fact it did), there were various individual commanders involved in the action, each of whom had a degree of influence on the outcome.  Richard's final charge towards Henry's personal bodyguard - his only hope, at that stage, of winning the battle - is slightly reminiscent in some ways of Siegfried Sassoon's reckless ventures into No Man's Land and his single-handed but eventually pointless capture of a German trench.

Sassoon, of course, did not have the power to end a battle, or indeed the personal or political influence to end a war, but he was one of many individuals who led the troops, for better or worse.  It would be unreasonable to compare him to the Lancastrian nobleman and experienced battle commander John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, whose leadership on the day of Bosworth played a crucial part in Henry's victory and whose actions on that day were significantly influenced by the mental scars of his previous military experience, or to his opponent John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk, whose death in the battle caused Richard such distress that it proved a turning-point in the hostilities.

More realistic, perhaps, to compare Siegfried with another of Henry's supporters, Sir John Cheney, whose tomb can be seen in Salisbury Cathedral.  Standing approximately six feet eight inches and a notable horseman, Sir John was the knight who dashed in to rescue Henry's standard and put himself between the rivals for the crown during Richard's final charge.  Richard personally unhorsed this seasoned soldier, knocking him unconscious, but Cheney's action proved critical, giving Henry's bodyguards time to fight off the attack.

By now, unless you have a keen interest in battlefield archaeology, you are probably wondering about Professor Foard and where he comes into the matter of Bosworth.  He is in fact the archaeologist who has spent the past few years proving that the Battle of Bosworth (or more accurately, the Battle of Redemore as it was called by contemporaries) took place, not on Ambion Hill where the Bosworth Visitor Centre is located, but in a marshy area several miles away.  Archaeological finds support the theory, based as it originally was on a study of local place names and first-hand accounts of the battle.  You may have heard about the silver-gilt badge depicting a boar (Richard III's personal emblem) which was found on the site and is considered almost conclusive evidence.

Archaeologists, battlefield guides and ignorant tourists alike can still pick up finds that reveal previously-unknown facts about military actions of the First World War.  Human remains are still being discovered and families informed of the final fate of their missing ancestors or relatives, almost a hundred years after those men were lost in action.  Likewise, new facts about the way the First World War was fought and the reasons for it are still being brought to light.  We can never hope to answer the question of whether it was right or wrong, or what might have happened if these events had never taken place.  Historians and archaeologists can satisfy our curiosity on many points but they cannot answer moral or hypothetical questions for us. 

Sassoon's approach to the problem of the continuation of the war was certainly a simplistic one, but what would have happened if he had not made his protest?  The war would probably not have ended any sooner or lasted any longer.  What a lone voice such as his could do, and has done over the many decades since, was to strengthen the resolve of other men and women who feared the consequences of making a moral stand.  It is this, rather than his military prowess, that makes him a hero of our times.
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