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Thinking about the Unthinkable: Exploring Tactical Nuclear War

Vladimir Putin’s remarks in October 2022 that were a reminder that  nuclear weapons have not gone away. Even though most armed forces have concluded that the tactical nuclear weapons have limited utility on a twenty first century battlefield,  it would be unwise to be unaware of their characteristics, or how the might be used on the battlefield.

One of the best places to study the characteristics of tactical nuclear weapons is on the cold war “battlefield” of Western Germany. Here,  for several decades, NATO strategy was based  on the threat of nuclear escalation. British forces in Germany planned and practiced the use of nuclear weapons and operations under the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Before the introduction of precision guided munitions, nuclear weapons were regarded as key to stopping an armoured assault by  Warsaw Pact   forces. In the 1970s  British organisation and tactics were designed around the nuclear battlefield.

The battlefields where BAOR anticipated fighting the Warsaw pact is a good place to explore how the Soviets saw the nuclear era as a revolution in military affairs and how it changed the way the Soviets planned to fight and its legacy in Soviet and Russian  doctrine and equipment.

REME in their field with an Honest John Missile. (REME Museum website)
REME in their field with an Honest John Missile. (REME Museum website)

It is somewhere to explore the characteristics of nuclear weapons. How might they actually be used?   What would an army contemplating tactical nuclear weapons need to consider in planning and employing them?

Happy to discuss staff rides, battlefield studies or contributions to study days.


Five- six day tour to the Operation market Garden Area for Engineers


Day 1 Travel Out

Illustration 1: Troops of 7thn Armoured Divisdion liberate Wetteren Belgium

Depart UK

Stand 1 Wetteren (Belgium) en 4th Field Squadron RE were involved in the capture of Wetteren Bridge which, in the absence of infantry was defended for two days in September against German attacks. It is an opportunity to break the journey at a location where sappers demonstrated that they were soldiers first in a troop level action.

Arrive Eindhoven area – overnight Eindhoven,

Day 2 Operation Garden.

downloadFollow the path of the 30 Corps as they sought to link up with the airborne troops landed on the bridges from Eindhoven to Arnhem. It is an opportunity to explore the role played by the engineers in this dramatic battle which focused on bridges and the tenuous route up which 30 Corps advanced.

Joe’s Bridge We will start at De Groote Barrier bridge (Joe’s Bridge) over the Meuse Escuat Canal – captured intact by the Irish Guards and the part played by 615 Field Squadron RE. This bridge would carry the whole of 30th Corps and all of the engineering stores needed to bridge any demolished briodges and repair the route to Arnhem. This might be a good place to consider the logistics of engineering.

Stand 3 Son

The Bailey bridge at Son

We follow the path of 14 Field Squadron RE with the Guards Armoured Division in the advance to Nijmegen. The bridge at Son was demolished by the Germans just before the US Paratroops from 10st Airborne Division could capture it. A replacement was built by the Royal Engineers of Guards Armoured Division on 18/19th September. It was subject to repeated counter attacks by the Germans,

Stand 4 Nijmegen

US Military map of Nijmegen area

The Road and Rail bridges over the Waal at Nijmegen were prepared by the Germans for demolition. However the Germans did not demolish the bridges because they wanted to use them to transport their own armour to a counter attack the airborne corridor. When a troop of tanks of the Grenadier Guards ruched the bridge the Germans failed to demolish it. We can also find a location to discuss route improvement.

Overnight Nijmegen

Day 3 Op Market.

British Royal Engineers 1st Para Squadron Cpl John Humphreys Cpl Charles Weir Lt Dennis Simpson Cpt Eric Mackay at Nijmegen Holland recreating their escape

We spend a day Arnhem, visiting the actions in the area including a visit to the Osterbeek museum

Stand 5 is the landing grounds near Wolfheze

Stand 6 Actions of 1 Para Engineer Squadron at the Arnhem bridge.

Stand 7 explores the actions of 4th Para Squadron who operated as infantry in the defence of the Osterbeek perimeter.

Stand 8 covers the river crossing launched by 43 Division to recover the survivors of 1st Airbiorne Division.

Overnight Nijmegen

Day 4 Overloon – Mine clearance

Flail tanks and Royal Engineers Overloon October 1944

The battle of Overloon took place East of Eindhoven in early October 1944, after the end of Market Garden. Including this battle is an opportunity to look at mine clearance and the role of armoured engineers.

The Germans had laid extensive minefields on the their western border. There is a museum on the preserved battlefield of Overloon. This has a very extensive collection of military vehicles ,including Allied and german tanks knocked out during the battlefield. Some of these show the evidence of the effects of anti tank mines on tanks and armoured cars and British fatalities are buried in a Commonwealth War Cemetery a close by.

After the museum visit we explore a series of stands looking at the challenges facing the 3rd Infantry Division in the woods and stream bisected fields between Overloon and Venrij and the way the tactical and engineering problems were tackled by engineers and armoured engineers.

Overnight Eindhoven

Day 5

Ex Washup and Recovery


Day 5 – Rhine crossing

If wished we could extend the tour by a day to include Op Plunder the Rhine Crossing. This was a major opposed river crossing and is a chance to look at amphibious operations.


The past is a foreign Country they do things differently there. –  LP Hartley The Go Between

Syndicate considering the Seven Questions at Edgehill

There strong reasons for looking at running battlefield studies and staff rides on UK Battlefields.  There are financial constraints on travel. But to have value, any military training needs to have demonstrable contemporary relevance.  UK based staff rides and battlefield studies looking at land warfare will need to consider pre 20th Century Warfare.  This poses some challenges, but can be overcome with a little thought.  Using pre C20th Britain also offers opportunities use the cultural political and social differences between different periods of British history as a model for exploring conditions in different parts of the contemporary world.


These are summarised as follows:-

  • Technology and minor tactics are far removed from modern experience.
  • Lack of information about the course of medieval battles
  • Changes to topography

Technology and Tactics.

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Body Armour at Bosworth

The radical differences in accuracy, lethality and range between modern and pre 20th Century military technology means that the tactical level of warfare is very different.  At first sight it is questionable how much relevance study of the pre 20th century warrior for the modern soldier.  By comparison with the warriors of the past, modern combat is at a distance and the soldier is isolated from the immediate contact with comrades and from face to face contact with the foe.

Drilling at Naseby -a concurrent activity in poor visilbility

Yet there is much in common. As ever, soldiers must face the hardships of campaign, the enemy in battle and their own mortality.   Some pre modern engagements have a timeless feel. British soldiers have attacked at the point of cold steel on several occasions in the past ten years.  Furthermore, changing modern circumstances can through the experience of ancient warriors into a new light.  Thirty years ago, at the height of the cold war , we would not see the experience of the Norman mail clad warrior dominating the landscape from the security of the motte and Bailey castle. Now we have an army equipped with personal protection that would be the envy of the 15th Century r operating from Heskco forts that William the Conqueror would have recognised.

Many battlefield concepts are eternal. Tactical constraints that can be recognised across time include fire and manoeuvre, use of ground, tempo and the value of enfilading fire and defilading positions. Leadership is as eternal as the human spirit as is Moltke’s grit in the machine – the Realities of War

Lack of information about many early battles.

There is very little information about Pre 20th Century battles compared to more recent operations.  There were no official histories, war diaries and definitely no army of military historians combing over the evidence for new interpretations.  The documentary evidence for many battles can be fragmentary and unsubstantiated by archaeological evidence.  There may be no “exercise Pink”.

Try out the Great Warbow at Towton

Topography changes.

Worse still the battlefield itself may have changed over time. Even if we know exactly where the battle was and what happened, the ground itself may have changed. The tactical significance of the ground may not be obvious from the current topography.

Some Battlefields have been preserved.

There are over 450 battlefields skirmishes and sieges in England alone.  Not all of these can be located with certainty and in others the battlefield topography has changed beyond recognition. There are 43 battlefields on the English Heritage Battlefield Register. These are battlefields that a panel of experts has agreed can be identified with some certainty, have historic significance and can be viewed within their historic landscape.

Battlefields Trust Walk – Barnet Battlefield

The Battlefields Trust is a charity dedicated to preserving and developing battlefields for heritage purposes.  Their Battlefield Resource centre was funded by the Heritage Lottery fund and has information on over 70 battlefields, collated by professional historians and archaeologists.   These include the English Heritage Registered Battlefields.  Information on each battle typically includes a reconstruction of the historic terrain, source material on each battle as well as an interpretation of what happened.  This should be a key resource for anyone planning a visit to a UK battlefield.


What follows are some examples of transposing contemporary strategic settings onto Britain’s past.  These are far from exhaustive.

479px-MS_Ghent_-_Battle_of_Barnet_retouchedThe Age of Treason- Wars of the Roses 1453-85

Central government was paralysed. The hereditary ruler was ineffectual, even when not confined to his sick bed.  Government appointments were made through nepotism within cliques and its business was notorious for inefficiency and corruption.  The ruling elite was divided into factions with an opposition forming around one of the few military leaders to emerge with credit from the disastrous failure of a long war with a neighbour.   Large parts of the country were in a state of anarchy, dominated by regional warlords who dispensed partisan justice.  Pirates operated with impunity in the seas off its shores.

This could be a failing state in one of the hot spots of conflict in Africa.  But it’s England in 1453 at the start of the Wars of the Roses.  Technology may have developed, but political and military problems of rebuilding a state are recognisable across the years.

AfricaThis is also an era that saw rapid development in military technology and in the evolution of weapons and tactics.  At a low level campaigns and actions offer opportunities to view relevant ground. There are opportunities to explore doctrine through comparing and contrasting modern and medieval components of force, or different arms of service. .

The political and military leaders of this war deserve modern study as examples of leadership in battle and in conflict resolution.   Some of these men were cable of major feats of arms including night marches and deployments and forced marches that would test a modern force.

There are many evocative locations from this era.  Many of the most important battlefields are well preserved and accessible, including St Albans, Barnet, Towton  Bloor Heath and Bosworth as well as many of the castles of the period.  The battles of Barnet and Tewksbury are well documented and we have archaeological evidence for others…

The military and political careers of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII offer an opportunity to explore contrasting leadership styles.  Several of the strategies used for nation building by these 15th Century leaders have a surprisingly modern flavour, including reconciliation parades, and unity governments of erstwhile enemies.

The social and economic world of the 15th Century allows modern Britons an opportunity to understand and empathise with people whose lives are dominated by different attitudes to loyalty, justice and faith.


When The King Comes Home in Peace Again – The British Civil Wars 1642-51

Some regarded the collapse of the state as inevitable.  Creating a united country from two traditional enemies would be doomed to fail. Worse still, the state included four ethnic groups two of which were dominated by radically opposed religious sects. The fact that this artificial country had existed for over thirty years was a tribute to the political skill of the leader who created the country.  His successor was less adept and less able to play the different factions off against each other. The situation spiraled out of control and entered into a series of civil wars lasting nearly a decade.

YugoslaviaThese wars were some of the bloodiest in the country’s history, with major pitched battles and sieges fought by the field armies, while local scores were settled between villages and individuals.

It could be the Balkans after Tito, but it’s Great Britain in the mid 17th Century.  The English Civil War is an opportunity to look at warfare in a setting with a modern context.  It has the ethnic and religious tensions that bedevil many nations.  The atrocities of the war provide a context for a modern discussion about legal and moral issues.  It is also the birthplace of the Modern British Army, formed from Cromwell’s new Model Army.

There are battlefields, sieges and skirmishes across the UK.  Many of the battlefields can be easily interpreted and lend themselves for study.  These include battles of Naseby, Marston Moor, Newbury, Cheriton, Lostwithieal, Roundway Down Adwalton Moors and Langport; Large scale sieges of York, Newark Hull, Bristol and Gloucester and small scale sieges at Tisbury and Basing House.


Regime Change: Monmouth’s Rebellion and the Glorious Revolution

Uneasy is the head on the throne.  The authoritarian ruler is increasingly at odds with many of the key stakeholders in the country.  He is introducing policies that seek to impose fundamentalist religious orthodoxy of one sect over that held by the majority.  Exiled opposition groups are seeking allies and funding for an attempt to change the regime.  This takes place against a back drop of a struggle for world dominance between the major power blocks of the time.

The events of 1685-90 in the British Isles offer an opportunity to explore the strategic and operational challenges of regime change.

Monmouth’s rebellion offers parallels with the abortive revolt against Saddam Hussein in 1991. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw an occupying power take control over England and Scotland with less resistance than that offered in the early stages of Gulf War 2.  Even the protracted struggle in Ireland from 1690 and the influence of the events of the war on Ireland’s subsequent history parallel the later problems of post occupation Iraq.


Monmouth’s rebellion offers the best English battlefield of the era in Sedgemoor, with other battles taking place at Killicranckie and Dunkeld in Scotland.  Other engagements of the war take place in Northern Ireland ;( e.g. the siege of Londonderry) and the Irish Republic, including the battles of Aughram and the Boyne and the siege of Athlone.  However, a staff ride that contemplates Ireland or Central Scotland may also consider Flanders.

These battles are also inside the period of recorded history of the Regimental history. Several of the senior regiments were present at Sedgemoor, including the Life Guards Foot Guards and Royal Regiment of Scotland and the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment.   The Royal Regiment of Scotland has forebears at both Scottish battles and Bonnie Dundee is immortalised in a rousing canter for several mounted units.

Hereward the Wake

Counter Insurgency

Almost every ruler from the Romans onwards has needed to undertake counter insurgency operations in some part of the British Isles. The problems of counter insurgency are eternal.  Culture and technology evolve, but the problems of combating hostile elements within a population are eternal.

The Norman and Roman operations against the indigenous populations have left limited traces that can be directly linked to battlefields. There are better opportunities to explore counter insurgency campaigns in the pacification of Wales by Edward 1st and of Scotland after the 1745 rebellion.

Edward’s campaign from 1275-95 includes several engagements with a contemporary resonance.  The battle of Llandeilo Fawr is an ambush of an All Arms Brigade sized force by Welsh insurgents as they return to their FOB.  At the battle of Moel-y-don the Welsh surprise the English as they attempt to cross the Menai Strait on a pontoon bridge.   Edward’s chain of castles across North Wales has a parallel with modern concepts of operating from bases.


The campaign also contains one of the good examples of tactical development.  The battle of Orewin Bridge is one of the first to use the combination of firepower and manoeuvre, using the combination of archers and cavalry to defeat a strongly positioned Welsh force.


A pre C20th Battlefield Study will broadly follow good practice for staff rides or Battlefield Studies. The design should start with the aims in terms of training objectives.  There are some implications for designing staff rides and battlefield studies using a pre 20th Century setting.

Introductory scene setting.

It is harder for modern soldiers to relate to pre 1914 weapons and tactics.  If the essence of the tour is to consider counter insurgency or stabilisation operations, the social and political environment is important.  It will take more preparation and time on scene setting than may be necessary with  eras and battlefields familiar from screen and computer game.  Ideas for bringing the era alive include the use of living history re-enactors and role play exercises as well as visits to suitable interpretation centres or museums.  .

Edgehill Battlefield

Making the Best Use of Battlefields and siege sites.

Visiting the ground is at the heart of a battlefield study or Staff ride.  The challenge is to obtain contemporary lessons from actions that involve troops, weapons and tactics as alien as those of the pre gunpowder era.

  • The significance of the micro-terrain in influencing battle is independent of period.    Indeed, the alien nature of the historic conflict should encourage the question: How would this be tackled today?
  • There are “eternal lessons” that can be extracted from our ancient past. For example, at the battle ot Barnet, 1471 Edward IV defeated his uncle Richard Neville Earl of Warwick in a battle that seems to have been a hand to hand melee of little modern relevance.  However, it is possible to recognise Edward’s tactical skill and leadership in the night approach march  to a few hundred  metres of his enemy. The friendly fires incidents and situational awareness problems experienced by his enemy on a foggy day have a contemporary relevance.
  • Some historic actions have a contemporary flavour regardless of the differences in technology.  For example, the battle of Llandeilo Fawr  1287 takes place when the Welsh ambush an English force returning on foot to their castle (FOB) Dinefwr Castle after an attack on Carreg Cennen Castle four miles away.
  • Exploring a modern problem based on the historic setting.  Perhaps the historic landscape and limited industrial and economic infrastructure, but assuming modern technology.
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Possibly the Largest battle on English Soil was fought on here on the banks of the river Medway in AD43. An opposed river crossing by 40,000 Roman soldiers

Obtaining Value for Money.

In theory UK based tours should be cheaper than overseas tours. There are savings on accommodation if suitable military accommodation can be found and there is no need for ferry or air tickets or toll road fees.  However, the travel costs to Scotland can be almost as expensive as NW Europe and will involve long transit times.  Furthermore in some cases UK destinations impose higher costs:-

  • The UK does not have the hostels and hotels geared towards battlefield travel that can be found in Flanders and France.
  • The UK does not have the museums and interpretation centres that enable a group to quickly become familiar with the nature of warfare and society. In order to do so in the UK may require some expenditure of input from living history societies or hiring a handling collection.

If you would like to talk about any ideas inspired by this article, please drop me a line at enquiries@staffrideservices.com or call the office +44 207 387 6620 or my mobile +44 781 317 9668

Austerlitz and Wagram from Vienna or Brno

map Image6The Battle of Waterloo is probably the most famous battle of the Napoleonic wars. But if you want to understand why Napoleon was so powerful you need to visit somewhere else. Within a couple of hours of Vienna you can find Austerlitz and Wagram; two of Napoleon’s key battles.

Austerlitz is regarded my many as seen as his masterpiece and genius for War. Wagram was Napoleon’s last decisive victory. These battles, four and a half years and 90 years apart marked the high points of Napoleon’s military career.

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The Santon on the Battlefield of Austerlitz

Napoleon fought two campaigns in Austria as Emperor of France. The 1805 campaign led to the decisive battle of Austerlitz 2nd December 1805 near Brno. This was a remarkable battle in which Napoleon beat superior numbers of Austrian and Russian troops. It is the single battle which demonstrated his genius and the superiority of the Grande Armee over the outmoded continental armies. It was also the setting for some chapters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

The Archduke Charles at the Battle of Aspern May 1809- Napoleon;s first defeat

Four years later Napoleon again campaigned in the Danube valley. This time the Austrians were better prepared and prevented the French from crossing the river Danube. When Napoleon launched a river crossing, the Archduke Charles inflicted Napoleon’s first defeat at the battle of Aspern-Essling in May 1809 but prevailed over the Austrian Army at the battle of Wagram in July 1809. Wagram is a little overlooked. It was the second largest battle in the Napoleonic wars over a three hundred thousand combatants fought.

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Napoleon;s viewpoint at the Battle Wagram July 1809

Each of these campaigns was the cumulation of a series of actions in the Danube Valley. In 1805 the Russians turned and defeated a French column at the battle of Durnstein and the action described by Tolstoy as Schoengraben. In 1809 there were battles at Ablesberg and Znaim as well as Bratislava.

There is a lot to see at these battlefields. Austellitz is well preserved and it is easy to see how the ground influenced the course of the battle. There is a lot to see at Wagram too. Despite being subsumed into the suburbs of Vienna there is a lot to see at Aspern and Esseling

napoleon_cafeImage8Vienna is a good base for Lower Austria and the Danube valley, with Brno in the Czech Republic right next to Austerlitz. There are cheap flights to both destinations.

The Military history museum in Vienna is well worth visiting. The whole area has good food and drink.

If you would like to talk about any ideas inspired by this article, please drop me a line at enquiries@staffrideservices.com or call the office +44 207 387 6620 or my mobile +44 781 317 9668.

27 Regiment RLC Bosworth and Lichfield

Syndicate discussion on the tactics to tackle the Religious extremist terrorists who had barricaded themselves into Lichfield cathedral

The aim of this two day all ranks battlefield study was principally as a team building exercise for the Regiment’s Op Olympic contingent. The exercise was intended to achieve the the following:-
• Introducing and refreshing awareness of doctrinal concepts (Principles of war, defence and attack)
• Developing their understanding or the eternal truths about the reality of war, the relevance of the core values and the importance of logistics on operations.
• Develop an understanding of the impact of ground on operations
• An opportunity to develop an understanding of all arms tactics
• Having fun.

The exercises was based at Swynnerton Training Camp in Staffordshire and the historical subject matter expertise was provided by Frank Baldwin and Julian Humphrys pro bono, for the Battlefields Trust.

A handling collection of weapons and armour helps to bring pre-twentieth century warfare to life.

While the technology of the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War are very different to today, the political setting of failed states, regime change civil war and religious extremism has a very modern context.

On each battlefield group discussions were focused on the similarities and differences between the armies and warfare of the 15th and 17th Centuries and those of today, combined with low level TEWTS based on the historic setting.

The exercises ended with an act of Remembrance at the Arm,ed Forces memorial at the National Memorial Arbouretum.

If you would like to talk about any ideas inspired by this article, please drop me a line at enquiries@staffrideservices.com or call the office +44 207 387 6620 or my mobile +44 781 317 9668.

The Aisne Battlefields – an Overlooked Destination

aisne-departmental-mapThe Aisne battlefields are in some ways a forgotten corner of the Western Front. Most British visitors to the Western Front tend to focus on the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, or hurtle across it en route to Verdun, the iconic French battle. Yet the battlefields in the Aisne, the bordering department south of the Somme Region, play a significant part in the development of the Western Front, have a special place in the story of the British Expeditionary force and are the resting place of several thousand British soldiers.

The Department of the Aisne forms an inverted triangle with St Quentin near the top left corner and the town of Château Thierry near the base. The northern half of the department is part of the Picardy plains. The southern half is much hillier and cut by the Oise, Aisne and Marne rivers flowing East to West. Battlefields tend to be determined by physical geography rather than administrative regions. Thus the department plays an significant role in several battlefields, only one of which takes its name from the department.


There are geographic and commercial reasons why British battlefield tourists tend to miss out the Aisne. The Somme is that bit closer, and even then most British visitors focus on the battlefields around Albert, the site of the dramatic and costly first day of the Somme, and popularised in literature from Siegfried Sassoon to Sebastian Faulks. There has also been a major investment in the Somme in heritage tourism, from the development of the Thiepval interpretation centre, to the establishment of the Museum of the Great War in Peronne, and there is the well organised support for British tourists and the tourist trade. There is a risk though, that the focus on that which is easiest to visit distorts our understanding of the history and what it means.

The Manchester Regiment captures a German Battery on Manchester Hill.
The Manchester Regiment captures a German Battery on Manchester Hill.

The Northern part of the Aisne department centres on the town of St Quentin. This area tells a different story of the battles we know as the Somme. The most obvious features are the remains of the Hindenburg line, the fortified line created due to the high cost to the Germans of the battle of the Somme. We don’t often see the 1916 Somme battle as a “victory”. The huge investment in developing the Hindenburg line and the spiteful destruction of everything of possible value in the land they evacuated indicates that the Germans saw the Somme as a defeat. This area included the sites of actions in the advance to the Hindenburg line in March 1917. The village of Francilly-Selency includes reminders of this in the monument to the 2nd Battalion the Manchester Regiment which liberated the village in March 1917, in the action during which one of their officers, the poet Wilfred Owen, was wounded.

Lieutenant Colonel Wilfrith Elstob VC
Lieutenant Colonel Wilfrith Elstob VC

If we relied purely on popular culture, the Great war was not won but fizzled out in an Armistice, whether in a hail of bullets in no man’s land in Blackadder or with the tunnellers still under the static trenches in Bird Song. However, a visit to the Battlefields around St Quentin bears witness to the violent climax to the First World War on the Western Front. In March 1918, Manchester Hill, captured by Wilfred Owen’s battalion the previous spring, was occupied by the 16th Battalion the Manchester Regiment, understrength and exhausted from the Passchendaele campaign. This was one of the British redoubts isolated by German storm troops on the first day of the Kaiserschlacht and where its commanding Officer fought to the death, and was subsequently

Men of the 137th Brigade, 46th Division, being addressed by Brigadier General J C Campbell VC CMG DSO on the Riqueval Bridge over the St Quentin Canal, which formed part of the German's Hindenburg Line, broken on 29 September 1918.
Men of the 137th Brigade, 46th Division, being addressed by Brigadier General J C Campbell VC CMG DSO on the Riqueval Bridge over the St Quentin Canal, which formed part of the German’s Hindenburg Line, broken on 29 September 1918.

awarded the Victoria Cross. The Hindenburg Line positions north of St Quentin stormed by the British, Australian and American troops 28 September-3 October 1918, are still very visible and provide evidence of the story of the allied determination, skill and courage that overwhelmed the Germans in 1918. At this point the German defences were based on the Canal du Nord, a major obstacle protected by barbed wire and concrete bunkers. The tactical problem can be compared with the D Day landings. The bridge at Riqueval, seized by Captain Charlton and nine men can be compared to the capture of Pegasus Bridge on D Day. It is one of the most evocative places, and captured on a camera.

The fighting did not end at the canal. The concrete bunkers of the Hindenberg line are much better preserved than the earthworks of the Somme. The BBC TV Programme ”Who Do You Think You Are?” featured Matthew Davis the descendent of William Henry Johnson VC winner seeking the story of his ancestor. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23109590

Lance Corporal William Coltman VC
Lance Corporal William Coltman VC

Close to here, at Mannequin Hill, N.E. of Sequehart, Lance Corporal William Harold Coltman, of 1/6th Bn, North Staffordshire Regiment, carried out the actions for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. William Coltman, whose Christian beliefs would not allow him to kill another man was Britain’s most highly decorated serviceman of the First World War ( 1914-1918 ). In the last two years of the war he was awarded the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Conduct Medal twice, and Military Medal twice, acting as a stretcher-bearer.


Aisne Valley
Aisne Valley

South of Laon is the area of the Aisne battlefields.  The department included the battlefield is bordered by the city of Soissons in the West and Berry au Bac in the East, and stretches as far south as the River Marne and the city of Laon in the North. The countryside is a little more alien for the British visitor. The Somme Battlefields are geologically similar to Southern England and the rolling countryside and large fields are similar to the landscape of Hampshire. Much of the fighting centred on the high ground North of the river Aisne. The heights are often referred to by the name of the road along the heights, the Chemin des Dames.

Sgt Ernest Horlock RFA VC "For conspicuous gallantry on 15th September, near Vendresse, when his Battery was in action under a heavy shell fire, in that, although twice wounded, he persisted on each occasion in returning to lay his gun after his wound had been dressed.—London Gazette 1915
Sgt Ernest Horlock RFA VC “For conspicuous gallantry on 15th September, near Vendresse, when his Battery was in action under a heavy shell fire, in that, although twice wounded, he persisted on each occasion in returning to lay his gun after his wound had been dressed.—London Gazette 1915

The War first came to the area in September 1914 as the French and British armies fell back south pursued by the Germans. The German Schlieffen plan finally unravelled in the battle of the Marne between 5-12th September 1914 and the Germans pulled back. When the allies advanced north many could be forgiven for thinking that this war was nearly over. There had been an advance, a big battle and now the invaders were in full retreat. But, when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed the river Aisne, they found the Germans dug in on the spurs on the high ground overlooking the rive Aisne and supported by plentiful artillery. Despite heroic efforts in over a week of fighting, the BEF were unable to dislodge the Germans and both sides had started to dig trenches. Field Marshal Sir John French, the commander of the BEF wrote to the king “I think the battle of the Aisne is very typical of what battles in the future are most likely to resemble. Siege operations will enter largely into the tactical problems – the spade will be as great a necessity as a rifle

There is a lot to see in the area from the BEF experience on the Aisne. The ground itself is evocative, and much as it was in 1914. You can still see the bridging site where the Royal Engineers bridged the river next to the damaged bridge. The story of the BEF can be traced on the landscape and past the cemeteries with the reminders of the costs.

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The Chemin des Dames area was the site of the disastrous Neville Offensive in May 1917. The newly appointed commander of the French Army, General Robert Neville, thought that he had discovered the secret of the offensive based on the experience of successful limited attacks on the Somme and Verdun. He massed hundreds of guns and the cream of the French army, including tens of thousands of African soldiers. Unfortunately for Neville and the French army, the Germans had tunnelled deep into the ground, developed defences in depth and found out when and where the attack would take place. After several days bombardment the attack started under atrocious weather conditions, for May. After 135,000 casualties the French troops had had enough. There were mutinies in several regiments. They were strikes really, with soldiers protesting about ill planned attacks, poor food and no leave.

The saviour of Verdun, General Petain was appointed as Commander in chief of the army. He is credited with restoring discipline and confidence to the French Army. He did so with a mixture of carrot and stick. He instigated improvements in pay and leave arrangement, and perhaps most significantly, he cancelled further major offensives. This allowed the French army to recover its confidence in its commanders through a series of carefully planned and executed limited offensives. One of these, in November 1917 took place in the area around Fort Malmaison on the Aisne and resulted in the Germans withdrawing from the Chemin des Dames, the objective on the first day of the Neville offensive. The other implication of the French Army mutinies was that the burden of warfare on the West would have to be borne by the British until the American army could be mobilised and brought to Europe.

1814 and 1914 memorial
1814 and 1914 memorial

Arguably the 1917 mutinies had another legacy, in the French army of the Second World War. There is a comparison with Verdun. Verdun is a story of determination and sacrifice characterised by “They shall not pass”. The Chemin des Dames is where the French army reached the limits of endurance. It can be characterised by the bitter words of the Chanson de Craonne. ” It’s in Craonne up on the plateau That we’re leaving our hides ‘ Cause we’ve all been sentenced to die. We’re the ones that they’re sacrificing.”

There is a lot to see on the Aisne battlefield from the 1917 battles. The battlefield itself, like much of the

The Battle of the Aisne May 1918: 8th Infantry Division dispositions
The Battle of the Aisne May 1918: 8th Infantry Division dispositions

area around Verdun was deemed to be too devastated to be restored for agricultural use and designated a “Red Zone.” Although subsequently much agricultural land has been recovered, there are still tracts of the battlefield preserved as it was at the end of the First War, with the ruins of abandoned villages such as Craonne. There are also plentiful interpretive panels and panoramas relating the landscape of the battlefield. One focus for interpretation is the Cavern de Dragons, a quarry that became the scene of underground fighting. This contains an imaginative museum and guided tour.

There are also some evocative memorials each of which tells something of the French army. One memorial has a statue of a French soldier of 1814 alongside one of 1914; a reminder that this was also the site of one of Napoleon;’s last victories.

A group of elegant dark statues represents the spirits of the African soldiers who suffered so heavily in 1917. There is also a memorial to the first use of tanks by the French Army at Berry au Bac.


Last Stand of the 2nd Battalion the Devon Regiment at the Bois de Buttes May 1918: Willaims Barnes Wollen
Last Stand of the 2nd Battalion the Devon Regiment at the Bois de Buttes May 1918: Willaims Barnes Wollen
5 Gibraltar Battery still wear the ribbon of the Croix de Guerre on their berets.

The troops that made up the Ninth British Corps were singularly unlucky during 1918. As mentioned earlier, the Germans launched a series of offensives to try to win the war before the American Army appeared in numbers. The first offensive was between St Quentin and Arras on 21st March and took the Germans to within a few miles of Amiens. The second, the battle of the Lys, in April took the Germans close to undermining the Britsh in Flanders. In these five weeks the British Army had taken over 230,000 casualties, about the same as in the four month Passchendaele campaign. Five of the most battered British formations were transferred to the Aisne front, which had been a quiet sector since 1917. And so when the Aisne became the target of the German “operation Blucher.”, the plateau of California and Craonne was defended by the 4th Battalion the East Yorkshire Regiment of the 50th Northumberland Division. The resulting battle saw the British and French pushed back 25 miles to the river Marne. The 2nd Battalion the Devonshire Regiment and 5 Battery RFA distinguished themselves by the heroic defence of the Bois de Buttes despite being attacked by storm-troopers supported by tanks. Both units were awarded the Croix de Guerre which now is worn by all soldiers in 5 Gibraltar Battery RA and the Rifles. One of the best accounts of the fighting on the Aisne is published as “The Last of the Ebb:The Battle of the Aisne, 1918” by Sidney Rogerson Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal


Concerete gun pits of 13" German heavy artillery
Concerete gun pits of 13″ German heavy artillery

The hilltop village of Coucey has a particularly fine ruined château and the remains of town walls. But it’s ruin is a story of the First World War. Before 1914 the château of Coucey was the largest in France and a major tourist destination. But in 1917 it lay in the zone that the Germans were planning to abandon and was destroyed in what in retrospect seems spiteful vandalism. On the outskirts of Coucey is a different sort of structure. In the forest is a concrete emplacement for a giant gun used by the Germans for shelling Compiegne 20 km away.



On two occasions in the First World War the Germans nearly reached Paris. It was the high point of the German advances in 1914 and in 1918. The battles which saw the repulse of these attacks are both known as the Battle of the Marne. The turning point was the deployment of American troops on the Marne in June and July 1918. The Americans played a big part in halting the Germans on the Marne at Château Thierry, which is home to the impressive US Châteaux Thierry monument. Not far away is Belleu wood, which is where the US marines attacked in 1918. This battlefield has been preserved and it and the neighbouring US American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery and the German cemetery are reminders of the part America played in the First World War.

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All Ranks Battlefield Study Crete 2014

Following in the footsteps of thousands of allied troops down the 8 km evacuation route of the Imbros Gorge to Hora Sfakia.

53 Louisburg Battery’s Exercise Louisburg Pegasus took place in Crete with aims that encompassed developing an ethos and a pride in the air assault role, understanding information, surveillance and  target acquisition.

Airborne Ethos. The graves of German Fallschirmjaeger are on the vital ground overlooking Maleme Airfield.
Airborne Ethos. The graves of German Fallschirmjaeger are on the vital ground overlooking Maleme Airfield.

One of the most impressive aspects of this exercise was the way that the unit had organised planned syndicate discussions on doctrinal concepts. The exercises used the German invasion and occupation of Crete in the Second World War as a vehicle for introducing all ranks to doctrinal concepts.

STAND 1 (MALEME) Questions: Syndicate A: Discuss the attacker's problem in an air assault, using the 6 tactical functions. Syndicate B: Discuss the defender's problem in an air assault, using the 6 tactical functions. Syndicate C: Maleme was in many respects a "soldiers' battle". Nonetheless, the three most fundamental components of fighting power (physical/conceptual/moral) played a part even at the lowest level; discuss. Syndicate D: What are the similarities/differences between the actual action and how we would tackle it today?
Stand 5 – The Abduction Of General Kreipe.car.

“Stand 5” was the site where the British and Cretan Resistance abducted general Kreipe, the German Commander of the Island.   His vehicle was stopped at gun point and he was driven away in his own  When he was in command he was known for responding to challenges by sentries with “Don’t know who you know who I am?” A policy he might have regretted when held at gun point in the back of his staff car while Patrick Leigh Fermor wore his cap.

These are the questions considered by the syndicates:-.

Syndicate A: Sometimes, effect can be achieved by minimal tactical engagement (eg through influence or strategic SF ops). Discuss the similarities and differences between the approach here and the way in which it would be conducted now (mentioning LOAC if needs be).

One of the Bofors guns abandoned in 1941

Syndicate B: Security and surveillance in a cluttered and contested battle-space: how might events such as this be avoided?

Syndicate C: The German COIN problem: the similarities and

Suda Bay Commonwealth War Cemetery
Suda Bay Commonwealth War Cemetery

differences between their approach and our own experience (post Boer War, Malaya, Afghan…).

Syndicate D: Planning and executing an abduction…how would you go about executing this operation?

The intellectual discussion didn’t take place at the crossroads, but over an ice-cream and a lemonade in nearby Archanes.

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Cold War Battlefield BAOR Study – Ex Mansergh NorthAG 2015

The Inner German Border
26 Regiment RA at the Inner German Border; once a death strip covered by mines and automatic shotguns, now part of a European Green-way. Note the Captain General’s Baton to the right of the sponsor’s banner.

In June 2015, a  party from 26 Regiment, based in Guetersloh,   Germany, carried out Exercise Mansergh NorthAG,  a battlefield study of the Cold War   battlefields of Western Germany and Berlin. This was their leg in Ubique 300 taking the Captain General’s Baton everywhere the Royal Regiment of Artillery served in the past three centuries.

Overlooking Lutter-am-Barenberg, two officers give their terrain analysis of the Hainberg feature north of the Harz mountains
Overlooking Lutter-am-Barenberg, two officers give their terrain analysis of the Hainberg feature north of the Harz mountains

Fortunately,  the armed forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact never came into armed conflict, but for nearly 50 years this is where armies planned to fight at short notice. The North IMG_1210German Plain is one

of the few places where it is possible to study how the Britain and its allies would fight against a modern well equipped army.  It is sobering to consider how chemical and tactical nuclear weapons might have been used, and how and why they were replaced by more effective precision weapons.

26 Regt Gun No1 describes how he would deploy AS 90 in the villages around the Bockenem bowl
26 Regt Gun No1 describes how he would deploy AS 90 in the villages around the Bockenem bowl

There were casualties including fatalities. Hundreds of Germans died trying to escape Eastern Germany in addition to servicemen and women injured in training.  The marks of the divided city of  Berlin are evidence of the human and economic cost and a reminder of the psychological and intelligence war that took place throughout these decades.

It was fascinating and impressive to see how the soldiers of the modern army explored the past, considered the lessons for the current day and how to apply them in the future.

Ferry site across the Weser, It featured heavily in exercises but was an alternative crossing had the Soviets captured or destroyed other crossings.
Ferry site across the Weser at Grossenwieden.  This featured heavily in exercises, as can be seen in the video from Ex United Shield 2008.

In wartime it would  have been an alternative crossing had the Soviets captured or destroyed other crossings.

39 Heavy Regiment Veteran of Ex Iron Hammer talks about service in the Cold War in the village of Bierbergen  on the North German Plain "Pin Table" east of Hannover. The Zur Linde has a photo on the wall of the landlady as a young woman sitting on the back of an RTR Chieftain tank.
39 Heavy Regiment Veteran of Ex Iron Hammer talks about service in the Cold War in the village of Bierbergen  on the North German Plain “Pin Table” east of Hannover. The Zur Linde has a photo on the wall of the landlady as a young woman sitting on the back of an RTR Chieftain tank.

It is a forgotten battlefield, not least because the mainly classified documents associated with the Cold War were destroyed as part of the peace dividend in the 1990s.

 It was only possible to assemble the information to carry out the study with support from many retired soldiers and officers who taxed their brains to retrieve what were once state secrets. Many thanks to Generals Mungo Melvin, Jonathan Bailey and John Milne and to the various RA Regimental associations, in particular the 50 Missile Association.

The Brandenburg Gate - the symbol of a divided city
The Brandenburg Gate – the symbol of a divided city

Major Simon Fittock, the exercise director, gave his view:-

“I requested Frank’s assistance to deliver a battlefield study, based on the ‘Functions in Combat’ that was designed to look at the Cold War and specifically the multinational Northern Army Group (NORTHAG) centred around the North/Central area of Hannover, West Germany. The tour also visited Berlin to continue its studies of the Information and Intelligence Wars.

Model of the Stasi buildings inside the old Stasi HQ
Model of the Stasi buildings inside the old Stasi HQ

Right from the off Frank’s engaging style kicked in. His impromptu introduction on the coach during the journey to our first stand set the context fantastically,

An aircraft of the Berlin airlift
An aircraft of the Berlin airlift

bringing the scenario to life and immediately putting the troops in the era and whilst relating his own memories to our current dispositions and our approach to the very high readiness lifestyle that those in the 70-80’s lived through.

IMG_1200His insight into the era, having lived through exercises and deployments, combined with an acute ability to translate the issues into modern day language and engage with all ranks worked fantastically.

I cannot recommend him highly enough and will certainly be using him again in the future.”

One of the results of this exercises is that we have assembled a useful collection of information and documents about the Cold War.

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Ex Wanders Return – a Battlefield Study to the Sangro River and Cassino

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Harry Goslin’s Original Grave (Courtesy W Goslin)

This battlefield study was part of Ubique 300 and a special battlefield study to Italy, in the footsteps of the Bolton and Manchester Artillery on the battlefields of the Sangro and Moro Rivers and Monte Cassino, as part of Ubique 300. 53 (Bolton) Field Regiment were the nearest thing in the Second World War to the pals or sports battalions of Kitchener’s Army raised in 1914. In March 1939 Hitler reneged on the Munich agreement and invaded Czechoslovakia. The following weekend the team captain of Bolton Wanderers football club, Harry Goslin addressed the crowd and called for supporters to join the TA. It was not enough to deplore what was going on in the world. Hitler would need to be stopped. He and the team were joining up.

The story of what happened to Harry Goslin is told in an earlier post, written close to the 70th anniversary of his death. It was mainly based on general histories of the battle and material available on line.

Map showing the attack by the 8th Indian Division on 14 Dec  1943, updated to show the attack from the South . (1) The “Impossible” Bailey bridge, built from the enemy side. (2) Position secured before the attack (3) 17th Indian Brigade attack (4) Canadian attack on Casa Beradi on the same day.

updated to show the

updated to show the

A visit to the National Archives and the war diary of 53 Field Regiment revealed more details about the story and the experience of the soldiers.

We can interpret documents such as fireplans. Harry Goslin, the Bolton Wanderers fotball team captain was killed as an artillery forward observer in this battle
Fireplan Trace overlaid on 1943 1:50,000 map sheet.

The maps in the general histories portray the attack mounted by the 8th Indian Division on 14th December as an arrow from Villa Rogatti west north west to to Villa Caldari. The fire plan in the 53 Rd Regiment War diary shows a barrage by the divisional artillery supporting an attack north from the road between these villages, which curves first west then north. When superimposed on the 1:50,000 map the first line of the barrage is 50 yards north of the candy stripe road, an obvious start-line. 52 and 116 Field Regiments fired the lines of the barrage. 53rd Field Regiment fired a flanking barrage, three lines of shells fired at right angles to the main barrage to protect the left flank of the attack, exposed to enemy fire from the lateral road. All points calculated by hand in damp, cold dug out command posts.

members of 209 (Manchester) Battery pay respects to a Manchester Gunner in Sangro War Cemetery
Major T J Fox BC and members of 209 (Manchester) Battery, and the Captain General’s Baton  pay respects at the grave of a fallen Manchester Gunner in Sangro War Cemetery

The war diaries referred to the abysmal quality of the maps, with features up to 500 metres from their true location. It wasn’t much easier to find locations on modern maps. It is hard to find maps with more detail than 1:200,000 and the information on different publications can be contradictory, and at variance with the features on the ground.

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After the ceremony, Major A J Gledhill, BC and members of 216 Battery pose behind Harry Goslin’s Grave photographed by Philip Mason Chaplain of Bolton Wanderers FC

But the 53 Field Regiment gun positions seemed obvious. Plotting the battery locations on the 1944 map showed East of the road between S. Vito Chietano and Lanciano. west of Treglia The best fit of the 1944 map with Google maps put the gun positions just to the side of what is now a road through the edge of a village. This made sense. The fire plans called for hundreds of rounds of ammunition per gun per day. The weather in December 1943 was bad with the fields and tracks reduced to mud. The War diary noted that it was difficult to extract the guns from their old positions and that it took six hours before two of the batteries were ready after moving a couple of miles. Gun positions would need to be close to the driest ground. An old lady remembered, “yes. The guns were just over there”. What is now an olive grove was a field in 1943.

Grave of Gunner Plummer, a 53 FGiled Regiment OP Signaller who fell on the same day as Harry Goslin.
Grave of Gunner Plummer, a 53 Field Regiment OP Signaller who fell on the same day as Harry Goslin.

There were also some VIPs. Harry Goslin’s son Bill and grandson Matt came to make a visit, their first to Harry’s grave, and to find out about what happened to him. Lieutenant Harry Goslin was mortally wounded as a forward observer, a task usually carried out by a captain troop commander. Harry’s normal role should have been on the gun position, either in a troop or battery command post or as a gun position officer. The command post officers were responsible for supervising the soldiers who calculated what direction the guns should point to hit any given target. This was difficult and tiring work, but not as dangerous as accompanying the infantry, with the higher risks from bullet, shell or mortar bomb.

Major John Young in the "Dorway to Valhalla" The entrance to the German War Cemetery Caira
Major John Young in the “Dorway to Valhalla” The entrance to the German War Cemetery Caira

The 53 Field Regiment War Diary provides evidence of the pressure on the officers and soldiers who served at the sharp end. On1st December, after a week long battle on the Sangro Rover one battery commander had been evacuated with exhaustion The nearby 1st Canadian RCHA attacking on the right of the Indians lost four out of six FOOs over four days. Officers and signallers from the guns would have to take their turn at the OP. It was as a stand in OP Officer that Harry Goslin crossed the start line.

The Rapido Valley looing towards Cassino from Caira German War Cemetery
The Rapido Valley looing towards Cassino from Caira German War Cemetery

The attacks along the Adriatic coastal plain halted a month later on the next river line, the Arielli, with winter snow.  Four months later, the 8th Indian Division with the 52nd Manchester Artillery and 53 Bolton Artillery crossed the Apennine mountains  in secret to deploy South of Cassino.   Here the allies had tried battering a way through what was the strongest part of the German defences between December 1943 and March 1944.

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Memorial to the 36th Texan Division which suffered heavy losses attempting to cross the River Gari in January 1944. Four months later the 8th Indian Division, supported by the 52 nd and 53rd Field Regiments crossed the river near here.

The allies concentrated both of their armies to break through the German army on the front facing Rome.  This time the allies assembled a force of 1600 guns, including those of 52 (Manchester) Field  and 53rd  (Bolton) Field Artillery Regiments. These blasted a path across defences which had stopped the allies over the preceding months. Not without a hard fight or losses. The commonwealth War

Down time in the Adriatic sea., close to the mouth of the River Sangro
Down time in the Adriatic sea., close to the mouth of the River Sangro

Graves Commission records list 184 members of the Royal Artillery who died in Italy during May 1944. 110 are buried or commemorated in the Cassino War Cemetery. Twelve of the dead served in the 52 (Manchester) or 53 (Bolton) Field Regiments.

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Ex Tartan Musket – Bringing Eighteenth Century Warfare to life

Firing muskets on the battlefield of Minden

Exercise Tartan Musket was a Battlefield Study that took place in Germany in 1992. It originated with the intention of the Commanding officer fo 40 Field Regiment Royal Artillery to provide an opportunity for one of his battery commanders to demonstrate his command and leadership in the shadow of Options for change. It was a battlefield tour than a staff ride.

The exercise took place after the end of the first Gulf War and before the Balkan conflict. It shows what can be done to bring a historic battle to life given time and resources.

Hastenbeck defences001
A reproduction cannon in a 250 year old gun pit from the battle of Hastenbeck

The study covered two battles of the Seven Years war wehich took place close to British Army Garrison Towns. Hastenbeck 1757 is an infrequently studied or remembered battle that took place south of Hameln. Minden August 1759 has a place in British military heritage for the remarkable role of the british infantry in defeating the French Cavalry, and for the court martial of one British commander for cowardice.

The Battlefield Guide was Frank Baldwin with Dr Christopher Duffy as a subject expert, revered ion Germany for his biography of Frederick the Great.

Guide CO 40 field Regiment and Re-enactor CO

It is harder to understand pre twentieth century battlefields dues to the unfamiliarity with the weapons, tactics and ethos of the time. A range of techniques were used to help participants understand.

  • A team of re-enactors with infantry weapons and a cannon.
    Half a dozen volunteers from the Sennelager Polo Club to illustrate the nature of cavalryy.
  • 100 re painted figure 11 targets lined up to represent an infantry battalion, which were visible as a “thin red line” at 1,500 metres.
  • Large screens erected at key points to label battlefield features.20160102_122716LR
  • 80 staves,a flag and drill instructor supported by a fife and drum to allow participants to re-enact an assault using the tactics of the time.
  • Battlefield manouvres demonstrated by colour parties and left and rright markets.
  • Support from local historians identifying the archaeological evidence of these battles.
  • Support from local black powder enthusiasts to demonstrate the weapons of the time.
  • Meals with historic menus.

The use of re-enactors and offered some real insights about the nature of warfare at the time. It was surprising how effective slow time foot drill was in maintaining order, spacing and alignment over rough terrain and steep hills.

If you want to find out more about planning exercises to Pre C20th battlefields or the ideas used in this exercise, please drop me a line at enquiries@staffrideservices.com or call the office +44 207 387 6620 or my mobile +44 781 317 9668.

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