In a year when we are marking the 100th anniversary of The Great War, the 70th anniverary of the D-Day invasion and the 150th of the U.S. Civil War it seems most fitting to turn our attention to the fields where so many fell for their countries and causes.
These historic battlefields are just a sample of the places where we can pay our respects to the fallen. However, they stand out for the attention they pay to preserving and sharing the history that unfolded on these very spots.
During World War I, more than 1 million soldiers were wounded, went missing or died in the trench warfare that raged across East and West Flanders, Belgium, as well as Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France (known as French Flanders).
Ypres in particular was the site of some of the biggest and most brutal of the war’s battles starting with a stand by British, French, Canadian and Belgium forces against the westward march of German troops. As the war continued, so did the fighting in this region, which saw the first use of gas in warfare, to devastating effect, and, finally, as the tides were turning, the Grand Offensive that pushed the Germans out for good.
A Canadian soldier fighting in the Second Battle of Ypres penned the poem “In Flanders Field” after the funeral of a comrade who died in the battle. The poem’s description of poppies in the field led to the adoption of that flower as a symbol of Remembrance Day, particularly in the UK and Canada. The cemeteries and battlefields, some preserved complete with trenches, are a lasting reminder of all that unfolded in this area.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War, Flanders has planned five years’ worth of commemorative events and exhibits built around a message of peace.
On June 6, 1944 (this year marks the 70th anniversary), some 150,000 British, American and Canadian troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, launching the campaign to retake Western Europe from Germany in World War II.
This initial invasion, known as D-Day, was daring and deadly with at least 12,000 Allied troops wounded including more than 4,400 confirmed dead. Nonetheless, the foothold it provided allowed 1 million troops to land in mainland Europe in less than a month.
The area today offers ongoing reminders of the battle that raged. There are numerous cemeteries for the fallen that offer silent but powerful testament with their countless rows of simple grave markers.
In the neighbourhoods near the beaches, memorials and sign-posts educate and serve as reminders of the events.
Each year, on June 6, the French mark the anniversary of the invasion with both quiet tributes and fireworks and parades. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of visitors from the UK, US and Canada, as well as other Allied nations that joined the march into mainland Europe, have come to mark the day as well.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, United States
Often thought of as the turning point in the Civil War, the three-day battle (July 1 -3, 1863) in Gettysburg was the bloodiest in the war with more than 51,000 injured, killed, captured or missing.
This was the Confederate Army’s second attempt to invade the North and the initial day of fighting saw the Yankees fall back. After another day of extremely intense (and deadly) fighting with 100,000 troops engaged, the third day proved decisive.
The Confederates sent 12,000 men right at the Union line in what is known as Pickett’s Charge. The Union troops repelled the offensive and the Rebels retreated back to Virginia. Four months later, at the dedication of the cemetery, President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, his short but powerful tribute to the fallen soldiers and call for a “new birth of freedom.”
Gettysburg has embraced its place in history with much of the area where this massive conflict unfurled preserved as a national park. Guided tours, living history classes and almost 1,400 statues, sculptures and markers tell the story of the battle and the era. However, the most vibrant way to step back into the moment is the annual battle reenactment, scheduled this year for July 4-6.
Old Fort Erie, Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada
In the war of 1812, the U.S. and Great Britain faced off on land and at sea. The border between the U.S. and Canada, at the time a British colony, became a front in the war, and Fort Erie and its surroundings were at the centre of the action.
Troops from this fort joined in the effort to thwart a U.S. invasion at the Battle of Frenchmen’s Creek in 1812, but things really heated up starting in 1813 when the Americans and British took turns occupying Fort Erie. By July of 1814, it was in American hands and the US army used it as a base to engage the British in the battles of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, two fierce clashes that proved the growing strength of the U.S. military.
After the gruelling battles, the Americans withdrew to Fort Erie. In mid-August, the British attacked, but were repelled, losing 1,000 men in the process. A siege of the fort lasted more than a month before the U.S. troops drove the British back.
By the time the Americans left in November of 1814, Fort Erie was the bloodiest battlefield on Canadian soil (and remains so today). In 1939, a rebuilt Old Fort Erie was opened to the public. By the late 1960s, tour guides in uniforms from both sides began offering tours. Visitors can see soldiers’ barracks, powder magazines and the fort’s myriad fortifications as well as musket demonstrations. Each summer, they can also witness a reenactment of the siege. This year’s event, August 9 and 10, will be the 200th anniversary celebration.
The extended campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula had long-term impact on the countries whose troops were embroiled in the battle. After a failed naval attack, the invading Allies – French and British as well as a number of British Commonwealths – were able to make landfall. However, both sides paid high prices in casualties and supplies, and the invasion lost momentum quickly.
After months of fierce fighting in challenging geography, the Allied forces were not able to make headway into the depths of what was then the Ottoman Empire. While the goal was to reach Constantinople, the advance inland never succeeded, and the Allies eventually evacuated.
Close to 80,000 French and 480,000 British (including Commonwealth) troops landed in Gallipoli over the 10-plus-month-long campaign. The Ottomans defended with more than 300,000 of their own troops. Collectively, more than 100,000 men lost their lives in the fighting. This battle was the first real proving ground for New Zealand and Australian forces and their valiant roles at Gallipoli have shaped their sense of identity as countries ever since.
Their combined invading forces were known an ANZAC, and both countries celebrate the date of the invasion, April 25, as ANZAC Day. Annually, tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders attend ceremonies at dawn marking the day either in their home countries or at Gallipoli itself.
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the invasion, and plans are already in place for a ticket-only event to mark that date for 10,000 people. The victory by the Ottomans is also cited as a driving force in the later Turkish War of Independence while the suffering of the Irish volunteers in the British Army helped fuel calls for autonomy in that country as well.
This island in Marianas was a U.S. territory attacked by the Japanese just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that pulled America into World War II. The small U.S. Navy and Marine presence was overtaken in a couple of days, marking a short First Battle of Guam.
Guam remained under Japanese control for two-and-half years. By that point, Japan was losing ground in the Pacific and the U.S. set its sights on regaining Guam as a strategic point in air and naval support for future operations. In the Second Battle of Guam, the U.S. navigated the reefs around the island to land troops on beaches on two sides of an airfield. The Japanese fought to the death in the jungles of the island until the U.S. declared the island secure.
Guam remains a U.S. territory as do all of the Mariana Islands. The U.S. has created the War in the Pacific National Historical Park, which consists of seven sites around the island where the fighting raged. Strongholds, trenches, weapons and more still stand as glimpses into the warfare on the island and the whole of the South Pacific Theatre.
Look for memorials and tributes as well, including the Memorial Wall with the names of 16,142 native Chamorro and Americans who were killed or wounded during the war, the Liberator’s Memorial erected on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Guam and the tribute to the 25 Marine War Dogs who gave their lives in the battle to take the island.
Battle of Hastings, Battle, England
In 1066, a succession struggle emerged in England after the death of King Edward the Confessor. Though King Harold II assumed the throne, invasion from the army of Duke William II of Normandy quickly followed. The most significant battle in William’s conquest of England broke out on Oct. 14, 1066. Here, King Harold and his troops lined the top of Senlac Hill to face the Norman army.
The day-long battle ended after King Harold was killed, supposedly shot through the eye with an arrow. Duke William marched on to London, becoming King William I, ending Anglo-Saxon rule.
Battle Abbey was built on the site with the high altar said to be on the spot were King Harold died. English Heritage now manages the battlefield location as a protected historic place. A visitor centre offers a film and exhibits that put you in the time of the conquest along with a detailed audio tour of the 100-acre battlefield.
School children can enroll in Squire School at the end of May for a day of history and training on swords and shields. An annual reenactment on October 14 is also popular for those wanting to witness one of the most historic events in English history.
Big Hole Battlefield, Montana, United States
In August of 1877, the Nez Perce Indians were trying to escape to Canada to avoid being confined to a reservation. They were also fleeing feared retribution from an attack on settlers from a small band of warriors who were fighting back over the loss of their homeland.
About 800 Nez Perce were encamped at Big Hole when the US Cavalry and Bitterroot Volunteer forces launched a pre-dawn attack. The Nez Perce were able to stand their ground and back their foes into a corner, allowing many of the tribe, especially women and children to escape.
When the day-and-a-half battle was over, there were an estimated 60 to 90 dead Nez Perce while the Calvary and Volunteers had lost 31 men with another 40 wounded. This was the most violent of clashes in the five-month Nez Perce War, which ended when Chief Joseph surrendered, just 40 miles from the Canadian border.
The battlefield was first named a national monument in 1910 and became Big Hole National Battlefield in 1963. Now it’s part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park, a series of 38 sites across five states in the Northwest that tells the story of this large Native American tribe.
The Big Hole National Battlefield is managed by the National Park Service and has a visitor centre that sets the stage with exhibits and a background movie. Self-guided tours as well as ranger-led walks take you through the battle. Highlights include memorials to the dead from both sides and the Nez Perce Camp. An annual commemoration, staged by the Nez Perce, happens every August.
The House of Stuart ruled Scotland from the late 1300s to the early 1700s. During the course of this reign, at the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England, Stuart King James VI of Scotland also became king of England. However, the Stuart family rule ended with the death of Queen Anne in 1707 after the Catholic line of the family was exiled. There remained, however, a faction in parts of Great Britain, including the highlands of Scotland, who sought the return of the exiled Stuarts.
By 1746, this movement, Jacobitism, was fighting under the leadership of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Although they had surprised and beaten the British in the past, the final battle between the Jacobite forces and troops of the government was short and bloody.
This battle, the last face-to-face one to take place on British soil, was over in roughly an hour. Prince Charles disbanded his remaining troops, went into hiding and eventually returned to France. Those loyal to him were persecuted for a short period and the highlands of Scotland were incorporated into Great Britain, defusing much of the power of clan leaders.
The battlefield has been a place of pilgrimage for Scots and others from around the world. A 20-foot-high memorial cairn and headstones marking the clans of 1,000 men buried after the battle were erected in 1881. A visitors’ centre opened on 2007 features an immersion theatre that gives you the experience of being part of the battle.
This rugged mountain range served as the front line for Italy and Austria-Hungary during World War I. Over the course of four years, a number of battles played out in this most challenging terrain, costing the Italians roughly 300,000 casualties and the Austro-Hungarians some 200,000 men.
In the end, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was folding, the Italians prevailed, breaking through the defensive line and triggering an armistice agreement between Austria-Hungary and the Allied powers. During the lengthy campaign, soldiers on both sides adapted to fighting from a veritable rock face.
Much of the fighting was a version of trench warfare with the sides jockeying for elevation advantage to rein artillery and sniper fire down on one another. Many of the caves, tunnels and fortifications they engineered remain in the Dolomites.
A series of trekking, skiing and cabled rock-climbing tours give adventure seekers a front line view of the mountain warfare. A network of open air museums in the Lagazuoi 5 Torri area have preserved strategic holds from both sides of the battle and made them accessible by chairlift and walking trails. The museums also feature weapons and other artifacts from the mountainous front.
(Main image: smithser)