Friday, 14 February 2020

The Battle of Shrewsbury - 21st July 1403

Ever since being introduced to William Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 as a teenager, I've maintained an interest in the Battle of Shrewsbury. Shakespeare's description of the struggle between Henry, Prince of Wales and Henry 'Hotspur' Percy, son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, is a truly astonishing piece of writing - even in the context of the Baird's prestigious body of work.

The interior of Battlefield Church, near Shrewsbury

A lovely weekend break in the historic town of Shrewsbury proved to be an ideal opportunity to 'scratch the itch'. The prospect of lunch in the award winning Battlefield 1403 farm shop and cafe which is located on the edge of the battlefield site sweetened the pill for my wife who has become very used to such diversions over the years.

In 1399 the usurper, Henry Bolingbroke, had taken the English crown from his cousin Richard II, with the help of the powerful Percy family. Over the course of a few years tensions between the new King and the Percy family eventually erupted into conflict. In a rather incongruous rebel alliance, the Percys teamed up with the Welsh nationalist Owen Glyndwr and Edward Mortimer. Mortimer was uncle to the young Earl-of-March who some saw as the rightful heir to the throne.

Battlefield 1403 Visitor Centre

The armies took to the field and Hotspur, supported by George, Earl of Douglas headed towards Shrewsbury in order to meet up with Glyndwyr's Welsh rebels. The King reached the town first and Hotspur found himself separated from his Welsh allies and on the wrong side of the River Severn.

The Severn at Shrewsbury
After spending a night in the village of Berwick, Hotspur decided to move his force away from the river towards a town called Harlescott so as to get a better line of sight on the advance of the King's forces. The king intercepted the smaller rebel army and after a rather duplicitous negotiation (on the part of Hotspur's uncle, Thomas Percy) battle ensued in a large field planted with peas below a ridge.

The farm shop and visitor centre is located on top of the ridge roughly where the central echelon of the rebel army formed up. Standing at the back of the visitor centre one can view the entire battlefield. Immediately after the battle the victorious Henry IV gave permission to the Rector of Albright Hussey to build a chapel to commemorate the souls of the fallen. The chapel, which was in use just six years after the battle, was built adjacent to a mass grave right in the centre of the battlefield. The existing church built from the ruins of the chapel was reconsecrated in 1862 but is now redundant. (Note: If you are looking to walk the battlefield then don't forget to pick up the chuch key in the Battlefield 1403 shop).

Battlefield Church from Percy's start line

The battle started a couple of hours before dusk and the Earl of Stafford (for the King) attacked first - advancing into a hail of arrows from Hotspur's Cheshire archers. As an archery duel developed the King committed his main force and the battle turned into heavy hand-to-hand fighting.

Arrows of the type used
Stafford was killed as was Henry IV's standard bearer Edward Blunt. The Prince of Wales survived an arrow in the face (which is graphically illustrated in the visitor centre). Hotspur was cut down and killed and shortly afterwards the rebel army began to lose heart and were routed.

Shakespeare famously had the Prince of Wales despatching Harry 'Hotspur' Percy but the truth is slightly more prosaic in that Hotspur was apparently shot in the face with an arrow having lifted his visor to get some air.

“I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy, 
to share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;”

It is said that about 5,000 men were killed or wounded in the battle and many were buried in the aforementioned mass grave. As is so often the case with historic battlefields, archaeological investigation has failed to validate the location of the pit. It is said to be within the curtilage of the Victorian church which, as I mentioned previously, marks the centre of the battlefield.

Somewhere near this spot lie several thousand fatal casualties

Hotspur's body was taken to Whitchurch for burial. However when rumours circulated that he was still alive the King had the corpse exhumed and displayed in the market place in Shrewsbury. To drive the point home, Hotspurs body was then quartered with his head and the parts being sent for display in York, London, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bristol and Chester. Percy was declared a traitor and his lands were forfeited to the crown. The Prince of Wales, of course, went on to inherit the crown and further glories - but that's another story involving at least one famous battlefield that I have yet to walk!

Saturday, 11 January 2020

The Battle of Stalingrad (Jul 1942 to Feb 1943) - Final Part - Pitomnik Airfield

During the night of the 15th/16th January the German 6th Army 'air bridge' in Festung Stalingrad was dealt a fatal blow when the Red Army retook the airfield at Pitomnik. When I visited the site in 2002 it was, on first appearances, a featureless field - miles from the nearest habitation and very difficult to find.

Military earthworks on the site of Pitomnik Airfield, Stalingrad (Volgograd)

The BBC correspondent, Alexander Werth, toured the Stalingrad battlefield at the invitation of the  Soviet authorities shortly after the city had been liberated. In his excellent book The Year of Stalingrad, Werth recorded an eye-witness account of a visit to Pitomnik on the previous day from a "gruff Red Army captain with a drooping moustache".

It's not much of a place; you could put the whole village on a five-kopec piece. But when you drive up to it now, it looks like a big town. Thousands and thousands of lorries are accumulated there, and over an area of six square kilometres the Germans had piled up pontoon parts, and you think all this is so many houses when you look from a distance, and it looks like the town has factory chimneys - with all those ack-ack guns of theirs pointing upwards. Before the war there was a wonderful fruit-tree nursery at Pitomnik; the highest grade apple, pears and cherry trees were grown there; but all this has been destroyed.

Pitomnik - as shown on the Volgograd Panorama

The 'gruff Red Army captain' went on to describe the fight for the airfield in the final days of the 6th Army pocket.

The fight for Pitomnik was a very stiff one; the Germans had an enormous concentration of firing-points, but in the end, with an intensive artillery and Katyusha barrage, we smashed them all. The place is now littered with thousands of dead frozen Fritzes. Our guns also smashed all the planes on the Pitomnik airfield; several JU52's among them.

Concrete walkway on the Pitomnik battlefield site

After the fight had ended, the men of the Soviet 65th Army who had taken Pitomnik found many of their Red Army comrades - PoWs - in a pitiful state. Again, Werth quotes the captain.

Close by, we found an open-air concentration camp for Russian prisoners; it was dreadful. They could sleep on rough bunks dug into the slope - the sleeping spaces were only twelve square metres, and here seventy or eighty men were supposed to sleep. Each of these 'dormitories' had barbed wire around it, and so had the camp as a whole. There were 1,400 men there whom the Germans had forced to work on fortifications. Only 102 survived. You might say that the Germans had nothing themselves to eat; but the starving of prisoners began even before the encirclement. And it was bad luck: for finding these unfortunate people lying there among the frozen corpses of the others, our men started to feed them bread and sausage. Many died as a result.

Luftwaffe Tool Tags - Pitomnik Airfield

When I visited the site in 2002 with a small group of friends there were areas of ground which had been disturbed - possibly by animals but more likely by 'black' diggers looking for artefacts. From the spoil I picked up a couple of Luftwaffe tool tags - one red and one yellow. I was told later, by a local historian, that in the final days these tags were 'repurposed' for the prioritisation of casualties being evacuated from the kessel. If this is true that I have in my possession a couple of pieces of pressed metal that would have determined life or death during those desperate days during the winter of 1942/43. The red one would presumably have been a 'ticket out'.