As expected, Spain’s reaction to the unsanctioned Catalan vote for independence has been to rush to exert central authority and seems to be moving to repudiate the independence vote by removing the seditious government and holding new elections. Catalonia’s leaders, having successfully persuaded much of their state to throw in with their ideas has, in doing so, undemocratically excluded the rest of Spain from a crucial national decision, and have endangered the autonomy the Catalan people have enjoyed up to this point. Such is the risks entwined with the pursuit of liberty. Bear in mind, no matter what your politics today, that politically Catalonia was already part of the Crown of Aragon when Ferdinand married Isabella of Castile in 1469, the act that essentially unified Spain. Continue reading
With the possible exception of Great Britain, Spain probably holds the record for the largest amount of colonial territory lost through popular revolutions and conflict in the modern era. Continue reading
On 24 and 25 June at least 750 reenactors from all over the world will gather at Weston Park, Staffordshire to commemorate the Battle of the Alamo, historically fought on 6 March 1836 at San Antonio de Bexar, Texas.
When the subject of the pivotal battle of the Texian Revolution comes up, the lush green countryside of the west-country isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. The parkland of a stately home hardly conjures up visions of Spanish missions set on the wide prairie. Nor do people immediately associate Britain with the sort of enthusiasm for the subject that one might presume most Americans have.
Yet it turns out that there is as much enthusiasm for the legendary last stand on the “right” side of the Atlantic as there is on the “left”. Musician Phil Collins, a man born in Chiswick, London, freely admits to the Alamo being his obsession and as of 2014 owned one the largest private collections of Alamo memorabilia in the world.
“Alamo” Mo Jones, from Wales, was one of the principle founders of a website dedicated to the famous 1959 movie The Alamo, starring John Wayne, and since 2008 the accompanying discussion forum remains the only place on the internet principally oriented towards the history and popular culture surrounding the battle.
The influence of that movie should not be underestimated, it wasn’t an instant commercial success, but it proved a popular one and is calculated to leave an impression on a young mind. I was impressed with the VHS in the 90s so you can imagine what the big screen version must have done for the legacy of the siege.
We need not look very far therefore to find yet more cultural inspiration for the British wanting to play out this important moment in US history. Already Davy Crockett was an internationally recognised symbol of the old frontier thanks to Disney’s TV 1950’s series starring Fess Parker, and perhaps more importantly the naggingly catchy title song that a young Phil Collins performed at Butlins before he became famous.
By 1984, when the last Alamo reenactment was held in the U.K. Yes there have been others! Over 200 people dressed up, in what was then period accurate costume, and stormed a prefab fort, the one occurring this June will at the most conservative estimate have 4 times the manpower in the field.
So is Nostalgia the answer? It would be if all the participants were over 50. Although fond memories of childhood adventure heroes plays a part, the event is well timed. Firstly it comes only two years after the largest Waterloo reenactment in history. Over 6,000 people have been left with the taste of powder in their mouths, and access to a musket suitable for the Texas Revolution, about half of which wore a uniform in 2015 that with a little tampering can double as a Mexican one cutting costs in half.
Britain has a growing Napoleonic reenactment community, many of whom love the idea of such an original event despite not really knowing all about it. With so many participants the Alamo at Weston Park is set to be the biggest “horse and musket” reenactment in a hobby of which the large scale shows are dominated by the English Civil War.
Although when the project was announced in early 2016 some worried that everyone would want to be a Texian, it soon turned out that the Brits have no particular problem with playing the “bad guys”. By comparison it’s usually quite hard to muster a decent number of soldados to storm American Alamo’s. At some of this year’s Texas Revolution gatherings there was a distinct lack of Mexican opponents to fight. Yet it cannot be said that Americans are ignorant of the significance of the Alamo. Especially in the south it is one of the revered moments in the formation of the republic.
Why then is it so hard to muster even 50 people to reenact the Alamo in a country that hosts the largest reenactments in the world?
The answer is politics. And not just Republican and Democrat this goes beyond petty presidential elections. The reenactment scene in America is governed by several bodies, all of which construct events to their own rules and regulations, and won’t or can’t work with the others as a result.
The UK Alamo is being staged in honour of the 300th anniversary of the Grand Masonic Lodge of England, and the American Civil War Society of the UK was invited to form the core of each side. Although their Facebook page lists he group as the host, it is not an official ACWS run event.
Heading up the organisation of the event is Paul Barrass, who will be playing Santa Anna. Paul and his admin staff are firm in their resolution to keep this all about the history:
“All we ask is no politics or religion follow the safety rules and please leave your egos at the door”. Says Barrass, who confirms an “unprecedented level of cooperation in putting together this event”.
Author and longtime Alamo forum member Ned Huthmacher who is travelling from the US to be at Weston Park in June confirmed this opinion on the forum and Facebook: “One reason why there is so many reenactors being recruited into the Mexican army is they have no real connection-loyalty to the history of the battle, but just want to get in on a large scale reenactment. Also many of the recruits do/have already done Napoleonic reenactments.”
Ned is one of those generous souls who’s willing to share his enthusiasm and experience with anyone, and in the world of Internet forums, he and the old guard of the John Wayne the Alamo forum do the traditions of southern hospitality proud. When I asked why Britain and not America he replied that the most concise reason is “no infighting amongst all the different reenactor groups”. Terence Boniface wrote on Facebook “the organisers have selected the Alamo because no group reenacts that event here.”
And it has worked spectacularly so far, with a possible maximum turnout of 120 defenders and 1,000 Mexicans, some coming from as far afield as Inverness. Not too far from the original numbers at the battle in 1836 where on a cold Texas night in March 185-260 Texians (some of them Scots) were overrun and wiped out by 1,800 Mexican soldiers. It has been noted that this reenactment will be the biggest ever recreation of the battle outside of a movie production.
Strange as it may seem the events of 1836 have always had an interest value to the people of Britain. Coverage in the newspapers were reporting the fighting in Texas in the very year they were happening, with an understandable lag as the news crossed the Atlantic. Interest was resumed around the time of the Mexican American war, and it is well known that several Alamo defenders actually came from Britain. In the end we can only admit that Courage and sacrifice are International virtues that speak to us all, and that is why even Britain remembers the Alamo.
. I have no doubt that this recreation will inspire more interest in the story for new generations and offer a unique day out this summer.
If you’re interested in going or contacting the organisers, follow the links below.
At 6.am on Friday the 16th of June 1815 a cavalcade of staff officers rode into the little village of les Quatre Bras, on the main road to Brussels. It was a small community of farms and coaching inns, serried along the chaussée and around the four branching arms of the crossroads from where the place derived its name. The four arms.
At the crux of the junction, fitting neatly into the northeast segment stood a typical Belgian walled farm. The adjoining buildings were constructed around a central courtyard that just about formed a rough quadrangle. Entrance to wheeled vehicles was through a box like gate right opening onto the road.
Mounted by this gate was a group of officers wearing the blue uniforms of King William’s Netherlands troops and the green of the Nassau Usingen contingent. The newly arrived riders drew rein and an exchange of bows and hat doffing ensued. Four men, two young and two old were soon in earnest conversation. The Young Prince of Orange, booted and braided with a cocked hat and a lavish hussar pelisse listened to his stern old chief of staff, Constant Rebecque, the baby faced Prince Saxe Weimar and severe old Baron Perponcher as they outlined their dispositions.
In the silent, softly undulating fields around the similarly walled farm of Gemioncourt 1,500 yards south of the crossroads waited the Dutch-Belgian troops of Perponcher’s Division. Covered by some artillery to their rear, and in the gloom of the Bois de Bossu, which stretched out from the west side of the main road was Saxe Weimer’s Nassau brigade. It was the calm before the storm.
As the Prince and his now enlarged staff toured the outposts French troops were on the march to take the crossroads before Wellington’s overextended forces could concentrate. The fate of the 1815 campaign was hanging in the balance.
The Battle of Quatre Bras raged all day, thousands were killed and injured in the chaotic and confused fighting that boiled at times up to the very verge of the farm where the Prince of Orange had met his senior officers that morning. The Nivelles-Namur road was held by the steady veterans of the British 5th Division, it’s right flank, in sight of the farm, being held by the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders, whose commanding officer was to fall within a stone’s throw of the gate. The Duke of Wellington was often to be seen in this critical area, as more and more troops arrived to bolster the defence, passing the unobtrusive gate in their thousands. One was the Duke of Brunswick, who would lead his men bravely until mortally wounded in the fields around La Bergerie, within sight of Quatre Bras.
With uncontested superiority in cavalry for the entire battle French lancers, Chasseurs and Cuirassiers were repeatedly seen to briefly overrun the crossroads. At one point chasing Wellington into the square of the 92nd. With daylight fading and thus hiding the horrors of the battlefield in shadow, the large collection of buildings around the four arms of the junction became one big hospital. The farm buildings at Quatre Bras were soon choked with wounded men, the courtyard filled up with casualties waiting for surgery. A steady stream of patients and dead crossed each other at the main gate.
There aren’t many buildings left that were present at battle, slowly they have been remodelled or left to decay. Gemioncourt alone now remains as the most untouched remnant. The monuments that came in the years that followed are markers rather than witnesses, and represent something very different to a site that was seen by people two centuries gone. As of 200 years later one of these landmarks, a neglected, crumbling and vandalised but yet somehow dignified farm complex remained at the crossroads. It should have stood as a testament to the passage of time, and the sacrifice of he soldiers who died around it in June 1815. Sadly it was not to be. Whereas the Chateau Hougoumont at Mont St Jean, on the battlefield of Waterloo has been carefully repaired and restored, there was no Project Quatre Bras to save one of the last pieces of what could have been the last battle of the 1815 campaign. After 8 years of gallant resistance to repeated attacks by commercial developers a proposal was slipped past the defenders. Despite the best efforts of heritage conservator Dominique Timmermans, the local Government accepted the new proposal before any impetuous could be gathered by the international historical community. On the 26th of October 2016 the last walls were photographed as nothing more than a pile of dismembered bricks.
A constant thought for humanity is the concept of what the world will be like when we are gone. In two generations who will remember if we don’t take steps to memorialise and preserve where we walked and why we walked there? The soldiers of Quatre Bras were there for a day and then moved onto become soldiers of Waterloo, leaving in the earth behind them men who would remain soldiers of Quatre Bras forever. Now a precious physical link that connected the present with the past has been removed from this old, mostly forgotten field. Reality has been disembodied from memory and a place that the soldiers of 1815; from Wellington and Napoleon down to the lowliest private or camp follower saw, touched and in some cases were taken to die, has gone forever. After 201 years, the old farm has fallen foul to the march of the great enemies of history; Generals Ignorance, Profit an their ally Marshal Progress. And I cannot help but wonder what will fall next?
It is so ironic that this should happen a year after the bicentenary of the 1815 campaign. When for an entire year there was nothing but big talk about commemoration and conservation. People proudly proclaimed the triumph of restoring Hougoumont, the raising of new monuments and the opening of the new visitor centre at Mont St Jean. There was nothing but praise for the giant reenactment to honour the sacrifice of the fallen and the trials of the survivors. One might be forgiven for bitterly reflecting on how well the mound of rubble symbolises how much all of that was worth in the end. How so many of those high ideals are now reflected in the pile of bricks that now adorn the roadside.
Perhaps some people reading this don’t care about Quatre Bras as a moment in history. Perhaps it is the fate of lesser fields of slaughter to fade like the old soldiers who walked away from them. But today it is a piece of 1815 heritage that has been lost, tomorrow maybe it will be one from 1915, or 1945. Perhaps at the very least we can think on that and guard against future heritage losses, heaven knows there’s little else to be done.
Got a question about the climactic final act of the Napoleonic Wars? Check out my video and Fire away, here, YouTube. on Twitter or Facebook.
Acknowledgements are for the people they mention, they are a private moment between the writer of a book and someone they feel helped them get there. Perhaps that is why we might sometimes take scan over them to see if we recognise a name or catch an anecdote, but as readers often don’t give this section allot of attention. Therefore you’d think that after playing an infinitesimal part in helping Andrea Zuvich’s A Year in Stuart Britain get to bookshelves (I actually saw it on a shelf a few days back) I might have checked the acknowledgements to see if I got thanked. Well happily for everyone who thought “Hey anyone who does that is a real narcissist”, I didn’t do that. When the book arrived, I did what I normally do; I smiled at the kind and elegant dedication and did not look for my name anywhere else in it.
Many is the time I’ve briefly scanned these little chapters of generosity and gratefulness, noting names I recognise, finding interest in the strings that can connect us, generally perusing the lists of abstract names, meaningless to me yet each representing a moment in time for the author, and sometimes wondering who I would include in an acknowledgement section, then the daydream becomes more elaborate, subplots appear, the communists are chasing a defector… and I lose half a day. Moving on.
I had picked up Andrea’s “A Year” (yeah we history bloggers use first names), to pick out an entry for September. I read with interest a letter by the Earl of Argyle to the Duke of Lauderdale entitled Cessations from 1665. Bearing in mind my assistance to the author occurred early this year, and the book arrived a few months back I suddenly realised that I should have checked the acknowledgments, why? I don’t know.
My now you should have guessed that my name is in this book, to say that I’m touched, doesn’t really cover it. Because I never thought my last minute helping hand would have merited inclusion and after reading the personalised autograph I never thought to look. But if she is anything, the 17th Century Lady is a generous lady. Therefore I have written this, not specifically to yell in delight about becoming one of those abstract strings I mentioned earlier, but to congratulate Andrea on her book, and to say in reply to her generous vote of thanks; Not at all, it was a great pleasure to help.
A review of A Year in the Life of Stuart Britain will appear here very soon. But until then take it from me, it’s a good read.
This is my humble tribute to the Anzacs who fought so bravely alongside Britain during the world wars. http://youtu.be/2eyAieyDC8k