All battlefields, whether ancient or modern, large or small, are repositories of information – historical, symbolic, cultural and personal. Sites of tragedy and triumph, they represent precious in situ cultural resources – a form of heritage as valid and as fragile as any other. The landscape and archaeology of battlefields provides a unique combination of information that cannot exist in archives, films, paintings, photographs, diaries, memoirs, nor personal testimonies. Once destroyed or damaged, such resources can never again regenerate nor be regenerated. In short, battlefields are as unique and irreplaceable a resource as the greatest of buildings, paintings, manuscripts, national parks, sites of special scientific interest – or human memories. And they are today under threat as never before.
Scenes of battle include everything from small-scale irregular skirmishes through the linear warfare of the early modern period, to the mechanised and technological warfare of the modern age. The records of each action incorporate the landscape upon which massed ranks of soldiers engaged, plus the seascapes (and associated wrecks) of naval engagements and, latterly, records of the aerial engagements of the twentieth century onwards. Likewise, the infrastructure of camps, military installations, defences and more transient assets are themselves an equal part of the wider hinterland of military conflict from the most ancient times to the present day. The care of most cemeteries and war graves is in general already governed by strict regulation; there are places, however, where memorials are still actually being discovered. Wherever possible the All-Party Parliamentary War Graves & Battlefields Heritage Group works alongside international and national bodies such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but also with local associations and specialist interest groups to assist in the perpetuation of this most integral and personal consequence of conflict.
Twentieth century battlefields, perhaps largely overlooked until recent years, carry no less value than their more ancient antecedents. Like historic buildings, however, many sites that fall within the latter category are sometimes scheduled and protected by Government agencies, many a modern battlefield is not even considered for listing, partly because they are perceived to carry no value, and partly because there has, in many cases, been no precedent. In the case of the two World Wars where military action encompassed dozens of countries around the globe, it is understandable that with the process of selection being so colossal, it has been difficult to create a unified official framework of conservation and preservation within which to work. Even individual states are only just waking to the historic and symbolic importance of certain sites. As a result of enormous industrial growth in recent decades, nations have often witnessed the entire loss of a key resource without even obtaining an historical and archaeological record. Now, through the surge in interest and easy access created by the modern media and the internet, it is becoming simpler to reveal such sites and attach importance to them.
Sadly, although methods of identifying and managing these unique cultural resources is today beginning to be examined, the destruction continues. Until recently, battlefields have received scant regard in the face of development pressure, but there are signs that this battle in itself is starting to be won. It is important to assert the value of battlefields as cultural resources, so that appropriate historical and archaeological surveys are obtained. It is by this means that an appropriate conservation strategy is developed that can bear comparison with the well-established routes to landscape and wildlife conservation. The unique and widespread but often invisible form of cultural heritage represented by battlefields is the property of all of us, especially the generations of the future. We discard it at our peril.
Some useful links
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- Imperial War Museum
- UK National Inventory of War Memorials
- War Memorials Trust
- The War Graves Photographic Project
- The Battlefields Trust
- Centre for Battlefield Archaeology
- The Western Front Association
- British Commission for Military History
- United Kingdom Parliament