By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
Editor’s Note: For the past couple of weeks I have been vacationing in France and publishing the Apopka Voice from abroad. This is the first of a series of articles I promised about my experiences in Europe that also bring back thoughts of Apopka. It’s about a battlefield that I wrote about in my novel “Falconland: The Story of Frederick II”. I hope you enjoy the artiucle as much as I am enjoying the experiences I am having in France. See you at the State of the City on Tuesday!
BOUVINES, FRANCE – In the farmlands of northern France near the Belgian border there is a small, quiet village named Bouvines. In the year of our Lord 1793, it had a population of 300. Before that it was too small to even merit a count. Today, Bouvines has swelled to 713 souls, but it remains quiet and remote despite only being a two-hour drive from Paris.
But there was a day in the 13th century when Bouvines was the epicenter of Europe.
On July 27th, 1214 King Philip Augustus marched his French army of 7,000 knights and infantrymen across the Marque River and onto a field just outside of Bouvines and waited for the allied forces of England, led by William Longsword, and Germany, led by Holy Roman Emperor Otto to oppose him. The allied army totaled 9,000.
The two armies formed three columns that faced one another. There were counts, barons and nobles from neighboring regions, hundreds of knights on both sides and thousands of infantrymen.
It was a sunny morning and the armor of the nobility shone brightly. The flags of the many represented regions blew proudly in the breeze; no doubt creating a picturesque backdrop and proving for all to see that their leaders engaged in the epic conflict.
On this day French knights routed the alliance in what might have looked like a multiple-rider jousting tournament to the modern-eye, but was in fact a charge straight into the center of the field and a collision into the enemy surge. Although the battle lasted for hours, this initial charge was so effective, that the allies never recovered and were defeated and French King Philip Augustus had won the day.
The Battle of Bouvines is probably the most important conflict that you’ve never heard of. It ended the French-Anglo war that raged throughout Sicily, Italy, Germany and France for nearly two years. It expanded French borders and established Philip as a warrior king despite his lackluster performance on crusade with Richard the Lionhearted years before. It pushed England out of Normandy. It deposed Emperor Otto and established Frederick II of Sicily as Holy Roman Emperor. The loss of Normandy caused wealthy English landowners and barons to force King John to sign the Magna Carta, which limited his absolute power and inspired the US Constitution to some degree.
Europe was forever changed by this battle.
Yet a current-day trip to Bouvines provides little remnant of this noteworthy event, save an ancient cathedral with stained-glass depictions of the battle and a modest monument in the town square noting the date of the conflict. Locating the battlefield itself is both difficult and shocking. Villagers, when asked, were either vague about its location or believed the battle took place “all over and inside the village”. In reality, it was about a mile from Bouvines on a field. There is no marker or memorial of any kind. In fact, the land has been returned to what it was originally – a plowed field awaiting the next planting cycle.
Despite its importance to history, the Battle of Bouvines has essentially been lost in time.
In contrast the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in a quiet town in Pennsylvania on what was primarily farmland, but what is now perhaps the most recognizable museum and memorial in all of the United States. Although it was a pivotal battle, it did not end the Civil War, yet it will never be forgotten.
So why does history remember one war with a sense of immortality and another with a vague sense of apathy?
Are Americans more patriotic than Europeans? Do we hold our war heroes and fallen soldiers in higher esteem? Or do we obsess over our war memorials, while Europe is more balanced in its observance?
A few days visiting French villages or even a quick google search disproves all of the above questions. Europeans have memorialized and honored its soldiers and battles from the time of Julius Caesar fighting against the Gauls in southern France, to other medieval battlefields, to Crusades, the French Revolution, World War I, World War II and countless others.
I have not visited a French village that did not have a memorial honoring its fallen soldiers from WWI and WWII in the town square.
Perhaps the gulf between apathy and immortality lies between the cause of the conflict rather than the outcome.
The primary causes of the American Civil War was to end slavery and keep the states united. Anyone wishing to debate that fact need only read dozens of articles written by 19th century journalists from both northern and southern publications. The point being, the cause was bigger than its combatants and leaders.
Ending slavery and keeping the United States united was bigger than Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Robert E. Lee.
In World War II, the cause was to defend the potential overthrow of democracy by a tyrannical Nazi war machine. And defending democracy worldwide was bigger than Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill and Bernard Montgomery.
In contrast, and despite its importance to European history, the Battle of Bouvines was more about emperors, kings, and nobility fighting over real estate, titles, reputation and glory.
The combatants were larger than the cause.
It’s a lesson Americans, Europeans, and all the world should learn. If you truly respect, revere and honor the troops, do not send them to war unless the cause is great and no alternative remains.
In Apopka, there is no question we have utter respect for our current military, veterans, and Veterans of Foreign Wars. They deserve every parade, ceremony, benefit and honor bestowed upon them. They deserve to partner with the City of Apopka in calling the VFW/Apopka Community Center home, and it should be named after Ortenzio “Artie” Vecchio, its longtime Commander.
I pray, however, that there will be less new members added to the list of veterans who fought in foreign wars. I pray, in fact, that the wars of the future are rare and the causes they are waged for are bigger than the leaders that are waging them.