Battlefield Britain

Father and son team, Peter and Dan Snow take to the battlefields of Great Britain and uncover the stories behind them.

Battlefield Britain

Father and son team, Peter and Dan Snow take to the battlefields of Great Britain and uncover the stories behind them. To accompany this series we've rounded up key facts and trivia from our military history that enhance an understanding of how warfare has changed over the centuries.


When Julius Caesar set his sights on our small island in 55 BCE it took around a hundred years for the Emperor to secure this tiny outpost, but once this happened in 43 AD, the Romans remained there for four hundred years.

Many of the native tribes were not too chuffed by this enforced rule and saw fit to attack the Roman invaders, the most famous uprising instigated by Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe in 61 AD. British tribes often employed guerrilla warfare and midnight raids to defeat their contrastingly militarised foes, painting their faces blue to appear more terrifying.

However, aside from the uprising against the Romans, there were also many inter-tribal civil wars that scarred the societies they came from and marked a society bourn out of bloody, violent conflict.


One of the key battles in British history is also a classic example of chance turning the tide in our favour. 1588 saw the English taking on an invading Spanish fleet, following the fervently Catholic Philip of Spain's decision to lead Protestant England back to the Catholic faith - by force of necessary - from Elizabeth I.

When the two fleets met in battle on July 29, the English emerged victorious, although the Spanish losses were not great, with only three ships reported sunk, one captured and four more ran aground.

It was largely the unpredictable English weather that ensured victory; a succession of storms scattered the Spanish ships on their return voyage and by the time the tattered Armada regained Spain, it had lost half its ships and three-quarters of its men.


Between 1642 and 1646 England was torn apart by a bloody civil war. On the one hand stood the supporters of King Charles I: the Royalists or 'Cavaliers'. On the other stood the supporters of the rights and privileges of Parliament: the Parliamentarians, known as 'Roundheads' - a reference to the shaved heads of the London apprentices who had demonstrated their support for Parliament.

Ultimately, the King's army was defeated at Naseby, Northamptonshire on June 14, 1645, after the Royalist army was outfoxed by a numerically superior enemy.

Significantly the Roundheads found the king's private papers, including details of his plans to bring foreign mercenaries to England. Parliament immediately published these papers, effectively ending Royal chances to win the Civil War.


Culloden is a chilling and evocative place for reasons. Not only is it the site of the last full-scale battle to take place on British soil, and the last stand of an ancient royal dynasty that traced its ancestry back to the Dark Age Gaelic Kingdom of Dal Riata and beyond, but it is also the place where the Highland clan culture of Scotland sang its last song.

The Battle of Culloden in 1746 meant, quite simply, the end of an era for Scotland. The Scots were heavily outnumbered and were decimated by heavy artillery as they awaited the command to charge.

In a particularly brutal move by the victorious Duke of Cumberland and his men, practically all the fleeting Scots were hunted down and massacred. Many have claimed to see the ghosts of the slaughtered men, bloody and cleaved, as they stagger across the misty moor to this day.


Warfare and technology are intimately related. From the earliest times, the development of industrial and architectural techniques combined to create both improved weapon systems and fortifications designed to frustrate them.

Then came the development of gunpowder weapons in the West, just prior to 1500. This advance, combined with improved shipbuilding, paved the way for the galleon - a machine for world conquest. But it was the technological developments that took place from 1750 onwards that really transformed modern warfare, seen in the use of high explosives, aircraft and submarines in the early 20th century.

Despite these advances however, 'conventional' warfare continues to proliferate, and the 'low-tech' AK47 assault rifle is probably responsible for more deaths than high-grade technology.


As technology progresses, warfare will take the centre of conflict away from the battlefield with the development of biological and chemical weaponry. In 1992, a Soviet defector revealed to Western intelligence that he had overseen an illegal programme to develop smallpox for such a cause, much to the horror of Britain and the United States.

But a closer look at the history of biological weapons shows that in fact, Britain was probably the first nation to come up with the idea of using smallpox to kill its adversaries.

During the French and Indian Wars of 1754-63 in what is now Canada, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in North America requested smallpox to be used on the native Americans and true enough, it decimated them as they had never been exposed to the disease before and had no immunity.