Lesson learned on ancient field of battle

Monday, April 16, 2007

The commander of Stirling Castle was in a bind.

Sir Philip Mowbray was in charge of an outpost, a commander of an occupying force that was not much welcome. In fact, his castle, in the spring of 1314, was in danger of being overrun by the insurgent Scots.

So he made a deal with his attackers.

Give us until the end of June, Sir Philip implored, and if a relieving force has not arrived from England, we will surrender.

Perhaps the Scots decided to show mercy on those in the castle. Or, perhaps they knew the all-out attack needed to overrun the walls would be costly to their own troops.

For whatever reason, the Scots agreed to the arrangement.

The plan was unacceptable to King Edward II of England, of course, who "surged" some 25,000 men, including several thousand of his best knights, north across the borderlands.

By Sunday, June 23, 1314, the force found itself between a rock and a hard place. More accurately, trapped on swampland between two ponds. On either side, were Bannock Burn and Pelstream Burn, two small bodies of water.

Ahead was a Scottish force of perhaps 9,000, in an ill mood and led by a man on a pony, Robert Bruce, carrying a battle axe.

It was too much for the English knight, Henry De Bohun, who had seen the taunting Scottish leader, and charged, full-tilt, toward the unimposing figure.

The man on the figure, however, waited until the last moment, yanked his pony to the side and dispatched the knight with a blow to the helmet -- breaking his weapon in the process.

Waving the broken handle in the air, he ignored threats to his own safety and complained about the loss of his favorite battle axe.

The battle didn't go well for the English from then on.

A day later, it was said the Bannockburn ran red with the blood of English soldiers, and "one could walk across the burn without so much as a damp shoe."

King Edward II saw early how the battle was going, and sought refuge in Stirling Castle.

No, said Philip Mowbray, a deal's a deal; the castle had already been surrendered to the Scots.

Thus the English learned, long ago, the dangers of setting timetables and deadlines during a time of war.

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