Hilaire Belloc on the Castle Called “Gaillard”: A Strategic Node

In discussions of strategic geography still today, we often hear mention made of the word “node,” but we may not adequately know what that important concept means, nor what the concrete reality further and variously implies. Nor why the concept of “node” itself is still decisive, even under advanced conditions of technology, to include electronic technologies. It is my intention, therefore, to show that a brief, lesser-known historical essay by Hilaire Belloc will refreshingly help us in this matter. For, a node in our geographical meaning — deriving from the Latin word for “knot” (“nodus”)— is a challenging and difficult strongpoint or complicating juncture where two or more tactically or strategically important “lines of communication” intersect. For example: a bridge over a key bend of a river that is just under a steep slope, atop of which is also a concentrically layered fortification with its supple defense-in-depth. The indispensable combination of physical geography and military engineering (hence state-of-the-art technology) is at least desirable, if not always or at once apparent.

For, we should not rashly or facilely conclude that modern forms of advanced technology now effectively obviate or almost “trump” the factors of physical geography altogether. For example, air power and networked-cybernetic “disruptions, destructions, and deceptions” cannot permanently, much less entirely, replace an adversary’s physical control of certain “strategic straits” or analogous “maritime choke-points.” Our mature and reasonable judgments in various fields of study, such as Geopolitics and Military History, must therefore always weigh and proportionately include both factors: both geography and technology. We may, however, better understand the geographical meaning of “node” and some of its practical and extended applications, if we consider, through the eyes of Hilaire Belloc, an historical example of an important and strategically located fortress in Normandy in the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries. Just as we can still learn so much of worth from reading the strategic-minded Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian (and a geographically attentive, combatant admiral in the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 B.C., on the side of Athens), so, too, may we learn much practical wisdom from Medieval Military History, and even about Medieval Military Engineering and Architecture. But how, in this context, did I come to think of Hilaire Belloc’s own little essay, entitled “The Castle Called ‘Gaillard,’” and to read once more, with much gratitude, the vividness I first unexpectedly encountered in the early 1970s?

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