Why maps are essential tools for understanding history 

A section of John Bachelder’s map of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, 3 July 1863. The map was produced in 1863 from first hand accounts of combatants and Bachelder’s personal visits to the battlefield.

The map above was produced over 150 years ago by John Bachelder to help explain Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of the Battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863).  Even though it was produced all those years ago it still fascinates and engages me.  To me maps are essential tools in interpreting history, yet I still find history books being published that lack adequate, and in some cases any, maps. It is a failing that I find inexcusable and very frustrating. History is all about the relationship between people, events and places.  To fail to provide visual material to support this is to leave the reader without key information and context.  In this blog I wish to explore the important role maps have to play in understanding history, and to highlight a few excellent and useful examples.

One of the most crucial areas of history to require maps is military history.  Without good maps it is impossible to really understand battlefields. The relationship between military operations and the terrain over which they are conducted is inextricable. The International Guild of Battlefield Guides nicely summarises this in its approach to interpreting battlefields. This seeks to examine and understand battlefields from three different but interrelated perspectives. The historical. The topological. The archaeological.

In this triumvirate, history is the story of the battle. This considers who took part and why, the armies, their commanders, the weaponry used, the chronology of the events, the narrative and how they all relate.  But these in themselves make little sense without looking at the topology, or terrain, over which the battle took place and how that ground affected the battle. The terrain could be the macro-terrain such as the impact of an impassable river, rugged mountains or an impenetrable area of forestry.  It could equally be the micro-terrain, the folds in the ground or other small features that influenced the tactical action.

The final element to be considered is the archaeology. That is what has changed since the battle, and what the terrain looked like at the time.  This information is crucial especially where modern life has encroached, be it housing, foliage or any other modern intrusions.  Interestingly enough, on some of the world’s best-preserved battlefields, this is especially so in America, work is often conducted to remove buildings and vegetation that were not on the battlefields at the time in order for modern day visitors to appreciate the terrain as it was.

Now I have digressed a little from my title, but I think that by highlighting how these three perspectives are linked, helps signpost how a map can bring history to life.  A simple but well crafted map can show all these elements in great clarity.  It can depict the terrain, its undulations, its habitation, its vegetation, its rivers, in fact any physical feature, as they are today and/or at the time of a battle or historical event.  Very importantly a map can give an idea of scale, which is very difficult to do in any other way.  The history can then be overplayed on this for a rich informative picture. There are many excellent examples of maps being produced today that do just this.  Some of the best I have seen are those prepared by Steven Stanley for the Civil War Preservation Trust in America, who now have a series of battlefield maps for all the key sites of the American Civil War.  The map below is an excellent example of this series.  The painstaking attention to detail employed in depicting the terrain, the troop deployments and movement, and the difference between the modern landscape and the historic, allow the viewer to understand the battle in detail.

One of the Civil War Preservation Trust’s extensive range of maps of America Civil War battlefields.

Now the same logic I have outlined so far can be applied, with varying degrees of modification, to other environments and types of history equally well. To me it would be inconceivable to write the history of a city without a map to show how it had developed over time.  Or to write a history of railways, or a railway line, without a map illustrating the route or the network.

Thus far  I have really only looked at modern maps designed and produced specifically to explain a battle or place.  But there is of course huge value in using primary source maps, contemporaneous to the events.  A good example, and a source I use regularly on battlefield tours, are the trench maps produced in the First World War to aid the troops in the front lines.  These are now readily available to modern day historians from a variety of sources, and provide an invaluable resource to help envisage and understand battlefields on which the trenches and fortifications of the War have, by and large, been removed and the landscape returned to farming.

Thiepval Trench Map
A typical First World War trench map. This one produced by the British Army shows German trenches (in red) in and around the village of Thiepval in 1916.

Historic maps come in all shapes and guises.  A set I also particularly like were produced by Charles Booth (1840–1916) an English social researcher and reformer.  A example of Booth’s maps is seen below and is taken from a multi-volume work called ‘Life and Labour of the People in London’ which surveyed the lives and occupations of the working classes of London in the late Nineteenth century. The maps were colour coded by social group. The red areas were classified as ‘middle class, well-to-do’, purple as ‘Mixed, some comfortable, others poor’, the pink areas ‘fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings’, the light blue areas as ‘poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family’, the dark blue areas are ‘very poor, casual, chronic want’, and black areas are the ‘lowest class vicious, semi-criminals’.  The resulting maps give an illuminating insight into the social construct of the city at that time, in particular the juxtaposition of a range of social groups sometimes in quite small geographic areas. Very importantly this sort of insight and impact is very difficult to convey in just words, with the maps providing a crucial spatial dimension.

One of Charles Booth’s maps of the social composition of the population within Bethnal Green, London during the late Nineteenth Century.

Maps can also go beyond the basic and familiar format. One of my favourites, because it so graphically illustrates the subject matter it is portraying, is Charles Minard’s map of the Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated expedition to Russia in 1812-1813.   (See images below.) Produced in 1869 it was described as a figurative map and illustrated very dramatically the devastating losses incurred by Napoleon’s army as it first invaded and then retreated from Russia. To my mind no words can sum up as well, nor have as much impact, as this map does in displaying the destruction of this huge army.

Minard French
Charles Minard’s figurative map of the cumulative manpower losses of the French Army during the Russian campaign 1812-1813. The light brown line illustrates the size of Napoleon’s army on the way to Moscow, the black line during the retreat. (en.wikipedia.org) [Click image to see larger version.]
A English translation of Charles Minard’s figurative map. (en.wikipedia.org ) [Click image to see larger version.]
Modern technology and interpretive techniques, now makes all this sort of information even more accessible, useable and much easier to portray on a map.  A great example is the Bomb Sight project which is, as stated on their website:

‘…mapping the London WW2 bomb census between 7/10/1940 and 06/06/1941. Previously available only by viewing in the Reading Room at The National Archives, Bomb Sight is making the maps available to citizen researchers, academics and students. They will be able to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period.

The project has scanned original 1940s bomb census maps, geo-referenced the maps and digitally captured the geographical locations of all the falling bombs recorded on the original map.

The image below illustrates how the information is overlaid very simply onto a modern base map.  This allows someone with the map on a mobile device, to explore the streets of London and understand the impact of the ‘Blitz’ on its streets and buildings.

A snapshot of the Bomb Sight Blitz map of London available online.

Modern graphic techniques are also now being used to build on the sort of work originally undertaken by the likes of Charles Minard, and combine mapping, strong imagery and rich information into ‘infographics’. These perhaps push at the boundaries of what I have been discussing and are probably not considered to be a map by the purist.  However, as the example below demonstrates very well, this genre can create an engaging and interesting visual which clearly links locations with actions or events,and the historical story, thus providing the viewer with a great deal of useful information in an easily digestible form.

Pearl Harbour Infographic
A very good infographic that combines mapping and information to provide a rich visual source of information. (Image from The Orange County Register)

So to return to my title, why are maps essential to understanding history?  I hope I have begun to show that the interrelation between people, events, activities and places is at the heart of history.  A good map is able to take all these elements, place them on a two-dimensional space, and bring these interactions to life.  To produce good maps requires accurate content, meticulously researched and cross-referenced.  It also requires high quality presentation of this information to engage the viewer and entice them to explore the detail.  Properly executed, whether a map is a modern one designed to explain a specific battle or event, or an historic map created for a particular purpose at the time, the way a good map can relay factual information far exceeds the ability of words to do so.  Indeed to paraphrase an old saying, it is very much a case of ‘… a map paints a thousand words…’.


From here to modernity: Technology in the American Civil War

‘The Monitor and Merrimack: The First Fight Between Ironclads’ a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, 9 March 1862, produced by Louis Prang & Co. Boston

The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 is often referred to as the ‘first modern war’. A whole range of reasons are cited to explain how and why this bloody internecine conflict demonstrated its modernity. In this blog I will briefly look at some of these reason before examining, in a little more detail, a couple of specific examples. The latter are both fascinating, and remnants of them remain in existence today for historians and interested visitors to explore.

The claims, and very strong they are in some cases, to the modernity of the American Civil War, principally focus on the emergent technology of the period.  In many cases this war did not see the first use of these technologies, but the wholesale manner in which many were adopted, and the impact they had, was in many in cases revolutionary.

The first and perhaps most obvious of these technologies was the railway, which allowed both the strategic and operational mobility of armies. In 1861 there were some 30,000 miles of railroad in the United States, of which 9,000 were in the newly formed Confederate States.  The military value of these was quickly realised by both sides. In January 1862 the US Congress gave the President sweeping powers to use any piece of railroad for military use by approving the Railways and Telegraph Act.  Shortly afterwards a department of the United States Army called the United States Military Railroads was formed to serve the Army’s needs.  In the South a Railroad Bureau was formed to perform the same function for the Confederacy. However, in line with the suspicion of central government that had created the Confederacy, no form of central control over the railroads was achieved until February 1865 when it was by and large too late to make any difference to the outcome of the War. But both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line railways proved to be a crucial and very modern enabler to military operations.

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The rail mounted siege mortar known as the ‘Dictator’, used at the siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War.

Communications also benefitted from modern technology. The use of the telegraph allowed better strategic command and control, although it might be argued that the main impact of the telegraph was to allow increased political interference in the conduct of the war! (To find out more about how Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph I thoroughly recommend Tom Wheeler’s book, Mr Lincoln’s T-Mails, Harper Collins, 2008).

Other technological advances included rifled artillery providing greater range and accuracy of fire.  Combining the mobility offered by the railways and advances in artillery weaponry, siege mortars were mounted on rail flatbeds to give them tactical mobility. Repeating rifles produced increased rates of fire, and telescopic-sighted sniper rifles allowed marksmen to engage and eliminate high value enemy targets at a great distance.  The use of manned balloons was instigated to provide an airborne observation platform for over the horizon visibility. A US Army Balloon Corps was formed to operate them under the leadership of Professor Thaddeus Lowe who had the splendid job title of ‘Chief Aeronaut’. The list goes on and it is easy to see how it can be argued that the American Civil War had all the trappings of a modern industrialised conflict.

Tom Lovell Balloon
Professor Lowe’s Balloon by Tom Lovell

But one must not jump to conclusions, and whilst the technology in some areas of the American Civil War most definitely presaged the industrialised wars of the Twentieth century, there were many aspects of this war that were firmly anchored in the Nineteenth. For example the tactics generally employed would not have been a surprise to those fighting in the armies of Napoleon and Wellington some fifty years earlier – blocks of soldiers marching towards the enemy in choreographed precision, lines of infantry standing fifty paces apart firing muzzle loaded musket and mounted cavalry charges.  Tactical battlefield communications had progressed little since Napoleonic times too. Here the armies still relied on mounted messengers, or a signalling flag system, to pass instruction forward to the fighting troops. Again the list goes on.  At this point I will resist the temptation of straying deeper into a lengthy debate about whether the War was indeed the first modern war. Instead I would like to highlight two particularly interesting, and powerful, examples of the modern aspects of the American Civil War, both of which have anniversaries around this time.

First, 17 February 2016 was the 152nd anniversary of the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the Confederate ship H.L. Hunley, the first manned combat submarine to sink another warship.  The H. L. Hunley, named after her inventor Horace Lawson Hunley, was launched in July 1863, but up until that day in February 1864, her career had been somewhat chequered.

Built in Mobile, Alabama the H.L Hunley was a 40 foot long submarine constructed from old steam boiler plate material.  In August 1863 she was transported by rail to Charleston, South Carolina.   On 29 August 1863, whilst on a training run, she sank killing five members of the crew.  Undaunted she was raised and re-floated only to sink again on 15 October 1863, once again during a training run.  This time all eight of the crew were lost including the submarine’s inventor Horace Hunley.   Determined to make operational use of this new invention she was raised a second time.

CSS Hunley by Mort Kunstler
Mort Kunstler’s picture ‘Final Mission’, showing H.L. Hunley preparing for what was to be its final voyage in Charleston Harbour on 17 February 1864.

On 17 February 1864 she attacked and sank the USS Housatonic whilst it was on blockade duty at the entrance to Charleston Harbour. However, even this success was tinged with tragedy as having successfully completed its mission the Hunley sank with all eight crew members perishing.  Falling to the bottom of sea the Hunley rested there until she was discovered in 1995.  In 2000, after much hard work, the Hunley was raised and is currently undergoing painstaking conservation work at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston.  Here she can be visited and looking inside this iron tube it is horrifying to contemplate both the cramped and claustrophobic working conditions of the crew, and to imagine the terror of sinking to a watery death at the bottom of Charleston Harbour.

Hunley 2
The H.L Hunley undergoing conservation (Photo: Friends of the Hunley)

The second anniversary, on 25 February 2016, marks 154 years since the USS Monitor was commissioned. An ironclad warship, the US Navy ordered her in 1861 in direct response to the threat posed by the CSS Virginia, a casemate ironclad ship constructed by the Confederate States from the lower hull and engines of the scuttled USS Merrimack.

Designed by Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, the USS Monitor was new, and at the time, unique.  She sat low in the water and mounted a twin-gunned revolving turret on the centre of her flat deck.  This turret allowed her to overcome the problem facing warships of the time, which needed to manoeuvre alongside an enemy ship before being able to bring their guns to bear. Instead the Monitor could engage a target from any angle by rotating the turret. Completed in New York in early March 1862 she was immediately sailed to Hampton Roads arriving just in time to take on the CCS Virginia in the first ironclad versus ironclad duel.

This battle, known as the Battle of Hampton Road, took place on 9 March 1862.  The two ships met and traded shots for almost four hours at the end of which, neither side having inflicted fatal damage on each other, both ships returned to port to lick their wounds.  But as they did so they had changed the face of naval warfare forever. Both the offensive and defensive advantages of ironclads were proven.

A photograph of the USS Monitor taken after the Battle of Hampton Roads, 9 March 1862, with the turret showing clear evidence of damage from the action.

Like the H.L Hunley, the Monitor ended her life at the bottom of the sea, sinking off North Carolina’s Outer Banks on 31 December 1862.  She lay undiscovered on the bottom of the Atlantic until 1973. Since then the wreck site has been extensively examined and some artefacts recovered.  The largest of which, the turret and its guns, were eventually raised in 2002.  Today these are undergoing conservation work in the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, only a dozen miles from where the famous battle took place.  Considerable work has also been undertaken to preserve the range of smaller artefacts found on board, as well as to identify the crew members whose bodies were found in the wreck, allowing the story of the ship and her complement to be interpreted and explained.

The USS Monitor’s turret and guns undergoing early stages of conservation.

Now the jury probably remains out on a definitive answer to whether the American Civil War was indeed the ‘first modern war’. What is clear is that many facets of the war, particularly regarding the technology used, had a modern aspect to them and many clearly signposted the future. Both the H. L. Hunley and the USS Monitor fall into this category.  Both were born out of necessity and both gave a clear indication of things to come.

The H.L. Hunley showed that the threat to warships, and other vessels, could now equally well come from below the ocean waves as from on top.  The one-off success of 1864 alarmingly foreshadowed the dark days of both of the Twentieth Century’s World Wars, when German U-Boat wolfpacks threatened to bring Great Britain to her knees.  Likewise the USS Monitor, and to a degree its rival the CSS Virginia, clearly pointed to a future where iron battleships would rule, indeed a future that was not far off.  Just over forty years after the launch of the USS Monitor, Britain and Germany were in a race to build huge, well-armed and heavily armoured dreadnoughts that would dwarf the USS Monitor. This Anglo-German naval arms race was one of the mosaic of contributing factors that caused the First World War, a war that was brutally modern in every aspect.



The power of ‘place’ in history and heritage

The view west from Little Round Top in the Gettysburg National Military Park.

One of the most powerful forces in heritage is the ability of a place to evoke and inspire visitors.  To stand at the spot where ‘it happened’ is an awe-inspiring feeling.  The ‘it’ could be one of a number of events, in one of any number of places, but bringing them together can create a spine tingling effect.  I want to highlight some examples of such places that particularly resonate with me and explain why.

As an active and avid battlefield guide for many years, I am often moved as I stand on a battlefield knowing that at some point previously a momentous, and invariably tragic, event had taken place there.

One of my favourite battlefields is Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The Battle of Gettysburg is one of the most written about in history and was a pivotal moment in the American Civil War.   This epic struggle took place between the 1st and 3rd of July 1863 and was the culmination of an invasion of the north by a Confederate Army under the command of General Robert E Lee. After three days of battle Lee had failed to gain a victory and was forced to retreat southwards.  It is often referred to as the ‘High Tide of the Confederacy’ because following the battle, the Confederate forces were never again in a position to seriously threaten the Union on its own territory.

One particular location on the Gettysburg battlefield embodies for me how a place can capture the essence of such an enormous event.  This is Little Round Top, a small hill on the southern end of the battlefield.  On the 2nd of July it was the left flank of a defensive position held by the Union Army.  Its southerly slopes were occupied by the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, and formed the extreme left flank of the Union Army.  During that day the Confederates launched a major attack against this flank, which was ultimately repelled by the Union forces. The crucial turning point in this part of the battle is usually attributed to the actions of the 20th Maine, who charged down the hill at bayonet point, routing the Confederates and holding the line.  This action is brilliantly evoked in Don Troiani’s picture below.

‘Bayonet’ by Don Troiani. The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment charge the Confederates on Little Round Top on 2 July 1863, with Colonel Joshua Chamberlain leading the action.

The crucial actions of the 20th Maine that day stopped the Confederate advance and stabilised the line.  This contributed to the Union victory at Gettysburg, that helped to pave the way for the Union triumph in the war, and ultimately helped to shape the United States as it is today. To stand in the positions occupied by the 20th Maine on that day, to see the ground they fought on, and to understand the terrain over which they charged, is to sense the importance of this ‘place’ in history.

Move forward from Gettysburg just over fifty years, and a very different location; Verdun in the Meuse department of the French Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine region.  Between February and December 1916 this area saw French and German forces slug it out in one of the bloodiest and most infamous battles of the First World War.  The casualties endured in the battle are still argued over today, but a conservative estimate puts French losses at 162,000 killed or missing and 216,000 wounded, with the German figures being 142,000 and 187,000 respectively. At the end of the First World War the landscape of this area had been destroyed. Nine villages that had been vacated were not rebuilt.  The ground was so badly polluted by chemicals from high-explosive shells and the bodies of the hundreds of thousands of dead, that it was unfit for cultivation.  Instead the battlefield was designated a ‘red zone’, conifers planted and the area turned into forest.  Today the battlefield is another location with a huge sense of place.

Aerial views of Fort Douaumont at the centre of the Verdun battlefield. The upper picture show the fort at the start of the battle, the lower picture at the end.

Exploring the battlefield of Verdun one is struck by a dichotomy. The tranquillity of the landscape today and the great horror of a hundred years ago that left the land so scarred.   But as one stands on the battlefield having seen pictures and photographs of the fighting, and read recollections of the battle, it is hard not to be struck by the atmosphere of the place. The great military historian and battlefield guide, Professor Richard Holmes, once described the battlefield of Verdun as the “…saddest place he knew…”  It is certainly a quiet and melancholy place, but for me it also conjures up the intensity of the battle and the sacrifice that took place.  To stand in its now empty forts, or walk through the quiet forest, one can almost sense the ghosts of the thousands of dead walking beside you.

Sometimes it is not the event itself that is momentous, rather the eventual consequences.  One particular spot that captures this for me is Commander Alastair Denniston’s office in the Mansion at Bletchley Park.  It was from this office that, from September 1939 until his move on in early 1942, Denniston lead the Government Code and Cypher School, the organisation that operated Bletchley Park.  Here he grew, developed and directed its codebreaking and intelligence production activities.  To stand in his office is to appreciate a sense of place. But for me there is an event, very small at the time, but which led to something much bigger, that amplifies this feeling even more.

Denniston Office
The office in Bletchley Park’s Mansion, of Commander Alastair Denniston, the first Head of the Government Code and Cypher School (the forerunner of today’s GCHQ).

On 8 February 1941, some ten months before the United States of America entered the Second World War, a small group of Americans arrived at Bletchley Park to begin a process of sharing the separate strands of signals intelligence work each nation was undertaking.  They arrived after an eventful journey by sea and a long drive into the depths of the English countryside.  On arrival Denniston and his team greeted them and offered a peculiarly British welcome – a glass of sherry.  The Americans brought with them details of their success in breaking Japanese ciphers, whilst the British shared their work on breaking into the German Enigma cipher.  This sharing led to closer cooperation when America entered the Second World War, with over two hundred American personnel eventually forming part of the team at Bletchley Park.

Now I have to declare an interest here as I work at Bletchley Park and have the privilege of being able to visit this spot every day if I wish.  But standing in Denniston’s office one can picture that cold February night in 1941 and the arrival of the American team.  This was a huge leap of faith by both sides at such a crucial point in the War.  The legacy of this event, the anniversary of which has been commemorated this week, still endures today as from these small beginnings grew the UKUSA Agreement which now underpins the ongoing cooperation between GCHQ and its US equivalent the NSA.  The power of place is impressed on you when you realise that events in this office seventy-five years ago, led to such an important outcome.

The examples of historic locations and events I have cited above, to me, embody the idea of place. And it is often this sense of place that attracts visitors to come to such sites.  To stand in the footprints of our forebears, to feel their ghosts looking over our shoulders and to understand the importance of the events that occurred in these locations is a compelling reason to visit heritage sites. There is nothing more likely to help a visitor appreciate and connect with history than to stand in a place and to know that ‘it happened here’.



The First World War: A view from the other side

Austrian Uniforms
A painting of Austrian First World War soldiers by Fritz Schwarz-Waldegg, on display in Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches (Military History) Museum

In late 2014 I took a trip to Vienna, and as I do wherever I travel, I sought out interesting historic sites and museums to visit.  Now anyone who has been to Vienna will know that it is steeped in history. However, as it was the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War I sought out two locations with relevant exhibitions.

The first was the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum or Military Museum. Located in the centre of the old Arsenal complex, according to the museum’s website it:

‘…was built according to plans of Ludwig Foerster and Theophil Hansen from 1850 to 1856 and was thus the first Viennese museum. The styles of this town’s oldest historic building range from Byzantine, Hispano-Moorish to Neo-Gothic building…’

This description does not really do the building justice. It is a huge and ornate temple to Austrian military achievement, as can be seen in the picture below.

Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches (Military History) Museum

The museum tells the history of Austria’s Armed Forces. From the heady days of the Wars of the Spanish Succession, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the Napoleonic Wars, through the decline of Austrian military power with the rise of Prussia and a unified Germany, the First World War and ultimately to the end of the Second World War.

I first visited this museum in the early 1990s when, it is fair to say, the whole place was looking very tired and in need of a major make-over.  But arriving at the First World War exhibition in 2014 it was very clear that, at least in this area, there had been a major refurbishment, presumably to tie in with the centenary.

The opening elements of the First World War exhibition have been in the museum for a long time and, as twenty years previously, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I pondered the importance of the artefacts. On one side a bullet marked car, on the other, neatly laid out in a case, a blood stained blue tunic (see picture below) worn by one of the car’s passenger on 28 June 1914. These of course belonged to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria whose assassination on streets of Sarajevo on that summer’s day led to the chain of events that started the First World War. Since my last visit these have been displayed better, with improved interpretation, and set the scene well for the new First World War gallery.

Franz Ferdinand Jacket
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s bloodstained tunic on display in Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches (Military History) Museum

The new gallery is impressive. One enters at ground level and descends to a lower level following a chronological route around the exhibition. The content is well displayed and interpreted, with both German and English text. The artefacts range from uniforms and weapons, to aircraft and artillery pieces. The larger artefacts are first glimpsed from below as one transits the lower gallery, then climbing up a level are seen again from a different angle (see picture below), all adding to the quality of the experience. Reflecting on my visit it was a very engaging, educational and entertaining exhibition, but also had something that made it seem very familiar.  But more of that later…

The First World War Gallery in Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches (Military History) Museum

The second museum I visited was the Vienna Museum, situated next to the beautiful and famous Karlskirche.  It tells the story of the city of Vienna and, clearly timed to coincide with the centenary of the First World War, was hosting a small exhibition called World War I in Vienna: City Life in Photography and Graphic Art.  As the title suggests the exhibition showed images of Vienna during the War.  As I explored the exhibition, the images, whilst new and previously unseen by my eyes, also had a welcoming familiarity to them. The euphoria of the early days of the war with captured in photographs showing columns of soldiers heading to the front flags waving and faces smiling, as wives and sweethearts cheered them off.  These were then replaced with images showing the reality of war.  Wounded soldiers returning home, the ‘home front’ with women replacing men on essential work (as seen in the image below) and fund raising schemes to fuel the war. This exhibition was simple in execution but powerful in impact, and left a strong impression.

Di Frau im Kriege
‘Die Frau im Kriege’, an image of an Austrian woman doing war work.

Reflecting on both museums, I have used the word familiar to describe their content.  I know that I should not have been surprised, but what I saw made me think.  The stories in these museums, especially the people stories, are no different to those being told in museums and heritage sites all over the United Kingdom, only in this case they had a different (Austrian) perspective. These two museums approached the First World War from the Austrian point of view, in the very same way as British museums have largely taken a very British slant on the War.

In the last couple of years many World War One exhibitions have been developed within British museums, most undoubtedly driven by the centenary.  The overarching theme in these has been the commemoration of this monumental punctuation mark in modern history, but almost all portray a predominantly British view of the war. Whether it is the Imperial War Museum’s truly stunning new galleries, or one of a range of regimental museums or city and town museums hosting special exhibitions, the overwhelming impression is the experience and fate of the British Tommy in the trenches, and/or the ‘Home Front’ in Britain.

On the surface a British museum taking a distinctly British perspective is perhaps unsurprising, but I think there is a little more to this.  After all we live in a world where globalisation is the watchword.  So why are these exhibitions taking such a United Kingdom centric view?  I do not think it is because of any form of ‘we won the war’ jingoism.  I think is much more to do with how museums and heritage sites engage with their audiences, particularly now as the First World War becomes a more and more distant memory.

The commemoration of the centenary has reawakened an interest in the First World War.  With no veterans now alive, and therefore no living reference points, museum exhibition designers are having to find new hooks to engage audiences.  One of the most accessible, and commonly used, hooks is the ‘..what did your ancestors/the locals from this area do in the war…’ approach.  Exhibitions of this type are therefore anchored on the stories of those who marched away, many not to return, and the impact of this on the local area. This approach helps visitors engage with, and learn from, the subject matter from a familiar point of entry.  The museums in Vienna do exactly the same from an Austrian perspective.

However, it is incumbent upon historians, museums, battlefield guides, teachers and anyone else involved in passing on these stories, to remember and remind visitors, that in war there are always at least two sides.  We must not lose sight of this, but also that the issues, experiences, and impact of war are often very similar regardless of which side you are on.  Thus to look at, and engage with these subjects, from the perspective of ‘the other side’ can only add to our understanding. Visiting other nations museums, like the ones I have highlighted here, helps to ensure that we don’t forget to reflect on the other side’s stories which, when we look at them in detail, may well be very similar to our own.