The power of ‘place’ in history and heritage

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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’.

 

 

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8 thoughts on “The power of ‘place’ in history and heritage

  1. A nice take on Gettysburg, as most people focus in on Pickets Charge but not the earlier events of the battle, without which Pickets Charge would have been successful or even actually, unnecessary.

    I have to totally agree about the Commanders Office. One of my highlights last year was being able to interview 2 of his granddaughters in what had been his office for The Bletchley Park Podcast.

    Sights like this give you that direct link to history & always pause for thought I find.

    A strange one that I like, which didn’t actually see much action is Brixham Battery. High up on the cliffs, overlooking the bay, hardly anyone around, you can stand in one of the emplacements & look out to sea. You stop & think that it’s exactly what local volunteers did 75 years ago.

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  2. You write beautifully. It is something that is obviously significant for you and that evokes feelings that clearly qualify as a passion. I understand this, to stand in a place that has been touched by history. When you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, to realise the significance of time and place ‘to stand in the footprints of our forebears’ is to touch history

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  3. Iain, many years ago I visited Gettysburg with my daughter and we made a point of hiking to Little Round Top, remembering the bravery of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his Maine regiment. We had learned about it in the Civil War documentary, and as you say, wanted to stand in the place and know ‘it happened here’. In that same spirit, I visited Verdun in May 2012 and toured the museum, the ossuary and ruins of the fort at Douaumont, the Trench of the Bayonets, and hiked roads near the hummocky forest, still pock-marked from a century ago. I agree, it is one of the saddest places on earth, haunted ground. Unimaginable horror.

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  4. Christine, as you’ve visited both locations you know what I mean. Both move and fascinate me each time I visit. I’m back to Gettysburg in June and know I will be visiting Little Round Top again!

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  5. A very well-written and relatable piece.

    Where do you think the balance lies in drawing visitors with such innovations as visitor centres, museums, interactive guides etc. whilst ensuring that they are able to feel the true ‘weight’ of a location (such as the Commanders Office or Little Round Top)?

    The significance of these places can easily be lost on some visitors, although I agree that to know ‘it happened here’ is extremely powerful.

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  6. Thanks Chandler. You make a very good point about the need to interpret these ‘iconic’ locations for the visitor so that they can really understand the importance of the place. But of course this needs to be done sympathetically without spoiling or intruding on the landscape.

    I think the way that the National Park Service are doing this at Gettysburg is particularly good. Removing the original visitor centre/museum (which was located at the centre of the battlefield) and replacing it with the new one, more discretely tucked away is great. And the interpretation in it leaves the visitor with a clear understanding of the importance of the battlefield, and specific parts of it, before they explore.

    Personally I am a fan of interactive guides as I think they can provide interpretation that is unobtrusive and personal, and delivered at the location concerned. For exploring American Civil War battlefields I would highly recommend the Civil War Preservation Trust’s growing range of Battle Apps. (http://www.civilwar.org/battleapps/)

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