In the footsteps of the Blue and Gray at Gettysburg

Blue and Gray Title
The Wheatfield at Gettysburg

June was a busy month with a great deal of travel that kept me from my computer.  The highlight of this travelling was attending the Civil War Trust Annual Conference held in the evocative surroundings of Gettysburg.  For three and a half days I was able to immerse myself, alongside five hundred like-minded enthusiasts, in the fascinating and inspiring history of America’s greatest battle.  Superbly organised and executed, the conference also brought together a veritable ‘Whose Who’ of American Civil War historians and authors who delivered talks and conducted a whole range of very illuminating battlefield tours.

I participated in two tours both of which proved fascinating and educational. The first was led by lawyer and author Eric J. Wittenberg and followed the route of JEB Stuart’s ill-fated ride round the Union Army in the lead up to the Battle of Gettysburg.  Picking up the ride in Westminster, Maryland, we followed Stuart’s ride northwards via Union Mills, Hanover, Carlisle and Hunterstown during which Eric’s understanding of this oft misunderstood part of the Gettysburg Campaign became very clear. The debate about Stuart’s conduct during that period quickly developed.  Did Stuart neglect, or exceed his orders,  and deprive Lee of his ‘yes and ears’? Or did he interpret his orders correctly and take the initiative to cause disruption in the Union rear and gather important supplies?  These questions and many more will undoubtedly continue to be discussed for years to come, but Eric Wittenberg’s tour shed light and insight on the whole affair and certainly provided participants with plenty of food for thought.

Statue Hannover
Author and historian Eric J. Wittenberg presents the story of the Battle of Hanover (30 June 1863) in front of Cyrus E Dallin’s statute ‘The Picket’ depicting a Union Cavalryman which was erected in 1905.

The second tour was, for me, the highlight of the conference.  Entitled ‘Walking the Union Fishhook’, it took the form of an eight-mile hike right around the Union defensive position that had developed by the morning of 2 July 1863.  The map below show this position very well and how it fitted into the overall narrative and flow of the battle.

battle-of-gettysburg-official-history-map
The Battle of Gettysburg showing the Union ‘fishhook’ position and the action over the three days of the battle. ©Thomaslegion.net

Guided by two qualified Gettysburg Licensed Guides – the Civil War Trust’s own Director of History and Education, Gary Adelman, and serving US Marine Corps Colonel, Doug Douds – we started the tour on the summit of Little Round Top at the southern tip of the Union line.  It was immediately clear that we were in for an informative and entertaining day as both guides launched into their delivery with gusto.  Readers may recall that I sung the praises of the Gettysburg Licenced Guides programme in a previous blog post, and these two gentlemen certainly lived up to my previous billing.  This programme produces guides with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg, its terrain, its history and its participants, as a result their ability to engage an audience is without exception outstanding.

Gettysburg Guides
Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides ‘in the zone’.  The Civil War Trust’s Gary Adelman (left) at the National Cemetery, and Colonel Doug Douds (right) on Culp’s Hill.

The actions of Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren in highlighting the Union’s exposed flank on 2 July 1863, and the actions of Colonel Strong Vincent’s Brigade to hold Little Round Top were explained by Gary and Doug, and with these fresh in our minds we started on the hike. Moving off the top of the hill and we transversed the close country of the Western slopes of Little Round Top, passing through a little known, nor visited, rocky feature know as the ‘Devil’s Kitchen’ before arriving in the better known ‘Devil’s Den’.  Here the complementary skills and interests of our two guides came to the fore.  Doug regaled us with the story of the battlefield actions in this part of the field, whilst Gary talked about the photography that was conducted shortly after the battle to record the event and the rise of the battlefield as a tourist attraction, including the facilities, such as a railway, put in place during the nineteenth century to facilitate this trade.

The next stage of the tour took us to the infamous Wheatfield the site of some of the bloodiest fighting on the battlefield and a location that changed hands six times during the course of 2 July 1863.  As we moved through the terrain from Little Round Top to Devil’s Den and on to the Wheatfield our guides flagged up a truism that can be easily missed on this battlefield, and many others, if one explores them in the traditional manner.  All too often tours will take one, in a car or a coach, from location to location and each stop or stand is treated as an isolated action on the battlefield.  What is often missing is the narrative or interpretation of how that action fitted with action happening in adjacent locations geographically or with that happening at the same time elsewhere on the field.  Walking the whole Union position quickly highlighted how all the actIons and activities were inextricably interrelated and how something happening in one location often had a knock on effect elsewhere.

Devil's Den to Little Round Top
The view from Devil’s Den to Little Round Top on an overcast morning.

This cause and effect inter-relationship was nowhere clearer that when we reached the Trostle Farm and discussed the actions of Major General Dan Sickles and the Union Third Corps.  As Sickles moved his corps forward to occupy what he felt was better ground, he created a gap in the Union position that then require others, in particular Winfield Scott Hancock and his Second Corps, to fill. Walking from the Trostle Farm to the heart of Cemetery Ridge it became very clear just how big a gap was created and problems it produced elsewhere in the Union lines.

Penn Memorial
The Pennsylvania State Memorial at Gettysburg.

The tour continued along the centre of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge where we stopped to discuss the awesome Pennsylvania State Memorial and the action at the famous  Angle which has become known as the ‘High Watermark of the Confederacy‘. From there we moved on through the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the resting place for more than 3,500 Union dead and where at the cemetery’s dedication Abraham Lincoln delivered ‘…a few appropriate remarks…’ which turned out to be one of the greatest speeches of all time, and is now referred to as the Gettysburg Address. The tour concluded with the eastern most portions of the Union line and took us over the wooded Culp’s Hill finishing at Spangler’s Spring. Again throughout we were able to appreciate the terrain from less well-visited viewpoints and to continue to build our understanding of the inter-relationship between the various parts of the battle.

At the conclusion of this walk I, and many of my fellow participants, commented and reflected on the new and different perspective we all had gained.  Whilst most of us had been to the battlefield, many on numerous occasions, and had toured in many different ways, be it by coach, by car or even walking parts of it, few if any had completed such a complete and in-depth study of the Union position.   The insights gained and understanding enhanced by doing so was marked.  The lesson learned here, and that I for one took away was relatively simple.  It is dangerous to attempt to understand history, particularly of such a complex event as a battle, by picking a few salient points in isolation and it is crucial tolook at new perspectives and appreciate the often complex interplay of activities  in order to build a full and accurate picture.  And that is my excuse when my wife enquires as to why I need to need to spend yet more time on a particular battlefield!

East Cemetery Hill from SE
A view not often seen by the average visitor to Gettysburg.  East Cemetery Hill from the South East with Winfield Scott Hancock’s Statue in the centre and the entrance to the Evergreen Cemetery on the left.
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Signs, guides and videotape…

Gettysburg Sign
One of the many interpretive signs that adorn American Civil War battlefields.

One of the challenges facing anyone running a heritage site is how to interpret, or explain, the site to visitors. The aim is alway to impart information in a manner that engages, educates and entertains them. I deliberatly use the term heritage site here, as I am primarily envisaging large spaces, usually outdoors, rather than the more controlled environment of an indoor museum, where technology, immersive audio-visual techniques, and traditional graphic panels can be used in large quantities. On such heritage sites the interpretation may have to bring to life a building, some ruins, archaeological remnants or an empty field that was once a bloody battlefield. In this blog post I want to explore some of the methods that can be, and are being, used to do this.

The key to any such interpretation is to present a balanced blend of accurate historical facts, an understanding of the place being interpreted and engaging storytelling. These days there is a range of ways in which this can be done that go well beyond the humble, but still much loved, guidebook.

For many years the tried and trusted interpretive board has been a good start. The image below shows one of a set located on the English Civil War battlefield of Naseby (14 June 1645) in Northamptonshire. This board has all the essentials. A couple of maps to show the course of the battle, some images to show the sort of troops fighting the battle, a narrative and in this case a very useful panoramic photograph to help the viewer relate to the ground they are observing.   Indeed this board, and its compatriots elsewhere on the site, do an extremely good job in providing the visitor with an understanding of the battlefield.  They are also supplemented by some resources on the Naseby website to help orientate the visitor before they arrive.

Naseby Board Image
A good example of an informative and engaging battlefield interpretation board.

The image below is an interpretive board at Bletchley Park that has to do a little less in the way of interpretation than the Naseby one, as it is sited in an already well-interpreted heritage site. But through the use of wartime pictures and quotes from veterans, an empty space within the site can be brought to life for the visitor.

BP Sign
An interpretive sign at Bletchley Park showing what activities happened on the ground in front of the board during the Second World War, using period photographs and quotes from veterans.

Such interpretive panels of course have their limitations. They are inanimate, they can be damaged and they can’t answer questions posed by the visitor!  Therefore for the many people there is probably nothing that beats a human interaction to bring a place to life. Indeed the less physical interpretation there is on a site the more this will tend to be so. A human guide has some obvious advantages over a static board.  She/he can interact with the audience, understand their needs, answer their questions and provide a more bespoke experience. Today human guides are employed in a raft of heritage sites and by numerous organisations.  These range from stately homes and heritage sites that have their own teams, to peripatetic battlefield guides taking groups of visitors on tours to sites around the world.

Guiding Monocacy
The author in full flow conducting a guided tour of the American Civil War battlefield of Monocacy (9 July 1864).

But is all cases the key to delivering high quality guiding is to have a good and effective training or development programme.  Most sites using guides have their own and organisations such as Britain’s ‘Blue Badge Guides‘ provide training programmes for multi-site guides, whilst the International Guild of Battlefield Guides provides a validation process to set a quality standard for battlefield guides.

One of the best guide training programmes I have come across is the Gettyburg Licensed Battlefield Guides training programme. Why is this? Well first of all it has a very demanding four-stage selection process. A Written Examination is followed by a Panel Interview, then a Mandatory Information and Orientation Programme, and finally an Oral Battlefield Examination. Quite a few hoops to jump through before becoming qualified, and the end result is a high quality cadre of well-respected guides.  But to me the most interesting thing about this programme is the underlying philosophy.  Even before entering its selection process candidates are asked to answer a very important question.  Is guiding for you?  In particular they are asked to consider a set of more detailed questions:

Do you love to teach?  Are you a storyteller?  Are you an extemporaneous speaker?  Are you a simplifier?  Do you love people?  Are you comfortable speaking to groups?  Are you flexible? Are you patient? Are you humble?

A very quick analysis of this list will reveal that, and it should come as no surprise to any high quality guide, the key attribute needed is to place ones audience at the centre of things. Unfortunately this sort of focus is not always evident in some guides.  Standing in front of an audience and interpreting a place or a battlefield requires self-confidence and a strong element of showmanship, traits that can be at odds with the humility and visitor focus outlined above. Sometimes the ego takes over and the guide becomes the end in itself, rather than a vehicle to interpret the place for the visitor.

Another challenge with human guides is quality control.  The guide has to walk a fine line between being an historian and a storyteller. No one is going to stand for a hour on guided tour if the guide is not engaging and entertaining.  But this should not mean that the guide lets the truth get in the way of telling a good story!  I have been to guided tours in more than one location where myths have been more prevalent than reality.  This therefore requires that the training programme must have a validation or quality control element to it.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti human guides – far from it I’m one myself!  But the limitations and issues highlighted above must be considered when they are used. And there is one other significant limitation to a human guide and that is that they are not always available! But these days technology is on hand to help with this particular problem.

Today, with a smartphone in many pockets, there has been a huge growth in app technology to assist the heritage visitor.  These come in a variety of shapes and guises, but all have some overarching benefits to those trying to understand a price of heritage or those trying to interpret it. These benefits are principally the ability to provide consistent, accurate, high-quality and repeatable content.  As a user you can be delivered hours of quality material on a handheld device which can be explored at ones own pace, both at the site being visited, or at leisure in ones hotel room or at home. For the interpreter, visitors can be provided with a whole raft of content, using a range of media and with a consistent standard of delivery to every visitor, so quality control is never an issue.

Battle App Overview
A screenshot from the Civil War Trust’s Bull Run Battle App® Guide

By way of a very good example of this genre, I would highlight the United States’ Civil War Trust’s Battle Apps® Guides series of guides to some of the key battles of the American Civil War. The screenshot above is taken from the app for the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861).  As can be seen the quality of the mapping is excellent and activating buttons marking stops and places additional content is exposed, as cab be seen in the screenshot below.

Battle App Detail
Another screenshot from the Civil War Trust Bull Run Battle App® Guide showing some of the more detailed content.

As mentioned earlier this technology also allows the embedding of a whole range of static and dynamic media, from contemporary photographs and maps, to sound clips and video.  The example below, taken from the Bull Run app and featuring Civil War Trust’s Director of History and Education Garry Adelmen, demonstrates how a visitor can almost have the best of both worlds.  A human guide recorded talking about a location, with the flexibility of having the information to take away on their own portable device!

This technological approach is of course not without its limitations too.  At the moment it can’t answer a question from a visitor in the way a human guide can.  There are also technical issues in the form of battery life and the need to download some content which might be difficult on a remote site without data connectivity.  But as a mass method of providing interpretation there is much benefit in this approach. In the future I suspect that other technologies will emerge to enhance this form of interpretation.  For example the potential to use wearable technology, such as a Google Glass style device, integrated with interpretation.   There are teething problems to resolve in this area, but the possibilities are very exciting.

To conclude I have looked at a number of different methods of interpreting heritage sites. None should be looked at in isolation and there is great value to the visitor of a heritage site in having a layered approach that uses some or all of the methods highlighted. This gives the visitor choice and variety, and a range of opportunities for them to engage with the site, be educated by it, and have an entertaining day out.

Why maps are essential tools for understanding history 

july3bacheldermap
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.

Antietam
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.

LondonPoverty_Booth
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.]
Minard_map_of_napoleon
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.

bombsight
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…’.

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.

Slide1
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’.