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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150 years on – The Battle of Königgrätz, 3 July 1866

Konnigratz
‘The Battery of the Dead’ by Carl Röchling (1855 – 1920). This picture shows the Prussian Guard overrunning Captain August von der Groeben’s so called ‘Battery of the Dead‘ at the Battle of Königgrätz, on the afternoon of 3 July 1866.

This week the military history world has been focused on the centenary commemorations for the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.  Less well commemorated, or as well-known I suspect, is the fact that 3 July 2016 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa), itself an important and significant event, and the culmination of the short Austro-Prussian War of 1866, a war that would have a crucial role in shaping the Europe we know today.

The Austro-Prussian War, which was also known as the Seven Weeks’ War, was fought between the Austrian Empire and its German allies, and Kingdom of Prussia with its own German allies.  At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 the German states were grouped in a loose confederation known as the ‘Deutscher Bund‘ and operating under Austrian leadership.  As the nineteenth century progressed the conditions developed for a unification of the German states into a single Germany. Two different views emerged as to what that unification might look like. The first was a ‘Grossdeutschland’ or greater Germany that would see a multi-national empire including Austria. The alternative a ‘Kleindeutschland’ or lesser Germany would exclude Austria and as a result would be dominated by Prussia, the largest and most powerful of the German states, unsurprisingly the latter was the preferred option in Prussia.

Bismark
Otto Von Bismarck (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898) the architect of German Unification. This photograph was taken late in his life and had been beautifully colourised by Marina Amaral.

When Otto von Bismarck became Minister President of Prussia in 1862 he immediately began to develop a strategy for uniting Germany as a ‘Kleindeutschland’ under Prussian rule. He first raised German national consciousness by convincing Austria to join Prussia in the Second Schleswig War.  This swift and brutal conflict put the Danish provinces of Schleswig and Holstein under joint Austrian and Prussian rule. But very quickly after the conclusion of that war Bismarck provoked a further conflict over the administration of the conquered provinces, which resulted in Austria declaring war on Prussia and calling on the armies of the minor German states to join them, in what was ostensibly action by the German Confederation against Prussia to restore Prussia’s obedience to the Confederation.

The main campaign of the war took place in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic).  The Prussian Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, had decided that the key to success was to ignore the minor German states allied with Austria, and instead concentrate on decisively defeating Austria itself.  He planned the war in meticulous detail, rapidly mobilising the Prussian Army and advanced across the border into Saxony and Bohemia in June 1866 to confront the Austrian Army, which was concentrating for an invasion of Silesia. Moving rapidly, the Prussian forces were divided into three armies: The Army of the Elbe under General Karl Eberhard Herwarth von Bittenfeld, the First Army under Prince Friedrich Karl, and the Second Army under Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. All were under the nominal command of Prussia’s King Wilhelm I, but in reality operational command sat with von Moltke.  As the armies advanced, each on their own axis, they overcame Austrian attempts to stop them and by 2 July the main Austria Army had been sighted, encamped on high ground between the towns of Königgrätz and Sadowa.

Von Moltke immediately saw the opportunity to encircle the Austrians. He gave orders for Prince Friedrich Karl and the First Army to move forward and in conjunction with the Army of the Elbe to attack the Austrian positions across the Bistritz River the following day, 3 July 1866.  He also ordered the Second Army, at this time some way off to the North East, to move in support with the aim of surrounding the Austrian forces.  

KG Map Morning
The morning’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

Moltke had intended the battle to be a textbook ‘pocket battle’ in which he would encircle and destroy the Austrian Army, but the weather on 3 July almost ruined his plans.  As the First Army and the Army of the Elbe approached they were caught in the heavy rain and arrived wet and exhausted. Meanwhile the Second Army did not reach the field until late afternoon. The Austria commander, Ludwig von Benedek, therefore had the advantage of numerical superiority for much of the day with his 240,000 troops actually only facing 135,000 Prussians. Unfortunately for Austria he did not exploit this advantage.

Bayonet Charge by Prussians at the Battle of Sadowa
An etching showing Prussian infantry charging Austrian troops at bayonet point.

The initial Prussian attacks came from the Army of the Elbe in the West and the First Army in the North West.  In the West the early attacks were successful and the Saxon Army Corps holding this portion of the Austrian defensive line were pushed back.  They withdrew to new defensive positions and once there started to pour heavy fire on the Prussians bringing them to a standstill.  Further north the Prussian forces started well and made good progress and an hour into the battle the town of Sadowa was taken, but soon afterwards the advance began to slow down under heavy Austrian fire. A considerable amount of this was coming from a wooded area called the Sweipwald in which Austrian troops were concealed.  The Prussians attacked and the wood was cleared.  The Austrians counter-attacked but their efforts were uncoordinated and confused allowing the Prussians to decimate the disorientated columns of Austrian infantry moving in and out of the wood.  The Austrian position was not helped by paralysis, indecision and confusion amongst the Austrian command. Benedek stopped an attempt by a subordinate (General Anton von Mollinary) to swing the Austrian Army’s right wing forward to encircle the two Prussian armies at Sadowa before the arrival of the third, losing a valuable opportunity and creating chaos in the field.

KG Map Afternoon
The afternoon’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

Aided by Benedek’s inaction, Moltke had time to wait for the arrival of the Prussian Second Army which he was finally able to commit late in the afternoon and it struck Benedek’s weak right flank.  With the assault now on all sides the Austrian Army began to disintegrate.  Gallant but futile rearguard actions took place to slow the Prussian advance.  One lone horse artillery battery, under the command of Captain August von der Groeben, tried to stem the Prussian advance. Its desperate salvos were answered with crippling Prussian fire from all sides and within five minutes Groeben, 53 men and 68 horses were all dead. This was followed by the Austrian cavalry which charged into the pursuing Prussians.  For half an hour the they succeeded in holding the Prussian cavalry and pushing their infantry back, which, combined with the continuing Austrian artillery fire, convinced Von Moltke that he may had underestimated Benedek.  With his reserves of infantry and cavalry stuck on muddy approach roads behind the lines, Moltke did not have the resources to complete the encirclement at Königgrätz and stopped the pursuit. The Austrian cavalry broke off at this point and the battle ended at 9pm.

Königgrätz - Hunten
‘Battle of Königgrätz 1866’ by Emil Hünten (1827-1902) The picture depicts King Wilhelm I awarding his son, the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the Order Pour le Mérite after the Prussian victory under Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, who can be seen on the left side. © Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Most of Benedek’s army escaped across the Elbe in the night, but the Austrian losses were high – 44,000 men in the course of the day, compared with Prussian losses of just 9,000. The Austrian Army that retreated to Vienna was very weakened and the Austrian emperor had no option but to agree to an armistice on 22 July 1866, and three weeks later sued for peace. Bismarck used the victory to further his ambitions, abolishing the German Confederation and forming the North German Federation that excluded Austria and her allies in Germany. Its position as the dominant power in continental Europe was confirmed five years later with an emphatic victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the resulting unification into a united Germany.

Today Königgrätz is a fascinating battlefield to visit.  Situated 125km to the East of Prague in the Czech Republic, it is about an hour and a half drive from the centre of the Czech capital.  The battlefield is relatively undeveloped and one can very quickly gain an understanding of the terrain and the flow of the battle. There is a small museum and visitor centre that provides useful orientation and an observation tower.  These are both located together just outside the village of Chlum, right at the heart of the battlefield and on its highest spot. The tower affords panoramic views of the area and from which one can appreciate the scale of the battle and the influence of the terrain.

Panorama Lookimh East
A panoramic view from the Chlum observation tower looking East.  In the foreground is the museum and visitor centre.  In the centre, on the right edge of the woods, is the memorial to the ‘Battery of the Dead‘.  The attack of the Prussian Second Army swept in from the left hand edge of this view.

The actions of many regiments and individuals are marked with memorials across the battlefield.  These include a monument erected at the location where Captain August von der Groeben and his ‘Battery of the Dead‘ conducted their heroic but doomed rearguard action.

Dead Memorial
The Battery of The Dead Memorial unveiled in October 1893. Captain von der Groeben and his horse battery of eight Groeben’s guns were placed North-West of Chlum facing the Sweipwald. In mid-afternoon of 3 July 1866 the battery tried to hold off a flanking attack by the Prussian guards before rapid and heavy fire silenced the guns. Groeben, 53 other officers and men, and 68 horses were killed. 

The Sweipwald is full of memorials to both sides, placed here both by regiments in memory of fallen comrades and families for loved one.  As one walks through the woods it is easy to envisage how this part of the field became a bloody killing ground as the combat ebbed and flowed. But today it is peaceful and serene, and judging by my experience very little visited, as we were the only people in the woods on a fine July afternoon last year!

Sweipwald Memorials
Some of the many monuments and memorials in the now tranquil Sweipwald.

The impact of this battle was felt long after it finished.  Bismarck’s vision of a dominant and imperial Germany of course came to fruition, and ultimately led to Germany’s role in helping to start the First World War, the legacy of which had a continuing impact throughout the subsequent history of the twentieth century.  It is perhaps worth reflecting on what might have happened had there been an Austrian victory on 3 July 1866.  Would it have resulted in a ‘Grossdeutschland’ that would have joined the German states in a less aggressive and less martial multi-national Empire, leading to a more peaceful Europe and avoiding the two world wars of the twentieth century?  This is of course speculation but what is very clear is how important this short war, and the little known battle of Königgrätz were in actually shaping the European history we know today.

Did friendly fire rob the Confederacy of its best chance of victory?

Jackson
General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s so called ‘Chancellorsville’ portrait, taken less than two weeks before his mortal wounding at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Some one hundred and fifty three years ago, on 2 May 1863, one of the most well known friendly fire incidents in history took place.  Its consequences have caused debate and discussion ever since and it is often argued that it had a profound impact on the outcome of the American Civil War.  The incident was the shooting of Confederate commander, Lieutenant General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson by Confederate troops during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

On 27 April 1863 Union troops under Joseph Hooker began crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers above the town of Fredericksburg, where General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had been encamped since the latter part of 1862. Hooker concentrated his forces in the area of Chancellorsville, and Lee decided he needed to act. Leaving a small force in Fredericksburg he marched the rest of his Army west to meet Hooker.  As Lee approached, Hooker entrenched his force around Chancellorsville.  On finding out about the Union defensive position, Lee and Jackson came up with a daring and aggressive plan.

At 0730hrs on 2 May 1863 Jackson set off on one of the boldest flanking actions in military history.  He would take with him two thirds of the Confederate Army, an Army that only numbered some 43,000 compared to the Union Army of about 70,000, leaving Lee to pin the Union Army with the remaining third.  He would then lead this force on a twelve mile march that would, at 1530hrs that day, place the head of the column in battle positions on the right flank of the Union lines.

It would take almost two more hours before enough of the force was in place and ready to launch its attack.  The fighting was ferocious and confused with the two armies fighting in very close wooded terrain with thick undergrowth that slowed down the attack.  Whilst the assault was successful, the terrain and the added friction of dealing with increasing numbers of Union prisoners, who had to be chaperoned to the rear, began slowing things down.  By about 2030hrs darkness was falling over the battlefield and the attack was petering out.  Jackson ordered a halt to reorganise and await AP Hill’s division, which was still marching.  But assessing the situation, Jackson decided he needed to keep the momentum and that this would only be a pause because if he stopped the attack at this point he would be ceding the advantage to the Union forces. In order to understand what was in front of his position Jackson took a small group of his staff forward to conduct a reconnaissance.

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Jackson’s Flank March at the Battle of Chancellorsville, 2 May 1863, and showing where Jackson was wounded.  Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com

Riding out from the main Confederate position through the lines of the 18th North Carolina Infantry, the small party proceeded two hundred yards further stopping just behind a picket line that had been deployed ahead of the main Confederate line.  Here they listened for the Union forces, themselves barely a quarter of a mile away. In the distance Jackson could hear the sound of axes felling trees and shovels scraping the earth. The Union troops were putting up defensive positions, so he realised he would have to act quickly, and turned the party around to return to the Confederate lines.

At much the same time, a little further south, some Union troops had blundered into the Confederate line and been captured.  This had the effect of making the Confederates worried that other Union troops were approaching their lines.  As a result the men in the frontline began to get jumpy.  One Confederate soldier fired at a shadow and this in turn caused another to do likewise, and in seconds a wave of fire erupted from the Confederate position rolling northwards up the line just as Jackson and his reconnaissance party approached.

A volley of shots ripped into Jackson’s party.  Jackson himself was hit three times, once in the right hand and twice in his left arm.  One of his staff, his brother-in-law Joseph Morrison, called out for the troops to stop firing as they were shooting at their own men.  However, the 18th North Carolina were a seasoned unit and had heard that Union troops used such ruses, so continued to fire!  When they eventually did stop firing one member of the party was dead, and Jackson and another were both seriously wounded.  Members of his staff helped him from his horse and carried him to the rear where he was placed on a litter and evacuated.  The rearward journey itself was traumatic as he was thrown from the litter at least once, causing further injury!

the-stonewall-jackson-memorial
The Stonewall Jackson Memorial at Chancellorsville.  Dedicated in 1888, it commemorates Jackson’s wounding ©Civil War Trust

He was eventually taken to his doctor and the following day his left arm was amputated. For a few days it looked as though he would recover but then caught pneumonia, and on 10 May 1863 he died.  His body was taken to his hometown of Lexington, Virginia where his funeral was conducted and he was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery, now known as the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.

The impact of the loss of Jackson was immediate.  The day after he died, Lee issued the following General Order:

“Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia,

11 May 1863

General Order No 61

With deep grief the commanding general announces to the army the death of Lieutenant-General T. J. Jackson, who expired on the 10th instant, at quarter past three P. M. The daring, skill & energy of this great & good soldier, by the decree of an all-wise Providence, are now lost to us. But while we mourn his death, we feel that his spirit still lives, & will inspire the whole army with his indomitable courage & unshaken confidence in God, as our hope & strength. Let his name be a watchword to his Corps, who have followed him to victory on so many fields. Let officers & soldiers emulate his invincible determination to do everything in the defense of our beloved Country.

R. E.  Lee

General”

His loss was both personal and professional to Lee.  Over the ten months they had worked together they had developed a personal and professional relationship that was very close and very effective.  Each knew how the other thought and behaved, and each trusted the other to play their respective parts on the prosecution of Confederate strategy.  They were exemplary exponents of what today is known as Mission Command.  The current US Army Mission Command Doctrine (ADRP 6-0 Mission Command) states:

“Mission command is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”

What does this mean? Well in means trusting a subordinate to act under their own initiative to carry out an order and meet the intent the commander wants delivered.  This is exactly how Jackson and Lee operated.  In an age before radio, telephone and instantaneous communication this meant Lee giving some fairly broad brush orders, but with a clear outcome in mind.  This in turn allowed Jackson to be out of contact, sometimes for weeks at a time, but with Lee always confident that he would deliver, and by and large he did. The same US Army manual lists the principles that underpin Mission Command, the top two of which are:

– Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
– Create shared understanding.

Even from a quick examination of the Lee/Jackson relationship it is clear that these principles ran through their relationship, like letters through a stick of rock. They trusted each other implicitly and had a clear shared understanding, resulting in Jackson knowing exactly what was needed, even as the tactical circumstances changed, without seeking additional orders from Lee.

So with the death of Jackson, Lee had lost a key lieutenant right at the time when he needed one the most.  Less than two months later his Army was engaged in the biggest battle of the American Civil War, Gettysburg, where it became clear that other subordinates were less able to act within a Mission Command framework and deliver Lee’s intent. For example on the first day of the battle, Richard Ewell commanding one of Lee’s three corps, was sent a discretionary order by Lee to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable.”  Many historians have postulated that had Jackson been the corps commander at that point he would undoubtedly have found it “practicable” and would have taken the initiative.  Its highly likely that such an action could have finished Gettysburg with a Confederate victory by the end of that first day of the battle.  In the same vein the following day Lee struggled with another Corps commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, whose somewhat sluggish deployment probably lost Lee the initiative he sought that day.  In short neither Ewell nor Longstreet, or for that matter Lee’s other subordinates of that period, were Jackson and they did not act with the intuition Lee had come to expect.

It is certainly possible that Jackson’s presence at Gettysburg, and later battles, could have brought about Confederate victories. The American military historian James I. Robertson, in his comprehensive biography of Jackson, sums up the impact of his loss very well:

“Jackson’s passing marked a line of demarcation in the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia.  In the ten months that Lee and Jackson were together, delegation of authority had been so lenient – orders permitting a wide latitude in execution so regular – as to create one of history’s great military partnerships.  Thereafter, starting at Gettysburg, the system failed Lee.  He had no executive officer of first-rate ability.  He tried to do it all himself.  It did not work.” (Stonewall Jackson, James I. Robertson, Macmillan, 1997)

Jackson and Lee
‘Tactics and Strategy’, Jackson and Lee at Chancellorsville, by Mort Kunstler. ©www.mortkunstler.com

Perhaps the best comment on the impact of the loss of Jackson comes from Lee himself who, on hearing of the amputation of Jackson’s arm, is reported to have said:

“Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right.”

The implications of this statement are very clear.  Lee as the commander relied on Jackson.  As commander and subordinate they were ‘in each others minds’.  His loss deprived Lee of someone he could trust implicitly at a crucial time for the Confederacy, with the Confederate’s armies on the ascendancy. Had Jackson not been killed there is every indication that this duo could have led the Army of Northern Virginia to continued military success through Gettysburg and beyond, and perhaps even victory in the War.

The Men Who Made the Cemeteries

GRU Cpl
A Corporal from a Graves Registration Unit with an exhumed body. ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via IWM

I am sure that for anyone who has visited the battlefields of the First World War, in particular those of the Western Front in France and Belgium, one of the most vivid memories will be the war cemeteries.  These are looked after and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and serve as a permanent and powerful reminder of the death and suffering that the Great War brought. But I suspect that fewer visitors really think about how the cemeteries came about and how they were developed.

The story starts soon after the start of the First World War and, in large part, is down to the work of one man, Fabian Ware.  He arrived in France in September 1914, too old to serve in the Army, instead he commanded a mobile Red Cross unit.  He soon identified that there was no official process for documenting or marking the location of the graves of those who had been killed.  To fill this void he and his mobile unit undertook the task.  Ware’s work was quickly given official recognition and the unit was transferred to the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission in 1915.  As the work of grave registration became known to the public at home, the Commission began receiving letters and requests from relatives for photographs of graves, which it duly began to provide.  As a result, in 1916, the Graves Registration Commission was renamed the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries. Its remit was also extended beyond the Western Front and into other theatres of war including Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  As the war progressed Ware and others became concerned about the future of the graves after the war, which led to the formation of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 (updated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the 1960s).

The work continued through to the end of the war and on into the 1920s with the recovery of bodies, concentration of some of the smaller cemeteries into larger ones and the building of large permanent memorials such as the ones at Thiepval on the Somme and the Menin Gate in Ypres.

Graves Resistration Unit
A Graves Registration Unit in France or Belgium, probably after the end of the First World War ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via the IWM

This work was crucial in helping the grieving process for those hundreds of thousands of families who had lost loved ones.  Some years ago I came across a grave in Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient.  Unlike so many in that cemetery, this one had a name on it, Private James Weir, 31st Battalion, Australian Infantry, AIF.  It also had an intriguing epitaph ‘The Lord Gave And The Lord Hath Taken Away’.  So out of interest I decided to trace Private Weir and to see if I could find out more about him.  In doing so I uncovered a tragic tale, but one that probably mirrored many thousands more.

Private Weir was killed on 27 September 1917, during the bloody Third Battle of Ypres, and was buried in a battlefield cemetery somewhere in the area of Polygon Wood. However, the grave appears to have been lost and even as late as the summer of 1921 the family, in Australia, were writing to the authorities to find to where the grave was. Eventually the grave was located, the body exhumed and concentrated with many others in Tyne Cot Cemetery, and in October 1921 the family were sent photographs of the grave. Nonetheless it is hard in these days of instant communication and rapid travel to imagine the anguish his family went through for four years, not knowing where he was buried.

Weir Grave Register
The Graves Registration Unit’s notification that Private James Weir’s body had been exhumed and reburied in Tyne Cot Cemetery. ©National Archives of Australia.

This week I came across Lincolnshire resident and author Tim Atkinson who is writing a book about the men who stayed behind after the Armistice as part of the Graves Registration Units to search for and recover bodies on the battlefields. Entitled ‘The Glorious Dead‘ the marketing blurb for the book states the following:

‘The book promises to reveal what happened when the Great War ended and the guns fell silent, to tell the story of the battlefield clearances and creation of iconic war cemeteries and to explain why so many men who served – and survived – remained in Flanders amid the ruins of the war they’d fought.

The story follows one of these men – Jack Patterson – as he busies himself doing the Empire’s dirty work. Jack seems not to mind getting his hands dirty, digging graves, living among the death of devastation of the war he and others have just fought. But there’s a secret keeping Jack in Flanders – a secret that only emerges when a visitor to the cemeteries comes searching…. for Jack’s own grave!’

Intrigued by Tim’s (TA) approach I (HM) caught up with him and we had a chat.

HM:  “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

TA:  “I was a teacher for twenty years and then decided to give up full-time work to look after my youngest child, and at the same time start writing,  Since doing so I have had a number  of books published, and my latest venture is ‘The Glorious Dead’.”

HM: “I have read the blurb, but tell me more about the book.” 

TA:  “Well it’s been five years in the making and is the story of Jack Patterson and his comrades who stay behind on the Western Front after the end of the First World War to complete the harrowing and unpleasant task of recovering bodies from the battlefields for burial. The story covers the important years just after the end of the Great War when thousands of troops remained behind to complete this task. It also touches on those who eventually married local girls and became part of Anglo-Belgium and Anglo-French communities looking after the cemeteries through the inter-war period.”  

HM: “Why did you choose to address this subject through the medium of historical fiction rather than a factual narrative?”  

TA:  “The book is principally about the people involved with this undertaking rather than the process.  There are a number of good non-fiction books already published on the subject, including Philip Longworth’s The Unending Vigil and David Crane’s Empires of the Dead.  And I’m not an historian so didn’t want to cover the same ground less-well.  What I wanted to do was to understand the psychology of these men.  To understand what motivated them to stay behind and complete this task.  In the case of my chief protagonist there is a personal reason and a mystery about him that eventually comes to light but I won’t spoil the story. But the historical fiction approach gave me more scope to do this.”

Serre No3
Serre Road Cemetery Number 3, a battlefield cemetery on the Somme, on an atmospherically overcast day.

HM: “These cemeteries always have a profound effect on people visiting them.  Why do you think that is?”     

TA:  “From Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery, to the smallest battlefield cemetery on the Somme their design is consistent and perfect.  This was an inspired period, from the work of Fabian Ware to establish the Imperial War Graves Commission through to that of the architects such as Blomfield and Lutyens to establish the monuments.  I have been to many of the cemeteries on the Western Front and standing in them I think the overriding impression is of the simplicity of the design and the serenity of the places.  And I think it is this contrast with the horror of the battlefields that really has an impact on people.”

HM: “Your book is being published through Unbound. Why have you chosen this route?”

TA: “Well first it is a very successful model which has had some notable successes.  The one that immediately springs to mind is Philip Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which made it on to the Man Booker long list in 2014.  Secondly I enjoy the interaction with potential readers that this form of publishing allows.  Once subscribers have pledged their support they are given access to ‘the Shed’ an interactive area where they can receive updates from the author and leave comments and thoughts. As a writer it is unusual to connect with readers while engaged in the process of writing.  Unbound offers a great opportunity to open a dialogue with your readers and allow them to help shape your book.”

HM: “Tim, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.  Good luck with completing the book and your quest for support.”      

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries of the Western Front, and elsewhere in the world, are an iconic and important part of the Remembrance of all wars that have involved military and civilian personnel from across the Commonwealth since 1914.  As we move through the Centenary commemorations of the First World War their power to connect us with that War does not seem to diminish, indeed in many respects they are even more powerful today than they ever have been.

Tyne Cot
Tyne Cot Cemetery today.

What I hope I have done in this blog post, and what Tim Atkinson is attempting to do in his book, is to highlight the effort made to ensure the memory and sacrifice of those who died in the First World War was not forgotten.  Initially this was through the efforts of Fabian Ware to institutionalise the burial and commemoration of the dead.  Then later through the physically hard and traumatic work of men, like Tim’s character Jack, to scour the battlefields searching for bodies, and hopefully help to close a chapter for many families such as those of Private James Weir.  As we remember the dead and the wounded throughout the Centenary of the First World War, we should also take our hats off to the men who completed the grisly, but very important, task of making the cemeteries.


You can subscribe to Tim Atkinson’s book ‘The Glorious Dead’ at https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-glorious-dead

 

Preservation, restoration or recreation. 

Destruction of Gettysburg Visitor centre
The removal of the old 1920s Gettysburg Visitor Centre in 2009.  This was done as part of the rehabilitation programme at the Gettysburg National Military Park, which is returning the battlefield to how it looked in 1863. (Picture: The blog of the Gettysburg National Military Park)

Much work is undertaken these days to maintain, repair and restore heritage sites, locations and buildings.  Such work often causes debate, in particular related to how much work should be done, to what, and why.  A recent project to renovate London’s Alexandra Palace produced much controversy and discussion about the nature of the proposed work and its purpose. It strikes me that in any work undertaken upon heritage sites and buildings, the key questions should of course focus on what we should do to such places in order to keep them for the future, but also very importantly, on how to make them relevant to today’s users and visitors.

Before I examine some examples, a few definitions.  For the purposes of this blog post I am going to talk about three processes that can be applied to heritage sites – restoration, preservation, and recreation.  There are a range of other terms that are used to cover similar ground, but to keep things simple I am going to use these three.

Restoration is essentially about taking something back to a former condition, such that it has an authentic appearance appropriate to the chosen period.

Preservation is about stopping an object, place, building etc. from deterioration or destruction, and preventing it from being altered or changed. These days this is often linked to the protection of architecture or the built environment. The key difference to restoration is that it is not the final appearance of the object, place or building that governs the process, but rather it is the retention of as much of the original fabric as possible, with minimal changes, that guides the final outcome.

Finally recreation is about replacing previously destroyed or removed objects, perhaps with a replica, or recreating fundamentally altered environments or settings, in order aid understanding.

Let me look at some examples.  The first is the American Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg which has undergone a programme of what has been termed rehabilitation. A look at the programme highlights that it includes elements of all the above categories. Restoration works has seen the removal of lots of 20th century intrusions such as buildings and car parks, as well as non-period vegetation that had encroached on the battlefield since the battle. Recreation sees the replanting of vegetation appropriate to the period, and alongside, preservation work has ensured that those authentic elements of the battlefield remain in place.

The underlying purpose of this project has been to:

‘…restore the Gettysburg Battlefield’s historic integrity, to enhance visitors’ understanding of and appreciation for what happened here, and to help create a sustainable environment by improving wetlands, water quality and wildlife habitat…’.

To guide what was required to make the battlefield more understandable, an analytical process called KOCOA has been used.  This means:

Key Terrain includes those areas that were seized, retained or controlled in battle.

Observation includes signal stations and fields of fire.

Cover and Concealment includes stone walls, woods, ridges and other features offering visual protection.

Obstacles include fences, buildings and field fortifications that affected military movement.

Avenues of Approach are the roads, farm lanes and open fields that led to the enemy.

By identifying these important locations on the battlefield the necessary action could then be taken to ensure the landscape presented to visitors was increasingly returned to, as near as possible, that present during the battle.  This allows the visitor to understand the all important impact of the terrain on the conduct of the battle and to ‘feel’ the battlefield. The images below are just one example of where this work has been completed.

Ohio Memorial Gettysburg (The Evening Sun)
This picture shows the memorial to G and I Companies of the 4th Ohio Infantry on the battlefield at Gettysburg.  On the left with the ‘Home Sweet Home’ motel, a 20th Century intrusion in the background, and on the right with the motel demolished and the terrain closer to resembling how it was at the time of the battle in July 1863. (Picture: The Evening Sun)

Gettysburg is not the only American Civil War battlefield going through this process and very recently similar plans have been implemented at the battlefield of Franklin (30 November 1864).

Another location that has been through a similar process in recent years, and one close to my heart, is Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England.  The location of the Government Code and Cypher School in the Second World War, Bletchley Park produced vital intelligence, the value of which had a profound impact on the conduct of the Second World War.

Hut 6
Bletchley Park’s historically important Hut 6 prior to restoration.

The site has been through a major restoration project during which the wartime huts in which vital codebreaking work was conducted were restored to their wartime appearance, and the landscape around them returned to its 1940s feel. Prior to this project the huts were in an appalling state of repair and close to being lost. The rationale employed by the Bletchley Park Trust in restoring them was firstly to stop them falling down, and by all accounts this was very close to happening. But rather than just preserving crumbling wooden huts, they were restored and made accessible to the public with audio-visual interpretation and set dressing in order to allow visitors to understand and experience the rudimentary conditions under which the difficult cerebral work of Bletchey Park’s wartime codebreakers was conducted.

A similar logic was applied to the landscape of the site which had been encroached upon by modern car parks.  These were removed and the wartime landscape recreated, as can be seen in the pictures below, not only capturing the wartime feel but also providing much better space for visitors to enjoy.

BP MANSION
Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England, the home of the Government Code and Cypher School in the Second World War.  The image on the left shows the site’s Mansion house surrounded by car parks before the restoration of the site in 2014, with the image on the right showing the same view post-restoration. 

The two examples I have cited above have been largely about the restoration of buildings and landscape in order to evoke a particular period.  There is of course equally strong merit in just preserving sites and buildings, be it for their architectural value or because the cost of doing anything more would be prohibitive.  Many a ruined castle would fall in this latter category where their reduction to ruins happened so long ago that the cost involved would be enormous. Equally in a ruined castle it is relatively easy to interpret the story and purpose of the building for a visitor, perhaps negating any more intrusive restoration.

Recreating lost buildings and places from scratch also has its place.  Obvious, and timely, examples are the replica trench systems that have been dug in a number of locations in the UK (and abroad) to tie up with the First World War Centenary.  These include the Coltman Trench at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Lichfield, and the Digging in project in Glasgow.  In these cases replica trench systems allow students and visitors to experience the physical surroundings of the trenches, which is difficult to do on the actual battlefields where most of the original trenches have long since disappeared.

Debates about the merits of preserving a heritage site versus the more radical approach of restoration, or rehabilitation as undertaken at Gettysburg, will, I have no doubt, continue to occur in many different guises in the future.  And the arguments either way are rarely likely to be clear-cut.  What I have tried to suggest above is that at some heritage sites the careful restoration, and in some cases selected recreation of spaces, places and buildings, can provide a greater insight into the importance of a place. In doing so the aim should always be to engage a visitor, and/or an inquiring mind.  If this can be achieved through careful and sympathetic restoration, then it is probably much better to follow this path than leaving derelict buildings preserved in aspic to attempt to talk for themselves!

 

 

 

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…’.