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.

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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.

The First World War on your doorstep

Machine Gun Corps Training
Troops of the Motor Machine Gun Corps training February 1916. ©IWM (Q 53896)

The First World War saw some 8.7 million men serve in the British Army at some point during the conflict.  Of those, 5.4 million served on the Western Front (France and Flanders), which is where I suspect most people think of these men spending their time.  But of course before they even got across the Channel a huge effort was necessary to recruit, mobilise and train such an army.  Today the British Army is heading for a regular strength of 80,000, a tiny proportion of that First World organisation, yet I suspect that we all know of a military barracks in our local area and are aware of military activity. Thus imagine a one-hundred fold increase to the number of men under arms and the impact on the country’s infrastructure and landscape.  Military camps and training areas grew up all over the country to cope with this expansion, and I will return to these shortly.

The First World War saw a step change in the manner in which war was conducted.  Many will argue that it was the first industrial war; I might counter that by suggesting that the roots of the industrialisation of warfare were planted some fifty years earlier with the American Civil War, but that is a different debate.  What is clear from the First World War is that many of the technologies that had been emerging over the previous fifty years came together with deadly efficiency during the conflict. The trench stalemate on the Western Front is usually put down to a combination of three things. First, the very effective defensive technology and techniques employed to create the trenches, and the use of barbed wire to make No Man’s Land impossible to cross safely. Second, the wholesale availability of tinned rations which meant that soldiers could occupy these defensive positions for weeks and month without having to forage off the land as they had in previous campaigns. And finally the rise of rapid firing weaponry making venturing into No Man’s Land a perilous activity. Crucial amongst this weaponry was the machine gun.

Maxim Plaque
A blue plaque at 57 Hatton Garden, London, where Hiram Maxim set up his workshops on his arrival in Britain in 1881, and where he designed his famous machine gun.

The first self-powered (recoil operated) machine gun had been invented in 1883 by Hiram Maxim (an American who moved to Britain in 1881).  He conducted practical demonstrations in 1884, and his Maxim Gun was used by the British Army on colonial operations from 1893.  In 1912 an improved version of his gun was produced by the Vickers  Company and adopted by the British Army.  It would remain in use through both World Wars finally being withdrawn from service in 1968.

Although having been around for some years, the machine gun really came to the fore in the First World War.  At the start of the War all British Army infantry battalions were equipped with a machine gun section of two guns and this was increased to four in February 1915, as a result of the experience of combat in the early battles. But this experience also highlighted the need for bespoke tactics and organisation in order to make the most effective use of the weapon. As a result, in November 1914 a Machine Gun School at established in Wisques in France to train officers and machine gunners. This served two immediate purposes.  First, to replace those personnel trained to use machine guns who had been killed or wounded, and second to increase the number of men with machine gun skills.

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Machine Gun Corps personnel undergoing training during the First World War.

In September 1915 the War Office considered a plan to create a single specialist Machine Gun Company per infantry brigade, by withdrawing the machine guns and associated teams from the battalions, with the aim of fully exploiting this new technology. In order to give the battalions firepower they would be issued with the lighter and more portable Lewis machine gun. The plan was approved, the Machine Gun Corps was created in October 1915, and the companies formed in each brigade transferred into to the newly formed Corps. The reorganisation was rapid and was completed by the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.  By the end of the war a total of 170,500 officers and men served in the Machine Gun Corps, of whom 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing.

In order to train and prepare these troops a Base Depot for the Corps was established at Camiers in France and a Machine Gun Training Centre was also established at Belton Park near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and it is this latter location that I will now focus upon.

Belton Camp Aerial
An aerial view of Belton Park Camp during the First World War.

The camp at Belton Park came in to being shortly after the start of the First World War when the owner of Belton House, Earl Brownlow, offered the use of Belton Park to the War Office.  A camp was begun in September 1914, firstly tented but very soon purpose built wooden huts were erected.  

Belton Military Camp
A wartime picture of Belton Park Camp showing the wooden huts and rolling stock for the camp’s own railway line.

These burgeoned and the camp became a small town. It had some 840 wooden huts of which 500 were barrack rooms giving it a capacity of about 12,000 men and additional accommodation for officers, although some sources do suggest that the capacity could have been up to 20,000.  It had its own 670 bed military hospital, 5 church rooms, 3 YMCA huts for recreation, a post office, a cinema and its own railway line.  The map below gives an overview, but a more detailed sheet is available from the Belton House website

Belton Map
A map showing Belton Park Camp and giving an idea of its scale.

The camp was initially occupied by troops of the 11th (Northern) Division, then by Pals battalion from Liverpool and Manchester who were part of the 30th Division, before finally becoming the Machine Gun Corps Training Centre on 18 October 1915 when Brigadier General Henry Cecil de la Montague Hill CB CMG took command of the camp.  By November he had 230 officers, 3,123 men, 163 guns, 4 wagons and 60 cooks on site. The camp remained in place throughout the war and was eventually dismantled in 1920.

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One of the three YMCA recreation huts in Belton Park Camp.

Today it is almost impossible to realise that such a huge encampment existed at Belton Park, unless you know about it.  With the dismantling of the camp the land returned to its original use as the deer park for Belton House, and in the ensuing one hundred years almost all evidence of the camp has disappeared. Over the last few years, particularly with the First World War Centenary upon us, some interest has been rekindled in the site. In 2012 Episode 259 of the Channel 4 series ‘Time Team’ conducted an investigation on the site.   The National Trust, today’s guardian of Belton Park, has also undertaken some investigative work to help interpret the scale and size of the camp.

Belton from Belmont Pano
The current view over the area occupied by Belton Park Camp.  The avenue of trees in the centre extends to Belton House and the open areas on either side would have been covered in wooden huts during the First World War.

I personally found out about this camp some years ago and have wandered over the landscape a number of times.  There are just the odd clues to the camp if one looks carefully.  The most obvious of these is a water tank, sited on top of the hill overlooking the camp site, and sitting alongside a much more prominent 18th Century folly.  Constructed as part of the infrastructure to support the camp this simple round tank is one of the last remaining pieces of physical evidence of the camp.

Belton Watertank
One of the few remaining pieces of Belton Park Camp, a water tank overlooking the park which, one hundred years ago, would have been covered on wooden huts and alive with the sound of military training.

As a result it is difficult these days, as one walks in the tranquil park land, to imagine the frenetic building that went on to construct the camp, and then the day to day noise and activity of thousands of soldiers undertaking training.  The sounds of vehicles, horses, the shouting of orders and the rattle of gunfire as hundreds of machine guns were fired on the ranges purposely built for the job, (the target butts for which now form part of the local golf course) must have been constant.

Slide1
Two memorials to the Machine Gun Corps.  Left, a stone tablet on the Lion Gates entrance to Belton Park, Grantham, Lincolnshire.  Right, a modern memorial, based on the Machine Gun Corps cap badge, in Grantham’s Wyndham Park, erected in 2014.

With the dismantling of the camp the town of Grantham returned to peace and quiet, although it has become the home to a number of memorials to the Machine Gun Corps.  The parish church of St Wulfram houses a memorial plaque and book of remembrance, whilst there is a stone tablet commemorating all members of the Machine Gun Corps on Belton Park’s Lion Gates. Finally in 2014 a new memorial, based on the badge of the Machine Gun Corps, was unveiled in Grantham’s Wyndham Park.

Now this story is of course not just about Grantham and its experience of the First World War, nor is it solely about the Machine Gun Corps, there is a wider point here.  It wasn’t just Belton Park that experienced this phenomenon.  There were hundreds of establishments growing up all over the country to house the rapid and enormous expansion of the British Army that took place in the first year of the War, and to deal with the casualties as they returned home. From Salisbury Plain to Cannock Chase, and from Manchester’s Heaton Park to as far away as Stobs Camp outside Hawick in Scotland, military establishments grew up all over the country.  As I postulated at the start of this blog post, it is often easy to overlook the physical impact of the First World War at home, when the scale and horror of the Western Front (or the other theatres of war for that matter) dominate our First World War history and memory.  Thus in this period of centenary commemorations it is interesting, and appropriate, to reflect on how this huge military footprint stretched right across Britain and the impact it had on the local economy, population and landscape throughout the country.

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

 

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.

Review: The Great War 100 Infographic Postcards

postcards-GW100-1024x1024

In my last blog post I touched on the subject of infographics.  By coincidence, this week, a set of ten infographic postcards have landed on my desk for reviewing.  Produced by Scott Addington, and taken from his book ‘The Great War 100 – The First World War in Infographics‘, these cards cover ten of the key battles of the First World War.

The front cover of the packaging in which the cards come describes the contents as:

“Ten Infographic Postcards: Packed with facts, stats and first hand accounts of some of the bloodiest battles in history.”

The first thing I should offer is a brief health warning. These are not traditional postcards. Each is a large 20cm x 20cm square produced on glossy card, with information on both sides.  These are most definitely not designed to be sent through the post!  Rather they are information cards for reading, exploring and displaying.  Each one covers a particular battle/campaign from the First World War: Mons, Tannenberg, Gallipoli, Loos, Verdun, Somme, 3rd Ypres, Cambrai, Kaiserschlacht, Amiens.

Cards All
All ten cards and packaging

On the front of the cards is an infographic of the style found throughout the aforementioned book.  Set on a dark background, there is a location map to put the battle in question in the wider context of the First World War.  Also on the front side are the dates of the battle/campaign in question, the commanders, the numbers of troops involved, casualties and other relevant statistics.

Somme Front
The front view of the Somme postcard.

On the rear of the cards there is a ‘Did you know?’ section which covers some of the key facts and figures about the battle – some providing basic information other a little more quirky.  For example the fact that after the success at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 church bells were rung in Britain for the first time since 1914. Finally on the back there is also a relevant quote from a participant in the battle providing some human colour to the story.

Somme Reverse 3
The reverse view of the Somme postcard.

To set these cards in context it is important to understand Scott Addington’s philosophy in producing them.  He calls himself a ‘layman’ and this is his approach to this project. As he says on his website:

History doesn’t have to be dull. My aim is to write military history books in a lively way that informs and inspires people that have may have never read much history before.  My ‘Layman’s Guides’ military history books are short, sharp and to the point – not chock-full of unnecessary detail that can sometimes overwhelm and confuse readers. Fact books and infographics add a slightly different twist to the telling of history as I try to make the subject more accessible to more people!

With this aim in mind, I am sure Scott would not object to me saying that these postcards do not purport to be extensive histories, nor are they primarily targeted at the expert. Rather they are a collection of key facts and figures that provide an interesting and accessible overview, and a taster to a deeper study of the battles.

Now at £7.99 a pack, I am not sure I see them fitting in the library of a serious student of the First World War – there is so much more detail available in a myriad of other publications. Equally if one has an interest in infographics, and I have to admit I do, then one will probably wish to buy the book which is full of them!  However, as an introduction to the First World War, these cards have much scope to open up the story of these battles to a new audience.  I can see them being very attractive to children and young adults, be it in schools or at home.  Gracing the walls of a history class in school, or the bedroom wall of an enthusiastic young historian, they are guaranteed to grab attention and be a talking point. Indeed had they been around when I was a child they would have been on my bedroom wall!  Equally I can see parents attaching these with fridge magnets to the fridge door, or leaving them lying around, in order to provide an opportunity to stimulate young minds during the current First World War Centenary commemorations.

In short these are an imaginative, attractive and engaging set of cards that will provoke discussion and interest. The selection of facts and figures give a good flavour for each battle. They are thought provoking and will encourage further investigation. And if they encourage those with little understanding of the First World War to engage with the history and explore the subject further, then Scott has probably achieved his aim, and I congratulate him for trying to do so with such an attractive and accessible product.

 

 

 

 

 

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…’.