GIS and Spatial History

GIS and Spatial History

A few weeks ago now our Digital Public History class had an opportunity to visit the Map and Data Centre at the D.B. Weldon Library on the Western campus. There, we were given an introduction to GIS (geographic information system) software, including Story Maps, a series of ArcGIS-enabled applications. Story Maps is a great way to use GIS to tell a place-based story digitally. You can send people on tour across countries or even continents from the security of their own home. There is also a Cascade application which essentially allows the user to create a scrollable website. I started experimenting with this app to build my book website but decided to go elsewhere when I found that it was not meant for commercial use. In the future, I look forward to pulling this tool out of my toolbelt in the service of a different project.

I did not have much experience with GIS before this, but the workshop reminded me of work one of my fellow MA candidates did at the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society back in 2013. Matthew Douglass was studying the New Brunswick Rangers, a support company in 4th Canadian Armoured Division, and its role in closing the Falaise Gap. Matt used a map from C.P. Stacey’s The Victory Campaign, the official history of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, to help get a better understanding of the radius of fire for the company’s mortars and machine guns.

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Image Courtesy of Matt Douglass

Matt notes in his thesis that in spite of the good coverage these weapon systems had, “the various small hills were able to conceal German formations who were able to evade the ever-watchful Allied gaze, though much of their movements were limited to the hours of darkness.” Taking things a step further would see Matt using GIS in the form of topography maps to get an even better understanding of the impact those small hills had. The terrain is a primary document when it comes to military history, and there’s much it can tell us about how events took shape.

This brings up an essential point about spatial analysis. GIS and mapping software are great tools for enhancing the narrative, but they can also be great tools for improving historical analysis. As Richard White wrote in “What is Spatial History?”

[V]isualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.

Spatial history helps historians to pose and answer questions they may not have thought about before. Here are just a few that could take my work on the Allied air forces and the invasion of Sicily further:

  • What were the spatial limitations imposed on Allied fighter cover over the Sicily beaches? How far did they have to travel just to get to their patrol routes and what implications does this have on the fighter cover schedules, which were heavily criticized by the US Army and US Navy?
  • Similarly, what was the actual effect of forcing German and Italian bombardment wings north to central Italy instead of being based nearby the landing zones in Sicily? How many sorties were prevented merely because of the flying distance was expanded?
  • What was the spatial impact of Allied bombing on the Italian railway system in 1943? How long did it take a supply train to travel from Rome into the Italian toe in peacetime and how does this compare with the conditions the Allied air forces imposed? This one would be more difficult because it would require getting hold of the raw data in the form of railway timetables for the locations and periods in question.

For now, I’ll have to stick with using maps to communicate by research rather than enhance it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have engaged an excellent military cartographer for the maps in Eagles over Husky.

Here’s an example:

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Convoy routes for Operation Husky

In chapter two of my book, this map helps readers visualize my discussion of air protection for the various convoy routes involved in landing Allied troops on Sicily.

That’s it for today. We’ve got a busy month ahead in the Public History MA program at Western. I’m most excited for my independent Digital History project, in which I’ll be designing a website to promote my book and a timeline to help tell the story.

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My Nominee for Greatest (Dead) Canadian is Milton F. Gregg, VC OC

My Nominee for Greatest (Dead) Canadian is Milton F. Gregg, VC OC

The History Department of Western University is celebrating its centenary in 2017. One of the events the department is putting on for the occasion is a Greatest (Dead) Canadian Competition. I’ve entered the competition to champion Milton Fowler Gregg for the reasons below.

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Milton F. Gregg, VC

Pro Patria – For Country – is the motto of the Royal Canadian Regiment. My nomination for Greatest (Dead) Canadian, Milton Fowler Gregg, exemplified this creed. He was a war hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, diplomat, and educator who is fondly remembered by small segments of Canadian society and largely forgotten by the rest.

Victoria_Cross_of_canadaGregg owes his original claim to fame to the First World War. He earned the Military Cross & Bar and then the Victoria Cross as a lieutenant and platoon leader in the Royal Canadian Regiment.

In the interwar years, Gregg worked as a veteran’s advocate for the Soldiers Settlement Board and became Sergeant-at-Arms in the House of Commons from 1934 until the eve of another conflict in 1939.

He began the war serving overseas as 2IC of the Royal Canadian Regiment and then as commander of the West Nova Scotia Regiment. But Gregg’s calling was as a trainer of soldiers. In 1942 he was promoted colonel and returned to Canada to command army officer and infantry training schools, preparing young men for the grim task that awaited them overseas. He retired as a brigadier in 1944.

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With the war nearing its end, many servicemen and women used higher education to re-enter civilian life. As President of UNB from 1944 to 1947, Gregg oversaw this effort in his home province of New Brunswick. He was known affectionately by students, staff, and faculty alike as “the Brigadier.”

Next, Gregg found his way back to Ottawa as a Member of Parliament, serving in the cabinets of William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, including two years as Minister of Veteran’s Affairs.

He finished the last decade of his career in various diplomatic posts, helping build on the Golden Age of Canada’s Foreign Relations. He was the United Nations envoy to Iraq, UNICEF’s envoy to Indonesia, and the Canadian representative to the United Nations – though not all at once. As a capstone to his career, Gregg was awarded the Order of Canada near the time of his retirement in 1968.

v309_20060122_badg_royaThis great Canadian passed away on March 13, 1978, at 85 years of age. Milton Fowler Gregg is fondly remembered every year at a small Remembrance Day service in Snider Mountain, New Brunswick. The Royal Canadian Regiment sends a small detachment from CFB Gagetown, and the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at UNB usually sends a representative. Last year it was my honour to be there.

In war and peace, Milton Gregg exemplified the value of service to his country and the world. I hope our honoured judges will give him due consideration as the Greatest (Dead) Canadian, and that everyone will take some time to remember the Brigadier as I will this Remembrance Day.

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Gregg’s gravestone at Snider Mountain, New Brunswick

Bomber Command and the Canadian War Museum

Bomber Command and the Canadian War Museum

I was a little frustrated after Public History seminar today. We ran out of time when it came to discussing the Bomber Command controversy that consumed the Canadian War Museum one decade ago. This is a topic that I’m highly passionate about — in fact, I see the commemoration of the RCAF in Canada as a potential PhD dissertation topic. So I wanted to vent my frustration here on my blog for all to see!

no6_hq_crestHere’s a brief backgrounder on the controversy, for those who aren’t aware. The Canadian War Museum was preparing a new exhibit in their Second World War gallery on Canada’s contribution to the Combined Bomber Offensive. Nearly one-third of airmen who served in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War were Canadian. This included men who served in one of 15 squadrons as part of No. 6 Group, a uniquely Canadian formation, and those who served with British and other commonwealth squadrons. Approximately 10,000 Canadian airmen lost their lives serving in the formation during the years 1940-1945. Museum staff, in the course of putting together this exhibit, consulted with veterans, some of whom took issue with the following text panel entitled “An Enduring Controversy”:

The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead, and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.

The above was originally situated at the end of the exhibit, and followed another panel called “Bombing to Win.” This panel described the Allied strategy behind the bombing war and provided what could be considered a more balanced assessment, noting both the civilian losses and the military value of these raids.

Unfortunately for the exhibit, the context didn’t matter a whole lot to many Canadian veterans. Some were concerned that the text above painted Bomber Command veterans as war criminals. The resulting backlash led the museum to have four independent historians review the exhibit. All four agreed that the exhibit was commendable, although two of the four did offer significant criticisms (both were mainly concerned that this final panel tended to favour one side of the debate over the other).

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A Handley Page Halifax of Bomber Command over its daylight target

The museum felt that this was enough to conclude that no further changes were necessary. They were concerned that giving into the veterans would censor history. Yet the public backed the veterans over the scholars: a Senate of Canada sub-committee eventually forced the museum to make changes to the exhibit. The offending panel, retitled “The Bombing Campaign,” now reads:

The strategic bombing campaign against Germany, an important part of the Allied effort that achieved victory, remains a source of controversy today. Strategic bombing enjoyed wide public and political support and a symbol of Allied resolve and a response to German aggression. In its first years, the air offensive achieved few of its objectives and suffered heavy losses. Advances in technology and tactics, combined with Allied successes on other fronts, led to improved results. By war’s end, Allied bombers had razed portions of every major city in Germany and damaged many other targets, including oil facilities and transportation networks. The attacks blunted Germany’s economic and military potential, and drew scarce resources into air defence, damage repair, and the protection of critical industries. Allied aircrew conducted this gruelling offensive with great courage against heavy odds. It required vast material and industrial efforts and claimed over 80,000 Allied lives, including more than 10,000 Canadians. While the campaign contributed greatly to enemy war weariness, German society did not collapse despite 600,000 dead and more than five million left homeless. Industrial output fell substantially, but not until late in the war. The effectiveness and the morality of bombing heavy-populated areas in war continue to be debated.

The text of this new panel is, in my opinion, better than the text of the original panel, if one treats the original panel as if it were in isolation. Everything in that first paragraph of text is historically accurate — although that 600,000 number (which is also in the newer text) is an estimate that typically includes non-Germans, such as the over 100,000 French and Italian civilians killed by bombs dropped by both sides, and even the British who suffered some 60,000 dead for the war. The real line that I would take issue with is the final one, “the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.” (A variation of this line also makes it into the second version, although it is well-qualified by what comes in the lines above.) It’s not that it isn’t factually accurate — because it is. It’s just that there’s more to the story.

To assess the effectiveness of the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO), the Americans established the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS). Two members of the USSBS were John K. Galbraith and Burton Klein, the director and deputy respectively of the Overall Economic Effects Division of the survey. Galbraith found that based on quantitative production indexes for primary types of armaments, German production actually increased until late 1944. For him, the CBO did not have a significant effect on Germany’s defeat.

Klein took a different approach. He took the same raw data as his director but asked a very different question. What were the secondary effects of Allied bombing on German industry? As it turns out, the CBO had forced the Germans to pool their resources behind the manufacture of air defences — day fighters, night fighters, flak guns and their ammunition, radar networks and other high-tech devices — instead of tanks and other armaments that could help Germany on the battlefield. Perhaps the CBO had helped speed Germany’s defeat. Even an authoritarian regime run by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis couldn’t stand by while its citizens were being killed in the country’s great cities.

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Dangerous Moonlight by Nicolas Trudgian

There’s another important point here. Galbraith may have been right that German production didn’t decrease until late 1944, but how much did the CBO help in limiting what increases were made? Without the bombing, how much higher would the German production figures have been and how much longer would it have taken the Allied armies to defeat these forces on the battlefield?

In my estimation, the “An Enduring Controversy” panel, when placed in the context of the rest of the exhibit (including the “Bombing to Win” panel) succeeds at including both sides of this debate. However, on its own, this panel doesn’t provide enough context for the reader to make up his or her own mind.

Ultimately, however, my opinion that the second panel is better matters little. What matters is that certain veterans managed to galvanize popular support in such a way that forced an academically sound (and arguably balanced) display (when viewed as a whole) to change because it might force people to deal with uncomfortable truths.

This is one of the best things about studying history. Canadians should be aware of Canada’s role in Bomber Command so that, as citizens, we can each decide whether we support sending the RCAF abroad to conduct bombing missions. Bombing may help end a war sooner, but are we okay with the consequences that go with that? Hopefully, there will never again be a scenario where the deliberate targeting of civilians becomes an acceptable military strategy. History’s value to society isn’t creating a common narrative that we can rally around. History’s value is to give us knowledge so that we can improve as a people.

Thinking about One Day in August

Thinking about One Day in August

You’d think that a span of nine days including two weekends, Thanksgiving Monday, and Western University’s inaugural fall reading week would be relaxing. That’s ample time to rest and recharge for the sprint to the Christmas break, right?

Alas, the work of a graduate student is never done. I’m buried under readings (fancy that — it’s reading week) and 56 midterms that need to be marked by next Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I felt that I needed to post something in here, even if it’s just a brief reflection on something that stood out to me in the last few weeks. So here goes.

One theme that’s emerged recently with Charlotte Gray‘s visit to Western for the Goodman Lecture Series is the tension between history written inside and outside the academy. I prefer the terms popular and academic history — some use public history for the former, but I feel that public history is a separate field within academic history that encompasses the popular in many applications.

Anyways, this year’s Public History MA cohort got to sit down for lunch with Mrs. Gray, who argued in her lectures that academic and popular history have — or at least ought to have — a symbiotic relationship. You know, what then-Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi told the Gungan leadership in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace:

You and the Naboo form a symbiotic circle, what happens to one of you will affect the other, you must understand this…

The tension between public and academic history — or even just established history and recent discoveries — is real. Here’s an example, one I ran by Charlotte Gray at lunch.

In 2012, Historian David O’Keefe and his team produced Dieppe Uncovered, an hour-long documentary on Operation Jubilee, the infamous raid on the north coast of France that became Canada’s single worst day of casualties in the Second World War. The docudrama’s “cutting-edge research has uncovered new information that may change history books and the perception of the Dieppe Raid.” Check out the trailer below.

Just to get my bias out of the way, O’Keefe is a colleague of mine who I admire quite a bit. But I was very skeptical as I watched the film air on History Television for the 70th anniversary of the raid in 2012.

one-day-in-augustO’Keefe followed this up with a 2013 book called One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe. It was a national bestseller and was nominated for many Canadian literary awards that year. It was well-received by the book-buying Canadian public. The book was also a pleasure to read. It is organized more like a mystery novel using real historical evidence than a typical monograph with the thesis and supporting arguments stated up front.

Yet responses in the established historical community in Canada were largely negative. Popular Canadian military historian Mark Zuehlke, writer of the Canadian Battle Series of books (including Tragedy at Dieppe) had a lively debate with David O’Keefe on a CBC Radio One program back in 2013. They debated whether or not the intelligence-gathering mission was the driving purpose behind the operation. Canada’s leading military historian, Tim Cook, took issue with O’Keefe’s conclusions in The Necessary War, volume one of his recently published Second World War series:

But while the operation was expected to provide valuable information to assist in breaking the U-boat codes and gaining an upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic, the failure of the Royal Navy to devote any of its large ships to the Dieppe operation would suggest that this stealth raid did not matter as much to the navy as some historians have sensationally claimed — going so far as to argue that the entire Dieppe raid was but a cover for the commando pinch. It was not.

That’s a fairly blunt appraisal.

Here’s my question. Should Professor O’Keefe (he teaches at Marianopolis College in Westmount, Quebec) have written an academic article, say in Canadian Military History, before taking his findings to the public? Arguably his chosen course — a docudrama and then a mystery-style non-fiction book — doesn’t make the evidence he presents as accessible to scholars for their review. However, in doing so, O’Keefe may have been scooped, and his work may not have reached the broad audience that it did. For me, this is a Catch-22 — you’re damned if you go about it either way.

This leads me to a second question. Shouldn’t we be able to trust the Canadian public — or at least those interested enough to watch the film or read the book — to make up their minds about the raid? Perhaps not, if we consider that the vast majority of Canadians don’t have much in the way of historical training. Or perhaps so, if we consider that the Canadian public is as highly educated as it’s ever been in history.

What do you think? Leave me a comment below. As for Charlotte Gray, I can’t remember her response… as I said, it’s been an exhausting week.

milton-greggIn other news. This year is the Western History Department’s centenary, and they’re hosting some great events on October 27th to celebrate the occasion. One of these is the Greatest (Dead) Canadian competition. My nominee is Brigadier Milton Fowler Gregg, VC PC OC CBE MC ED CD.

Gregg died on 13 March 1978, aged 85. He was a war hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, diplomat, and educator who is fondly remembered by small segments of Canadian society and largely forgotten by the rest. He was an incredible leader and manager who applied his administrative skills to make Canada a better place.

My First Podcast – Fortress Malta with Mackenzie Brash

My First Podcast – Fortress Malta with Mackenzie Brash

I did it! I finally produced a podcast of my own. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since Angus Wallace of WW2 Podcast interviewed me about my master’s thesis in 2015.

The episode I produced is called “Achilles’s Sword and Shield: Fortress Malta in the Second World War.” It’s part of a series of podcasts called PubHistoryPod, which my classmates in the Western University Public History MA Program in History and I are completing as part of our Digital Public History course.

Tune in as I examine the most bombed place on earth with the help of my guest, Mackenzie Brash. Mackenzie is a fellow Public History graduate student who took a year abroad as part of her undergraduate program at Western University. I’ve read about the Siege of Malta extensively, but I’ve never visited the island, so I’m excited to get Mackenzie’s insights on the experiences of those who endured the war there.

Give it a listen:

The resources Mackenzie and I mentioned:

Dennis Barnham, Malta Spitfire Pilot: Ten Weeks of Terror, April-June 1942 (2013)
James Holland, Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege, 1940-1943 (2004)
James Holland’s The Battle for Malta (2013)
National War Museum (Malta)

Reflecting on my work to produce the podcast, I realize that I’ve learned some lessons. First, try not to record yourself when you have a cold – when you do it sometimes sounds like you’re underwater. Second, try to record using the same equipment whenever possible. I interviewed Mackenzie using the really nice mics in our Digital History Lab at the university, while I recorded myself on a computer headset. While the computer headset is adequate, it has a different sound than the lab mics, making editing a bit more time-consuming. I hope to find ways to use this developing skill to promote my own work, Eagles over Husky, in the future.

Finally, I’d like to thank my classmate, Mackenzie Brash, for agreeing to the interview in the first place. I haven’t known her long, but Mackenzie’s passion for the Maltese experience in the Second World War easily rivals my own for the Battle of Sicily in 1943. The survival of Malta made the invasion of Sicily possible and ultimately accelerated the defeat of the Axis powers. Thank you for helping me tell that story, Mackenzie. I wish you all the best in Malta this summer as you follow your dream!

PS: I apologize if I am difficult to hear during parts of the interview. I amplified these sections, and they sounded good with headphones, but I should have upped the volume even more. Cheers.

Coolthentic Call of Duty: WWII

Coolthentic Call of Duty: WWII

I’m a gamer. I’ve played video games since I was in elementary school, spending my free time with titles like Medal of Honor, Battlefield 1942, and Call of Duty. Like the rest of these franchises, Call of Duty started as a first-person shooter set during the Second World War. I fondly remember running and gunning through levels as a paratrooper in the American 101st Airborne Division, a British Special Operations Executive operative, or a Russian conscript. In recent years, Call of Duty has opted to showcase modern or even futuristic warfare. However, following the recent success of Battlefield 1 set in the First World War, Call of Duty has returned to its roots with their 2017 title – Call of Duty: WWII.

The games have changed a lot since the first Call of Duty title released in 2003. Where there were once two game modes (campaign and multiplayer), there are now three with the addition of Zombies. I’ll be focusing primarily on the campaign mode for this post. Here’s a snippet from the game’s marketing:

Call of Duty®: WWII tells the story of Private Ronald “Red” Daniels, a young recruit in the U.S. First Infantry Division who experiences combat for the first time on D-Day, one of the largest amphibious assaults in history. After surviving the beaches of Normandy, Red and his squad will fight their way across Europe, engaging the enemy in iconic battle locations such as the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, as they make their way into Germany.

If you’re more of a visual person, check out the Official Call of Duty: WWII – Story Trailer below.

On September 18th, the game launched its marketing campaign, ‘Welcome to the Frontlines (Mission Briefing): A Week of Intel.’ I was browsing Twitter when I came across this Tweet by British military historian, Jonathan Ware:

Jonathan took issue with an image that features one of the game’s characters, Major Arthur Crowley. In the image, his file states that he joined the BEF in 1938. The BEF is the British Expeditionary Force, the name for the British Army in Western Europe in 1939-1940. Arthur Crowley, therefore, could not have joined the BEF in 1938. A better background would have him joining the British Army in 1938, perhaps indicating that he served with the BEF during the Battle of France in 1940. Jonathan is right. Small details like this aren’t hard to get right. So, I asked myself. Did the developers employ an historical consultant to help them be faithful to the past?

It turns out that they did. Call of Duty: WWII employs American military historian Martin K.A. Morgan. Morgan has extensive public history experience, as a park ranger and museum professional with publishing and broadcasting credits to his name. As part of the game’s marketing campaign, they also released the short documentary, ‘Brotherhood of Heroes.’

It’s a video focused on how the game developers want to honour the past. They want the player to “have a strong understanding of what happened and what the time was like.” This begs the question. Are video games entertainment, or are they education? Perhaps they’re edutainment?

For me, the video was interesting in a few ways. First, coupled with the story trailer above, it really does illustrate how compelling video games can be. Adam Chapman, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg and author of Digital Games as History, notes that “these games have similar potential to historical film and television, they can easily communicate a lot of visual information about historical environments and artefacts and they add life, movement and colour to history in a way that can be very engaging.”

Second, I found it interesting that while Morgan introduces the D-Day landings in Normandy as a multinational, coalition operation involving 14 different nations, the developers chose to focus on an American story: Omaha Beach. Omaha Beach is a compelling story, but it’s been done so many times. It’s featured in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and in past Call of Duty and other video games. Since the developers are mostly American and their primary market is an American audience, this makes sense, but I still feel it’s a missed opportunity to focus on parts of history the general public is less familiar with. After all, there were four other beaches in Normandy: Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword. At least the game is dealing with the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, which often gets forgotten in the shadow of the Battle of the Bulge.

Third, I’m not comfortable with the glorifying message near the end of the doc. Freedom from oppression and the greatest generation are terms that get thrown around rather liberally. I personally do believe that those who served the Allied cause saved the world, but the cost was immense! Furthermore, as Jeff Keshen’s book Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War suggests, our history is much more complicated than the simplified notion of good versus evil. The same goes for the United States, where African Americans like the Tuskegee Airmen had to overcome segregation and prejudice to fight for their own country.

Lastly, Morgan and the developers entirely refrain from referring to the enemy as Germany. Instead, the enemy is Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. It’s not even Nazi Germany, my preferred expression. For me, only speaking about Hitler and the Nazis without mentioning Germany tends to sanitize the war and misses the fact that much of German society supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and his government’s war effort to the end.

Am I nitpicking? You tell me. I will say this: Chapman is right. Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers (2001), and Call of Duty were all experiences that helped increase my interest in the Second World War and ultimately inspired my path to becoming an historian. The ability for these visual mediums to convey personal stories can make them enthralling experiences. I, for one, am excited about Call of Duty: WWII’s November 3rd release date. In fact, I’ve already got the game pre-ordered. Maybe I’ll have more to say about the subject then.

In related, personal news, there’s an initiative that I get involved in every year that’s related to this subject. On November 4th, I’ll be playing games for 24 hours to raise funds for sick kids at my local children’s hospital! This year, I’m supporting the Children’s Health Foundation in London, Ontario. Please support me by making a donation at THIS LINK. I’ll likely be streaming my play online, and my focus will be games with historical settings such as Call of Duty: WWII or Assassin’s Creed: Origins.

Assassins-Creed-Origins

The Value of Digital Preservation

The Value of Digital Preservation

One of the things I love about the Public History program so far are the connections I’m making between our in-class discussions and my experience as an historian. This week in Digital Public History we discussed digital preservation and crowdsourcing, two methods that when combined well can result in real value creation for future historians and researchers.

IMG_20170920_213723_274Earlier this week I had the pleasure of returning to my academic roots at Wilfrid Laurier University, just down the road in Waterloo. The Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) was hosting a public lecture by Professor Terry Copp, one of Canada’s leading military historians. Terry – an old mentor of mine from my undergraduate days – gave another of his brilliant talks, this one providing context to the events portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster film, Dunkirk.

I hadn’t visited LCMSDS for years, and it was great to reconnect with old friends, make some new ones, and reminisce about my time at the centre. In summer 2012, before heading to Fredericton to commence my Master of Arts in military history, the centre gave me a job! Terry employed me as one of a number of undergraduate students who assisted with the Second World War Air Photo Collection digitization project.

The collection is mainly composed of aerial photos of Northwest Europe (Normandy, France; Belgium; and The Netherlands) taken by photo-reconnaissance Spitfires in 1944-1945. These photos were then sent back to the Air Photo Interpretation Section for analysis and were used to help cartographers create maps for First Canadian Army. After the war, the collection found its purpose as an educational aide at the air photo interpretation school in Rivers, Manitoba. Then, when the school closed in 1971, the photos were sent to the Canadian War Museum. The museum did not have adequate storage space for the 300 boxes of approximately 130,000 photos. In 1985, Professor Copp secured permission to move the photos to LCMSDS.

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Fast-forward nearly thirty years later. While the collection was in good shape, there was no telling when it might start to deteriorate. In 2011, the centre began a project to digitize the entire collection with the backing of a number of private funders and some student elbow grease. By June 2012, around the time I started scanning, 30 percent of the collection was digitized. Our goal was to hit 60 percent by September. In the end, the project took until August 2013 to complete. Today, the result is a searchable online database with plenty of applications.

For instance, in 2010, Mike Bechthold used the photos to help illuminate the fate of Worthington Force. During the Battle of Normandy, Worthington Force was a combined infantry-armour task force from 4th Canadian Armoured Division. The force got lost while driving to its objectives on 9 August 1944. The photos allowed Mike to piece together what happened to the Canadians as they were isolated and destroyed by superior German forces.

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I used the aerial photos to help understand what happened to the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada weeks before on 25 July 1944. The photos confirmed some of my previous research and led to new questions about how much information the Black Watch officers had when making decisions on that fateful day.

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The centre is also working on a crowdsourcing follow-up project whereby interested parties can help them to identify photo boxes by their geographic location. Furthermore, there is an ongoing effort to couple the centre’s photo collection with maps to create a geographic information system (GIS) to understand better the terrain faced by First Canadian Army during the campaign to liberate Northwest Europe. As Terry Copp demonstrated in Fields of Fire (2003), even small gradient changes in terrain can have a big impact on the battlefield.

I’m looking forward to future returns to Waterloo and LCMSDS as their Military History Speaker Series continues this fall.