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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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.

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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.