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.


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:

1 - Husky convoy routes and landing beaches FINAL

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.