Friday, May 22, 2009

The spatial and war

Spatialworlds website

Picture descriptions:
Left image: Using telescopes in the trenches at the Newfoundland Memorial site.
Right image:Using modern spatial technology on the battlefield.

Amiens, Belgium: N: 49º 53.506' E: 002º 18.561'

Mapping our ANZACS

For many years we have spoken about how GIS technology is a product of military necessity. Whilst this is true for modern spatial technology, the historical importance of maps and spatial skills became very obvious to me when I visited the battlefields of France and Belgium in April this year. As part of my job I am fortunate to be involved in organising the South Australian Premier's ANZAC Spirit School Prize. This prize involves 6 students being selected to visit the battlefields of Europe and enact commemoration ceremonies at the graves of soldiers they have investigated. As part of the tour a military historian traces the last days of the soldier's life and this is where the skills of mapping and spatial thinking became so obvious. Despite not having GIS and GPS, the military strategist and commanders of the Great War needed high level spatial skills (and geographic naturally) to interpret maps and landscapes. Questions they would have frequently asked when looking at their maps and observing the landscape would be: where is the highest point, what is the line of sight for a location, where would a bombardment land, what is the aspect and gradient of a slope, what is the vertical exaggeration of the topography, where are the transport routes, how can we get water supplies to the soldiers, where are the natural barriers, what is the shortest route etc. The interesting thing is that these life and death spatial decisions were carried out with just maps,telescopes and basic aerial photography. How many lives could have been saved with the accuracy of modern spatial technology! Or would they? Even the best locational intelligence needs good decision making by commanders!
One of the thrills I had when in London at the Royal Geographical Society the same week was to view the original Gallipoli maps used by the British and Turks. The detail of the maps and contour intervals used by the Turks and British was startling and highlighted the importance of appropriate map making and usage. For example the Gallipoli landscape looked more gradient friendly on the British map with larger contour intervals than the smaller contour intervals of the Turkish map. If I was an Australian soldier using the Turkish maps I would have realised very quickly that the cliffs were imposing and next to suicidal for attacking (if they could read the map in the first instance!). With these thoughts in mind, maybe one can say that an army marches on its spatial knowledge as well as its stomach!
As you can see in the photographs above the students were required to read original battlefield maps as they followed the journey of the soldier to his death. A great example of the integration of history with geography in the field. Although difficult for the Australian geography classroom to get to France to undertake the fieldwork, such techniques could be a useful virtual fieldtrip for a combined history and geography class. Why not use the following website resources to research a fallen soldier and get some World War 1 maps for the activity.
Soldier records at:
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission at for details on the European war cemeteries and graves in France.
World War 1 maps at:

Increasingly maps and spatial simulations are being used to explain chronological events. Here is one on the progress of World War 2 in Europe.

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