Topography and military history

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by Cuddles, Jul 10, 2010.

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  1. As a classically trained historian, I always looked on archaeologists as just anther source of primary material! However it has to be said that with each advance in physical sciences, they become more and more useful as both source and interpreters. Unlike their evil rivals the anthropologists, the "archs" have thoroughly bought into the use of technology for interpretation and have produced some tremendous finds as a result.

    The current vogue for the use of topography in particular in re-examing WW1 has been quite an eye-opener. For those of us who were encouraged to read ground from the day we first put up a white gorget patch, this seems a very sensible trend. In fact it is really more of a rediscovery i think, as the military military historians are being replaced/supplemented by the academic ones. The "Two Peters" for example are thoroughly immersed in this now (Barton and Chasseaud) and their work has revealed the flaws in the lions led by donkeys crap - the sheer effort in intelligenc preparation of the battlespace including aerial recce-driven mapping is an indicator of that!

    I am currently getting into Gerald Gliddon's "When the barrage lifts" and I find the topographical take on the Somme fascinating. Anyone who has considered the "ground paragraph" with regard to that series of battles and identified the natural corridors and the way the Germans used them to funnel British attacks...amazing tactical art. Stand in Ovillers and look into the south, down Mash Valley. I would rather have had the Germans role that day - not because of the machine guns and deep dugouts - nice though - but because they had a mastery of the ground.

    Of course while this use of topographical analysis aids the historian, it is obvious that archs are using it to further discomfort the less scientific, all a bit airy fairy, anthropologists. It wasn't until I went to the Oxford University conference last year that I realised archaeologists use the word anthropologist with the same venom and distaste that you or I use the expression "paedophile". Which when you consider how much time anthropologists have spent looking at topless pictures of native women over the decades, they may have a point...
  2. Topography or "Tactical Nonce" "an eye for the ground" is a great asset in a commander. Most" lucky" commanders had it, it's a shame it took so long to be a recognised art of warfare. Cuddles if you ever have the opportunity can I recommend two great examples for you. Agincourt. We had it nailed, great use of the ground, awesome choice of a place to stand and fight.
    Balaclava. Go stand at the top of the valley where the light brigade charged, marvel at the killing ground beneath you, shake your head at the bravery of the troopers who even attempted attacking the place.
  3. I have been walking pre-WW1 continental battlefields for a few years now and I have a much greater appreciation of why historical commanders made the decisions they did. Being able to study the terrain as well as knowing the battlefield situations really adds a new perspective on the commander's decision making process.

    My biggest revelation was walking the route taken by von Bredow's cavalry attack during the battle of Mars-la-Tour in 1870. I had often wondered how he led a brigade past a French infantry division and through a corps gun line without being shot to pieces as happened to the Light Brigade in the Crimea.

    An hour on the battlefield and I was able to see how von Bredow had spotted an approach route in dead ground which effectively hid his cavalry until they appeared out of the smoke about 150-200 metres from the guns.

    Another revelation was visting a battlefield from 1814. Having read how the French guns and cavalry struggled to move along a particular road up onto a ridge, I found the road was in fact still there - however it was only a road by 18th century standards - it was actually a muddy track, about 8 feet wide, through a wood. A few landrovers would have churned it up, let alone hundreds of cavalry and a couple of dozen guns, teams and caissons.

  4. It is remarkable how many people feel qualified to write military history, without making the effort to learn about how soldiers think. the books I read on Culloden were the prime example. Two or three writers failed to understand how the Jacobite left got so close to the Government line, but 5 minutes walking the ground would have made it obvious.

    There may well be a generational problem; when Peter Young was writing, he didn't talk about the ground because some things are just obvious; I suspect the same is true of Richard Holmes. Understanding the landscape and its influence on events should be part of the role of the archeologist; history isn't all recorded in archives in a library somewhere.
  5. As a map collector, I Agree with Cuddles( FFS that must be a First) even when you have a copy of the map used on the day of a Battle walking the ground gives you a much better Idea of the situation, but some of the maps produced are real workes of art> most of mine are far to large to scan,
  6. !667 The Dutch Attack on the Medway,

    Attached Files:

  7. Related I suppose and in more recent historical wars, I am facinated by the sketches and artwork (?) of the Royal Engineers. In particular their role in the early 19 Century expeditions within Africa. Amongst the usual military weaponry and tools of their trade was a paintbox of water colours and brushes to record the territory. Marvellous.
  8. Fang_Farrier

    Fang_Farrier LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

    I remember watching those two guys from GUARD who did the two men in a tench TV show. Did some good work on how ground effected Battle of Killicrankie. Folk had often wondered why the Battle went the way it did when Highlkanders should have received several volleys on their charge. As Highlanders came down hill just as they were entering effective musket range there's a slight dip that takes them into dead ground, once they reappear only time for one volley, Highlanders on them before they can fire second round or have time to fit bayonets which were plug bayonets at time so once fitted no more bang bang. Did camera angles from top of hill and as Highlanders would have seen it on way down.
  9. Fang_Farrier

    Fang_Farrier LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

    Did not Baden-Powell use to disguise his sketches of Boar positions inside patterns on butterfly wings he painted?
  10. Another fine example of Topographicle incompetance must go to Maj.Gen Philips, of the 38th division , because even as a Junior Leader visiting Mametz Wood for the first time ,one could see the total lack of Topographicle awarness by the planners, to send troops into the attack on the" Hamerhead "with an open flank,in full sight of the Machine guns in Flat Iron and Sabot copses, was the action af a lunatic, he was sacked but he should have been shot,it was my Dads only attack his knee was smashed and he was medicaly downgraded to the ASC, probably saved his life,
  11. AlienFTM

    AlienFTM LE Book Reviewer

    I think it was Battlefield Detectives I watched on Discovery a year or two back. They looked at Waterloo. One of the first things they said was, "Forget the topography: the building of the main road straight across the battlefield has totally screwed the eyelines Wellington and Napoleon had." Or words to that effect.
  12. Gremlin

    Gremlin LE Good Egg (charities)

    From what I can recall the road was there anyway, albeit as a farm track. It's a natural route from La Haye Sainte to La Belle Alliance.

    The biggest destruction was the 'shaving' of Wellington's ridge to create La Butte du Lion.
  13. We did a tread about W.Siborne and his model not long ago, I have the book of Letters giving information on who was where on the day
  14. The story of Siborne and his model is absolutely fascinating. I watched the Vimy - Heaven and Hell programme last week and the model for that was pretty amazing.
  15. Battlefield Topography is one of my passions as a guide. I think there is a lot to be gained from drawing on a wiude range of academic disciplines - even anthropologists. ;)

    I belong to the Battlefields Trust and we have just drafted a research strategy that seeks to draw on all relevant disciplines as well as professional and volunteers. We run a programme of walks around the country and are looking for voilunteers who will help to look after local (or not so local) battlefields. Understanding a historic landscape is absolutely key to understanding what happened.

    One of the best examples of topographic incompetence is how thew batlefield oif Bosworth was "lost" between 1485, when everyone knew where it was to the end of the C20th when everyone thought it was in a different place. The answer seems to have been that at some point in the C17th a map maker had added a crossed swords symbol to the end of the place name "King Richard's Field" that the next mapmaker had assumed was the location of the battlefield. Rediscovering the battlefield took a landscape historian to prove that there could never have been a marsh on Ambion Hill and archaeologists and historians working together to find it. Until then trhere had been an assumption that no one had found any archeological evidence of this battle because the evidence would have degraded. Now we know that material is better preserved and can be found if you look in the right place.

    We are extending our reach to support battlefields outside Britian and are working with the owner of Lochnagar Crater as well as supporting the Hougoumonb project. We are working on a project to support local groups in Britian France and Belgium to preserve battlefields for heritage use for lesser well known battlefields in Britian Belgium France and the Netherlands. Here are some for you to think about..

    Hondeghem 1940? Cassel (1041, 1328, 1677 and 1940) Coutrai 1302?- still celebrated by Flanders - Tourcoing 1794?

    We need a lot more members, supporters and money. If you want to help in any capacity do contact us. The UK Battlefields Trust - Home