Battlefields: Visiting & Learning
By Paul Hamilton
Blog: No. 013 (14/12/18)
Why visit a battlefield?
It could be argued that battlefields are representative of something quite unique. Pivotal moments which Winston Churchill referred to as being the “punctuation marks of history”. Perhaps then, that is why visits to them are so popular. The visitor seeks a sense of place and purpose by ‘walking in the footsteps’ of those who lived and died in what are now (tourist) sites of remembrance and commemoration.
To visit a battlefield, is to try and understand what happened there. Alexander the Great is alleged to have put halt to his march on Asia in order to commemorate the fallen of the Trojan War (Arrian, 1958) at memorials which had been constructed across various battlefields. Also, in the decades after Waterloo (1815), there was a surge in visits to the locale, as well as to sites in South Africa following the Boer War. Presently, Gettysburg has in excess of three million visitors per year (Piekarz, 2007).
What is learned from visiting a battlefield?
Battlefields, although landscapes, tell a story of human interaction. Of people who fought, died and survived there. They are open to interpretation without necessarily trying to be that way. That is why when people visit them, they more often than not want to learn about the people who influenced the landscape, and not the other way round.
Depending upon the landscape however, there can be difficulties with interpretation for visitors. Leopold (2007) described some battlefields as being unable to “speak for themselves”. Which places an onus upon the guide to ensure there is suitable opportunity for accurate comprehension of the location visited. A point also discussed by Ryan (2007) who describes the role of the guide as being directive in that they manage the landscape for the purposes of providing a narrative. However, that does not mean their narrative is unquestionable, history is after all open to interpretation, and to assume a stance of infallibility would indeed be a mistake.
Often, visits to a battlefield are structured in a particular way. Perhaps chronologically or thematically. Either way, the participant trusts the guide will manoeuvre them in such a way that there is optimal opportunity for interpretation and understanding. Participants have limited autonomy for choosing where they go (Iles, 2008). Furthermore, and perhaps contentiously, Lloyd (2009) highlighted that an issue with battlefield tours in terms of their structure and content, is that they are often conducted by educators with limited understanding of military history, or military educators who have little understanding of pedagogy.
Can lessons be learned?
As battlefields are locations of loss and suffering, there are often difficult decisions for the guide to make. Perhaps, none more so than how the truth of events should be told. Pertinent when you consider the explicit or graphic nature of what took place, specific to the site being visited. In discussing this issue (in relation to holocaust education), the United States Holocaust Memorial museum in one of their resources has stated that visitors “are essentially a captive audience. When you assault them with images of horror for which they are unprepared, you violate a basic trust: the obligation... to provide a safe learning environment."
With that in mind, how far can the guide push the boundaries? Zembylas and McGlynn (2010) stated that, “if a major purpose of teaching is to unsettle taken-for-granted views and emotions, then some discomfort is not only unavoidable but may also be necessary.” However, in contrast Short (1998, p. 60) stated that, “...whilst the ethical dimension of inflicting pain has constantly to be borne in mind, [guides] need also to take cognisance of the pedagogic implications of painful material. In other words, they should appreciate the relationship between the infliction of pain and the ability to learn.”
- Arrian (1958 translation). The Campaigns of Alexander. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Iles, J. (2008). Encounters in the Fields – Tourism to the Battlefields of the Western Front.
- Leopold, T. (2007). A proposed code of conduct for war heritage sites. In C. Ryan (Ed.), Battlefield tourism: History, place and interpretation (pp. 49-58). Oxford: Elsevier.
- Lloyd, N. (2009). Battlefield tours and staff rides: a useful learning experience?, Teaching in Higher Education, 14:2.
- Piekarz, M. (2007). Hot War Tourism: The Live Battlefield and the Ultimate Holiday Adventure Holiday. In Ryan, C. (Eds), Battlefield Tourism: History, Place and Interpretation.
- Ryan, C. (Ed.) (2007). Battlefield Tourism: History, Place and Interpretation. Oxford: Elsevier.
- Short, G. (1998), Teaching the Holocaust, In The Holocaust in the School Curriculum: a European Perspective. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.
- Zembylas, M., & McGlynn, C. (2010). Discomforting pedagogies: Emotional tensions, ethical dilemmas and transformative possibilities. British Educational Research Journal, 38:1.
Paul is a History Teacher and Doctoral Researcher.
Follow Paul on Twitter.
Follow Paul on Twitter.