Trying not to point at maps …

by I.A. Isherwood

This week we covered the war in 1915 with lectures dedicated to the war in the west (Monday) and the war in the east (Wednesday). In keeping with earlier desire to break the deadlock (sorry) of map-based military history, I did several things that might prove to help in the future as we develop our own model of liberal arts college student military history.

On Monday we approached 1915 in the west from the perspective of problem solving. Students read Chapter 3 of Michael Neiberg’s excellent Fighting the Great War and then we discussed how generals and their staffs approached the combat realities and challenges of 1915. High casualties of 1914 combined with the increasing reliance on firepower to dominate the battlefield meant that the war in 1915 looked a bit different than the year before. So we discussed how commanders were adapting and trying to find a way of ending the trench stalemate that had come to be on the western front. We looked at three specific battles: Neuve Chapelle, 2nd Ypres, and Loos. For the latter, we also read together some primary source letters from our digital history project,


Sikh soldiers charging German positions at Neuve Chapelle, 1915. (Official British Military painting. First published in “The Great War” Ed. H.W. Wilson, 1916)

This approach proved somewhat successful. The conversation was sophisticated and a lot of students in the class engaged the material. I made use of the white board more than the power-point, which I think made a difference. Though I think it can be a useful tool in (very) small doses, I have been moving farther away from the power point in the last few semesters, and to be honest, I don’t really miss it (nor do I think that students are losing any content by not having me go through the slides). If anything, they seem to pay attention a bit more to what I’m actually saying and engage with it when the screen is gone, but this might be a false impression of mine.

Yesterday things were a little slow. We covered the Gallipoli campaign. The conversation about the strategy and justification for the campaign went really well. Then came the power-point map pointing and things slowed down considerably (the maps, I contend, are a necessity in this case). We then looked at some entries from Aubrey Herbert’s diary to get a feel for the campaign from the perspective of someone who was both on the ground but also in the know. I think in the future, I might give students a writing assignment based on this source; their in class source analysis hit the major points of the selection, but I think reflection would have yielded a better conversation on the material

In-class source analysis is a technique that I really enjoy. Students do a required bit of secondary reading for class and then we look at a source and workshop it. Sometimes students dive into the source and I don’t have to do much framing of the material. Sometimes, I have to really set them up for it.  There is a fine line: one doesn’t want to appear too rigid in approaching materials and I don’t want to insult them by laboriously walking through the obvious points, but we should also get a bit more specific than we do sometimes. So the next time we have a source, I might spend some time discussing the ways historians work with different types of sources and how to get the most out of them.