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Spaces of War: Spatial Perspectives of Modern War and Conflict, Conference Report

Written by Oliver Parken.

Space plays a central role in the conduct and experience of war. Combat and violence are words which bring immediate associations to physical and imagined space––the First World War and the visceral imagery of the ‘Western Front’, for example. Yet as warfare transformed and expanded during the twentieth-century, so too did its spatial dimensions.  Organised jointly by Oliver Parken and Ellie Matthews, ‘Spaces of War: Spatial Perspectives of Modern War and Conflict’ sought to question the relationship between space and place in the context of modern warfare––exposing the myriad ‘sites’ through which space runs as a conceptual theme for scholars working on modern war and conflict. Although it was anticipated the event would stretch across a range of contexts, particularly in terms of time and culture, the final programme of papers focused on the twentieth-century and the experience/aftermath of the World Wars.

In order to achieve a cross-disciplinary discussion, the event ran across four thematic panels. The first explored ‘Sites of Experience’ within Nazi/occupied Europe. Nigel Perrin (University of Kent) used the example of Parisian cafes (1940–1944) as gateways to exploring connections between everyday life, resistance, and military occupation in intimate settings. Kate Docking (University of Kent) mapped the gendering of medical roles at Ravensbrück concentration camp, highlighting the camp’s place as a site where women’s roles could transcend wider gendered expectations. Daan de Leeuw (Clark University), combined maps with the detailed histories of two Dutch Jewish slave labourers (Levie (Lou) van Coevorden and Sara Kiek) through time and space; focusing on how Nazi policies regarding the allocation of labourers for the armaments industry affected individual lives. Connecting spatial analysis with approaches to ‘everyday life’, life histories, and historical constructions of gender, the panel revealed the significance of space as a conceptual tool in understanding contemporaries’ experience of war and trauma.

The second panel focused on ‘Representations: Visual Culture and Museums’. Jonathan Black (Kingston University) considered the images produced by British artists C.R.W. Nevinson and Eric Kennington. Their depiction of the ‘haunted’, ‘liminal’ world behind the lines during the Great War reveals a willingness to visualise supernatural vistas of war by both artists and official war culture. Peter Johnston (National Army Museum, London) unpacked the challenges of ‘displaying’ war in the context of museums, offering insights into how such challenges can be overcome by curators and researchers. The panellists pulled attention to how ‘space’ is not only depicted within visual culture but is also created when material artefacts of war are put on display––a complex relationship in which historians, curators, and the public are implicit.

The third panel unearthed the more secretive world of ‘Spyscapes, Networks, and Intelligence’. Chris Smith (Coventry University) delved into the memory and mythology around Bletchley Park––a space which, despite becoming synonymous with British military and technological innovation, remained dormant within the popular memory of the war until the 1970s. Geographer and historian Derwin Gregory (University of East Anglia) used maps to assess the global infrastructure of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (1940–1946), pulling localised and national understandings of the SOE into wider, international dimensions. Claire M. Hubbard-Hall (Bishop Grosseteste University) considered the significance of geographic location and its influence on German intelligence organisation and operations during the Second World War. The lack of visible front lines or arenas associated with ‘secret’ warfare was, she argued, what distinguished covert space from overt space. It was this aspect which defined the major contribution of the panel: spyscapes and intelligence networks force the historian to temper traditional readings of visible/tangible space in which war’s place within society, politics, and culture is virtually borderless.

The final panel explored the nexus between space and the memorial/commemorative practices of war. Michael J. Nixon (Oxford University) plotted the ‘emotional landscape’ of South Wiltshire between 1916-2016, highlighting the use of the natural environment as a site for war’s commemoration. Mark Connelly (University of Kent) looked at the Belgian city of Ypres  and its transformation into an extension of the British Empire (1919–1939), paying close attention to contemporary recognition of distinctions between British ‘pilgrims’ and ‘tourists’ and the simultaneous rebuilding (both physically and socially) of Ypres’ landmarks and local communities. Finally, Kyra Schulman (Oxford University) argued for the utility of digital humanities by considering case studies of Holocaust memorialisation through mapping projects. Showcasing a range of digital maps, Schulman highlighted the significance of mapping Nazi occupied cities as a way of re-evaluating places of collaboration, resistance, and persecution. The final panel drew together many of the themes running through the conference as a whole––noting how physical, imagined, and digital spaces provide important sites for exploring tensions between the personal and political impact of war and their commemoration.

The conference keynote, ‘Spaces of War: Associative Meanings’, was delivered by Corinna Peniston-Bird (Lancaster University). Spatial analysis of war, Bird argued, forces historians to consider materiality and location within the context of events (and their representation and memory). Yet the keynote crystallised a broader point running through the conference within the papers––how can historians ‘work’ with space and place, and what methodological tools might they use in relation to the specific contexts of war? Themes and sub-disciplines stemming from the  cultural ‘turn(s)’ such a ‘gender’, ‘memory’, and ‘emotions’ are equally as complex as ‘space’ but feature more developed working methodologies across various sites of war. What might this look like for ‘space’? The answers, it is hoped, will emerge with further cross-disciplinary work on the spatial treatments of war across time and culture.

Oliver Parken is a PhD candidate in the School of History at the University of Kent. He is currently finalising a thesis titled ‘Belief and the People’s War: Heterodoxy in Second World War Britain’ which explores the social workings and cultural shaping of alternative beliefs as part of the wider dynamics of the ‘people’s war’ at the home and fighting fronts.

Image Credit: Bletchley Park by Mike McBey/Flickr, License: CC BY 2.0.

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