Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/May 2013/Op-ed

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Military history tourism

Tourists inspecting a disappearing gun at North Head, New Zealand
By Nick-D

I enjoy travelling and have an interest in military history, and try to combine the two whenever possible. While I haven't gone to any adventurous locations, the search for war-related stuff has taken me well off the usual tourist paths. The following are some thoughts on why I like to do this, and some suggestions for other editors.

Why do it?

There are lots of reasons to travel to look at military history-related stuff. Mine include:

  • To see items I can't see in my home town I live in a city with a world-class military history museum, but it's only focused on the history of my country and doesn't have many large items on display. To see ships and exotic aircraft I need to travel.
  • ...including historically important items Despite the easy availability of high-quality photographs, there's nothing like seeing in person an item that played an important role in military history. While things you can walk around on or through are extremely atmospheric (HMS Victory at Portsmouth being my all-time-favourite), simply viewing historically significant items is a real thrill.
  • To be exposed to other perspectives Each country presents its military history in different ways, and displays in museums and monuments provide a valuable perspective on this. For instance, the way in which German military history is presented at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin and the excellent Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden provides a fascinating insight, the Verzetsmuseum in Amsterdam does a remarkable job of illustrating the difficulties of life in the Netherlands during World War II (including the compromises and tough moral choices people needed to make), and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Yūshūkan illustrates the differing view of World War II in modern Japan.
  • To see how geography influenced battles I'm fortunate enough to live in a country with few battle sites (the often obscure and generally forgotten sites of the Australian frontier wars excluded), so most of my experience in visiting battle sites has taken place overseas. In my limited experience, these are rewarding destinations for military history tourists as seeing the geography of a site often provides instant explanations for why battles turned out the way they did. For instance, I never understood why casualties were so high at Omaha Beach until I visited it in 2011; upon seeing the way that the heavily fortified hills dominate the beach it quickly became clear why the landings were so bloody. Similarly, catching the train along the coast from Hiroshima to Kure helped me understand why the difficult geography of the region complicated the Allied air attacks on the remnants of the Japanese fleet in 1945, and visiting Fort Sumter made it clear why it was such a strategic, but vulnerable, location.
Bolts and rivets intended for TSR-2 aircraft at the RAF Museum London's giftshop
  • To understand the historic role of the military Military history sites that haven't seen battle also have much of interest. The impressive fortifications at North Head in Auckland and various locations around Sydney provide powerful reminders of how vulnerable these isolated cities were to naval bombardments until the 1940s (especially as the grand strategies for their defence were dependent on ships sailing from the United Kingdom to reinforce the local forces!). Similarly, the surprisingly large and (by Australian standards) very old facilities at Anglesea Barracks in Hobart and Victoria Barracks in Sydney illustrate the important role the British Army played in the development of early Australia.
  • To take photos This is pretty self-evident: I enjoy taking photos of things, and you need to get pretty close to them for this to be practical!
  • To see the country Travelling to a military history site can be a great way to get off the beaten track and see things few other tourists see. For instance, I saw a reasonable chunk of the Netherlands from the train between Amsterdam and the Dutch Navy Museum in Den Helder, had my only experience of American suburbia to date while travelling to Fort Ward near Washington DC, and found the views from Königstein Fortress to be even more spectacular than the fortress itself.
  • To collect material for Wikipedia articles I haven't ever actually gone out of my way for this (yet?), but I have taken photos of sites and items and also purchased books while travelling with an eye to future inclusion in Wikipedia articles.
  • To buy unusual military related things I own a Vauban fortress key ring, a battleship Yamato fridge magnet, and a small chunk of the Monument to the Battle of the Nations (being sold to fund its restoration), and am still kicking myself for not buying a BAC TSR-2 rivet when I had the opportunity. Enough said.

Some advice

There's lots of good general travel advice at Wikivoyage and in guidebooks, but looking for military stuff (or any other specialised form of tourism) can require some extra work. Based on my experiences, I'd suggest the following:

  • Research your destinations before you leave It's best to arrive with a good idea of what it is that you want to see. Tourist guidebooks often note major military history related sites (I've found the Lonely Planet books to be particularly good in this regards), but not more specialised sites. Local tourist websites can provide pointers (look for sections on local historical sites), and of course it's a good idea to research the area in serious history books. If your interests are highly specialised, remember to check specialist websites as well.
  • Have at least a rough idea of how you'll get there Especially if you're travelling in a country where you don't speak or read the local language. Military history stuff is often off the beaten path for tourists, so you can't count on there being signage or good public transport. When I was in Japan someone recommended that I visit the battleship Mikasa at Yokosuka - I was keen, but I couldn't figure out how to get there (it turns out that it would have been really easy if I'd had a basic street map of the city). Do research before you leave home home, figure out roughly how long it will take to get around and take maps of the routes to things you're considering seeing.
It's generally a good idea to obey local warning signs such as this one at Fort Ward, Virginia - though they don't always make sense
  • Look for local resources Local tourist information centres and museums often have guidebooks or pamphlets available for sale which can't be obtained elsewhere, and these can help you out. As an example, the shop in the Mémorial de Caen has an excellent range of guidebooks on sites related to the Battle of Normandy.
  • Consider guided tours There are a huge range of military history tours available these days, and when they're well done they're worth every cent. These range from epic multi-week tours to short guided walks, and a competent guide will point out things which you would have never seen without their expertise.
  • Don't expect everything to work out perfectly Sometimes it rains, sometimes you miss the train, sometimes you'll travel to find the thing you want to see is closed or under restoration, sometimes you'll strike the staff when they're having a bad day. When this happens try to make the best of it, or hurry off to do other things. Don't stick around and get bored or grumpy.
  • Take photos of the labels to items in museums Often I just photograph the item thinking I'll remember what it is and why it's important, but I rarely do.
  • Keep your eyes open If you're familiar with what military architecture and the local style of war memorials look like, can recognise modern military equipment and look for street signs you'll probably stumble across sites you were unaware of, or see interesting military hardware drive or fly past you at some point.
  • Stay safe Some former battle sites are still littered with live munitions (e.g. El Alamein) and in some jurisdictions you're not allowed to take photos of military sites - for instance, it's apparently illegal to photograph The Pentagon in Washington DC, and in some countries taking photos of the wrong thing can lead to you being arrested as a spy. It goes without saying that you should also stay well away from active war zones!

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  • Out of curiosity, what is it about military history in particular, as opposed say to social or political history, that attracts you? Nev1 (talk) 22:55, 23 May 2013 (UTC)
    • Probably the dramatic side of things - military history tends to involve big events happening in short timeframes. I'm also quite interested in social and political history, and have traveled well out of my way to see sites relevant to those areas of history. Nick-D (talk) 10:10, 24 May 2013 (UTC)