Sunday, December 23, 2012

Researching With Google Earth – Part One

Google Earth can be a great research tool for writers. You can use it to get a clear visual sense of the places you’re writing about. Let’s take a look at some of the methods to accomplish this (you can download the free program here: 

The Task At Hand

For the purposes of this post, the terrain we’ll explore is Flanders, Belgium, the site of some of the heaviest fighting between German and Allied forces during World War I. Specifically, we’ll be trying to find, and define, a line of nineteen huge mines dug by the British Army, which they filled with hundreds of thousands of pounds of high explosives, and simultaneously detonated under German positions on June 7, 1917.

General Geographic Overview: Let’s start by getting a sense of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Northern Belgium. 

Typing “Flanders” into the Google Earth search box is not productive—it starts to zoom in on a hotel in Brugge. We know from our textual research that the British placed their mines in an eight-mile arc a few miles south of the Flemish market town of Iper (known as Ypres during the Great War). So, type “Iper” into the Earth search box and click go. 

When the map stops moving, zoom out manually to an altitude of about 170 miles (“eye altitude” is shown in the bottom right corner). At this point the image you’re viewing is just plain terrain, revealing few geographic features. We can fix that. On the left hand side of the screen is a menu box. Go down toward the bottom, where it says “Layers,” and tick “Borders and Labels,” “Photos,” and “Roads.” When these items appear you’ll have a clearer contextual picture of the region. You’ll see Brussels off to the east and Dunkirk to the northwest. On the far left, across the English Channel, you might be able to see the White Cliffs of Dover in Southeast England. This, then, is an overview of the area we’re focusing on.

Zoom In on the Action

Our textual research turned up a list of the British mines and a crude hand drawn map of their locations (see the complete list at the end of the post). At the top of the arc the first two, were designated Hill 60 #1 and #2. Google Earth is so smart (well, sometimes at least) . . . if you search for “Hill 60 Belgium” the map will find a location it knows as “Battle of Hill 60.” Zoom in a little more and start looking for a pair of dark blobs that are incongruent with the otherwise verdant, park-like setting. A number of little blue-brown square box icons also appear.

 User Photos

These icons indicate a photograph that has been added by some diligent Google Earth user. Sometimes a site will have dozens of photos, which are very helpful for visualizing what a place actually looks like. Clicking on those squares clustering around Hill 60 reveals several images of what appear to be pleasant little ponds. They are, in fact, the craters left by the British mines when they were detonated that warm June morning nearly a century ago. 

Setting A Placemark

Now that we’ve found these craters, we should mark their locations. Cursor up to the Earth menu bar and click on the yellow pin icon. This brings up the “Placemark” menu. Pick a color (yellow is good), and a size (1.1 is good). This action brings up a pin in a flashing box. Move the pin over to one of the craters. Under “Name” type in something like “Hill 60 #1,” then click OK. That will fix the pin’s placement. Repeat the process for the second crater.

Cross-Country Searching
Our list of mines shows that the next one is near the village of St Eloi. An Earth search turned up a bunch of “Rues St Eloi,” but not a town, so a manual cross-country search is in order. Cursoring around the fields south of Iper you should stumble across “Sint-Elooi.” That’s probably our place. So zoom in and look for a crater. Yikes, there are two. Which is the right one? Helpfully, there’s another one of those photograph icons next to one of them. A click on that reveals our krater. So drop a pin.

A trio of mines is next on the list: “Hollandsches Farm.” An Earth word search shows nothing. So it’s back to the cursor. Start moving cross-country (keeping in mind the mine line was an arc) looking for farms with three ponds. Any number of them have one or two, but they lack the circularity of a mine crater. There are no photo icons to check. Damn.

Back in the first post I mentioned PPIPatience, Perseverance, Imagination. If you’re set on finding the Hollandsches site your search will require all three. But here’s a cheat: find the town of Wytschaete and follow the northwest road about one mile. See the three ponds clustered around the farm buildings? Pin and label these. While you’re there you can count the cows in the fields.

Now the arc of mines takes a slight inward jag. But the pair of craters called “Petit Bois #1 and #2,” are so large they stand out pretty clearly. “Maedelstede Farm” will be a little harder to find – it’s smaller. When you do find it note that the farm road, which was straight before WWI, now has a kink to go around the crater. The next mine, “Peckham,” is larger, and thus easier to find.

Which brings us to the eleventh, called “Spanbroekmolen.” 

At this location the British Army dug a 1,700 foot tunnel under a heavily fortified German bunker, and at the end of it they stacked the equivalent of 200,000 sticks of dynamite. The blast obliterated the fort, creating a crater 250 wide and nearly 80 feet deep. Today the huge hole in the ground is a war memorial, surrounded by thick bands of mature trees and known as the “Pool of Peace.” Notice that there’s also a kink in the road here.

Let’s move on to a pair of mines called Kruisstraat #1 and #2 (there was a #3, but it was filled in years ago). 

While you were visiting Spanbroekmolen you may have noticed that it fronts on Kruisstraat Road. So if you follow the pavement for a ways you’ll find the craters (which their owner now stocks with fish).

If you click on the photo icon at the bottom of the second crater you’ll see this image of old shells. The shifting sands of Flanders are still regurgitating these even now.

What does Kruisstraat look like at ground level? 

Putting Google Earth Street View Through Its Paces

As you probably know, these sets of images derive from a series of photos made from moving automobiles fitted out with 360°-worth of cameras (currently fifteen), and recorded on hard drives. Many locations around the world are covered, but by no means all, so this feature may be unavailable for the places you’re researching.

To get into Street View, move over to the far right, under the compass. There you’ll find an icon of an orange person. Click and drag it to the Kruisstraat craters. You’ll notice as you’re dragging that certain roads become outlined in blue. These indicate where Street View works. No blue, no view. Release the mouse on the road and all of a sudden you’re actually there.

Tip: If you don’t drop the icon on a blue road the “Ground View” mode will activate. This shows a 2D ground-level representation of the aerial map image and, frankly, is not particularly useful for researchers. 

Left click to pan or tilt View, and use the mouse wheel to move forward or backward along the road (no off-roading, yet). The two mine craters are clearly visible along the side of the road.

A 360° pan will help you visualize the area’s topography. With the compass almost due east, on a small rise you’ll see a church steeple. This is the town of Messines, for which the great battle of June 1917 was named. Pan left across the ridge and almost due west you’ll see a tall hill. That’s Mount Kemmel, which was a key observation point for the British Army.

Notice how green everything is. A century ago this entire area was like a moonscape—pounded into a treeless, muddy hell by years of bombardment (just in the week-long run-up to the 1917 battle the British fired nearly three million shells at the Germans emplaced along Messines Ridge).

Continue driving up the road toward the town, but watch out for the cyclist!

 If you’re feeling peckish, View-drive into Messines. In the central Markt square you can grab a virtual lunch at the Café a Centre (the yellow building on the right). The digital waterzooi is reputed to be excellent.

Here’s a Quick Summary of Finding Stuff Using Google Earth as a Research Tool – Part Two

  Creating a General Overview of a Region.

  Using User Photos to see what places actually look like.

  Pinning a Placemark.

  Driving around locations using Street View.

Next time we’ll finish up plotting the mine line with Google Earth, when we cover measuring distances, marking pathways, determining altitudes (and hence, topographic features), and locating places using latitude and longitude. Thanks for tuning in.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the site.

List of British Mines, Battle of Messines, June 7, 1917
Hill 60 #1                     Hill 60 #2                     St Eloi                         Hollandsches #1
Hollandsches #2         Hollandsches #3          Petit Bois #1               Petit Bois #2
Maedelstede Farm      Peckham                     Spanbroekmolen        Kruisstraat #1 
Kruisstraat #2              Kruisstraat #3              Ontario Farm              Trench 127 #1
Trench 127 #2             Factory Farm #1          Factory Farm #2

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