University of Nottingham

Militarized landscapes in the twentieth-century: Britain, France and the United States

Project outline

Images of Vietnamese jungles decimated by Agent Orange in the 1960s, and of burning oil wells during the 1990-91 Gulf War have directed media and public attention towards war's environmental impact. Yet even in its preparation, warfare materially and imaginatively reshapes landscapes and environments. This project involved an analysis of the emergence, management and meaning of militarized landscapes. It explored the role of military lands as reservoirs of biodiversity often superior in 'green' value to surrounding non-militarized landscapes subject to intensive agricultural practices and other forms of human encroachment.

Tank training at Castlemartin Range, Pembrokeshire Tank training at Castlemartin Range, Pembrokeshire


Drawing on geography, history and the natural sciences, the project has shown how militarized landscapes have become sites for competing claims and conceptions of landscape and environment, natural value and historical value, and national defence and national heritage.

With the development of increasingly powerful weaponry between the First and Second World Wars, European military organizations appropriated ever more land for training recruits and testing hardware. At present the military is the largest landowner in France, and in Britain the Ministry of Defence controls approximately 1% of UK territory. The status of defence estates as landscapes emptied of human residents and civilian activities has been another central ingredient of the study. The project has also considered the challenges to militarized landscapes from those seeking access and a share of decision making and control. Of special interest here is the interplay between the imperatives of defending the nation and defending nature. The focus on British (Dartmoor, Salisbury Plain, Tyneham, Castlemartin and the Epynt), French (sites in Champagne and Canjeurs) and American (decommissioned weapons manufacturing plants in Colorado) histories brought out both common ground and divergences between national military cultures and the local, national and continental specificity of their expression and impact on the landscape, providing a vital historical perspective on highly topical questions of military power and environmental responsibility.

Project Student Marianna Dudley has completed her doctoral thesis on 'The "greening" of Britain's Ministry of Defence'. Post-doctoral researcher Dr Chris Pearson has explored the militarized landscapes of post-1945 France, whilst the Principal Investigator Professor Peter Coates has examined the conversion of military sites in Colorado into wildlife refuges within the wider theme of militarized landscapes as (surprisingly) hospitable wildlife habitat. Co-Investigator Dr Tim Cole has looked at the consequences of landscape militarization for human communities and the relationship between social and environmental histories through case studies of Mynydd Epynt (Brecon), Imber (Wiltshire) and Tyneham (Dorset).

The MOD's Estates Environmental Support Team (EST) has facilitated a number of site visits by the project team and individuals to experience and learn about the landscape and historical features of the sites, and to consult written records held onsite. EST also invited the team to contribute an article to Sanctuary, the MOD's conservation magazine (published annually since 1976). This has brought the research to the attention of a wider audience within the MOD and conservation organisations. Members of the project team have also engaged with policy-makers and have fed research findings back to site managers.

An international project conference was held at Goldney Hall, University of Bristol in 2008. This venture brought together researchers (25 from seven different countries) in an emerging field for the first time. In addition project team members have presented research at a number of national and international conferences. Militarized Landscapes: From Gettysbury to Salisbury Plain was published by Continuum in May 2010. The collection grew out of the project conference and is the first book to explore the comparative histories and geographies of militarized landscapes, and the environmental history of war and war preparation.

Findings have also been disseminated to non-specialist audiences. Icon Films (a Bristol-based independent film company specializing in history and natural history documentaries) agreed to include a short documentary about the recent reintroduction of the great bustard to Salisbury Plain among the six species it would submit to the commissioning editors of the BBC's The One Show for the second instalment of its series on endangered British wildlife, 'Back from the Brink'. This was screened in January 2009 (audience 5.2 million). News of the project has also featured in the Bristol Evening Post and Times Higher Education Supplement.

Connections have been made to a number of other Landscape and Environment programme projects including the 'Living in a material world: A cross-disciplinary location-based enquiry into the perfromativity of emptiness' network and 'The future of landscape and the moving image' large project.


Ongoing influence

By uncovering this largely untouched area of historical study, the project has provided a vital historical perspective on highly topical questions of military power and environmental responsibility. Findings will play a key role in furthering understandings of the relationship between war, militarism and the environment, raising the profile of the theme among historians, and having potential policy ramifications for the interpretation and management of military lands.

Project work continues to inform postgraduate teaching at the University of Bristol, providing a case study for Public History. The project investigators have made two further successful applications to AHRC schemes: a pair of Collaborative Doctoral Awards with Bristol Zoo, and a Researching Environmental Change (REC) network award entitled 'Local Places, Global Processes' which includes a series of location-based workshops in partnership with the National Trust, Northumbria Water and Somerset County Council/Natural England.

Project web page (live as of December 2013):

Award details

Duration: 2007-2010 (36 months)

Principal Investigator:
Professor Peter Coates

Higher Education Institution: School of Humanities, University of Bristol

Project team:
  • Dr Timothy Cole, University of Bristol (Co-I)
  • Dr Chris Pearson, University of Bristol (PDRA, 2007-10)
  • Marianna Dudley, University of Bristol (PhD)

Selected publications

Publications have included a monograph by the project's PhD student, an edited collection and a number of peer review journal articles:

Coates, P. (2014). From hazard to habitat (or hazardous habitat): the lively and lethal afterlife of Rocky Flats, Colorado, Progress in Physical Geography.

Dudley, M. (2012). An Environmental History of the UK Defence Estate. (London: Continuum).

Coates, P., Cole, T., Dudley, M., and Pearson, C. (2011). Defending nation, defending nature? Militarized landscapes and military environmentalism in Britain, France and the United States. Environmental History. 16: 456-491.

Pearson, C., Coates, P., and Cole, T. (eds). (2010). Militarized Landscapes: From Gettsyburg to Salisbury Plain. (London: Continuum).

Cole, T. (2010). Military presences, civilian absences: Battling nature at the Sennybridge training area, 1940-2008. Journal of War and Cultural Studies. 3(2):215-236.

Coates, P. (2008). Militarized landscapes in twentieth-century Britain, France and the United States. Rural History Today. 14:2.

Coates, P., Cole, T., Dudley, M., and Pearson, C. (2008). Militarized landscapes in twentieth-century Britain, France and the United States. Sanctuary. 37:26-29.


Related links


Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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