A war on paper

A war on paper

The UK printed 34 million war maps during World War One. In this exclusive book extract, Dr Peter Chasseaud explains how maps became a vital part of the arsenal

Dr Peter Chasseaud, Artist and writer

Dr Peter Chasseaud

Artist and writer

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mass literacy had become common in Europe and other developed parts of the world. In these areas, more people could read and could also, having studied geography, ‘read’ maps, which they were exposed to in many forms – particularly the newspaper map. They learned to locate themselves on the map, to orientate it, to understand the meaning of scale and conventional signs. The late 19th century had seen a cycling boom and, while car ownership was extremely restricted, the early 20th century was the start of the motor (and flying) age, and special map editions were produced for all of these. In Britain, map-reading of a sort was taught in the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, public school cadet units (the Junior Branch of the Officers’ Training Corps), the Territorial Army and other organizations.

poster map by Johnson, Riddle & Co
A poster map by Johnson, Riddle & Co, 1914 IWM M818

The great expansion of map use was aided by new map-printing technology. In the 18th century and earlier, maps were engraved onto copper plates and laboriously printed by hand on a ‘rolling press’. The invention of lithography by Senefelder at the end of the 18th century led in the 19th century to the mass production of cheap maps. Maps were no longer only for polite society; they were now popular maps, for everyman (and woman).

World War One was an industrial war, a war of material. Millions of military maps were produced during the war, augmented by huge numbers of commercial maps, for politicians, statesmen and diplomats, for military, naval and air commanders and their staff, for junior officers and NCOs (and occasionally every man in a subunit), for administrators and planners, industrialists and businessmen, newspapers and the general public. The result represented an amazing variety of different types of maps – world, national, topographical, naval and air charts, military maps (artillery, trench, traffic, going, etc), propaganda, newspaper and commercial maps showing the war situation, and so on.

Battle of Jutland
Battle of Jutland, Main Fleets Action, 6pm - 8pm, 31 May 1916. From the British Naval Official History IWM MD 13946

The newspaper map, usually simple and crudely drawn, particularly in wartime, had much in common with the propaganda map, which was subject to various conscious and unconscious distortions, just as the newspapers themselves acted (and still act) as vehicles for the political and ideological views and prejudices of their proprietors and their political associates.

Maps were published before and during the war which were overt exercises in propaganda. Governments set up their own departments to control and manipulate information, and propaganda maps were issued to newspapers and also published as posters which could be stuck up where they would be seen by large numbers of people – even in the trenches! Propaganda extended to maintaining the morale of the armed forces, as well as blackening the reputation of the enemy. Both sides printed maps claiming to represent the war aims of their opponents, and their own ‘legitimate’ claims and successes. Particular emphasis was placed on aiming propaganda at neutral states – for example at the USA before she entered the war in 1917.

The French defences of the Fortified Region of Verdun
The French defences of the Fortified Region of Verdun, as they stood on 21 February 1916 at the start of the battle Peter Chasseaud

The war, in every country, saw the mobilization of civil and quasi-governmental organizations such as the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in Britain, many of which had in any case enjoyed close relationships with government before the war. In Britain there were close links between government, military and naval intelligence, the Ordnance Survey, the RGS, the Palestine Exploration Fund and other bodies. There were significant overlaps of personnel and, when it came to the need to expand wartime recruitment, the ‘old boy network’ came into its own. Public schools, London clubs and ‘society’ ensured that the right people slotted into the survey and mapping jobs. The situation was similar in other countries.

The image of generals conferring in rooms whose walls were papered with maps, poring over map-covered tables, expressing their plans with confident sweeps of the hand across the map, drawing bold arrows to push their cavalry ‘through the G in Gap’, long pre-dated WW1 but remains emblematic of that conflict.

German column marching over a shattered battlefield, Marne 1918
An aerial photograph showing a German column marching over a shattered battlefield, Marne 1918 IWM Q 50595/13418

While armies at first only took hand lithographic presses with them into the field, they soon realized the need for mass-production equipment, sometimes, in the case of the Germans and French, in printing trains. Towards the end of the war the Americans were printing maps using lorry-mounted rotary litho presses.

  British 1:40,000 sheet 28 Ypres
British 1:40,000 sheet 28 Ypres, showing the number of bodies collected after the war from each 500-yard map square IWM/WFA M5-000756

Novel methods of distribution were deployed in some cases. In the latter part of 1918, over a million British ‘propaganda’ maps showing the position of the advancing Allied front line, together with messages promising good treatment to surrendering German soldiers, were printed at GHQ in France and dropped by balloon or from aeroplanes over enemy-held territory in France and Belgium.

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As with munitions and other forms of war work in a time of manpower shortage, women were brought in to assist with map production, particularly in the Ordnance Survey at Southampton and its out-station, the Overseas Branch (OBOS), in France. They were mainly employed in feeding paper from the high ‘feedboards’ of the lithographic printing machines into the grippers which took the sheets around the cylinder and onto the inked stone or zinc plate carried on the reciprocating bed of the press.

Map of the Dardanelles Operations
‘The Graphic’ Map of the Dardanelles Operations IWM M.06/253.

These methods were used during WW1, but the great leap forward was the use of aerial photographs to provide some of the control points and much of the detail.

The military map
Before the days of balloons, airships, aeroplanes and aerial photography, let alone satellites, drones, electronic intelligence and remote sensing, the topographical map enabled the commander to form a mental picture of the terrain and, to some extent, to see to ‘the other side of the hill’. The ability to read the map was crucial, as was some system of intelligence to provide him with information about the enemy’s order-of-battle, defences, location, movements, intentions, etc. In the absence of good, existing mapping, Wellington, in Spain, sent out his scouting officers to make the maps (topographical and terrain intelligence) and to gather operational intelligence on the enemy. This intelligence was transferred to the map, as was similar information about one’s own forces, and the plans for battle were made on the basis of this map. This was the case during WW1, and also WW2.

Meuse-Argonne Offensive
Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 1918 from A Short Military History of World War 1, Atlas, US Military Academy, West Point, 1954

The fundamental framework of the topographical map was the triangulation network, built up from a carefully measured and orientated base-line. For example, the first trigonometrical survey (which became the Ordnance Survey) of Britain began in the late 18th century with a base-line laid out on Hounslow Heath west of London near the present site of Heathrow Airport. Precision angle-measuring instruments – theodolites – were used to measure the angles from each end of the base to a series of distant, but easily identifiable, points, such as church spires. This process, known as intersection, fixed the position of these points. Theodolites would then be set up on these points (a hair-raising business) and the angles to yet more points measured.

The Naval War in the North Sea, Stanford
The Naval War in the North Sea, Stanford National Library of Scotland

Battlefield geometry
Topographical maps have proved vital in war, particularly, in the 20th century, for artillery work. WW1 has often been described as an artillery war, and for scientific gunnery maps had to be as accurate as possible. Their underlying and invisible trigonometry and triangulation were made visible in the form of a grid and a dense network of fixed points. For laying out lines of fire, grid north supplanted magnetic north, as the vagaries of compass bearing were replaced by the certainties of bearing pickets (lines of measured bearings actually marked on terrain features) and astronomical observations. These techniques facilitated the widespread adoption of the gunnery technique of ‘predicted fire’, which enabled a barrage to be opened without previous registration of targets. This is why the surveyors were called ‘the astrologers’ by the gunners. Maps and survey became part of an integrated modern weapons system, which in turn constituted a revolution in military affairs.

 ‘Land and Water’ Map of the War
‘Land and Water’ Map of the War IWM M82/567

World War One was, more than any previous conflict, a war of maps. Every country was equipped with appropriate maps for a war of movement, but the rapid emergence of trench warfare changed the nature of the conflict and therefore of the nature of the required survey and mapping; position warfare implied precision shooting on pinpoint targets, and artillery survey became paramount, particularly for the predicted fire which reinstated surprise as a key factor in successful operations. Most survey work was done, directly or indirectly, for the artillery, and as a leading British survey officer (M N McLeod) noted, In the battles of 1918 the gun was king and the theodolite and plane-table its unadvertised but indispensable ministers.

A vertical air photo of the Tank Graveyard at Clapham Junction, Ypres Salient, 9 August 1917, showing the ‘confluent smallpox’ terrain, pitted with millions of shell holes. Tanks circled. Imperial War Museums 13735

In August 1914 all participants entered the conflict with stocks of small-and medium-scale maps with small staffs for distribution but, as the nature of the impending war had only partially been divined, practically no survey support during operations. While France and Germany had envisaged the need for large-scale maps and survey operations for the capture of enemy frontier fortresses, they were not prepared for the semi-siege operations that became the norm. Britain had not prepared in any serious way for siege warfare, and had to adjust more to the new situation. The crucial need for such operational support – particularly artillery survey and air survey – immediately became apparent, and each country began to build up a field survey organization commensurate with the operational requirements.

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German Order of Battle, Western Front, 18 May 1916. British map showing the situation at the height of the Verdun battle. 1st Printing Company RE, Advanced GHQ (2508) IWM 05681

Taking British military maps as an example, the basic large-scale topographical map was used as a background for the overprinting of tactical and administrative information. The most obvious tactical overprint was that of the trenches themselves, both British and German. For the years 1915–17 most British maps, for security reasons, only showed German trenches. British trenches only appeared on ‘secret’ editions, of which tiny editions were printed, mostly for staff use; front line troops rarely saw them. Other significant overprints were ‘hostile battery positions’, ‘barrage’, ‘situation’, ‘target’ and ‘enemy organization’ maps. It was important to show all aspects of the enemy defensive and offensive preparations, so that operations schemes could be worked out, barrages and neutralizing fire planned, and tanks and infantry would know the exact position and nature of the enemy dispositions. On a scale as large as 1:10,000, which was the most common for infantry and field artillery, these tactical features, down to individual machine gun and trench mortar emplacements, could be indicated with precision.

Vertical aerial photograph of German and British front-line trench systems, mine craters and no-man’s-land west of Auchy-lez-la-Bassée (east of Béthune and Cambrin) on 15 July 1915 Imperial War Museums Q 60546
Passchendale Ridge, Secret. Army Administrative Situation Map 1 March 1918, 1:40,000. Overprinted by 5th Field Survey Company RE showing the immense logistical infrastructure required for a modern battle Peter Chasseaud

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