Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Mapping the First World War
The Great War through maps from 1914 to 1918
Peter Chasseaud Collins/IWM 7 November 2013
A chunky volume, written by Dr Chasseaud in an erudite , if overly academic, prose style. As an historian of military cartography, he is writing about his metier. He sheds light on the often overlooked Field Survey Battalions which produced many of the maps that are the core of this book. Whilst they had plenty of raw geographical data in Western Europe, their challenge was to capture on paper the constantly developing trench systems of the enemy and their defences. Although aerial survey was a great facilitator, but it was not always feasible. On the Eastern Front, and the Balkan and Mediterranean theatres, the hazards might have been less, but the underlying geographical data was more slight.
Apart from aiding the general staff in strategic planning, maps were of course essential for two main roles. Firstly the planning and execution of infantry attacks at company level so that junior officers could brief their troops. And secondly for planning and controlling artillery barrages. It was in WW1 that fire control methods evolved quickly, and better methods of survey and cartography enabled pre-registering of guns so that the start of a barrage created maximum surprise. Maps were also essential to show enemy artillery positions for counter-battery work.
Apart from military maps, Chasseaud also incorporates many of the maps published by both sides for their civil populations to show how the war was progressing (or not). The author does not content himself with explaining the evolution of military cartography. Essentially he tries to describe every evolution of the war, (at one point stepping back to 1912) and there are quite detailed descriptions of the major campaigns, so it attempts to be an all-enveloping history of the war, which I remain to be convinced is a sensible objective. This text does not always tie in with the accompanying maps.
Chasseaud underlines how the Sykes-Picot agreement in the Middle East was a dishonourable episode for GB, its ramifications lingering still. I was struck by how British High Command ignored the effects of terrain and artillery in its deployment of the Tank Corps. The Germans fielded a barrage prior to the battle of Verdun with guns at an astonishing density of 150/mile.
There are as many photos as maps (the IWM has a rich archive), and in several I was struck by how it was difficult to tell if a soldier was dead or merely exhausted. There is a particularly grim photo of a gas attack, whilst the most moving map is at the book’s end – a 1:40,000 map of the Ypres – Passchendaele area showing the number of corpses retrieved in 1918-19 in each 500 yard square box. The families of the many British soldiers who died in the last six weeks of the war will be grieved to learn that the Germans actually asked Wilson (the US president) for an armistice on October 3.
With the proviso of the niggles (see box), this is an impressive volume which will grace the shelves of any student of WW1.
As with Simon Forty’s book (but to a much lesser extent) some maps are too small to discern much of value.
I would have preferred some smaller tactical maps to show how the Army in the field operated.
The (too ambitious) narrative loses its thread from time to time.
And there are occasional examples of slack editing: we are told for example twice in one column of text that Britain “was very much the junior partner” (in its relationship with France).