MAPPING THE FIRST WORLD WAR
The Great War Through Maps From 1914 To 1918
By Peter Chasseaud
Published by Collins
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
We’ve already seen a number of general histories of the war and there will be many others in the year ahead. Whereas the others rely heavily on photography this one tells the story through the medium of maps. The author is an authority on the subject and has brought together a fascinating selection to illustrate it. I’ve got another of his Great War books and can vouchsafe that his attention to detail is immense. Perhaps you’ve been down Rats Alley or marvelled at the Topography of Armageddon yourselves.
I like maps and have shelves of things from here, there and everywhere and this sort of book is right up my street. The selection comprises a wide range of cartography showing the major fronts through a variety of sources. There is a superb mix of official and commercial examples, especially some of the more colourful – in every sense of the word – published by the media. You can almost see armchair strategists sticking little flags in them as they followed events. The scale of some of them, no pun intended, is really impressive.
The thing about maps is, aside from their practical value, many of them make for great art. A plan of the Battle of Jutland really caught my eye and I’d love to have it on my wall. The map of Plugstreet Wood allows us to follow the present day paths into that terrible place, where a clutch of war cemeteries are situated. Even nowadays, going in there is a challenge thanks to the swarms of insects happy to feast on you.
There are lots more like this. They fix a time and place as well as any photograph and I envy the skills of the cartographers. Imagine the huge amount of work that went into the trench maps we can now access via Linesman and other resources. The risks taken by aerial photographers along with the surveyors and other specialists all combined to make these wonderful things. Commercial maps are sometimes more fanciful, but they are superb pieces of history in their own right. They help to tell the story of the war in a different way than we are used to and I welcome this because so much of what we are seeing follows a well worn route.
Bringing all these elements together in one book is a fantastic idea. Dr Chasseaud’s text tells the story in a straightforward way and the maps and photographs add to the mix. Putting the emphasis on cartography tells us something else about the war. Many newspapers of the period, the broadsheets especially, did not run photographs and maps were one way to bring the drama of the conflict home. In our twenty-four hour news soaked world this might seem very odd to a lot of people, but there you have it. The book confirms maps as the vitally important historic documents they are. I wouldn’t expect anything else from a cartographer like Dr Chasseaud, but he has done us a service by producing a fascinating and entertaining book. In getting involved in this project the Imperial War Museums show there is much more to their archives than we perhaps appreciate. It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.