But the many maps in Peter Chasseaud’s book reveal not just some of the underlying causes of the Great War but indicate its progress: these are maps that chart history as it happened and, as such, were as much tools for the combatants as documents for the historian.
So, a map showing ‘enemy aerial activity’, its battle-line overscored with pencil scribbles indicating the passing of reconnaissance aircraft overhead, spoke volumes to those on the ground: when the sorties flew deeper than usual over the front line it was an indication of an impending attack. Another, overprinted on an Ordnance Survey base map and not intended for public consumption, shows the routes taken by German bombers over London and the Thames Estuary, indicating where defences were most needed. (A fascinating aerial photograph shows what these defences consisted of: it pictures one of London’s seven ‘balloon aprons’ – a kind of netting, held aloft by barrage balloons.)
Other charts present entire histories in themselves. The Stanford map ‘The Naval War in the North Sea’ attempts an overview of a theatre of war, depicting minefields, war wrecks and the locations of destroyed Zeppelins, alongside potted biographies of major combatants. That could lay claim to being a permanent record, while others are necessarily contingent: a German trench map of Tarnopol was, the author notes, ‘corrected to 18 November 1917’. A different day would have told a different story.
As the war’s centenary approaches, there’ll no doubt be a wealth of fresh perspectives offered. Chasseaud’s book, with its sober analysis of the major battles seen through the prism of the chartmaker’s art, may be among the more unusual volumes on offer.
MAPPING THE FIRST WORLD WAR: The Great War through Maps from 1914 to 1918 by Peter Chasseaud, Collins, in association with Imperial War Museums, £30