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War Map: Pictorial Conflict Maps 1900-1950

John Bull and his Friends: A Serio-Comic Map of Europe John Bull and his Friends: A Serio-Comic Map of Europe Fred W Rose/The Map House
29 Sep
A new exhibition at The Map House reminds us how important maps have historically been in communicating stories of international warfare

It’s hard to comprehend now quite how little information regarding world news people had at their disposal a century ago. Newspapers did a valiant job of keeping their readers informed, but otherwise people would have had little more to go on than mere guesswork.

Hence, the power and popularity of the war/propaganda map. It’s almost possible to understand why many conflicts were (initially) so popular, with all the unsubtle and cartoonish imagery paraded around on all sides. This latest exhibition, a project by a team of experts from London’s Map House, displays iconic war maps from the early 20th century – covering such conflicts as the Boer War, the Russian Civil War and the two World Wars – and allows us to try to imagine quite how powerful such artworks would have been.

Using animals was extremely popular, and the same ones came up frequently. Octopuses were particularly effective, their legs capable of illustrating visions of a country (such as Germany, Japan, or Russia) reaching out far from home and interfering (or worse) with the affairs of other nations. It’s powerful symbolism, and difficult to forget. Spiders were able to deliver the same message, and both Britain and Germany could often be seen depicted in this fashion. A Europe of fighting dogs (Johnson Riddle & Co’s Hark! Hark! The Dogs Do Bark! from 1915) is able to utilise classic tropes such as the British bulldog/German dachshund/French poodle (and, as is more often than not the case, even in an image dominated by dogs, Russia is still a bear).

As can be expected, perspective shifts are dramatic. German posters warning of Britain’s frenzied appetite for imperial colonisation (such as Eugen von Baumgarten’s L’Entente Cordiale also from 1915) stand in sharp contrast to British posters where the tough yet disciplined Britain stands firm against the marauding attacks across the continent by German forces (as seen in Frederick W Rose’s John Bull and his Friends in 1900). The juxtaposition of how differently the same situation can be read would almost be comical, were it not so tragic. Satire is a tool artists clearly particularly enjoyed using, especially when playing with national stereotypes (‘neutral’ Switzerland trying to read the newspaper and ignore the surrounding chaos is one such example, ‘treacherous’ Ireland sneaking up on Britain while his back is turned is another).

War Map can present a fun game for the visitor: who made each map, for whom, and to convey what message? Language is often a dead giveaway, certainly at who the audience is supposed to be. However, it requires properly unpicking the message contained within to understand what the purpose of the map was supposed to be, and therefore to reverse-engineer the situation to a point where it is possible to say who created it. From Britain to Russia, Japan to America, everyone was working the same angles: gaining sympathy amongst the general public of your opponent, or simply maintaining it amongst your own (or your allies) – a vital cog in the machinery of warfare.

From every side, these maps make war seem horribly inevitable – illustrating, as they do, how such a glut of proud, strongly nationalistic and militarily impatient empires were rubbing up against each other a century ago. And while most people would (hopefully) not wish to return to a time of such ignorance as that which created the wars of the early 20th century, it’s hard not to wish modern geopolitics had a little more of the artistic flair, imagination and creativity that War Map depicts.

War Map: Pictorial Conflict Maps 1900-1950 is available to view at the The Map House until 18th November. The affiliated book War Map by Philip Curtis & Jakob Søndergård Pedersen is now on sale.

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