Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

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
2016
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.

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...
    Alien views
    The tabloids would have us believe that immigrants are taking our houses, our jobs, our school places and our hospital beds. But a close reading of th...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Films

One man’s recreation of an epic 1930s survival experience deep…

Books

by Tom Harper • The British Library • £30 (hardback)

Books

by Susan Schulten • The British Library • £30 (hardback)

Books

by Ben & Marina Fogle • William Collins • £20 (hardback/eBook)

Books

by Tim Flannery • Allen Lane • £25 (hardback)

Books

by Keith Wilson • £40 (hardback)

Books

by Gaston Dorren • Profile Books • £14.99 (hardback)

Books

by William A. Ewing and Holly Roussell • Thames and…

Books

by Ben Coates • Nicholas Brealey Publishing • £12.99 (paperback)

Books

by Nicholas Crane • Weidenfeld & Nicolson • £12.99 (hardback)

Books

by Mary Robinson • Bloomsbury • £16.99 (hardback)

Books

by Pieter van der Merwe and Jeremy Michell • Bloomsbury • £18.99…

Books

by Simon Reeve • Hodder & Stoughton • £20 (hardback)

Books

by Michael Palin • Hutchinson • £20 (hardback/eBook)

Films

Powerful expedition film, screened at the 2018 Adventure Uncovered Film…

Books

by Laura Locker and Julia Scheele • Icon Books • £12.99 (paperback)

Books

by Patrick Nunn • Bloomsbury • £16.99 (hardback) • £14.99 (eBook)

Books

by Oliver Bullough • Profile Books • £20 (hardback) • £14.99 (eBook)

Books

by Thomas Reinertsen Berg • Hodder & Stoughton • £25 (hardback)