Pictures of World War I

Each Worth 1000 Words…

Cartographer’s Dream? Almost 33 Million WWI Maps By The Allies Alone

Pictographs say more than words and a map is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional space.

Humans have used maps to find their way around since the earliest time of writing. Spatial imagery was used to see where you came from, where you are and where you are going.  At the beginning of World War 1 the military had “state of the art” maps suitable for troop deployment by land and sea (charts used by the navies). Within a few weeks the Allied Armies and the Imperial German Armies were fighting a war of attrition, trenches had been dug and the Western Front came into being. The landscape was changing and the maps did not represent the new landscape. New maps were desperately needed.

Before the war the major combatant European nations had government sponsored mapmaking organizations that were producing their military maps. These organizations now began to produce new, larger scale, maps that showed ground elevation, enemy defensive positions and the location of buildings, woods, roads, railways and rivers in detail. The maps were also necessary for the artillery to be able to range their guns accurately.

  • Germans – The German Vermessungsabteilungen did their cartography in the field.
  • French – The French Sections Topographique de Corps d’Armée issued revision sheets that updated existing maps.
  • British – The British Expeditionary Force’s trench maps, although drawn in France by Army Field Survey Company draftsmen, were printed in England at the Ordnance Survey (Southampton).

The Ordnance Survey of WW1

The maps that were used in the Boer war were produced by the Ordnance Survey – a British, hybrid military/civilian organization – and so were most of the maps found throughout the British Empire. In 1914 the Ordnance Survey produced trench maps for the fighting front in France at 1:40,000 or 1:20,000 scale using enlargements of the French 1:80,000 maps they already had.

From early in 1915 the War Office produced trench maps for the fighting units at the front. These maps showed the location of front lines, communication trenches, enemy positions, and defenses. They also showed the names of farms, woods and villages. Topographers and surveyors, from the Ordnance Survey and Royal Engineers, with map-making experience, joined the field survey companies in France. By 1918 the Ordnance Survey, Overseas Branch (O.S., O.B.) was established in Wardrecques, near St. Omer, because of German U-boat activity and a possible German offensive, after Russia dropped out of the war. Thus the printing of base maps within France was instigated.
Map-makers were able to make corrections, print and distribute maps from the British rear areas. They had the presses to print large numbers of 1:25,000, 1:10,000 and 1:5,000 scale trench maps (Stellungskarten as the Germans called theirs).There were trench maps, artillery maps (trench mortar and battery emplacements, barbed-wire, trenches, mine craters, and all other details of forward attack and defense organization), enemy battery and targets maps and rear organization maps (railways, roads, hospitals, communications).

By the end of the war the Ordnance Survey had 149 women (46 army auxiliaries) amongst their thousands of staff who produced 32,872,000 maps, plans and diagrams, in England and on 4 printing presses in France!   They also produced the maps used in the other theaters of war within the British Empire, i.e. South Africa.

  • Scale – The scale of a map is smaller when its scale denominator is larger: thus, 1:1,000,000 is a smaller scale than 1:100,000. Printed maps (paper) usually had a title (place) and a key to indicate; what the scale was; what the symbols and colors meant; the grid (division letters and numbers within the map) and orientation (north, east, south and west). North is not always at the top of a map!
  • Deployment – Military deployment is the movement of armed forces and their logistical support infrastructure around the fronts or the world. The ability to produce hand drawn depictions on the printed maps was a necessary craft.
  • Naval Charts – Naval charts are working instruments, maps upon which the ship’s reckoning was kept in pencil and erased after each day. Replacement charts were not readily obtainable, thus attention was given to the quality of the paper on which charts were printed. Thus, printing stock that permitted multiple erasures was used.
  • Photogrammetrist – A Photogrammetrist is a person who compiles original maps from aerial photos. The ability to photograph the terrain and then transcribe the information onto a printed map saw its debut in World War 1.


World War 1 Maps and Cartography Gallery