Chasseaud: Mapping the First World War

November 21, 2013

9780007522200I’ve always been fascinated by maps, for as long as I can remember, and will happily pore over an interesting one for ages: there are lots in this new book. Maps can present information so clearly, or conceal it, and these reveal aspects of the First World War that I hadn’t really realised, or thought about. There are hundreds of maps, on a wide range of scales, from different sides and at different points in the conflict; certainly there are more maps than text overall.

The devil is in the detail: how colossal, and how intricate the trench systems were on all sides, and not just on the Western, but on the Eastern front, too (and this last I’d never been aware of, somehow vaguely thinking that in the East there had been a war of movement), and in the Balkans and Italy, and in the Middle East. You may know that it was the First World War, but the maps make one aware of this in a way that text cannot… Similarly, the intricate, even mind-numbing detail of the planning of bombardments, and attacks and offensives, so many of them failures and bloodbaths… patterns of firing for artillery down to the tiniest detail.

The sense of waste, of pointlessness, of futility is unavoidable: how could people have succumbed to the madness that let them order men to burrow into the ground and live like animals, and be slaughtered, and for four years? Once again I was confronted with the impossibility of understanding, and the sense that really, we are not a very intelligent species.

The book is very well-written: the author is an expert in his field and this is clear through his selection of maps, his analysis and the judgements he makes. It is well worth the time and effort if you are a map obsessive, and already know the basics about the war.

The final map is the most sobering: a pencil-annotated map of the Ypres area made after the ‘clear-up’ after the war; the number of corpses finally collected is marked in neatly, for every 500m square. Shocking.

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