A Crisis of Cartography: `Mapping the Western Front in World War I
by Del Kostka
The Great War
When the great armies of Europe converged on the border region between Belgium and
France in August of 1914 they were not concerned with map making or topography.
After all, it was very familiar territory. Just forty-four years prior, the most
decisive battle of the Franco-Prussian War was waged outside the French town of
Sedan near the Belgian border, and every commander in every nation knew by heart
the epic campaign of Napoleon, Wellington and Blucher, and the roads that led them
to a quiet Belgian village named Waterloo. Besides, each side was confident that
this would be a very short war. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, which called for the
invasion of France through Belgium, set a timetable of six weeks for total French
capitulation, and eager British recruits were discouraged when assured that the
war would be over by Christmas. But the Great War would not be quick and it would
not be easy. In fact, it would become a bloodbath of horrific proportions. Before
it was finished over 37 million people were either dead, wounded or had simply vanished
from the face of the earth.
The reason for the unprecedented carnage of the First World War was the technological
development of weaponry in the decades preceding the war. World War 1 was a virtual
incubator of advanced weapons and tactics. The years 1914-1918 saw the first systematic
use of the machine gun, poison gas, flame throwers, trench mortars, hand grenades
and battle tanks. And then there was the artillery; the horrible, viscous artillery
that could pulverize both landscape and flesh from a range that was measured in
miles. Trench warfare and the new weapon systems befuddled military commanders who
spent their entire lives studying classic Napoleonic tactics of maneuver, and soldiers
who left their homes expecting a short and glorious war of conquest found instead
a stagnant, brutal slugfest. World War 1 was a human catastrophe without precedent.
It was also a new kind of warfare where life or death hinged on a little known science
that depicted the battlefield as an interconnected series of geographically referenced
The Mapping Requirements of Trench Warfare
At the outbreak of the war none of the armies that took to the field were equipped
for the cartographic challenge of trench warfare and new weapon technologies. Throughout
the nineteenth century major military operations were based on small scale map products
that best suited maneuver over vast stretches of territory. In fact, many of the
maps used during the initial phase of the war were merely updated versions of the
same 1:80,000 scale campaign maps used during the Franco-Prussian War. These
small scale maps were typically produced by each nation’s state mapping industry
to military specifications. Topography was considered a function of intelligence
at the General Staff level, but the armies themselves had no resident map-making
capability, and there was no prophecy of having to re-map any portion of the well-documented
The first indication that World War 1 would be fought according to a new set of
rules occurred shortly after the first major engagement of the war. In early September
the combined French and British forces stopped the German advance at the First Battle
of the Marne. The Germans withdrew across the Aisne River in eastern France, stopping
on a high plateau with a commanding view of the river valley and the low-lying countryside.
On the evening of September 13, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed the
Aisne River under the cover of darkness, but as the sun rose the BEF found itself
a very conspicuous target on the broad Aisne floodplain and was soon subject to
devastating mortar and artillery fire. Unwilling to retreat and with no natural
concealment from the rain of artillery, BEF commander Sir John French ordered the
British forces to entrench across the length of the front. The era of trench
warfare had begun.
Trench Warfare was the antithesis of the classic war of maneuver the armies had
To both the Allies and the Germans the unique cartographic requirements of stationary
warfare were soon apparent. The paramount need was an accurate, large scale map
of the immediate vicinity that depicted the burgeoning network of trenches and the
location of enemy artillery. There was, of course, no possibility of a fresh cartographic
survey given the chaos of the moment, and even if there were there was simply nobody
available to do it. Most experienced surveyors, draftsman and cartographers were
plying their trade in company level artillery survey units. As an interim solution,
engineering units began enlarging the original small-scale campaign maps and annotating
trench details based on simple compass readings and hand sketches provided by aerial
observers. But the original campaign maps had a shortfall that could not be overcome
by even the most meticulous editing; the vintage graphics used an artistic form
of shading called hachures to depict terrain elevation rather than precise contours.
As a guide for tactical planning and targeting, the enlarged 1:80,000 scale maps
were woefully inadequate.
In desperation, staff officers began a frantic scavenger hunt for existing large-scale
cartographic products that could help them visualize the neighboring terrain. In
France, the entire country had been mapped at a scale of 1:2500 for public record
purposes. These cadastral maps included geospatially referenced datum points for
prominent features such as public buildings, churches and crossroads, but most of
the map features were generalized and overall accuracy varied from map to map.
The engineering units also obtained a variety of road maps, railroad profiles and
mine surveys, but in many cases the actual location of a road or railway was found
to be significantly different from its depiction on official plans. The lone
exception to this plague of arbitrary accuracy was a series of maps depicting the
French fortresses that commanded key strategic locations throughout region. These
1:10,000 scale maps were compiled with a highly accurate 5m contour interval to
cover all the ground that might be of importance during the siege of a fortress.
Unfortunately, these maps covered too small of an area to be of any real value.
The lack of accurate large-scale map products drove the BEF to a desperate decision;
they would re-survey, to the greatest extent possible, the territory impacted by
the ever-expanding network of trenches and staging areas. The resulting cartographic
products were to be based on a 1:40,000 scale map series produced before the war
by the Belgian military that covered the entire country of Belgium at 5m contour
intervals. Adoption of the Belgian projection and sheet lines would give the Allies
a consecutive series of maps stretching as far as the German frontier. The task
was assigned to the Royal Engineers who promptly pulled experienced surveyors out
of artillery ranging units to help perform the survey. The project, however,
was rife with difficulty from the start.
First, the improvised field survey crews attempted to compile a traverse network
from known control points depicted on the existing French cadastral maps. Unfortunately,
many of the key benchmark features depicted on the original cadastral maps had already
been leveled beyond recognition by artillery, and those few distinctive benchmarks
that still remained were found to be very inaccurate. The ever changing landscape
was also a problem. As each trench network was expanded and modified, the large-scale
trench maps required constant revision. The survey crews also had difficulty
maneuvering to the required survey locations. Traffic congestion on the roads, a
pitted and churned landscape, and near constant interruption from enemy artillery
all conspired to make the field surveys extremely difficult. As if surveying in
an artillery barrage wasn’t problematic enough, some survey teams even came under
fire from their own forces. In fact, the very first surveyor to start work with
an alidade equipped plane table was promptly arrested as a spy on the grounds that
no one except a German agent would be found lurking behind British lines with such
an ominous looking instrument.
The responsibility of the engineering survey crews ceased at the front line. Beyond
that mapping was carried out by General Staff Intelligence who depended greatly
on existing maps and manual sketches of the enemy trench system provided through
aerial reconnaissance. But the existing maps were approximate at best, and the
quality and accuracy of aerial reconnaissance reports were limited by the observers
experience and artistic ability. The intelligence officers did their best to extrapolate
elevation contours from benchmark features on cadastral maps and railroad profiles,
but it was soon obvious that map compilation where actual survey was impossible
called for expert handling. In July of 1915 the cumbersome and disjointed effort
to map the front inspired the British to establish a dedicated Topographical Section
for each Army.
Maps were everywhere on the Western Front. Here a British officer and sergeant consult
a map, seated on the trail of a captured German mortar.
Mapping from the Sky
The original intent of aerial observation was simple visual reconnaissance. Pilots
and observers would carry note pads to record observations and sketch hostile positions,
but their reports were often met with skepticism by commanders who still felt reconnaissance
was the exclusive domain of mounted cavalry. Then, in September of 1914, an industrious
British observer took his personal box camera along on a mission and took five photographs
of enemy positions. The oblique photographs were grainy and blurred, but on close
examination the prints revealed details about the elaborate German trench system
that would have been overlooked by even the most sharp-eyed observer. The science
of air photo reconnaissance had been born.
Soon, air crews of both sides were using hand-held cameras to record their observations,
but these early photographic efforts only recorded images that were already determined
to be of interest by the observer, so there was no real role for photo interpretation.
In March of 1915 the British unveiled the first camera designed specifically for
air photo reconnaissance. Strapped to the outside of the fuselage, the camera
captured sequenced images of the terrain directly below the aircraft, providing
a platform for more rigid and systematic photo interpretation. Since most trench
construction, resupply operations and artillery movements occurred at night under
the cover of darkness, the great majority of photo reconnaissance missions were
conducted at the first light of day. The long shadows cast by the morning sun also
helped photo interpreters identify and measure features. The abundance of air reconnaissance
missions in the early morning hours was not lost on the fighter patrols of both
sides who also took to the sky at daybreak in order to prohibit access to the airspace
over front lines. Thus the “dawn patrol,” celebrated in movies and literature, owed
it’s infamy to the advent of aerial reconnaissance operations.
The French were the first to recognize the mapping potential of aerial photography.
Their first effort to revise maps from imagery was a manual process to transfer
photo details onto a map framework using mechanical dividers. The Germans developed
a similar technique using a proportional grid overlay on both the base map and the
aerial photo. Prior to World War 1 very few maps included a measured grid, but the
system proved such a simple and intuitive way of determining map location that it
remains a staple of cartography to this day. A third common method of map revision
used an optical device called a camera lucida to project a photo image onto a map
that was mounted on a pivoting board. The tilt and angle of the map board were adjusted
so that known control points on the image aligned with coincident points on the
map. Once the key features were aligned, the remaining photo features could easily
be traced onto the map surface. All of these map revision methods had a major
drawback; since there was no way to determine the exact altitude and tilt of the
camera at the moment of exposure, the resulting map revisions were approximate at
best. Nevertheless, the imagery-based map revision processes were a major improvement
in speed over the laborious surveys.
The success of the photo-based map revision techniques proved the immense value
of air photography, but the evolving requirements of trench warfare soon demanded
even greater innovation from cartographers and topographic units. The proliferation
of specialized, large-scale products such as trench schematics, barrage maps and
communication diagrams soon surpassed the compilation capacity of field survey units,
and the close proximity of friendly forces to hostile targets required a level of
precision far beyond the accuracy of existing map revision methods. The great challenge
facing military engineers was to develop a systematic process that combined the
speed and consistency of photoreconnaissance with the topographic control and accuracy
of field survey operations. But as the engineers soon realized, compiling completely
new maps from air photography implied an entirely new set of complications.
The first basic requirement of aerial mapping was to acquire a series of overlapping
photographs of sufficient scale so that several fixed control points appeared on
each photograph. Unfortunately, the reconnaissance cameras developed during the
early stages of the war were tailored for high altitude operations in order to collect
imagery beyond the reach of hostile ground fire. The camera’s long focal length
provided tremendous detail of features, but the photographs themselves covered a
relatively small geographic area. In early 1917 the British developed a special
camera for mapping operations with a shortened focal length to produce relatively
wide angle photographs. By capturing the same known control points on adjacent
images, a controlled photo mosaic was created that served as the skeletal framework
for a topographic line map. Cartographers added contours to the map by visually
comparing topology on the image with the known datum points. The process required
considerable judgment and experience, but the resulting map was considered to be
a major improvement over any cartographic product of the era.
An air reconnaissance mission in support of mapping operations was exceptionally
dangerous work. Most early photo missions were conducted between 4000 and 5000 feet,
well within range of anti-aircraft guns. An accurate photo mosaic also required
total concentration by both pilot and observer. The pilot had to continually look
from map to ground to instrument panel in order to keep the aircraft on a precise
course with consistent air speed and altitude. Managing the camera was the full-time
duty of the observer, who used a stop watch to ensure the correct overlap of each
exposure. It was extremely easy for an enemy aircraft to sneak up on a pre-occupied
photo reconnaissance aircrew. In fact, over half of Manfred von Richthofen's 80
aerial victories were over observation aircraft.
Despite dangers in the sky and equipment shortfalls, the quality and efficiency
of Allied mapping continued to improve throughout the war, thanks in large part
to the US Army Corp of Engineers. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that sailed
to France in June of 1917 may have been untested in combat, but they boasted some
of the world’s most advanced topographic survey capabilities. The main reason for
American expertise in the subject was the US Geological Survey (USGS), which the
United States established in 1879 to consolidate multiple survey efforts related
to western expansion. The great American west provided the fledgling USGS with an
experimental laboratory and proving ground for cartographic techniques far beyond
the relatively sedate survey requirements of nineteenth century Europe. In January
of 1917, as the prospect of war loomed, the USGS instituted a dedicated Division
of Military Survey to support the US Army General Staff. The Division’s technical
personnel were offered commissions in the US Army Corp of Engineers. Once in
France, these same professional scientists, surveyors and cartographers launched
an aggressive campaign to develop systematic photogrammetric techniques to derive
more detailed terrain data. By the time of the armistice, Allied mapping efforts
included rigid control of contour intervals through stereographic analysis, and
complete uniformity of grid line and symbology along the entire western front.
US Army Engineer recruiting poster, ca. 1917-1919, underscoring the relationship
between topographic survey and aerial reconnaissance.
Topographic Survey and Targeting
The datum collected by topographic survey units at great personal peril provided
essential control points for mapping and advanced photogrammetric applications,
but the overwhelming priority for survey operations in World War 1 was to support
artillery targeting. To really appreciate the importance of artillery on the Western
Front, one needs to understand the incredible advances in artillery technology in
the decades preceding the Great War. Just 40 years prior, the French and German
armies were still using horse-drawn cannon to pound each other during the Franco-Prussian
war. Targeting of hostile artillery was generally accomplished through a time honored
system of flash spotting and sound ranging. As the name implies, a designated
spotter would use a stop watch to calculate range based on the interval between
the flash of the muzzle and the report of the guns. Once the range was determined,
the cannons were aimed entirely by sight, and their stiff recoil knocked the cannon
out of position with every shot. By the later part of the 19th Century, breech-loading
howitzers were developed that could absorb the recoil, allowing the gunners to engage
enemy positions with far greater consistency, range and rate of fire.
Flash spotting and sound ranging remained the principle method of locating hostile
batteries at the outbreak of the war, but the vast range of the new guns added an
entirely new element to the science of targeting. On the rare occasions when a target
was actually visible to the gun crews, range could be determined using an optical
rangefinder. More often than not, however, high value targets such as ammunition
stores, supply routes and hostile artillery batteries were located well behind the
front lines and visible only through aerial reconnaissance or stationary observation
balloons. The German’s were the first to devise an accurate method of targeting
via aerial observation. As early as September of 1914, German reconnaissance
aircraft were flying over British and French positions at a predetermined altitude
and dropping smoke bombs when directly over a target. Ground spotters, who used
binoculars to keep watch on the aircraft, would then calculate range to the target
using the known altitude of the aircraft and its look angle above the horizon.
The introduction of wireless radio transmissions from airborne observers improved
the accuracy of aerial targeting even more, but the reconnaissance air crews and
artillery batteries still required a common frame of reference to coordinate barrages.
This common reference was provided in the form of a battery board.
A battery board consisted of a linen chart mounted on a sheet of zinc to avoid expansion
and contraction due to temperature. The boards were produced by a team of topographers,
draftsmen and intelligence officers who sorted through air photographs, intelligence
reports and field survey metrics to compile the required content for the chart.
One battery board was produced for each specific artillery battery. Each chart included
the precise position of the battery, a surveyed aim point or visual point of reference,
key landmark features and trench locations relative to the battery, and a map grid
to help plot the location of targets. The gun crews themselves would add their assigned
targets, the range to the targets, and the bearing of the targets relative to the
aim point. Determining the precise position of the guns was the job of the artillery
survey units. An enormous number of survey pickets were fixed in connection with
battery survey during the Great War, and few combatants remained busier than the
artillery survey units. Not only did they need to survey and document the location
of each battery and aim point, but also the location of alternate battery positions
and new aim points to replace ones that had been destroyed. Some artillery barrages
were so intense they literally obliterated every visible aim point beyond enemy
lines. In these instances a sun azimuth could be used as an alternate aim point
to calculate bearing to the target.
Counter-battery operations were among the highest priority missions on the Western
Front, with each side aggressively developing ways to locate enemy guns and report
target coordinates to their own heavy artillery units. One of the more novel efforts
was a precise examination of shell craters to determine the line of fire, angle
of descent and range of the gun that fired the round. Another experiment measured
seismic earth tremors. A more advanced and successful method involved electronic
sound ranging to determine the location of enemy artillery. Sound ranging was implemented
through an array of microphones spread over a distance of several miles. As the
sound of a gun reached each microphone in turn, a signal was sent by wire to a central
galvanometer, an instrument used to indicate the presence, direction, and strength
of an electric current. The galvanometer readings where captured on photographic
film where they were measured to indicate the distance and direction to the offending
artillery relative to the microphones. The precise geographic location of the hostile
gun was then calculated and reported to friendly artillery as a map grid coordinate.
When used in conjunction with aerial observation, sound ranging had a near 100%
success rate in locating enemy gun positions.
Aerial reconnaissance and mapping came of age during the Great War. Here, a British
observer adjusts his camera prior to a mission.
Before 1914 the cartographic requirements of entrenched warfare were not realized.
Consequently, the European powers entered the First World War with inadequate topographic
knowledge and no established procedure to create the maps needed to conduct operations
on the Western Front. In response to this overarching shortfall, essential mapping
techniques and technologies developed with extreme urgency. Topographic survey remained
a continuous and indispensible activity throughout the war, but it was the unexpected
alliance of survey with two ostensibly unrelated technologies, the camera and the
airplane, that ultimately provided the timely and accurate view of the battlespace
required by front line commanders and artillery targeteers.
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. “The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century.” PBS.org. Public
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. The Topography of Galgotha: Mapping the Trenches of the First World War.
McMaster University, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2012.
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. Winterbotham, 5.
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. Winterbotham, 3.
. Maps and Artillery Boards, 9
. Winterbotham, 4.
. Ibid., 6.
. Ibid., 6.
. Ibid., 3.
. M.N. Macleod, History of the Fourth Field Survey Battalion. London:
Royal Engineers, June 1919. 41. Web. 21 Jan 2013.
. Winterbotham, 6.
. Ibid., 6.
. Maps and Artillery Boards, 12
. Winterbotham, 8.
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. Ibid., 82.
. Ibid., 88.
. Evans, Nigel F. British Artillery: Maps and Survey. n.p., 17 Dec. 2012.
Web. 24 Nov, 2012.
. Campbell, 88.
. Winterbothem, 12.
. Maps and Artillery Boards, 12
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. Campbell, 91.
. Winterbotham, 14.
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. Winterbotham, 41
. Evans. Artillery Intelligence and Counter-Battery.
Copyright © 2013 Del Kostka
Written by Del C. Kostka. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Del Kostka at:
About the author:
Del C. Kostka is a staff officer at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in St. Louis, Missouri. He has a Masters Degree in Operational Arts and Military Science from the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College.
Published online: 12/01/2013.