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Mapping the First World War

Simon Forty

Conway, Anova, November 2013

ISBN           9781844862184

There are those people who like maps, and those who are left cold. I am in the first camp. So, with a burgeoning interest in WW1,  I eagerly awaited this book. Sad to say, it left me disappointed.

 

The author, Simon Forty,  did his undergraduate degree in Slavonic and East European studies. One of the volume’s strengths is that it encompasses many  fronts other than just the Western Front, which is the  epitome of the war for most Britons. There is perhaps an over-compensation in this volume, giving too much attention for most readers to obscure Eastern European battlefields. I was however fascinated by two maps of the Middle East annotated by TE Lawrence.

 

Mapping starts with a lengthy yet largely lucid prose introduction, which sets out the geo-political scene.  There is a touch of repetition about the various empires of the major powers.  But other than that it covers the ground well if in dry fashion. Forty makes the point that most Commonwealth countries that served Britain so well in the later years, only started out in 1914 with little more than a home defence force. Talking of which, a major niggle I have with this book is that defence is spelled in the American fashion – why for goodness sake?!

 

The meat of the book is the maps. And the book’s major flaw is that they are usually shown in minuscule fashion so that it is impossible to read the detail. I find tactical maps of WW1 vintage to be the most interesting, but there are relatively few of these; most are post-campaign analysis of a particular battle. The barrage maps were moving – showing waves of intended  shelling clumped like tightly packed isobars on a stormy weather chart.

 

There is too little interpretation of the maps. An exception being one of the strategic maps that shows the Third Battle of Ypres, where Forty notes drily that the campaign (which advanced the front by all of five miles) cost the lives of 320,000 Allied soldiers, and 200,000 German.  Some of the post-war analysis charts (mainly of tonnage of shells used) are as interesting as the maps.

 

One wonders about Forty’s qualifications to write this book when an obvious error leaps from the page. One (p113) is entitled ‘RFC in France, August 8, 1918’. Most WW1 historians acknowledge that the RAF was formed on April 1, 1918! Indeed, peering into the detail of that map shows clearly the RAF (sic)  HQ at St André aux Bois.

 

Overall I cannot recommend this book – it is missed opportunity. I should like to compare it with the other book which has recently been published on the same topic – this time by Collins in partnership with the IWM.