Bringing to life the chilling reality of trench warfare

World War 1 Trench Maps - The SommeThe Dennis Maps staff are used to printing contemporary maps aimed at encouraging people to #GetOutside, or showing landscapes as they are today. A more moving project we carried out last year was the reproduction for Ordnance Survey of four World War One trench warfare maps to commemorate 100 years since the end of the war.

More than 33 million British maps of the Western Front were printed during the war, most by Ordnance Survey. At first they were printed in Southampton, but later concerns about the supply ships being sunk in the Channel led to map production being moved to France.

It’s hard for us to believe today but early in the war surveyors conducted surveys of the area with theodolites and heavy measuring chains. The battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915 was the first where aerial photography was used to update maps.

OS draughtsmen were sent to France to produce maps from the photographs, and place names were anglicised for ease of reading, Ploegsteert becoming Plug Street, for example.

46 women were among the OS staff who went to France in 1918 to set up and man a map printing factory at Wardrecques, which was close to the front line. At its peak it produced 300,000 maps a week, which were vital in the location and destruction of German artillery.

Trench warfare maps WW1Trench maps have standard mapping as a backdrop so at first glance appear completely familiar. But for those of us lucky enough to associate maps with leisure time and finding footpaths, a look at the key is immediately chilling.

The red lines that riddle the French countryside show not footpaths but the German trench system. A thick red line shows ‘any trench apparently organised for fire’, and ‘old or disused [are shown] by dotted line’.

The maps bring trench warfare to life in a way that’s shocking. We can see all the features of the war that have become so iconic, including wire entanglements, machine gun emplacements, mine craters, and listening posts.

After the Armistice was signed in November 1918 trench maps were no longer required, but the factory continued to operate, producing small-scale maps of Germany for the allies.

The four battlefield maps show The Somme (1:40 000 scale), Loivre (1:20 000 scale), Menin near Ypres (1:10 000 scale), and Merville (1:20 000 scale). They are reproduced exactly from originals in the National Library of Scotland, with their original sepia background, and include pencil notes added during use.

World War 1 - The Somme Trench MapsThe commemoration of the ending of the war has shown that 100 years later there is huge interest in the period, and in the sacrifices of the ordinary men and women involved. The trench maps bring an extra dimension to the personal diaries and official regimental records of the time, enabling us to see how the war progressed and to track the movements of regiments and individuals.

We’re sure that the many people whose grandparents and great-grandparents served in the war will welcome this graphic illustration of where they were, and the conditions they endured.

The maps are for sale on the OS site at £9.99 each or £29.97 for the whole set of four (a 25% discount). £1 per map sold will be donated to the charity Help for Heroes.