Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Thing With Maps

We all like a good map. Well, I know I do. Maps are great. You can look at them and think “Oooh! I could do that battle. I’ve got hills/roads/rivers/bridges. I could set that up no worries”. Or something similar.

Good military history books need good maps. It’s all very well to write “The 5th Division suffered repeated attacks from enemy forces in the vicinity of St Thomas d’Eglise before support arrived from the direction of Marieberg" if you don’t know where any of these places are. References to the importance of river lines and bridges and reverse slopes and so on are all very well but I really feel the need to see on a map where these places are and where we think the troops were.

I’ve been reading a lot about 1914 recently, and frankly I’m disappointed. I have to own up and say I do not know much about the geography of Alsace/Lorraine or the battlefields of 1914, so perhaps I’m expected to know where everywhere is, but I don’t and I suspect I’m not alone. The quality of maps is frankly very poor.

I have a few very basic requirements when I buy a military history book in respect of maps.

  1. I expect there to be maps. If the book is about armies moving through a landscape then maps are an absolute must. If the book is about, for example, the development of artillery less so.
  2. If a book has maps then all the named places in the text should appear on one of the maps in the book. I have personal experience of this when I edited Ian Russell Lowell’s article for the “Call it Qids” game we did for the Society of Ancients. If he mentioned a place I made him put it on a map. If he couldn’t put a place name on a map then he wasn’t allowed to use it.
  3. Maps need to show differences in height where this is important. Actually, no. They should always show high and low ground. Contours are ideal but not essential.
  4. Units should be clearly marked on the maps. If different units fight over the same area on different days, then repeat the maps.

With some books I’ve had to resort to reading them with my Times World Atlas by my side, and even then that’s not always completely helpful and in any event I can’t take it on a train with me for my morning commute.

Of course the writer might not have enough information to fulfil my requirements. In which case I say to him or her – go away and research it until you do. One of my other pet peeves is that a lot of writers will tell you what they’ve found out, rather than find out what they need to tell you. As a wargamer when I’m reading I’m constantly thinking of how things would work in game terms. What are the troop types, where are they, what are they armed with, what effects should we be seeing? If I can’t translate that across then it’s an indication that the writer is taking short cuts. Of course it might be that we don’t know, but often it might be the writer either hasn’t done the research or thinks it’s unimportant. If he doesn''t know then he should say. We need rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.

With earlier periods there’s some excuse. The work we have done on the Battle of Northampton and Naseby tells us that the landscape has changed and that in many cases the records are incomplete or contradictory. I think it is the historian’s job to explain the gaps and deal with the contradictions, making it clear that’s what is being done. Otherwise you’re just an archivist.

In more modern periods it is less forgivable. Modern armies keep records, lots of them, and the modern world from the mid-19th century onwards has been very well mapped, especially in Europe.

So, back to my books on 1914. Zuber’s book on Alsace/Lorraine has an honourable stab at getting the maps right through reproducing those in the German Official Histories. Of course the really useful maps were only made available on line, a resource that has since disappeared. His greatest failing in this book is his complete lack of effort when trying to combine German sources with the French. He simply hasn’t bothered, so we have maps with lots of good information on German forces and perfunctory details on the French. However that’s better than his book on Mons where the maps are simply dreadful. They look like they’ve been knocked out by someone with access to a basic line drawing package probably on an Apple Mac.

Or tracing paper and a crayon.

Those in Ian Senior's "Home Before The Leaves Fall" are mixed, but good. Especially those on the Battle of Ourcq. I've recently finished Murland's book on the Battle of the Aisne and the maps there are very irritating. Places not mentioned, troop deployments completely absent. Those in Ospreys tends to be okay, as long as the original research is good.

The best I've read recently on 1914 was a battlefield guide to The Battle of the Marne. Good, clear maps, with unit locations and place names.

But then again, the author has a responsibility to explain and not get you lost. He has to fill in the blanks.

Other writers, please take note.


  1. I;ve run into something similar with the Battle(s) of Tannerberg on the Eastern Front in 1914. Lot's of large scale, strategic maps that are not that detailed, and few to none at a small scale with the sort of detail you describe. It has been frustrating to say the least.

    Best Regards,


  2. I concur wholeheartedly! Especially since I have to read most of my History on a Nook (similar to a Kindle) where even the good maps can be hard to follow as the technology does not allow them to be enlarged!
    Dick Bryant

    1. Yes, you're on a double whammy there, not in a good way. I hjaveo ne or two books on Kindle for reason of price (they were free or 99p) but generally I prefer my history in hard copy format.

  3. Informative maps are crucial for understanding the situation. A pet peeve many of us share.

    1. We should start a "Campaign for Real Mapping". I guess the problem is the cost of finding and paying good cartographers.

    2. I am in! Currently reading Cuccia's Napoleon in Italy and all maps are gathered together in the center of the text. Makes for a lot of page flipping.

    3. If they're good maps, don't complain.

  4. Hear, hear! I can usually glean a lot more information from a series of captioned maps than I can from a chapter of writing. The other annoying thing is when the information on the maps just doesn't correlate with what you've read - units in the wrong place or arrows showing axes of attack that don't seem to go anywhere near the places mentioned in the text.

    1. Quite so. How does that happen? Anyone know a publisher who could tell us???

  5. Most publishers regard maps as expensive extras they can cut. Hence the book I've just read on the Austro-Hungarian campaigns of 1914 published without a single map. Its why Hugh Bicheno, to take a good example, does his own maps to illustrate what he is discussing.

    1. This comes as no surprise. I should imagine a campaign book with no maps must be a challenge.

      I hadn't realised HB did his own maps, although just looking quickly at the Seadogs book I can see his name in the corner of the maps.

      (BTW other readers, this is the Ian Drury who knows of what he speaks on the matter of military book publishing).