The Great War has left a colossal legacy of grief. Almost all those who survived the war have now passed away, but their families and friends remember still. In recent years, this has transformed into increased interest in what went on, where it all happened and why. To answer the "where" aspect of this interest, it is helpful to use copies of the actual maps produced during the war.

Many maps are available for viewing at the Imperial War Museum, but now a good proportion will be available for viewing at home. The Western Front Association, the WFA, have embarked on a project to scan all the Great War maps held at the IWM and to make as many as possible available for a very low cost on disc in a project called Mapping The Front.

This project is intended to make maps easily available for public use. There is no bias toward any aspect of the war, as many maps as possible are included so those interested in family history, cartography or military history are all served equally.

Kinds of map in the collection.

Trench Maps:- There are maps of many kinds in the collection. For those interested in finding where a loved one fell, maps called "Trench Maps" hold the best chance of showing the required level of detail. They show villages, roads, rivers etc. overprinted with the vast array of trenches and other features dug during the war. These maps were updated regularly, especially in areas where the most fighting took place, so maps will be available drawn or revised on a date close to events of interest. The maps use a British grid system and detailed help on how this system was used is included on each disc. People studying their family history will find much of use at TNA at Kew, especially their relative's Battalion War Diary which details the unit's movements and locations throughout the war. Many times, map references are included in the diaries, these can be located on the trench maps presented in the Mapping the Front series, allowing a user to find a point within yards. Maps can be printed and personal additions made, so making a visit to the battlefields more interesting and even more poignant. In the past, the accent has been to concentrate on the regular 1/10,000 series of trench maps at the expense of other equally interesting maps, but in the words of Colonel E.M. Jack, a key figure in Great War cartography, "The 1/20,000 was the map commonly used by the Artillery, and as trenches could be shown on it in sufficient detail to be of use to the infantry it was the most useful scale of all, and the one that could least easily be dispensed with.*"  The series of DVDs will include 1/20,000 and 1/10,000 trench maps but will also present 1/5,000, 1/40,000, 1/80,000 and smaller scale maps. (* from the Report on Survey on the Western Front, 1914-1918, published 1920. The whole report is included on every DVD.)

Artillery Maps:- The Great War developed into an artillery war. Long gone were the days when gunners saw their targets over open sights, accurate maps were required, coupled with surveyed gun positions, to hit targets well out of sight. The fall of shot was observed by various means and fed back to the gunners to make corrections, but the business of hitting the target depended in large part on the accuracy of the maps. A good number of these artillery maps are in the IWM collection and will be in the Mapping The Front series of discs, they often show details of a planned "creeping barrage" where artillery was used just ahead of an infantry advance but also show position of artillery batteries etc.

Cemeteries:- the Body density series. This odd term refers to an informal name in use within the IWM. This refers to a set of maps that relate to cemeteries and exhumations. Some in the series show the locations of planned and actual cemeteries and others appear to show the results of exhumation units after the war. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission make a magnificent job of looking after the Great War Cemeteries, but many of the cemeteries there now were made bigger after the war by removing bodies from some smaller ones. Some of the maps in the Body Density series show these smaller original cemeteries as well as the current ones.

General Haig's Maps:- There is a set of maps as used by General Haig, these show the war from a strategic point of view, some showing artillery dispositions across whole battle fronts. These huge maps are shown as a set of tiles, the whole map is far too large to show on screen at once. There is a key map to show how it fits together. There are also maps to show Corps and Divisional dispositions, both Allied and Enemy including exhausted units and other key strategic detail.

Hand drawn maps:- As the process of updating a map was sometimes too slow to match the speed of operations, many maps were drawn by hand or annotated to suit local condition. A number of these are included in the IWM collection and make a fascination addition to the study of the war.

Intelligence:- Many maps show intelligence details, these include secret editions of ordinary maps that include planned operations or details of enemy organisation.

Aerial photographs:- The aerial photographs were taken at great risk to the air-crew (they were the main target of the Red Baron) and were used to update the trench maps, so many include the map grid drawn directly onto the photograph. There are photographs looking vertically downward and others showing the active areas obliquely from low altitude, often taken with the sun low in the sky to throw detail into relief. Nearly all the photographs are from the later part of the war, a few from 1916 but most from 1917 and 1918, reflecting the huge advances in aircraft, cameras and film process facilities built up during the war.

Official History:- Reprints of the Official History of the War have been available for some time as copies of the originals are now scarce and very expensive. Sadly, the maps with these reprints were not in colour so lost a lot of their meaning, those in the Mapping The Front project are in full colour and include the maps for Transportation, not usually seen elsewhere. In some editions of the Official Histories, the maps were printed and bound in the book in monochrome, these are not featured in this project.

Panoramas:- There are some photographic panoramas taken from trench level, showing in amazing detail, the view "over the top". There are also some hand drawn panoramas. One set, in Gallipoli, was made from aboard Royal Naval ships offshore.

Military Situation:- As part of the General Haig series and others, there are maps that show the strategic position, some day by day, others on key dates. They show the location of Corps, Divisions or either side along with progress made in key battles.

Transport etc.:- There are maps that show railways, dumps, camps, roads, motor transport routes, water supplies, tank routes, hospitals, aerodromes and a host of other detail.

Geology:- There is a complete set of geological maps of France. Although published in the Second World War, they are based on French maps and geological data surveyed in the late 1800s, so all the detail was known during the Great War.

Cartography:- At the start of it all in the gorgeous summer of 1914, the maps available to both sides on the Western Front were of very indifferent quality. The Belgians managed to escape the German advance with a quantity of maps and associated lithographic printing stones to print more, but these maps were better suited to peacetime. The early phases of the war involved movement of troops, largely by foot and horse power, the maps proved good enough for this, but when the front settled down to one of static trench fighting and its requirement for accurate artillery, very little of real use was available. Although much was known prior to the war about how to accomplish a supply of good maps, little was actually available for use. Urgent action to remedy this situation was undertaken, by the end of the conflict in November 1918, the accuracy and clarity of the maps was of a standard that rivals modern maps. Improvements had to be made in surveying, printing, supply, artillery spotting and aerial photography. The collection is a good source of information to allow a close study of the development of cartography in the Great War.

Index maps:- A comprehensive set of index maps in included on each disc, showing how the sheets in the collection fit together to make the whole front.

Non-British maps:- There is a selection of French, German and Belgium maps at he IWM although the set is not complete. One German map appears to show where two very large calibre guns and their associated observation post in a church tower were located, NE of Ypres and is presented like the huge Haig maps, in tiles.

The series

Each disc follows a theme or location. Locations will include the Somme, Ypres, Arras, Lens & Loos, Gallipoli, etc. usually organised around the British map sheet numbers, e.g. sheet 28 covers much of the area around Ypres.

Other themes will also include Cemeteries on the Western Front, Haig's personal maps, cartography, transport, tanks, artillery, light railways and many others. The project involves the scanning of the whole of the IWM's collection of Trench and Great War maps. To date 6,000 maps and 1000+ photographs have been scanned in high resolution but several thousand maps remain to be scanned. We hope to be able to publish the majority in the future.

Each DVD will contain:

  • Maps.
  • Aerial photographs (where available).
  • A standard set of index maps.
  • Help on how to read the military maps of the period.
  • Other contemporary and modern documents of relevance or interest such as the ‘Report on Survey on the Western front, 1914-1918’.

The first 6 DVD's in the collections are:

  • Ypres - This double DVD set contains maps and photographs relating to Army map sheet area 28.
  • The Official History Maps - This single DVD contains the Official History Maps.
  • General Haig's Maps - This single DVD contains a quantity of Haig's Artillery Maps.
  • The Somme squares 57C & 57D – This double DVD set contains maps and photographs relating to the northern and middle parts of the battlefield.
  • The Somme squares 62C & 62D – This single DVD contains maps and photographs relating to the southern part of the battlefield.
  • Gallipoli – This single DVD contains 300+ maps of Gallipoli and the water colour “Sketches made at ANZAC” by Sapper H Moore-Jones NZ Engineers.

Discs coming soon will include the rest of the Somme battlefield, Arras and German maps. Shortly afterwards, the area around Loos and the area between Ypres and the sea will be added.


See more at The WFA SHOP

Using the discs

The discs are readable on almost all computers regardless of operating system, so Vista, Windows XP, Mac, eeepc, linux based machines etc. are fine. The reason is that no specific software is required, the discs contain images file and users are expected to have sufficient knowledge to open and view such files. For convenience, a copy of erviewer is on each disc, the latest version of this file viewer is also available free of charge from They have kindly given us permission to include their software, but please take careful note of the viewing instructions.

Whether your interest in The Great War is family history or serious military research, the Mapping the Front project will provide an excellent and affordable archive from the collections of the Imperial War Museum.