The National Archives
British Trench Map Atlas

The Western Front 1914-18
1:10,000 regular series with an index of over 20,000 trench and topographical names and a commentary for each map

Detailed Map Information

The class WO 297 in The National Archives (TNA, formerly the Public Record Office) in London (Kew) includes a unique and practically definitive collection of British trench maps produced during the First World War. The 750 or so trench maps selected by Dr Peter Chasseaud for this DVD-ROM all belong to the War Office 1:10,000 scale regular series GSGS (Geographical Section of the General Staff) 3062, begun in mid-1915 and continued to the end of the war.
These maps were printed for the British Expeditionary Force by the Ordnance Survey at Southampton and the Overseas Branch of the Ordnance Survey in France, and the Field Survey Companies and Battalions attached to each of the five British Army Headquarters in France and Belgium. The collection in TNA class WO 297 was formed from the deposit of record copies of maps held by the War Office and its successor the Ministry of Defence, augmented by maps from other sources.

The 1:10,000 regular series trench maps represent the largest scale series (and therefore that showing the most detail) which covers seamlessly the whole length of the British sector of the Western Front, and include all the historic battlefields – Nieuport, Ypres, Passchendaele, Messines, Armentières, Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert, Loos, Lens, Vimy Ridge, Arras, Cambrai, Ancre, Somme, St. Quentin, and so forth, the ‘conflict landscape’ on which the British Armies fought in the extended period of trench warfare from 1915 to 1918.

View the maps on the DVD-ROM

The 1:10,000 trench maps were the standard operations maps used by the infantry and Royal Engineers, the field artillery (horse and field batteries of the Royal Field Artillery), and often by the batteries and groups of the medium and heavy artillery (Royal Garrison Artillery) who also used the smaller-scale 1:20,000 series GSGS 2742, which covered more ground per sheet but did not show the defences in such detail. The 1:10,000 trench maps were used to show, against a topographical background, the trenches, barbed wire obstacles, trench mortar and machine gun emplacements, battery positions, pill boxes, organised shell holes and a host of other tactical detail, of the German and Allied defences. They were used for both defensive and offensive purposes, formed the topographical and tactical basis for defence schemes, for defensive and offensive operational planning for trench raids, small actions and large battles, and were also used as backgrounds for overprinting artillery bombardment, barrage and intelligence data. Other uses and overprints were for the planning and direction of machine gun and trench mortar fire, for gas operations, for planning and showing tank routes, military roads, tracks and light railways, for mining and tunnelling, for showing soil and geological conditions, waterlogged and inundated areas, etc.

The topographical backgrounds of trench maps were continually revised from air survey and other sources, and each significant revision of the topographical base resulted in the giving of a new edition number – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. The trench and other tactical detail was also revised and augmented from aerial photographs on a periodical basis – very frequently during operations – and each such revision was denoted by a letter of the alphabet – a, b, c, etc. The map selection on this DVD has been carefully made so that every single trench edition existing in class WO 297 has been included. This provides an invaluable cartographic documentation of the chronological, tactical and operational development of trench systems, of defensive and offensive planning and preparation, and on another and important level of the development of the new technology of air survey itself.

The trench maps enable the close following of 1914–18 war diaries, orders and reports (which often refer to them explicitly with map square and pinpoint references), of regimental and divisional histories, and of memoirs and the writings of the war poets. They are invaluable on battlefield tours for relating the trenches to the ground.
Military operations and other information is provided by Dr Peter Chasseaud for each edition of each map on the DVD-ROM, interpreting the trench and other data shown and giving users a better understanding of the significance of what is shown on the map.

A completely unique research tool provided in this DVD is something that people have wanted for decades – a database, the result of several years’ compilation by Dr Chasseaud, of some 20,000 trench names and place names from the British sector of the Western Front, relating each name to a map sheet and providing a trench map grid reference. This enables family and military historians and other users to pinpoint on the map what may previously have been little more than a trench or farm name appearing in a report.

Dr Peter Chasseaud has worked with the Naval and Military Press, in association with the Imperial War Museum and The National Archives, for several years, applying his unrivalled expertise in this field to all its 1914–18 military map products. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the founder of the Historical Military Mapping Group of the British Cartographic Society, a member of the Defence Surveyors Association and the author of the standard works on trench mapping and toponymy – Topography of Armageddon, A British Trench Map Atlas of the Western Front 1914–1918 (1991 & 1998), Artillery’s Astrologers – A History of British Survey and Mapping on the Western Front 1914–1918 (1999), and Rats Alley – Trench Names of the Western Front (2006). His doctoral thesis was based on a comparative study of British, French and German survey and mapping in the First World War.

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The Maps, Features and Trenches included on the DVD-ROM

NB: The catch-all phrase "trench maps" is used here to include all large-scale operational maps which, more carefully classified, would go under the names of trench maps, artillery maps (including barrage maps, bombardment maps, hostile battery positions maps, etc.), intelligence maps, log maps, situation maps, and so on.

The major series of such maps are:

  • 1:5,000 special sheets1:10,000 regular series sheets (GSGS 3062)
  • 1:10,000 special sheets
  • 1:20,000 regular series sheets (GSGS 2742)
  • 1:40,000 regular series sheets (GSGS 2743 - mostly topographical maps - few with trenches or tactical overprints)
  • 1:40,000 special sheets

Naval & Military Press, in association with The National Archives, are planning to represent the larger scales series (1:5,000 to 1:20,000) in their future DVD publications.

This collection represented in this DVD of some 700 large-scale (1:10,000 or approximately 6-inches to 1 mile) regular series trench maps (series GSGS 3062) from The National Archives class WO 297, mostly originating in the Map Room of the Geographical Section of the General Staff at the War Office and the collection used by the Official Historians at the Cabinet Office, provides almost complete coverage of the British section of the Western Front in the 1914-18 war, from the North Sea at Nieuport in Belgium southwards to St. Quentin. Produced between 1915 and 1918, they form a vital database for historians, school and university students, battlefield tours, family history researchers, etc., and everyone interested in the First World War.

All the battles of the trench warfare period are represented here, the maps showing the trench systems developing over the months and years, and the progress of battles - Loos, the Somme, Arras, Vimy Ridge, Messines, Third Ypres, etc. Different editions of the same sheet enable the operations to be followed, the British trenches in blue and the German trenches in red (until mid-1918 when the trench colours were reversed to follow French practice). For security reasons, although the trench maps show all the German trenches and tactical features, they mostly only show the British front line, until 1917-18 when this policy was gradually relaxed; in 1917 British trenches were shown for about 250 metres behind the front line, while in 1918 all British trenches were shown.

All collections of trench maps are necessary incomplete, but that of The National Archives is the most complete, and provides a remarkable insight into the landscape of the Western Front - which Wilfred Owen called "the topography of Golgotha" - with its unimaginable thousands of miles of trenches seaming the countryside in continuous, systematic, labyrinthine allied and German defence systems on either side of a "no man's land" varying in width from over a kilometer to only a few metres in the most hotly contested localities. The intricacies of the trench systems are shown, plotted from air photos, right down to individual machine guns, trench mortars, command posts, field battery positions, etc. Further back, the enemy"s medium and heavy battery positions are shown together with roads, tracks and light railways and supply and ammunition dumps, and rear defence systems.

The regular series 1:10,000 trench maps (series GSGS 3062) were produced for most front line areas from mid-1915 until the last, mobile, operations of 1918 which were conducted on smaller scale maps (1:20,000 and 1:40,000). Before trench map production was systematised in this regular series, under the control of the Royal Engineers, more ephemeral sketch maps or trench diagrams had been produced by the Intelligence staff of each army. It was soon realised that map production had to be in the hands of expert surveyors, air photo interpreters, cartographers and printers, and in the summer of 1915 Topographical Sections RE (Royal Engineers) were formed for each army. In early 1916 these were renamed Field Survey Companies RE (by July 1916 there were five of these - one for each army), and expanded to take in flash-spotting and sound-ranging for the artillery. In April 1917 a Depot Field Survey Company was added at GHQ to provide a centre for training, reinforcements, technical back-up and printing. In mid-1918 they were all renamed Field Survey Battalions. They had the task of compiling the background detail from all available information, including air photos; they then plotted the German trenches and other tactical features, also from air photos. At first all printing of regular series sheets was done at the Ordnance Survey in Southampton, but from 1917 the Field Survey Companies/Battalions did more of the printing themselves, augmented by an Overseas Branch of the Ordnance Survey which was set up in France at the end of 1917. The Field Survey units also printed series of sheets of their own, on special sheetlines to fit in with the operational areas of their Corps and Divisions.

Besides the 1:10,000 Western Front trench maps (series GSGS 3062) in class WO 297 contained in this DVD, there is a large number of (inadequately catalogued) trench maps in class WO 153, and also many bound into war diaries in WO 95. It should be noted that WO 153 contains many trench maps (and other maps) removed by the official historians at the Cabinet Office from formation (GHQ, Army, Corps and Division) war diaries, and that there is no cross-referencing between the war diaries in WO 95 and the maps removed from (and often referred to in) the war diaries, which are in WO 153. Maps in Brigade and unit (battalion, field company, battery, etc.) war diaries are generally still with those diaries in WO 95. Attention should also be drawn to the incorrect statement in The National Archives guide, which states that there are 1,215 maps in class WO 153. In fact, there are some 15,000 maps, subsumed under 1,215 piece numbers. This understatement might cause researchers to neglect WO 153, which is actually a treasure trove.

In 1991, Dr Ian Mumford, who had been for many years closely involved with the transfer of military maps to the PRO, had this to say, in a note he wrote for Peter Chasseaud's Topography of Armageddon - A British Trench Map Atlas of the Western Front 1914-18, about the 1914-18 trench maps which had been deposited, or were being prepared for deposit, in The National Archives (then called the Public Record Office, or PRO) at Kew. His note is particularly important because it explains the relationship between the trench maps in classes WO 153 and 297, and why these classes were not cross-catalogued or integrated:

Survivors of the trench warfare in western Europe which embroiled millions of men in the Great War of 1914-18 are now numbered in handfulls. Even the recipients of the oral history of those who came back have been thinned out by a Second World War and the passing of time. Yet the memories of that awful slogging slaughter have in recent years been revived, and, increasingly, revised, by detailed studies of the contemporary records which were hidden in archives and inaccessible dumps awaiting the "all-clear" from sensitive custodians, and the resources to process them into the public domain. The old Public Records Act meant that fifty years had to pass before the 1914 records could be opened to the public. Since the Great War could hardly be considered as a succession of annual events, a new Act, reducing the closed period to thirty years, opened a floodgate to the records of the whole period of the war. In the Army Records Centre at Hayes there were some 2.5 tonnes of maps which had been in the custody of, and used by, the military historians engaged in writing the official war histories.

In view of the short time available in 1963 to prepare the maps for transfer to the Public Record Office it was agreed that as a first step the sets of maps which had been thematically organised by the [official] historians and laced in folders with titles and indications of provenance, could be dealt with quickly by simple listing procedures at Hayes. In some of these folders themes such as the dispositions of the enormous numbers of troops moving to annihilation can be followed on a daily basis as seen at the Commander-in-Chief"s HQ, while weekly situation maps on counter-battery activity and gas and flame warfare, amongst many specialised topics, provide keys to understanding higher command thinking. In addition, many hundreds of loose maps with annotations which might imply that they had been removed from diaries or reports were sorted into broad categories sufficient for immediate transfer and use by researchers. It was this last category which resulted in the PRO Class WO 153, War of 1914-18: Maps and Plans, which consists of 1215 "pieces" containing some 15,000 individual maps, being described as a frustrating cross between a gold mine and a lucky dip!

The bulk of the map production of the Western Front, as of other theatres, consisted of basic topographical maps at all scales. As the landscape was remodelled in the process of trench warfare this meant that at scales larger than 1:40,000 details of the trenches and fortifications became topographical features requiring portrayal. For tactical reasons Allied trenches could only be shown on secret versions, at least until they got overrun by the enemy, so in a long-drawn-out war fought over relatively small areas of ground, numerous editions were required to keep up with the changing situations. The consolidation of the several accumulations of such normal "trench maps", as they were loosely described, brought together and processed in the MOD Map Library at Tolworth, took several years of low priority work on the maps of the Great War. This has only been completed this year [1991] with the listing of the African Campaign maps.

The Western Front Campaign maps contained in PRO Class WO 297 consist of 6,649 "pieces", mainly individual sheets, listed in considerable detail so as to help researchers identify maps relevant to individual actions at particular places on specified days. Unfortunately, the rules of the PRO on internal transfer did not allow the incorporation of related sheets which already lay in the undifferentiated "pieces" in WO 153, so this is not a complete list of all the Western Front maps to be found in the PRO. Indeed, apart from the specific map classes, many maps are embedded in the files and other papers about the war to be found in a great variety of other classes. Only gradually as the PRO Map Department comes across such caches can the wealth of holdings of maps be brought to notice of researchers.

In the meanwhile, a few individuals have made a notable contribution to the improved understanding and use of these maps. Trevor Pidgeon, Honorary Map Officer of the Western Front Association, ensures that the two years he spent in retirement finalising the listing of WO 297 is well exploited in satisfying a mainly new generation of students of the Western Front. Bob MacIntosh, then working in the British Library Map Library, on receipt of the duplicates resulting from Trevor"s work, quickly consolidated BLML knowledge of their important holdings. And not least, Peter Chasseaud, in his self-imposed task of gathering all available information relevant to an understanding of "trench maps" has already published invaluable studies and listings of the principal series.

The availability of the carefully structured listing in WO 297 has given other British map collections a new perspective on their often fragmented holdings of these maps. Abroad, several substantial record groups of British Great War maps are to be found in the national archives and military collections in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France and the USA. The New York Public Library also has an important collection of them.

Retracing events on the ground in Flanders using copies of the contemporary maps which can now more often be located, is fraught with particular problems of interpretation not only of the terrain now entirely re-surveyed by national authorities, but also of the cartography itself. Sources utilised, symbols employed, and reference systems embodied, are reflected in scattered documentation which Peter Chasseaud has assiduously pursued over many years. This present work is not only a very readable account of the complex history of the cartography of the Western Front, it is also a challenge to collectors and map librarians to help fill out some of the gaps in our knowledge of the mapping which still exist. It also stands as a model for the work which remains to be done on the mapping of the other theatres of war in the Middle East and Africa.

Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England.
The National Archives gives no warranty as to the accuracy, completeness or fitness for the purpose of the information provided.
Images may be used only for purposes of research, private study or education. Applications for any other use should be made to The National Archives Image Library, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. Infringement of the above condition may result in legal action.

British Trench Maps
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