Mapping and Photographing the First World War

The case studies included in this theme all focus on new technologies developed during the First World War. You will find discussion of the intricate mapping of the trenches and an examination of the invention and development of aerial photography. In "The Body Snatchers" we provide an animation of a trench raid, based on surviving documents which provide us with every detail of the engagement. Canadian troops are credited with inventing this tactic but, as is shown here, it was a technology which exacted a significant cost in human lives. Other technologies used during the First World War are discussed in the case study "Pigeon Post to Lewis Gun".

Further information on trench maps and aerial photography can be found on McMaster's World War I Military Maps Collection site.

“The Topography of Golgotha”: Mapping the Trenches of the First World War

Maps and their ability to familiarize a soldier with enemy-held terrain, weapon positions, obstacles and trench networks were found to be an integral part of the planning for any successful offensive. In fact, a key factor in the Canadian victory at Vimy and all subsequent battles was that even the lowest ranking soldier had been made familiar with every detail (excluding date and time) of the upcoming attack through the use of maps and mockups.

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“The Body Snatchers”: Trench Raid at Roclincourt

The intention was to capture enemy soldiers for interrogation and intelligence gathering purposes. This led to the use of the colourful term “Body Snatchers” for those in the raiding parties. Raids occupied the men and kept their morale up during the long, boring intervals between major engagements. They caused damage to the enemy’s trenches, weaponry and equipment while keeping him in a state of confusion and apprehension. Fear instilled by raiding parties could even prevent the enemy from venturing into no-man’s land to repair wire and other defences.

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“I Spy With My Glass Eye”: Aerial Photography and Innovation in World War I

The airplane, a product of the first years of the twentieth century, was quickly drafted into service following the outbreak of the First World War. Its earliest use was as a spotter for artillery. Newly developed weaponry like the machine gun meant that waves of charging soldiers and “old fashioned” cavalry could be stopped in their tracks. Wars of movement became a thing of the past. Both sides dug defensive networks of trenches and years of siege warfare began.

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