Maps of the Great War
Whilst Malcolm MacPhail’s Great War is a work of fiction, most of the events – certainly the important ones – did take place, pretty much as described. The times and places are as accurate as I could make them. However, even for Frenchmen or Belgians – in whose countries most of the action in World War One takes place – few will know the villages, rivers, hills and woods that during the Great War so often assumed an importance far overshadowing their own, typically modest presence.
Writing the book I found maps were invaluable in understanding both the broad sweep of the war as well as how, and why, individual battles developed as they did. I expect the same will be true for readers.
The following five maps (three of which are included in the book, the other two only on the website) come from Malcolm’s hand, beginning with the Western Front, as it was in late 1917.
SPOILER WARNING: the maps give away some of the story of the book, so it’s probably best to consult them afterwards or, at the very least, whilst reading.
Map of the Western Front 1917
The Western Front in the fall of 1917 ran from the Belgian coast, with a noticeable bulge around the city of Ypres – the infamous Ypres Salient – down through France, all the way to the Swiss border. It was a line that shifted remarkably little during the war, testament to the new form of warfare that had emerged, and for which the Great War will always be infamous: trench warfare. The systems of deeply fortified trenches that emerged soon after the German breakthrough in 1914 transformed the war into a de facto stalemate, which many great battles did little to alter. It wouldn’t be until 1918, and the massive German spring offensives, that these lines began to shift. Even then, the momentum of the attackers was ground down in the space of a couple of months. Beginning with the astonishing Allied victory at Amiens in the summer of 1918, these lines began to shift for good. And when they did, it took only an astonishing three months before the war was over.
Map of the Ypres Salient 1917
The Ypres Salient, so named for the bulge in the Western Front around the Belgian city of Ypres, has become rightly infamous. No less than five major battles occurred there. Almost every hamlet, wood and rise has a story to tell. Ypres, the last Belgian city in Allied hands, was positioned only a relatively short distance from the crucial Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais. It assumed an importance almost unique in the war. On the map can be seen the crucial ridge line that curved around Ypres and that was the bastion of German defences prior to the Battle of Passchendaele. On its far slopes were arrayed the guns of the Fourth Imperial Army which shelled the city into a graveyard of stone.
Map of Passchendaele
Passchendaele, as can be seen on this map, lies in a strong defensive position with its commanding heights jutting out ahead, and swampland occupying its approaches. Ahead, and to the left of the village, is the Bellevue Spur which protrudes from the main ridge line. This is where the New Zealand Division was shattered (the blackest day in New Zealand history), and where thousands of Canadians (Malcolm’s 3rd Division amongst them), were killed or wounded going up against its reams of barbed wire, concrete pillboxes, and concealed machine-gun nests. To the right of the Bellevue Spur, is the valley of the Ravebeek, the small creek whose flooded banks made it impossible to traverse. Further to the right is the main ridge line. It was on those slopes that thousands more Australians, and later Canadians, became the casualties of war. But it was along that path, past the strong-point at Crest Farm (today a monument) that Passchendaele was eventually taken. On the map can be seen the shell-hole from which Malcolm and a handful of New Zealanders reconnoitered the defences of the Bellevue Spur. A mere 1,000 yards to the south, Tyne Cot is visible. When Malcolm arrived here in October 1917 its pill-boxes had just been taken by the 3rd Australian Division. Today it is the single largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
100 years later, Bellevue Spur as taken from Crest Farm: author photo
This is my own photo, taken roughly a hundred years after the events themselves, showing the Bellevue Spur as it looks today (now vibrant greens, then a brown cratered mound). Atop the Spur runs the Mosselmarkt road. The viewpoint is from the main ridgeline – what the German defenders would have seen – looking across the small, barely visible valley of the Ravebeek. It is taken from Crest Farm, the concentration of machine-gun nests on the approaches to Passchendaele (itself only a five minute walk down the road from the village). It’s truly astonishing to think that what appears as a modest, peaceful hillock was the scene of such long and desperate fighting.
Map of the German Spring Offensives 1918
The map of the Kaiserschlacht (the Kaiser’s Battle) shows the deep inroads made by the German spring offensives, beginning in March 1918. There were four main offensives, and each made large concaves in the Allied lines, particularly the first on the old battlefield of the Somme. Each offensive, in turn, foundered after a combination of stiffening Allied resistance, mounting German losses and stretched supply lines made further progress impossible. To the north (along the coast where Belgian forces held the front) swampy ground precluded an attack. Of the British lines, which began around Ypres and stretched all the way to past Amiens, only the narrow front near Lens and Vimy Ridge, remained unaltered – testament to the formidable defences and reputation of the Canadian Corps. By the end of April 1918 the worst of the danger had passed. In June, an attack in the direction of Paris (a last gasp to approach the French capital) was halted by French and American forces, and this was followed by a successful counterattack. A surprise French-led assault in July, signalled the end of German offensive ambitions on the Western Front.
Map of Amiens August 1918
This map shows a close-up of the area of Amiens prior to the attack of August 8th, 1918, focusing on the centre of the attack, which was the responsibility of the Canadian Corps. To the north was the second main thrust, to be carried out by the Australian Corps. North of the Australians, and well off the map, the Imperial III Corps was to advance to protect the flanks, while to the south of the Canadians, the French XXXI Corps, and indeed the French First Army, was to do the same. From the map, an indication of the tactical difficulties can be seen. In particular, the wooded rise known as Dodo Wood (Rifle Wood or Schwartzwald) commands the bridge on the Amiens to Royes road crossing the River Luce. It was across this bridge that Malcolm’s 3rd Division, and others behind it, were to move. With the river and its marshes to the rear, there is only a tiny rectangle of ground before the German lines begin. It is no wonder that Canadian Corps commander Currie and Fourth Army commander Rawlinson fretted about this tiny piece of ground. The main Amiens-Paris rail line, which the attack was in large part designed to free-up, is visible in the far left corner.
In the fall of 1917 the Canadian Corps numbered some 100,000 men. Its structure mirrored that of a traditional British Army corps although it was unique (aside from the Australian Corps for whom this was generally also true) in that its divisions were permanently attached – British divisions moved from corps to corps as the situation demanded. The advantages this permanent structure conveyed in terms of familiarity, common operating practices and general “esprit de corps” no doubt explain much of its success. Four Divisions, each with 3 infantry brigades of 4 battalions comprised the core of its fighting power. As the German Spring Offensives of 1918 tore into British lines the Corps, deeply entrenched and determined to hold its long 20 mile sector near Vimy Ridge, was passed over – the sole section of the 100 mile British line not to be attacked. As summer came its numbers grew with reinforcements and two prescient and courageous decisions. The first was to ignore the British example to reduce each brigade by a quarter, from four battalions to three. Perhaps even more important was its commander’s insistence (despite what surely would have meant a promotion to general) to resist the pressure to field a second corps, and therefore an army (two to three corps is an army). In its stead a nascent 5th Division was used to reinforce and bolster the existing corps. As a result the size and hitting power of the Corps was unparalleled (extra large divisions, 2 additional brigades of field guns, far greater numbers of machine guns and engineering troops, and a reservoir of trained reinforcements). By August of 1918 the Canadian Corps was indisputably the largest and most powerful single force at Field-Marshal Haig’s command. While he may have cursed the intransigence of the colonials at the time, one suspects he was later rather grateful as the Allies strove to break the back of the German Army on the Western Front, the Canadian Corps in the van.