Maps & more
Maps of the Great War
While all the Malcolm MacPhail WW1 books are works 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 books 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 maps come from Malcolm’s hand, beginning first with the Ypres Salient as it was in early 1915, and following the progression of the war into 1918. They are in chronological order.
SPOILER WARNING: the maps do to tend to give away some of the story of the books, so it’s probably best to consult them afterwards or, at the very least, whilst reading.
Maps from A War for King and Empire (1915-16)
Map of the Ypres Salient (April 1915)
As can be seen from this map, the German front line in the spring of 1915 ran in a rough semi-circle centred on the city of Ypres. For all its strategic and historical significance, note how remarkably small the entire Salient was – barely 4 miles deep and 6 miles long. To the north, marked with a dotted line, is the bite German forces took out of the Salient after the shocking gas attack of 22 April 1915. In the anxious hours and days that followed, the fighting raged along the St. Julien-Ypres road (Kitcheners’ Wood is visible off to the left of St. Julien). To the northeast is Gravenstafel Ridge, the site of the 2nd Brigade’s desperate fight. There, on the morning of 24 April, the Germans once more unleased a cloud of gas, pressing forward with an overwhelming superiority of men and materiel.
Gravenstafel Ridge looking north (author photo 2019)
On a glorious April day in 2019 I took this photo on the crest of Gravenstafel Ridge at the position known as Locality C. Looking to the north you can see the ground slowly sink away. At its deepest point is where the Stroombeek flows, from right to left across this scene. Further on, near the tree line, is where the original front lines would have been. Far in the distance the church tower of Poelkappelle is just visible.
Gravenstafel Ridge looking south (author photo 2019)
This photo (taken from the road that runs along the spine of the Ridge) looks back from Locality C into the Salient, towards Ypres, and down the reverse slope of Gravenstafel Ridge. The muddy ground is likely not far removed from what Malcolm would have seen. In his time, of course, it would have been filled with rudimentary trenches and shell holes. It was on this small swath of land where Malcolm’s division made its famous stand. Off to the right, in the distance, can be seen the towers of Ypres.
Map of Festubert and Givenchy (1915)
There are a paucity of maps illustrating the situation when the 1st Division arrived at Festubert in May of 1915. This map is a composite of several maps and even sketches in which some of the principal trenches and strongpoints are illustrated, such as K5. The sad tale of earlier attacks at Festubert is told by the positioning of the old and new British trenches, barely yards apart, and that despite the terrible toll that had filled No-Man’s-Land with bodies. At Givenchy to the south, the curious form of the front line trenches which gave rise to the name, The Duck’s Bill, can be seen.
Map of the Plugstreet trenches (1915)
The Plugstreet trenches are some of the most well-known on the Western Front. If one looks closely, the challenges to keeping dry feet and dry trenches posed by the River Douve and the Steenebeek criss-crossing the front line trenches are obvious. This is particularly so if one considers that the German-held ground from Messines to the south is part of the famous ridge of that name (its heights providing every possible advantage including drainage). To help whilst reading the book, several important sections of the British line are given their original section numbers. Likewise the barricade on the Messines-Ploegsteert road can be observed near the bottom of the map. No-Man’s-Land is very broad in many spots in the Plugstreet sector, and it was here that Canadian soldiers for the first time began the practice of aggressive patrols and raids to dominate the middle ground.
Map of the Battle of Mount Sorrel (1916)
As part of the ridge that curves around the right side of Ypres to Passchendaele, Mount Sorrel was a key bulwark in the defences of the Ypres Salient. While the German gains from their attack of 2 June 1916 look modest (see the dotted line), one must consider this took them well down the slope of the ridge, and in passion of all the critical high ground, with Ypres only scant miles away (see photo below). It is testimony to the fight put up by the surviving defenders that their inroads were not greater. Note in Armagh Wood, the position known as Strong Point 11 (SP11). It was the scene of fierce fighting during the initial attack and later on June 13 when Mount Sorrel was recaptured. Not far to the south is Hill 60, famous for the extensive mining operations undertaken, and where even today the resulting massive craters can still be seen.
The view to Ypres from Hill 62/Mount Sorrel (author photo 2017)
Looking back towards Ypres from the highest point on this section of the ridge at Hill 62. One need only see this to realize the desperate need to regain the heights of Mount Sorrel were the Ypres Salient to be held.
Maps from Vicissitudes of War (1916-17)
Map of the Battle of the Somme (September/October 1916)
This map shows the front at the Somme from the beginning of September 1916 when the Canadian Corps arrived there. By then the battle had been raging for two entire months. Note the scale of the map. Given the numbers of men and materiel involved, and the ultimate casualties, the distances are astonishingly small. In the 2 1/2 months that the Canadian Corps would fight at the Somme, their line advanced roughly 3 miles, past the northern edge of the map. After the successful attack at Courcelette the campaign progressively slowed and it would take 40 days to capture Regina Trench. The roughly 1 mile broad swath of ground to the left of the Albert-Bapaume road would cause them 25,000 casualties. It is estimated the total Allied and German casualties at the Somme exceeded 1 million.
Mouquet Farm (author photo 2019)
Taken from the Pozieres-Thiepval road, looking north across the fields is the infamous fortified position of Mouquet Farm (near the centre of the photo is the farm) that was to prove so costly. It is hard to imagine how important every small undulation in the ground was, yet look so unassuming today. The front line of September 1916 would have corresponded approximately with the thin beige swath just before the farm.
Map of Vimy Ridge (April 1917)
The commanding position of Vimy Ridge made it bulwark in the German lines, protecting the hinterland to the north and the east and affording excellent observation well behind the Allied lines. In the far left can be seen the Lorette Spur which was taken by the French at great cost in 1915.
Map of Hill 145 and the Northern sector of Vimy Ridge (April 1917)
This map illustrates a number of the key geographic and defensive features of the northern part of the ridge, where Malcolm’s 3rd Division was active, including some but not all of the trench systems. Note the craters which were a prominent feature of No-Man’s-Land in this sector. The height and commanding position of Hill 145, with lines of sight well down the ridge, demanded its capture. As described in the book, this left flank, so long open, was a source of great concern until it was finally taken late on April 10th.
Maps from A Summer for War (1917)
Maps from Malcolm MacPhail’s Great War (1917-18)
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 (October & November 1917)
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 on, Bellevue Spur as seen from Crest Farm (author photo 2017)
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 (March to July 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.
Maps from My Hundred Days of War (1918)
Map of the Battle of Amiens (August 9th-12th)
As with the map above, this map details the centre of the attack at Amiens where the Canadian Corps was employed; the figurative tip of the spear that the Allies thrust into the German lines. There is a particular focus on the ground behind the first day’s astounding gains. In the days following the initial attack the German High Command threw division after division into the fight to stem the tide. Each village, copse of trees, or undulation in the ground became an obstacle to overcome. As can be seen on the right of the map, the first organized system of defence came where the old pre-Somme trenches run across the terrain. Many days of hard fighting where to follow, but within a week the Corps had smashed the divisions brought in as reinforcements and driven through, while the Australians and French pushed ahead on either flank. Stiffening resistance soon convinced Field-Marshal Haig to call off the offensive. But the German lines had been convincingly broken. The Battle of Amiens was to prove the beginning of the end for the German Army.
Map of the Breaching of the Drocourt-Quéant Line (August 26th to 30th, Sept. 1st to 2nd)
East of Arras occurred not one, but two battles in August and September of 1918. The first, known as the second Battle of Arras, or Battle of the Scarpe 1918, began on August 26th and ran for four fiercely-fought days. The Scarpe River can be seen running along the top of the map providing a natural northern boundary. The second battle was for the feared Drocourt-Quéant Line and began on September 2nd. The D-Q Line formed the so-called hinge of the Hindenburg Line, where two major defensive systems came together. On the map are illustrated the major trench systems (each consisting of multiple lines of wire, trenches, machine-gun nests and other obstacles) which were packed into a ten-mile deep swath astride the Arras-Cambrai road, making it the strongest German position on the Western Front. With no small degree of apprehension did Allied High Command follow the attacks here. By September 2nd, the Canadian Corps had battled through these defences and smashed the “impregnable” D-Q Line. As one battalion history was to describe it, it was a “red letter day in the history of the British Army”. German forces immediately began a withdrawal on a massive front to the north and the south.
Map of the Canal du Nord and Cambrai (September 27th to October 2nd)
The victory at the Drocourt-Quéant Line had been a significant one. However, as can be readily seen on this map, the path forward was blocked by the Canal du Nord which the Canadian Corps would tackle on September 27th. With marshes to both sides on the northern half, and two trench lines behind it to the south, it was formidable barrier. Overlooking the canal lay the heights of Oisy-le-Verger, fortified with concrete bunkers and a proliferation of machine-gun nests. South of the Arras-Cambrai road the land was dominated by the Bois de Bourlon, the scene of heavy fighting in the 1917 Battle of Cambrai. Several miles further east of these landmarks, and close to the city, was the last prepared defence line: the Marcoing. From there the land rises somewhat to the plateau north of the city, where every road, railway line, village and ravine would be the scene of fierce fighting in late September and early October. Note in particular the Bantigny ravine which cuts through the middle of the plateau, the village of Blécourt in its centre. German battalion after German battalion entered the battle there. From hidden positions machine gunners then raked the shallow slopes of the plateau to either side. This area would see some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Finally, a mile or two further eastwards, is the Canal de l’Escaut, the crossing of which was vital to enable an encirclement of the city from the north.
Map of the Advance to Mons (mid-October to Nov. 11th)
One of the first things you notice about this map is the scale. It is much larger than any other with the exception of those of the entire front. Following the battle of Cambrai and the capture of the city on October 9th, the Canadian Corps was given a much-needed period to rest and refit. But by mid-October it was in action again in the direction of Douai, well off the upper left-hand corner of the map. With Douai liberated and the Scarpe crossed, the great advance began. For the first time since the retreats of 1914, Allied Armies moved with speed. The Canadian Corps advanced miles daily during late October, liberating in one day alone 40 villages to the left of Denain. Valenciennes posed the next serious obstacle, bounded as it was by forest to the north, and flooded plains to the north and west. At Mont Houy, whose heights held the key to the city, its fate was decided. After a spectacular bombardment on November 1st the hill and the city were taken. Swinging north of the city is the Escaut, where Malcolm’s 3rd Division crossed the canal and made for the villages of Vicq and Quiévrechain. The latter was the scene of a small but crucial encounter to secure the bridges there before entering into Belgium. Pushing through the mining territory west of Mons, the Corps arrived at the city and liberated it in the early morning of November 11th, only hours before the Armistice.
More from the Great War
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.
A Great War Glossary
4.1 A 4.1 inch bore (105mm) field gun. One of the largest field guns (as opposed to howitzers) in the German arsenal.
5.9 The ubiquitous medium howitzers (5.9 inch/150mm bore) of the German army, firing the dreaded Jack Johnson shells.
75 French 75mm field gun.
Adriaan helmet French metal helmet first used in 1915 and throughout the war. Notable for the distinctive fin running from front to back.
Big Bertha The most famous of German guns. A 42 cm (17-inch) German siege howitzer.
Black Maria Large calibre, German high explosive round similar to a Jack Johnson.
Brodie helmet The iconic tin helmet used by British, Empire and American forces in WW1. It was first introduced in 1916.
Coal Box Large calibre, German high explosive round similar to a Jack Johnson. So named for the sooty black cloud it left.
Divisional train Horse-drawn (typically) support and supply units for a division.
Emma Gee Soldiers’ slang for a machine gun.
Field gun An artillery piece that fires at low angles (and typically shorter ranges). In contrast to a howitzer, a field gun fires its round in a straight line at high velocity. As the term implies used in the field and therefore usually quite mobile. Fires gas, shrapnel and high explosive shells.
Flammenwerfer German for flamethrower.
Fish Tail German trench mortar round with a large finned tail.
Flying Pig Large calibre mortar round, often referring to the British 9.45 inch mortar.
G.O.C. General Officer Commanding
Green Cross A German gas shell filled with a pulmonary agent (phosgene, chlorine, etc, which affected lung function. So named for the markings on the shell casings.
Jack Johnson One of the larger-calibre German shells, named for the American heavyweight boxing champion, weighing almost 45kg (90lb). Known for its thundering approach and heavy black smoke upon erupting.
HE High Explosive
Hissing Jennie High velocity German shell fired from a 77mm (4.1) field gun, describing the characteristic sound as the shell approached. In gas, HE, and shrapnel variants.
Howitzer A piece of artillery which, in contrast to a field gun, fires its shells in an arc. All heavy and medium guns were howitzers. Typically a howitzer could fire a large shell up to 6 miles or further (10km). Examples include the German 5.9 and the Imperial 60-pounder, as well as various makes of naval guns.
Limber A wooden cart, typically attached to the back of an artillery piece, to carry ammunition and supplies.
Mills bomb Standard-issue hand grenade for British and Imperial forces. Later a rifle mounted variant was introduced.
Minenwerfer German for mortar.
Moaning Minnie A round from a Minenwerfer
Mortar A short tubular barrel that fires its projectiles at high angles. In contrast to guns is loaded by placing bombs in the muzzle. Mortars range from light and highly portable variants to massive ones requiring extensive work to move and install them.
O.C. Officer Commanding
Pickelhaube The famous German leather helmets with a pointed spike on top. Replaced in the field by the Stahlhelm early in the war.
Pineapple Used to describe both rifle grenades as well as airplane bombs.
Potato Masher A German hand grenade, so named for its shape and the long handle. The handle allowed it to be thrown much further than Allied grenades, but also made it unwieldy in tight spaces.
Rum Jar Round from a large trench mortar. Usually fashioned from a stove pipe filled with explosive and with the appearance of the standard SRD rum jar.
SRD jar The iconic ceramic rum jar, its dark, alcoholic contents beloved of the front-line soldiers. Supply Reserve Depot.
Stahlhelm The famous steel bucket helmet of the German forces used from 1916 onwards and throughout WW2.
Stokes Standard British and Imperial trench mortar. Was light enough to be carried forward by the infantry, and also used mounted on a truck.
Vickers gun Standard British and Imperial medium/heavy machine gun.
White Cross Gas shells fill with tear gas (lachrymatory agents). So named for the markings on German shell casings.
Whizz-bang Soldiers’ slang for the high-velocity shell from a field gun.
Woolly Bear A shrapnel shell. So known for the mid-air puff of white or black smoke.
Yellow Cross Mustard gas shells. Named for the yellow cross markings on German shell casings. A term also used generically for gas shells.