Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Factory Farm (Ultra Trench) and Ultimo Crater (Ultimo Trench) 1915

This British summer 1915 air photo shows the German front position east of St Yvon (St Yves) at Factory Farm (bottom) and a few hundred yards to the north. This position was known to the British from late 1916 as Ultra Trench (south of the road) and Ultimo Trench (north of the road). British mines were blown on 7 June 1917 under Factory Farm, a medieval moated farm known to the French and Belgians as Reebrouck ('brouck' meaning marsh), and to the Germans as Wasser-Gut (meaning water estate), and at Ultimo Trench just north of the road.

Static and dynamic interpretation.
Static interpretation reads the image as a single text - it draws out what is there, looking for characteristic signatures. In the photo above we can see a medieval and early modern cultivation system, roads and farm tracks, and a typical medieval moated farm, overlain by a relatively simple German trench and breastwork front system, with communication trenches running to the rear. The direction of light and season are given by the shadows of the trees, which are in full leaf. This photo was taken in the evening, with the low sunlight coming from the north-west. The light striking the front edge of the parapets and paradoses of trenches and breastworks, and catching the smooth, reflecting surfaces of bare earth and sandbags, contrasted with the deep shadows thrown by these features, throws them into strong relief.

Note the bulging and thickened sections of breastwork where the Germans have started building concrete shelters for their front-line garrison (particularly machine-gun crews) into and under the parapet. These were at roughly 50-metre intervals. Machine-gun positions were sited to fire along no-man's land, to take an attack in enfilade. They were not generally sited to fire to the front; this would have made their loopholes too conspicuous, and in any case was less effective in terms of a deadly field of fire.

Possible trench mortar positions can also be seen behind the German front line. We can also make out the dark band of barbed wire to the west of the German front breastwork.

A small sandbag redoubt has been built in the front line where it crosses the road.

The fall away of the ground south of the road is indicated by the shadow thrown; the level of Factory Farm is significantly below that of the St Yvon Ridge north of the road. This may explain the old name of Factory Farm - Reebrouck - 'brouck' meaning marsh.

At Factory Farm the German breastworks have been integrated with the ruins of the old farm buildings, giving a typical rectangular pattern. Tree shadows in the farm area show that it has, as yet, been relatively little bombarded, an indicator of the lack of British heavy artillery, mortars and ammunition at this stage of the war. Note how few shell holes can be seen in the whole area covered by the photo.

At the extreme left (west) of the photo is the British front line (Trench 123), a much less considerable example of field engineering, where it runs east road running northward from Le Gheer and Le Pelerin (the Birdcage). The British front line cuts back to the west (north end of Trench 123) at the highest point of the St Yvon ridge, which runs downhill from west to east towards Warneton and the River Lys.

Dynamic interpretation is much more fruitful, as it interrogates a series of images covering the same site taken at intervals of time, and draws its conclusions from the changes, or developments, between each of the series of images.

With hindsight we know that, from mid-1915, the Germans were building concrete machine-gun positions and personnel shelters (MEBUs) into their front line; these were often called pill-boxes by the British, and more recently called bunkers (a word not much used by the British in the First World War). German practice in an Allied attack was for the machine gun crews, with their machine guns and ammunition, to shelter from the preliminary artillery bombardment in these shelters (or in deep dugouts where the geology permitted), only to emerge when the bombardment had lifted. Sentries left out in the front line trench would give warning of this, and the crews would rush out and set up their machine guns in nearby shell-holes or remaining sections of trench.

1914-18 aerial photographs of the Factory Farm area reveal a rural landscape undergoing transformation under the impact of war. On the earliest surviving British (June-July 1915) air photos can be seen the pattern of roads, woods, farms, drainage ditches, cultivation boundaries, etc., and the lush vegetation of the season. The bare surfaces of roads and tracks, usually meeting at distinct angles or right-angles, show up white. Railways form long straights and gentle curves, punctuated by level crossings and/or bridges. Knowledge of the direction of light is important for differentiating between mounds and hollows; this can be deduced from shadows thrown by trees, etc. The length of shadows, related to the time of day and the season of the year, can give the height of objects. Low sunlight catches the rims of craters and shell-holes facing the sun, and casts shadows on their far side. Long, full shadows reveal hedges and the types of trees around farms and along roads and ditches – pollard willows, poplars, etc. Ground forms and features such as ditches, breastworks, banks and sunken roads are thrown into sharp relief by the raking early morning, late afternoon or evening light. Stereoscopic pairs (stereograms) make the detail stand out even more clearly, and are a great aid to interpretation.

Trenches are clearly shown as zig-zagging dark lines where they are in deep shadow, while the bare earth or sandbags forming parapet and parados, reflecting more light, show up as a pale tone or even as white. Great breastworks, built up above ground level to keep the floor of the trench above the water table, are thrown into relief by raking light and their massive dimensions made apparent (6-8 feet high, parapet some 20 feet thick, parados less thick. A thin line indicates an elbow rest, a broader line the firestep, of a fire-trench. Support and reserve trenches, splinter-proof dugouts, mortar positions and latrines can also be made out, though the last three are difficult to interpret. Machine gun positions, low in the German parapet, can be identified by the thin dark slit of their firing aperture at the foot of the parapet, by a V-shaped depression in the parapet, and by their tactically-sited position to obtain the best, usually oblique or enfilade, field of fire. Typically they were sited to fire along no man’s land, particularly where small salients or re-entrants made this possible. Where the front lines changed direction, or formed a distinct bend or dog’s leg, the machine guns were again sited to take advantage of the possibilities of enfilade fire. Barbed wire obstacles and entanglements show as dark bands in front of the fire-trenches.

Farm building and houses are easy to identify by their shape and context. Roofs catch the light. If the roofs have disappeared, the internal wall structure shows them subdivided into rectangular cells. Moated farms (hence the German name for Factory Farm: Wasser-Gut) show up clearly as a building or cluster of buildings inside a circular or rectangular water feature. Depending on the angle of light, the water in moat, pond or shell-hole can appear dark or light. After much rain, water-filled depressions can appear darker than the surrounding ground. When the snow is on the ground, the features show up black against the white ground; much more can be seen on snow photos, particularly occupied shell-holes, tracks, blast-marks, wire.

Dynamic interpretation is vital; a sequencve of images of the same site over time.
Inter-relationship of sources and images.
The air photo and terrestrial panorama photo inform the reading of the map.
The map informs the reading of the photos.
The reading of the landscape on the ground informs the reading of the map and the photos.
The map and photos inform the reading of the landscape on the ground
Everything informs everything else; symbiosis and serendipity.

Monday, 21 July 2008

New Project; Landscape, Aerial Photography and Mapping 1914-1918

One of my landscape projects at present is working on the relationship between landscape, aerial photography and mapping in the First World War, and will be posting some of the results on this blog. My earlier books (Topography of Armageddon, Artillery's Astrologers, Rats Alley) have looked at this relationship, but my new study is taking a deeper look at aspects such as phenomenology and photogrammetry.

Topography of Armageddon - A British Trench Map Atlas of the Western Front 1914-1918

The White Goddess?: Willow at Langemarck

This was the introduction I wrote for my Topography of Armageddon trench map atlas, in 1991:
When I first read Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War in the early 1960s, I was entranced by his arcadian vision, and intrigued by the obvious difficulty of reconciling the magical and pastoral view of the landscape with the realities of violent and industrialised warfare. A different insight into the same problem was offered by David Jones in his In Parenthesis, and a strange and dramatic, if ghastly, landscape, was also recorded and interpreted by many of the painters of the period, notably Paul and John Nash. The cartographers of the field survey companies provided an altogether more objective, but not unpoetic, map of the same landscape. Many years ago it occurred to me that an atlas of facsimiles of original 1914-18 trench maps might be much appreciated by those interested in the First World War, and I determined to conduct the research necessary to write fairly authoritatively about such maps, and also to build up a collection from which illustrations could be drawn. In 1986 I published my first book, on the Regular Series 1:10,000 trench maps (GSGS 3062), and also began to write articles for journals on the subject of maps and survey in that war.

For the present book I decided to keep the written text to a minimum and concentrate on the visual or graphic elements - the maps themselves. I have endeavoured to give 1:10,000 scale coverage of most of the British sector of the Western Front, in particular the "Old Front Line" of 1914-1916. Of course the 1917 and 1918 battles on this frontage are well represented, but due to limitations of space there is little coverage of the later extensions of the British line down to La Fere. I have used the occasional 1:20,000 scale map to cover areas of lower activity or interest. In some cases of high activity or intense interest I have provided 1:5,000 scale plans, the better to show the intricate trench detail. A few French maps, some used by the British, are included for comparison. The overall selection of maps inevitably reflects my own interests in the development of survey and mapping techniques, but I trust that this will not override my general intention to provide good coverage of the areas in which there seems to be the most interest, particularly the Ypres Salient and the Somme.

The basic topographical survey and map was used as a background for the overprinting of tactical and administrative information, and I have included many examples of these different forms of maps. The most obvious type of tactical overprint is that of the trenches themselves, both British and German. For the years 1915-1917 it was British practice, for security reasons, to show only the German trenches; the British trenches only appeared on "secret" editions, of which very small numbers were printed, mostly for staff use. Most front line troops never saw a secret edition of the sheet covering their front. Thus most of the maps here displayed are the ordinary editions as used by the front soldiers. Print runs for the regular series 1:10,000 sheets ranged from perhaps 3,000 in 1915 to 6-8,000 in 1916-18, and for 1:20,000 sheets were normally 10,000. Other significant overprints were the "hostile battery positions" , "barrage" , "situation" , "target" and "enemy organisation" maps. It was important to show all aspects of the enemy defensive and offensive preparations, so that plans could be worked out, barrages and neutralising fire could be planned, and the tanks and infantry would know the exact position and nature of the enemy dispositions. On a scale as large as 1:10,000, which was the most common for infantry and field artillery, these tactical features, down to individual machine gun and trench mortar emplacements, could be indicated with precision. Techniques were developed for plotting topographical and tactical detail with great accuracy from air photos, and this detail was then transferred to the base map. This map itself was the result of the refinement of survey techniques over the four years of the war, the most important parts of the process being the harmonisation (not seriously undertaken until 1918) of the pre-war trigonometrical systems of France and Belgium by the British survey staff at armies and GHQ, the compilation of cadastral and other large-scale plans onto this trig framework, the plotting of additional detail from air photos, and the development of a reliable system of utilising existing levelling data and depicting ground forms.

I have not attempted to give a campaign history for each sheet, nor do I think this is desirable. There are many published sources for such histories, and most readers will know in advance to which sheets they wish to refer. I have, however, made the occasional comment on actions or battles, but these remarks are in no way definitive. Campaign and battle histories need to be illustrated by maps showing the situation at successive stages of the action, and such quantities of maps and text are too great to contemplate fitting into a general atlas of this sort. For such detailed treatment, readers are referred to the "Official History".

This book is concerned with the land, the landscape, and with people in the landscape. People created the landscape of Belgium and France through thousands of years of intensive cultivation since neolithic times. Clues as to the nature of early society remain in the form of the various lynchets, buttes and other earthworks on the chalk downland, and to a lesser extent in other places. In the twentieth century it remains primarily a rural landscape, studded with many villages, some towns, and fewer cities. The agriculture of the early twentieth century was dominated by human labour and the horse; it was largely unmechanised, particularly so on the small, peasant farms of France and Belgium. The arrival of the opposing armies on this landscape superimposed a new structure of trenches, battery positions and other military works on the pastoral organisation. On the maps, much as a modern motorway cuts its swathe through the countryside, disregarding old field boundaries and ancient roads and trackways, we see these trench systems carving through the land with a wanton disregard for the rural fabric. It was ever thus in war, but the war of l9l4-l8 was on such a scale as to scar the whole country for those years, and for many years after. Not that previous conflicts had not left their mark on the landscape; the many fortified towns and moated farms testified to this, and on the maps the star-shaped ramparts and ditches of Vauban's citadels, themselves often reconstructions of earlier fortifications, stand out as symbols of centuries of conflict in the "cockpit of Europe". Now we see the topographical evidence of the Great War in much the same way - earthworks, mine craters, cemeteries and pill boxes are the archaeological remains which draw the pilgrims and the curious to the Western Front.

Field Fortifications are as old as war itself, and there was little new about the trench systems of 1914-18. The difference between this and previous wars was largely one of scale and technology, and it does not require a massive leap of the imagination to perceive the similarities between, say, Marlborough's sieges in the Low Countries, the stalemate in the trenches of the Crimea, the extensive field-works of the American Civil War, and the shambles of the Somme.

And yet the experience of 1914-18 is peculiarly with us, in the form of the vast quantities of histories, autobiographies, literary and artistic works which were generated by this, the first of the modern wars of whole populations which affected Europe. We feel for the men and women, and for the land, of the Great War as for no previous war. We feel an intimacy with the human experience and with the transformed landscape of the Western Front.

The "Old Front Line" was created in the closing months of 1914. Shallow muddy trenches, at first disconnected, and ragged sandbag breastworks straggled across sodden meadows and plough around Ypres and Armentières, and southwards past Richebourg and Festubert. Rat-gnawed corpses huddled no-man's-land, hung on the rusting wire, slowly dissolved into the stinking mud. The ground changed at Givenchy. South of the La Bassée Canal the clay-covered chalk downland ran past Loos, Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy Ridge. It continued around Arras to Gommecourt, Beaumont Hamel, the Ancre, Thiepval, La Boisselle and Fricourt to the Somme. These were battlefields like no others before. The pattern was set by the great French attacks of 1915 in Artois and Champagne, and by the German assault on Verdun which started in February 1916. The White Goddess stalked the lunar landscape of Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele. I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine . . . .

I am greatly indebted to many people and institutions for their help, advice and encouragement in my research and publication effort over the past ten years. Chief among these are Peter Clark (Map Research & Library Group, MCE, RE, Royal Geographical Society, and Charles Close Society), Ian Mumford (MRLG, MCE, RE, and CCS) , Francis Herbert (RGS), Yoland Hodson, Tim Nicholson, Roger Hellyer, Richard Oliver (CCS), Peter Scott and Trevor Pidgeon (Western Front Association), David Nash and Colin Bruce (Imperial War Museum), Tony Campbell and Bob MacIntosh (British Library Map Library), Georges Rachaine, Colonel Mike Nolan, the staff of the Public Record Office, Kew, Cambridge University Library, the Royal Engineers Institution Library, the Intelligence Corps Museum, the Royal Artillery Institution and many others to whom I extend my thanks even if I cannot mention them all here. Particular thanks go to Alan Sillitoe, whose strong interest in trench maps echoes my own, for his fascinating and engaging preface, and to Ian Mumford for his erudite note on trench maps in the public domain, which should help to make those maps more accessible to the general public. In conclusion I should like to record my gratitude to the Headmaster and Governors of Brighton College, who in 1990 awarded me a sabbatical term so that I could bring my researches to some sort of completion and prepare some of the material for publication. Like my earlier book on the 1:10,000 Series (GSGS 3062), this volume is more in the nature of an interim offering, and I hope at some date in the future to be able to publish my full History of Field Survey on the Western Front 1914-18.
[This was duly published by Mapbooks under the title Artillery’s Astrologers – A History of British Survey and Mapping on the Western Front 1914-1918, in 1999. Both this book, and Topography of Armageddon, are still in print and can be obtained from Naval & Military Press].

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Trench Map publications

The following publications by Peter Chasseaud about British First World War trench maps, and other aspects of engineer survey (Maps and Printing Sections, Topographical Sections, Field Survey Companies, Field Survey Battalions), artillery survey, aerial photography, topographical intelligence, artillery intelligence (including sound ranging, flash spotting, air photos, etc.), etc., are at present available, several of them from Naval & Military Press.

Topopgraphy of Armaggedon - A British Trench Map Atlas of the Western Front, 1914-1918 (Mapbooks, 1991 & 1998).

Artillery's Astrologers - A History of British Survey and Mapping on the Western Front, 1914-1918 (Mapbooks, 1999).

Grasping Gallipoli - Terrain, Maps and Failure at the Dardanelles (with Peter Doyle) (Spellmount, 2005).

Rats Alley - Trench Names of the Western Front, 1914-1918 (Spellmount 2006).