First World War trench maps go digital through McMaster project

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By Mark McNeil

A key strategy of First World War trench warfare involved sending pilots in flimsy planes on dangerous missions over European battlefields to take aerial photographs.

The pictures formed the basis of hand-drawn maps, hustled to officers for use as military intelligence and to front-line soldiers so they would know where to aim their artillery.

The information could mean the difference between winning and losing a battle.

"Military leaders would compare photos to see if there were changes from the last time the area was photographed. They'd look for forests that had been suddenly cleared. That could mean a new gun emplacement," says McMaster University map specialist Gord Beck. "They'd try to figure out how the German supply network worked."

With the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War this summer, McMaster is finishing a massive project to digitize more than 1,350 trench maps and 580 photos from France and Belgium the university has acquired over the years.

Those artifacts join previous online offerings from McMaster that include more than 340 First World War recruitment posters and dozens of copies of sheet music for war songs. (In some cases, there are audio files of what the song sounds like.)

The collection is fascinating because it offers insight into the war from 1914 to 1918 and site visitors can zoom in on the maps to see fine details.

"The maps online have all been scanned at 600 dots per inch. The files are a gigabyte in size," says McMaster map specialist Gord Beck. "When you zoom in, you can actually see them better than if you were in the map collection with a magnifying glass."

So far, 500 maps and 600 photos are available here. Beck says the university hopes to have the rest of its collection uploaded by summer.

McMaster has had an impressive collection of First World War maps for decades, but its holdings became internationally renowned when the university purchased the $120,000 Western Front collection of English historian Peter Chasseaud. McMaster received a grant from the Canadian heritage ministry to make the purchase in 2009.

Beck says there's been great interest in the maps because of the war's centennial coming up.

The online collection has generated attention from historians, archeologists, students, filmmakers and genealogists. The maps have been consulted by European developers looking for clues about what might lurk beneath the ground at a various locations, whether it be items of historical interest or perhaps even undetonated bombs.

McMaster's online First World War collection


Posters, music and other items