Collecting World War One Maps

In January 1915, on the Western Front between Ypres and Bethune, British soldiers arrested a suspected spy. Although the "spy" was wearing a British uniform, he carried an unfamiliar tool, so the arresting soldiers were suspicious. The tool, explained the captive, was called a theodolite, and it was a new type of surveying instrument. The Brits were not impressed with this explanation. Surely, they thought, such advanced technology could only be in possession of the Germans. A cursory investigation turned up the truth: the suspected spy was a British surveyor, come to make new maps of the front lines using a new technology.

At the beginning of World War One, existing field maps were woefully inadequate. The British had none of their own, and relied on forty-year-old French maps that had been used in the Franco-Prussian War. These maps were printed on a 1:80 scale and were used for wide-area tactical positioning of cannon, cavalry, and troops. The Kaiser's army didn't fight with cannon and cavalry, though. They fought a new type of war, using tactics that included flame throwers, poison gas, machine guns, and artillery whose range was measured in miles rather than yards. This was to be the era of trench warfare, where one's enemy was often out of visual range and a fatal blow could come at any time, from anywhere. New maps were needed in order to locate the enemy.

Because of the failure of existing maps, World War One ushered in a renaissance in cartography. New map-making techniques were quickly developed by surveyors and cartographers recruited from around the world. Old surveying methods such as anchoring a map with a landmark like a church tower or well-known building were useless. On the front lines, German artillery destroyed everything above ground level; a landmark might be there one day and gone the next. Consequently, British, French, and American surveyors routinely risked forays behind enemy lines in order to locate German trench and artillery locations. New techniques like aerial photography and radio-beam positioning contributed to the accuracy of Expeditionary Force maps. Improved military maps were used for training exercises, troop dispositions, artillery targeting, and developing the battlefield tactics that ultimately defeated the Kaiser's army. By the end of the war Alliance (British, French, American) artillery was hitting their targets with better than 90% accuracy.

Improved map-making quickly spilled over into the private sector. Information-starved citizens were anxious for news of the war. Newspaper publishers regularly printed maps to illustrate the struggle. Pictorial propaganda maps were produced to symbolize the conflicting ideals of the combatants, and general territorial maps were printed as references for a geography-curious public.

Because of the variety of maps printed between 1914-1918, collecting World War One maps is a fascinating hobby. These maps not only illustrate the conflict that shaped the political boundaries and alliances of the 20th Century; they reveal substantial technological evolution within a short period of time; and exhibit the artistic and lithographic techniques of the period.

In the 21st Century, digital manipulation and reproduction of images has become commonplace. Collectors regularly encounter fakes and facsimiles. Experienced eyes and hands can spot the phonies, but those new to the hobby benefit from knowing a few points of connoisseurship and factors that affect value. Below are a few guidelines for inspecting a purportedly authentic World War One map.

  • First, determine if the map is a facsimile. Modern reproductions are easy to spot by looking closely with a jeweler's loupe or 8 x magnifying glasses. Digitally reproduced images will be made up of tiny dots rather than the solid lines created by a printing press.
  • Maps made for field use have multiple folds (like a paper road map). Maps made for insertion into newspapers or magazines will have a center staple line or fold in the middle. Framed reproduction maps will have no folds.
  • A reproduced map will generally be smaller than an original map. Of course, one must have a reference in order to know the size of an original map; the collections at the New York Public Library and the British National Archives (links below) are helpful in researching such data.
  • Remember, field maps were working tools: they were opened often, so tears at the creases are commonplace. They may often have coffee or food stains and show dirt from handling. They will also show "age spots", such as browning around the edges a foxing (brown spots) on the paper.

Factors affecting price include:

  • Size: When condition is equivalent, large maps are generally more valuable than small maps.
  • Rarity. Some field maps are hard to come by because they weren’t printed in large quantities to begin with. The market supply of a given map can be checked by referencing eBay or a collector’s database. Be aware that if there has been an unusually large number of a particular map sold within the past year, it may be a fake.
  • Condition: Battlefield-used maps have a certain panache, but they must still be readable in order to be valuable.
  • Provenance: If a map can be traced to a particular General or war hero, its value will multiply greatly.
  • Modifications: Maps that have been modified to fit a frame will often have trimmed or false margins, which lessen a map's value.

The range of eBay auction prices for authentic World War One maps range from $12 USD (January 2007) for a 76cm x 88cm fold-out map of Ypres to $66 USD (August 2013) for a 102cm x 74cm 1918 map of Alliance railway lines and trenches.

References for further study:

The World Class Antiques Insider

Receive every month updates on marketplace highlights, collector editorials, exclusive subscriber discounts, events, video releases, and much more by subscribing today.

* indicates required
Intuit Mailchimp

Buy & Sell Antiques In The Marketplace

  • Fixed price listings
  • Classifieds listings
  • No setup fees
  • No commitments
  • $49USD flat monthly fee

World Class Antiques Marketplace

Shop the Marketplace

Connect with antiques collectors around the world with the World Class Antiques Marketplace

Shop the Marketplace

Sell in the Marketplace

List your item with the World Class Antiques Marketplace either as a Fixed-Price or Classifieds.

Start selling in the Marketplace

Leave a Comment