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An army of map-makers

An army of map-makers

With their skilful mix of symbolism and information, maps were effective propaganda tools during the first and second world wars

With their skilful mix of symbolism and information, maps were effective propaganda tools during the first and second world wars

Fred Maynard | October 4th 2016

“The fascist octopus has sung its swansong”. George Orwell’s classic example of a mixed metaphor came to mind walking around “War Map”, a new exhibition at London’s Map House. In this collection of military maps from the first half of the 20th century, monstrous eight-tentacled beasts pop up so often that you could be forgiven for thinking they were a standard cartographical feature.

The maps here are from Europe and America and are by various, occasionally anonymous, illustrators. Some, like the maps of the British illustrator Frederick Rose, were printed and sold individually to the public. Some were published in newspapers and magazines. Others were displayed in public places alongside government-sponsored posters. 

In the days before television infographics, maps had to impart a huge amount of information: as well as explaining where the Austro-Hungarian Empire was, an illustrator might demonstrate its alliances, its military strength – and the attitude another country’s citizens were expected to have towards it. Who knows how many of the references crammed in to these maps were understood or even noticed by the average reader. More obvious, and unsettling, is their propaganda value. As witty and beautiful as they are, their unsubtle visions of a threatening outside world – reminiscent of medieval warnings about terra incognita, “here be monsters” – both reflected and encouraged jingoism.

Frederick Rose, “John Bull and his Friends” (1900)

A decade before the first world war, Britain was not as anti-German as it would soon become. Instead, our eye is drawn towards Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, extending its tentacles around Poland, China and Finland. John Bull (Britain) keeps colonies as ammunition under his feet. His legs are scratched by the wild cats of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (the Boer War, then being fought in South Africa, seemed the most pressing concern at the time) and he is scolded by a rebellious Irish woman. Spain and Turkey recline, these former powers now stagnant and weak. Germany is cramped and aching to break out, while the Austro-Hungarians threaten with daggers drawn. The tension is palpable, but there is no clear idea of what shape a war will take.

 

E. Zimmerman, “Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark!” (1914)

By the time the war started, the British had had to re-evaluate their opinions of enemies and allies. Gone is the Russian octopus, replaced with an image of Tsar Nicholas riding a steamroller toward the Central Powers (it was thought that the Russian military manpower would be decisive). A French poodle and British bulldog face off against a German dachshund and Austrian mongrel representing the multi-ethnic Hapsburg Empire. Yet this take on Shakespeare’s “dogs of war” is a remarkably cheerful one, reflecting the optimistic view in the early months of the war that it would all be over quickly.

 

J.H. Amschewitz, “Kill That Eagle!” (1914)

This lithograph by John Henry Amschewitz, a British painter, was originally printed in London by a commercial mapmaker, Geographia. “Business as usual” is a reference to Winston Churchill’s belief that, despite the war, Britain would maintain its strength as a trading nation. Soon after it was published, the map was copied by a German publisher in Hamburg. The words and imagery remained the same, but to German eyes “Business as usual” meant something quite different: that war is Britain’s default setting. As for the German eagle, it’s either being heroically attacked or cruelly surrounded, depending on your viewpoint. 

 

F. Klimesch, “What would remain of the Entente...” (c. 1918)

“What would remain of the Entente if it took seriously the rights of self-determination and let go of the leash?” asks this German propaganda map from the final year of the first world war. It portrays the Allies as hypocrites for opposing German imperialism while having colonies themselves – here represented by animals on leashes. Not that it’s entirely accurate: Texas and Florida are portrayed as American colonies even though they were full states. 

 

Rex Whistler, “Flying Visit of Truth to Berlin” (1939)

This bomber’s-eye view of Berlin by Rex Whistler, a prominent British artist, shows the RAF as putti in flying goggles, visiting Berlin in the "leaflet raid" of October 1st, 1939. Prevented from dropping bombs on civilian areas until May 1940, propaganda leaflets were dropped instead. In the top left-hand corner is Britannia; in the bottom right-hand corner, Hitler, Goebbels and Goering shake their fists while Von Ribbentrop cowers under the table. Whistler continued painting after joining the army, hanging his bucket of paintbrushes from his tank. He was killed in action in 1944, aged just 39.

 

Unknown, “Be Assured - the Amputations are Proceeding Methodically” (1941)

Seeing Churchill in the role of evil octopus is jarring to modern eyes. Like Klimesch’s map from the first world war, it plays into anxieties about British colonialism, this time from a French perspective. The Nazi propaganda unit in Vichy France, the Propaganda Abteilung Frankreich, tried to depict Britain as the real enemy of the French. As Churchill reaches across the globe to snatch French colonies his limbs are severed by French forces. This was smart messaging: a reminder of old colonial rivalries.

 

Frederick Donald Blake, “Britain – Spearhead of Attack” (c.1944)

As the second world war dragged on and turned into a contest of material resources, the simpler jingoistic maps of previous years began to give way to more detailed diagrams of logistics and supplies. Artists helped ordinary people become more informed about the way wars were actually fought. Here Blake mixes information with attitude. While it offers a more granular view of British resources and German targets, it’s clear where the balance of power lies: Britain is stuffed with food, coal, tanks and electric power; Europe is a scene of relentness destruction; and Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr, is one big conflagration.  

 

Anonymous, “This is what can be expected if Europe succumbs to Bolshevism” (1944)

Issued in Bulgaria just before the Red Army overthrew the pro-German government on September 9th, 1944, this map portrays the dangers of communist rule. The Lord Chancellor of Britain is hacked down in front of the Houses of Parliament, the pope and a cardinal are hanged in front of St Peter’s in Rome, a mosque burns in Turkey while the Orthodox church is looted in Russia. The emphasis on the persecution of religion is a frequent trope of anti-communist propaganda. It is surprising that the map survived the period of communist rule that followed.

 

“World War 2 in the North Sea Area” (1944)

This map, produced by the American navy, shows the effort the Allied forces put into educating their troops. Combining flows of ships, U-boats and planes into one vast image, an attempt is made to tell the story of the whole war up to this point. The advances in the display of information are clear: the map is projected on to a globe including a topographical display of Europe, arrows clearly display force projection and targets, and a sophisticated series of vignettes narrate events in a straightforward manner. The map would have been displayed in barracks as a way of disseminating military information to rank and file soldiers. Though the standard of art is high, it is a primarily a practical document, which makes it stand out among the more symbolic maps in this exhibition.

War Map Map House until November 18th

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