By Philip Parker
On the afternoon of 13 January 1842, a dusty, blood-stained figure was spotted riding pell-mell towards the British fort at Jalalabad in Afghanistan. This apparition was Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, the sole survivor of one of Britain’s greatest military disasters, the retreat from Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Brydon told the shocked Jalalabad garrison of the carnage as the 16,000-strong column of British soldiers, Indian sepoys, their families and servants were picked off as they struggled through mountain passes, forded half-frozen rivers, or simply died of exposure. One look at the map might have explained it all more simply: Letts 1900 map of Afghanistan (which came with additional flags “for sticking in the view”) has two red-coated British troopers gazing over the impossibly mountainous Afghan landscape, the route from Kabul through the narrow pass to Jalalabad a clearly enticing spot for an ambush.
Cartography and war have been inextricably linked since surveying and printing techniques advanced sufficiently to provide generals with maps accurate enough for them to plan campaigns and manoeuvre the ever-growing armies of the 16th-century gunpowder age. History of War in Maps presents a very particular form of this military mapping: more than 60 maps which were produced after a war or battle to tell its story, either for propaganda purposes (in the case of the victors) or simply to slake the thirst for information for contemporary and historical information as literacy spread and books became cheaper.
Yet such maps do not simply repeat the facts of the battle – they elegantly reveal much that dense narrative accounts or terse military despatches leave obscured or truncated. The map of the Siege of Maastricht in 1673 portrays the complex trench systems devised by Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, visual proof of his genius as a military engineer, while that of the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863 shows the formidable defensive positions which Union General Ulysses S Grant had to overcome, running river blockades and advancing through the town’s girdle of marshes and bayous to break the resistance of the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy”. One glance, too, at the map of battlefield of Balaklava reveals the gauntlet of Russian guns flanking and blocking the valley through which Lord Lucan sent the Light Brigade to their deaths, a charge labelled after the event as heroic, but in which 113 men died needlessly.
Many of the maps in the book are works of art in themselves, such as Emanuel Bowen’s beautiful 1732 map of the Battle of Cannae, exquisitely depicting the fatal trap into which the Hannibal sucked his over-confident Roman adversaries, their lines ever more compressed into a tightening circle of death by the Carthaginian cavalry which hems them in. Others are poignant reminders of the cost of war, such as the commemorative map made by the German 7th Panzer Division of its initial advance through the Soviet Union in 1941. Its bold, confident lines and somewhat sepia hue seem with hindsight ironic in introducing a campaign that stalled amid poor logistics, heavy rain that created mud mires which held tanks fast like glue, and a freezing cold winter that magnified the scale of the disaster and led one German soldier to remark in his diary that “there are no rules of war here”.
From Kadesh – the first battle of which we have a detailed account, in 1275 BC between Hittite and Egyptian chariot armies – to Kharkiv, at the front-line of the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the landscape of war is vast, in its global extent, the persistence with which great powers have sought to wage it to impose their will, and the inevitable cost to the soldiers and civilians who suffer its effects. History of War in Maps presents a unique historical panorama through the maps which bear witness to those conflicts.