‘Where Are Our Boys?’ by Martin Woods


Where Are our Boys: How Newsmaps Won the Great War Martin Woods

2016, 227p & notes

Now that I come to think of it,  maps don’t figure prominently in our graphic-rich environment much any more.  I’m old enough to remember wall maps strung up on a classroom wall, and I’m old-fashioned enough to still have a Melways in the car.  Our use of maps has become very functional and specific. Google Maps takes you right to where you’re looking and the  GPS in your car gives a one-dimensional snapshot of your immediate surroundings as you travel to your pre-selected destination. While there are still maps occasionally in newspapers and on television news – to pinpoint the sites of a specific event like an earthquake, tsunami or terrorist events, for example- I’m not particularly aware of maps that show a broad region and topographical features any more. Perhaps that’s why I’d be hard-pressed, I must confess, to tell you which countries border Syria- or even exactly where Syria is, even though it’s on the news every night.

However, few maps are completely neutral- or even accurate, as the ‘true size’ map makes clear.  Even that world map of my memory, with the pink Commonwealth countries, was an argument for Empire, and as the Worldmapper website shows, it is possible to revision the world according to different parameters, depending on the argument you want to make.  And as Martin Woods shows us in his book Where Are Our Boys? this was also true in the more map-oriented environment of World War I where Australian families, anxious about ‘our boys’ on the battlefields were exposed to maps in an unprecedented way.  ‘Newsmaps’, as Wood coins them, were newspaper maps that were placed in the news, often at the core of the commentary and became “the window through which most news was viewed and understood” (p. 1).  His book focuses on the production and reception of maps for an Australian readership during the years 1914-18 and thus reflects the narrative of the time  of ANZAC troops fighting within the bigger picture of a British war, and not the skewed nationalistic map of ANZAC commemoration-tourism that we hold today.

The opening chapter of the book places the WWI newsmaps into a longer cartographic tradition, springing from the late 16th century with the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s maps from c.90-179CE. and the expansion of printing techniques, particularly during the Dutch Golden Age, which enabled the production of maps to demonstrate exploration, urbanization and -especially- the bird’s eye view of battles and sieges. Maps were fundamental to military strategy, both for commanders and commentators.  However, these maps were separate artefacts to be unrolled and consulted alongside the news received either by despatch, word of mouth or, later, through the columns of newspapers.While the publication of maps as a separate product continued into the twentieth century, this book emphasizes the integration of the map into the newspaper itself as a ‘newsmap’.

As Chapter 2 ‘Remaking the Map of Europe’ shows, maps, generally imported from Britain, were popular with Australian readers.  Geography had been added to the school curriculum in the 1870s, and maps were used to track the progress of explorers across the Australian continent. Scouts and cadets learned map-reading skills, and the compulsory military training for men and boys aged 12-26 under the Commonwealth Defence Act of 1911 exposed more men to maps.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, newspaper consumption reached an all time high in Australia (p. 43). The first map produced in an Australian newspaper accompanied a report of the Crimean War in the Sydney Illustrated News published on 13 May 1854, and during the Boer War, maps were embedded into news articles or placed alongside correspondents’ reports.  This was a practice that continued with the Russo/Japanese War, the San Francisco earthquake and the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-12. In this way, Australians were exposed to a steady diet of maps to explain conflicts and risings in Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Balkans had been an area of concern in Australian newspapers from 1908 onwards, but for Australian readers on the other side of the world, the rapid transition to war came as a jolt.  At this stage, the whole world was the stage and Ch. 3 ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor’ demonstrates, the maps were big too, with large wall and billboard maps produced for shared consumption, like the large billboard map outside the the Argus office.  Commercial maps were produced for home use  by companies like Robur Tea, or by the newspapers as a special feature.  Many of these maps were cheaply produced and ephemeral, hence their relative scarcity today.  As attention focussed on the French/German frontier and Belgium, the maps became smaller in scale, moving from one battle front to another.  The German colonies now came into contention and war maps now often had a breakout box showing Australia’s proximity to the Pacific colonies.

With all this emphasis on Europe, France and Belgium there was initial disbelief when the ANZACs were sent to Egypt instead of the European front (Chapter 4). As 21st century Australians, we now know the layout of the Gallipoli peninsular better than Australian readers did at the time, (notwithstanding our relative cartographic ignorance).  The actual location of the soldiers was not divulged until mid-May and the Dardenelles were rarely shown on world maps at the time. It was not until September that a detailed map of the Gallipoli peninsula was issued. Shortly afterward, the ‘War Map of the Dardenelles and Bosporus’ was forwarded to schools, where it was intended that it form the basis of classroom discussion. A Robur war map was available for subscribers giving a bird’s eye view, unconstrained by detail and optimistically misleading, complete with little flags to pin onto the map to show progress. But of course, as we know, there was little progress, and little sense of orderly movement in the heavily censored letters home. Maps issued after the withdrawal were more detailed and provided the topographic detail necessary to make sense of what had happened, especially H.E.C. Robinson’s  map ‘ANZAC: Date of Landing April 1915: Date of Evacuation Dec 19-20 1915’ which was issued as a fundraiser in April 1916 in time for the first anniversary of the landing.

In Chapter 5 ‘Reading the Front’, Woods emphasizes that maps were just one part of the printed deluge that swept across Commonwealth readers. Australia was part of an Empire-wide publishing market, and there was lots of analysis, with special ‘War Issues’, technical articles, campaign diaries and maps, poetry, sheet music and novels.  Special collections of maps were marketed as gifts.  War films were shown at cinemas, and he notes in particular animated battle maps that were shown as shorts before the main feature, where using stop-motion animation, simple flag armies were shown moving across the screen (my- it was a simpler time!). The social aspect of map reading is emphasized, deepening our understanding of the homefront response to the war.

With the shift to ‘Somewhere in France’ (Chapter 6) from 1916 onwards, readers were frustrated by the lack of detail about Verdun and and readers now were aware that lack of detail generally indicated enemy gains. Although the ANZACs landed in France in March 1916, little was noted in the newspapers for two months.  When maps for public consumption began being produced again,aerial photography added a new perspective to maps. Nonetheless, maps of the Western front were in themselves a form of fantasy which did not capture the obliteration of geography caused by trench warfare.   The London-based Daily Mail syndicated its birds-eye map across the world which showed villages and farms that were no longer there. Today – and especially during this and the next two years- Australians are aware of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Passchendaele, but readers of the day saw them as part of the wider campaign and geography of ‘Flanders’.  There was genuine fear that Britain itself would be invaded, but by July 1918 the narrative had shifted. Instead of fear and gloom, there were more hyperbolic, nationalistic reports, and instead of the ebb-and-flow nature of the news, there were almost unalloyed good tidings.

By the latter half of 1918, as Ch 7 ‘Victory – In memorium’ shows, the newspapers displayed the discordancy of headlines urging victory, while the personal columns and lists of casualties revealed the ongoing sadness.  Henry B. Manderson (Melbourne) rather prematurely issued the ‘Victory Instant Reference Large Scale War Map of Western Europe and Australian Fighting Fronts’ in mid 1918, with an index of 7000 place names, and locations of Australian cemeteries.  The map came complete with British, French, Italian, Australian and American flags and instructions to

Cut the flags out, mount on pins, and from the information published in the newspapers each morning you may, by moving the flags, follow the movements of the various armies as they retreat or advance (p. 210)

Australian crowds anticipated the Armistice, with the Argus war billboard in front of the Argus building being torn down by jubilant crowds on 9th November.  Following the announcement of peace, maps were produced showing the reconfiguration of Europe, and local maps revealed Australia’s new interest in Germany’s Pacific holdings, especially Nauru. Within months the first battleground tourism maps were being produced, for Australians wealthy enough to make their own pilgrimages to visit the sites where their sons and husbands fell.

This is a clearly written,  beautifully produced book,with full colour maps on nearly every page. Its chronological approach presupposes a certain familiarity with the progress of WWI, but its emphasis is on the media depiction of the war and its homefront reception.   If I have one criticism, it is that I was not always aware that the map under discussion would be on the next page, and I would have appreciated a note in brackets, perhaps, indicating the page on which the map might be found if it was included.

I do find myself questioning, though, the subtitle “How Newsmaps Won the Great War”.  It’s a big claim, and not one that Woods addresses in detail. Certainly, as he notes:

The war of 1914-1918 was a modern, mechanised, media-fuelled global conflict, in which newsmaps were part of a campaign bolstering public confidence, punctuated by well-pitched moments of alarm… To a map- and news- literate early twentieth-century audience, the power of maps was undoubtedly more immediate and widespread than in any previous war (p. 224)

War maps did, as he claims, prove a template for reading the war as it unfolded, and military propaganda notwithstanding, “contemporary audiences were arguably better acquainted with the flow of events than most of us today, and more able to understand the context of the Great War.” (p. 227). They did, as he also claims, have an impact on the geographical imagination and educational curriculum and raised expectations of the possibilities of technology.  But newsmaps won the war? I’m not convinced. The war wasn’t won staring at the huge map on the Argus billboard, or moving the flag pins on a map on the other side of the world while Mother knitted socks- scenarios that Woods captures so well. As Woods has shown us, newsmaps did not drive actions, but instead were a commodity created for an audience  whose thoughts and prayers spanned the globe, unconstrained by geography.

Source: Review copy




One response to “‘Where Are Our Boys?’ by Martin Woods

  1. I have an Australia map on the wall above my desk which I find invaluable, and yes a (Perth) ‘melways’ in my car – little screens don’t give me enough perspective. But I do appreciate that every location in a story on-line can be shown on a map with just one click.

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