THE First World War was a conflict where slaughter became scientific, with sectors of the battlefields broken down into diagrammatic form and all thoroughly mapped out.

There were many factors behind this, as Dr Peter Chasseaud, an historian of military cartography, explains in this book boasting 150 period maps and produced in association with the Imperial War Museum.

Mass literacy meant more people could read maps, which could be produced a lot more cheaply thanks to new printing technology.

Detailed planning – aided by plans of the ground – was essential to any operation on the mostly static Western Front, not only to give soldiers at least some sense of the landscape they had to fight in but also to locate enemy defences, particularly the big guns which dominated the battlefields.

Technological advances such as primitive sound-ranging devices and particularly the advent of the aeroplane and rapidly improving aerial photography expanded the scope of mapping to aid military action.

This was put to various uses, not just charting enemy positions. A British administrative map showed in great detail the huge infrastructure Allied forces had in the area of the Passchendaele Ridge in March 1918, including barracks, gun batteries, railway lines and roads, supply dumps and dressing stations – a literally graphic illustration of the vast back-up organisation required by a modern army.

The previous summer, during the Third Battle of Ypres which culminated at Passchendaele, Dr Chasseaud records that the British Tank Corps carefully studied the waterlogged ground and prepared maps of the “swamp area” to try to convince the top brass that their vehicles would come to a very sticky end if they were asked to attack there – predictions which were ignored and subsequently came all too true. Meanwhile, in their great final attacks of 1918, German stormtroopers were supplied with maps showing the lie of the land they had to advance across, with valleys marked in green to help them infiltrate behind Allied lines.

But we’re not just talking about military maps here. People on both sides produced “propaganda maps”, illustrations intended to explain the war to a more widely literate population than ever before – and to expound the justice of the conflicting causes.

They included maps from the start of the war showing the relative strength of both sides, while one from the Daily Mail illustrating the naval conflict in the North Sea marked the positions of individual U-Boat sinkings as well as major engagements, particularly the Battle of Jutland, the only time the main British and German fleets clashed.

Dr Chasseaud also includes pre-war maps to illustrate how the “great powers” lined up in the build-up to war and how the Balkans became the focus of international tensions. Similarly the post-war maps show how the various peace treaties redrew the borders of Europe and the Middle East, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

The maps and period photographs (including aerial ones which would be used to produce maps) are accompanied by text explaining the background to the conflict, how it developed into industrial mass warfare, and the implications of the peace that followed.

As with any history of such a contentious subject there are comments which some will dispute; the one that jumped out at me was the suggestion that Lloyd George was responsible for the Battle of Third Ypres and Passchendaele. The “Welsh Wizard” may have committed many misdemeanours, but it seems harsh to blame him for that particular bloodbath.

Which brings me to the final map reproduced in this book; a British one of the Zonnebeke-Passchendaeale area “showing the number of bodies collected after the war from each 500-yard map square” – lest we forget.

Mapping The First World War, by Dr Peter Chasseaud. The Great War Through Maps From 1914 To 1918. Published in hardback by Collins, price £30.