Military Mapping: The Grid System

One of the newest inventions in military map making was the use of grids and coordinates. Up to the First World War, firing techniques for field artillery was one of “trial and error.” This meant that an artillery battery had to shoot itself in. It registered on its target by a series of trial shots, making corrections with each shot. The problem was that the guns’ maximum range was beyond that of the observer’s vision and that any future war would have considerable night fire. A new system was needed which fixed geodetically the location of both gun and target. Leading up to the First World War, the French had been investigating the possibilities of new firing techniques. Eventually they found a new technique with the rectangular coordinate system, also known also known as the grid system. This system was already used in surveying, but had not been put to military use. A rectangularcoordinate system consists of two sets of equal-spaced parallel lines mutually perpendicular to one another, forming a pattern of squares.

The invention of the coordinate system was revolutionary. With this system the artillery batteries could calculate the distance between them and the enemy positions. They could aim their guns without seeing the enemy themselves. As a result of this indirect artillery fire, the element of surprise returned to war and it made the artillery deadlier than it already was. The use of artillery observers enhanced this process because they would predict the enemy’s position and give directions for fire to the artillery crew. Peter Chasseaud named them the artillery’s astrologers. The sight of this might have left a strange impression to soldiers. One such soldier was Robert Graves , who recounted: ‘The gunner fired not at people but at map-references … Even when an observation officer in an aeroplane or captive balloon, or on a church spire directed the guns, it seemed random, somehow.’

A large-scale tactical map used by the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in 1918.

Beyond The Artillery

Copy of the Operation Order given to brigades of the 8th Division
National Archives London, WO/95/1730

By investigating the archives of the combat units that fought in the First World War it becomes clear that the language of the map slowly started to be used at a battalion level. It was around, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on March 10, 1915, the first planned trench offensive by the British Army during the war, that coordinates first show up in the war diaries of the War Diaries of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment. `During the small hours of the morning of the 11th A & B Coys had to move in close support of the Irish Rifles. At about 5am we had orders to collect the battalion in some trenches near us on our left rear. To do this the H.Q. of the battalion moved to a pt (x) just S of (18).’

An operation order was issued early in the morning of March 11th, 1915. It seems that the operations order was given to all three Rifle Brigades of the 8th Division. The order contained one special note for the 25th Brigade which was that ‘on relief, Rifle Brigade will assemble under covers of high trees (26).(43). Royal Berr’s in rear of Rifle Brigade – Lincolnshire R.I.R. on line (47) (67).’ This piece shows that the map was not only used to retrieve information on the battlefield, but it was also used to coordinate troops movements by using some sort of numerical reference system that was both available on the maps used by the battalion and somewhere higher up the organization. This also becomes clear in the diary of Robert Graves, whose company was issued an order ‘to build two uniform strong-points at such-and-such a map reference.’

In short, the grid system unexpectedly revolutionized the command and control of combat units. Because, for the first time in war, troops could refer to every single location on the battlefield. It made the map useful down to Companies and possibly Platoons. In World War II it impacted warfare even more as a result of better communication due to the new radio inventions which allowed soldiers on the battlefield to communcate with their superiors.

Sources Used:

  • Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929, 2000 eBook).
  • Peter Chasseaud, Artillery’s Astrologers: A History of British Survey & Mapping on the Western Front 1914-1918 (1999)
  • National Archives London, WO/95/1730, ‘2nd Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment’
  • National Archives London, WO/95/2304, ‘1st Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers’
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