Top critical review
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on 7 October 2015
This is a peculiar book that doesn't really do "what it says on the cover". First, a couple of plus points - it is very heavily illustrated, and the production is excellent. There is barely a double page spread without at least one map or photograph, and several where the double is all map / photograph. Often, on full page illustrations, these run right to the edges of the page; no margin left; making maximum use of the space. I'd guess about half of the illustrations are maps of one sort or another, a quarter or so are aerial photographs, both vertical & oblique. The first minor criticism is that too many of the remaining photo's are the stock, over-used ones, such as the German officer in a pickelhaube reading the declaration of war to a crowd, or the dead German in a Somme trench whose head has been reduced to a skull (by rats, I've always presumed!).
A more serious criticism is that it's not really a book about mapping WWI, nor is it telling the story of the war through maps. What you have is an introduction of some dozen pages that describes the mapping techniques used, the main belligerents mapping organisations & how they evolved, and a few technical points & statistics. That's practically it. From that point, the remainder of the book is almost nothing more than a brief overview of the war; occasionally there'll be two or three paragraphs explaining advances in e.g. artillery registration or reconnaissance, which do relate to mapping. It is, otherwise, brief - consider how much of the space is taken up by illustrations (and it's a lot) and, at only 300 or so pages, it has little choice in the matter.
The next criticism is that there is, at times, a real disconnect between the maps & the text. Except that the book is ordered by years & campaigns & the illustrations belong to each chapter, there is next to no attempt to explain what you are looking at, or why they have been used. The captions bear little real information, and the text often bears no relation to the illustrations used at the point they appear. Finally, despite the large size of many illustrations, it is, often as not, difficult or impossible to make out any detail, hence my criticism that you often don't really understand what you're expected to get from the map. I see the kindle edition has been heavily criticised for the non-zoomable small size of the maps. Believe me, the book isn't a lot better. Even with a magnifying glass, you'd struggle to make out much detail on many maps.
A great example of all of this is P.114-5, where the text is talking about Mesopotamia. The latter is a full page map of the Baghdad-Karbala area. Most of P.114 is taken up with a detail from the same map, which is great, and also, since the text has just been talking about General Townshend's failed advance & the Siege of Kut (on the detail map), it all actually relates for a change... Except that's not quite true. It was only after squinting at P.115 (detail difficult to make out) & going back to the captions, that I realised that P.114 was map TC143, and P.115 was TC144 - different maps, and though both did bear an obvious relation to the text, that isn't always the case.
The book lacks two things - any real link between most of the text & the illustrations or the text & the title, and a dvd of zoomable full size maps, so that you can examine them properly. As a heavily illustrated overview history, it's not bad, but there are better overviews at better prices (although they don't concentrate on maps), and this doesn't really do what it claims to. If you want some maps & panoramic photographs, try Peter Barton's also IWM-endorsed Battlefields of WWI (not quite an accurate title), which does do what its sub-title says - Panoramas of the Western Front. It includes a dvd of zoomable panoramas too! I'm not displeased with my purchase of this book, but then I got mine in a sale for £6. At £20+, this is only OK i.e. 3*.