With Remembrance Day upon us, many Canadians have been proudly wearing a red poppy to show our respect for this country's veterans. The tradition of the poppy stretches back generations to the period immediately following the First World War, after Canadian soldier John McCrae brought the poppy into popular consciousness with his poem In Flanders Fields.

Flanders field Poem - warmesuem.jpg

(photo: Copy of In Flanders Field Poem)



McCrae wrote the poem in the spring of 1915, during heavy fighting on the Belgian front. Here, poppy seeds were widely scattered by farmers' plows prior to the fighting, then lay dormant in the soil. That spring was particularly warm, and when the earth was disturbed by the fighting, the seeds began to germinate and grow. Thus, the bright red poppy became the first plant to emerge out of an otherwise desolate landscape, charred and barren from the heavy fighting of WWI.

The use of a poppy to memorialize our veterans was first introduced by American Moina Michaels, shortly before the armistice of 1918. Moina was inspired by seeing McCrae's poem in a magazine and bought a couple of dozen fabric poppies to distribute at her workplace, the YMCA Overseas War Secretary's headquarters in New York.

Following the war, Moina tirelessly campaigned to have the poppy recognized as a memorial symbol for military veterans. Eventually, the American legion adopted the symbol and, over the years, the poppy grew to international recognition as a sign of respect for those who have served in the armed forces.


Much like the poppy has become ingrained in our military history, so are the histories of mapmaking and military conflict intertwined. In fact, the modern map, as we know it today, was largely born out of wartime innovations. For this reason, all of us at Backroad Mapbooks are extra thankful to the many veterans who have risked or given up everything in the line of duty.



Early History



(Photo: Reconstructed garrison (military) map from Mawangdui)



The connection between maps and the military stretches back for thousands of years. Some of the oldest maps ever discovered were Chinese military maps, dating to around 200 BC. Known as the Garrison Maps and discovered in the 1970s in a tomb in Hunan province, these maps were drawn on silk and incorporated colour coding, a mapping tradition that persists to this day.


Even before the Garrison Maps were drawn, around 400 BC, Sun-Tzu's legendary text Art of War dedicated significant sections to the issue of terrain in relation to military strategy. The Art of War is widely considered to be one of the most influential military treatises in history.


Later, military mapmaking made enormous strides during the spread of Islam in the 7th century and beyond. The rapidly expanding caliphates would chart an area prior to invasion or map a city prior to siege. The expansion of these Islamic empires forever changed the cultural and political landscape of Asia and Europe.


As the technology of warfare advanced, so did the need for more sophisticated maps. Along with the widespread introduction of long-range artillery in the 18th century came a system of contour lines to show topographic relief, necessary for efficient use of these new weapons. One of the first instances of this was in 1791 by a French mapmaker named J.L. Dupain-Triel, who used contour lines at 20 metre intervals, just like we do today.




During the major conflicts of the 20th century, mapmaking underwent gigantic strides towards the sophisticated system with which we are familiar today. During WWI, aerial photography became key in mapping enemy trench systems. This was pioneered by Captain John Moore-Brabazon of the Royal Flying Corps, and later advanced upon by American aviator Sherman Fairchild, who developed a system of reducing blur caused by the plane's fast movement.

Maps of enemy trenches were crucial for planning offensives and for constructing defensive trenches as well, but they were probably most useful for the purpose of artillery strikes. Artillery barrages could now be carried out with complete surprise, without having to preregister targets. Creeping barrages became possible, allowing infantry to advance directly behind a wall of artillery fire.




(photo: Bonne projection of the world, standard parallel at 45°N)


Specialized cartographic units were created by the various allied countries, including France, Britain, the US and Canada. At first, topographic maps were created using Bonne projection, a method of projecting the curved surface of the earth onto a flat surface to measure distance. Later, the more accurate Lambert projection was used.

These highly detailed maps showed everything from German entrenchments to barbed wire entanglements, machine gun emplacements, artillery batteries, airfields, barracks and more, providing allied troops with invaluable information and saving countless lives.



During the Second World War, maps based off of aerial photographs were once again crucial to the success of military operations. Many of the war's most pivotal events, such as the landing at Normandy on D-Day, were made possible by careful planning and studying of maps created by special cartographic divisions, such as Britain's Inter-Service Topographical Department.


At home, the desire to understand what was happening in Europe led to a map-buying frenzy, and mapmakers struggled to meet the demand for European maps in American and Canadian markets. In North America, more maps were sold in the weeks following Germany's invasion of Poland than during the entire interwar period.


Throughout the war, artists such as Toronto's Stanley Turner innovated new ways of mapmaking that would help the public understand the complicated events of the global war theatre. Maps became a tool not just for understanding geography, but current events as well.


Some maps were even deliberately distorted to make enemy territories seem larger and more menacing, an example of cartographic propaganda designed to stir up support for the war. At other times, maps depicting the US and Canada purposely omitted areas of military significance, a form of cartographic censorship intended to make an attack on North America more difficult for Axis powers.



photo: Escape maps for POW camps hidden in decks of cards during WWII


One particularly interesting use of maps in the Second World War was the printing of “escape maps.” Escape maps were printed on silk, rayon or tissue paper and smuggled into POW camps to assist allied prisoners in finding their way to friendly territory should they be able to break out of the camp.


Waddington PLC, the company responsible for printing the popular Monopoly board game, was instrumental in this process. Games were one of the few items which were allowed into the camps, as some entertainment was thought to be beneficial in keeping the prisoners cooperative. Some maps were hidden inside of marked Monopoly sets, along with foreign currency and tiny compasses. Other maps were smuggled in inside of decks of cards, with cards that could be peeled apart when soaked in water, revealing an escape map.

In some cases, prisoners even set up their own makeshift printing presses to duplicate the maps. Limestone tiles from bomb-damaged buildings were used as printing plates, and a crude press was made from oak floorboards and leather. Ink was made by scraping pitch from between paved sections of ground, then boiled and mixed with margarine and pigment. A roller would be fashioned out of a window bar. At other times, maps would have to be hand drawn using homemade wooden pencils.  


It is estimated that around 35,000 allied troops managed to make their way out from behind enemy lines during the war, and that around half of these soldiers would have been using one of these maps.


All of us at Backroad Mapbooks extend our sincere gratitude to the many veterans who have fought to make this world a better place. And wherever this weekend's adventures take you, we hope you wear your poppy proudly, and that you celebrate a long history of mapmaking innovations for yourself with our Backroad Mapbooks and Backroad GPS Maps.