Relief maps of the Western Front

13 July 2007 by diarut

The Memorial holds some very interesting three-dimensional relief maps made in 1919 by the Australian War Records Section (the parent organisation of the Australian War Memorial). They were made in London by men who were still in England, waiting to be repatriated home.

Relief map of Zonnebeke area, BelgiumSection 5AW, who created the maps was established sometime around December 1918 and was managed by Lieutenant Cyril Isaac. In civilian life Lieutenant Isaac worked for the Education Department in Victoria. During the war he served with 58th Battalion in Europe before joining the AWRS. The Role of 5AW was to create three dimensional maps of the battlefields of France and Belgium and to later train staff in Egypt how to make similar maps of Gallipoli and Palestine.

Very few records from 5AW exist today and the reasons behind the creation of the maps are unclear. Records indicate they were created either to assist people who could not read contours on maps, understand the terrain Australians fought over, or as a precursor to making the larger plan models (such as the Gallipoli plan model, currently on display). The latter seems unlikely as section 4AW was making the plan models at the same time the relief maps were being made.

Making the relief maps, London 1919

A third possibility is the story which has circulated around staff at the Memorial, that the maps were created to aid Official War Correspondent CEW Bean in writing the official histories of Australians in the First World War. It is possible that Bean did use them whilst writing, but nothing has yet been found in the Memorial’s files to confirm they were created for that purpose.

The maps were created by modelers and draftsmen. The modeler gradually built up the contours by making levels, or ‘steps’, possibly from plywood. Once all the levels were complete a coating of papier mache was placed over the levels. The papier mache was made with very fine paper pulp and a heated clear glue called ‘small cake glue’. The modelers mixed the hot glue with paper pulp, which had most of the water squeezed out of it. They relied mostly on their sense of touch, working the mixture until it felt smooth, like plastic. The papier mache was smoothed and rounded out to make the contours.

Once the map was dried, draftsmen transferred the details from the relevant 1:10,000 or 1:20,000 trench map by hand. All details, including map grid squares were included on the items as they were maps in the truest sense of the word, not just models of the landscape.

Making relief maps, London 1919

The Memorial only holds maps of France and Belgium. While they had planned on making maps of Palestine and Gallipoli, they never eventuated. There are 22 relief maps in the Memorial’s collection covering a number of areas in France and Belgium, including Pozieres, Peronne, Villers-Bretonneux, Bullecourt and Fromelles. One of the relief maps, showing the area south of the River Somme, including Hamel and Harbonnieres, is currently on exhibition in the Western Front Gallery. Another relief map will be on display in the To Flanders Fields exhibition, showing the area from Ypres to Passchendaele.

Further information on the maps, along with the plan models and dioramas is available from the article, 'Teaching the terrain: First World War battlefields at the Australian War Memorial.'  Published in The Globe Issue 55, 2004.

Relief map of Polygon wood, Belgium