Surveyors in the Great War

Nov 23, 2018

We have just commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. This was war on a scale that the world had never before seen; the first time strong, resilient nation states came up against each other with all the technology of the industrial revolution. It was the war that changed forever the way that wars are fought. When war began in August 1914, the armies used tactics that would have been familiar to Napoleon or even Alexander the Great. They marched forward in perfect lines of infantry or charged forward on their horses. The French officers even stood in one place on the battlefield, swords held high, wearing Napoleonic plumed hats. They faced machine guns and artillery. The result was terrifying to contemplate. There were one million casualties in the first month. One day alone saw more casualties than all of the European wars combined over the previous century.

Both sides soon worked out that the only way to survive against this new weaponry without losing ground was to burrow. The middle years of the Great War in Europe were marked by trenches stretching from the Swiss border to the Belgian coast. These trench structures became incredibly complex, using sophisticated geometry to deflect shell blasts and provide safe means of communication. Sometimes they stretched back many miles from front, so that if the first line of defence was overcome, there would be a second or third line behind. Railways, roads and bridges were built behind the lines to bring supplies up to the front. Both sides engaged in massive infrastructure projects just to keep their front line soldiers supplied. The Germans once built five new railway lines in preparation for one assault.

The trenches were a hell on earth for those who occupied them. They were damp and stank of excrement and decomposing bodies. The only place worse than the trenches was no-man’s land; the strip of land that separated the opposing sides. In some places this was miles wide and in others only few hundred yards. It was covered by another newly deployed weapon of war, barbed wire, and pock marked with shell craters. It was across this hellish landscape that the infantry would charge, into the teeth of machine guns and mortars, to try to capture the enemy’s trenches. This became a war of attrition. Whichever side had men alive when the enemy’s armies were all spent, would win.

By 1918 both sides were exhausted. The Germans were hungry, literally, both at home and at the front, and the French and British were losing appetite for the wholesale slaughter needed to gain a few yards of ground. New tactics emerged. The British introduced tanks and armoured personnel carriers and started using aircraft for ground attacks. Perhaps most significantly, the USA joined the war, sending a quarter of a million fresh soldiers every month to France. The German armies were outnumbered, outgunned and out nourished. When peace finally came in November 2018, it came with a treaty that so punished and humiliated Germany, that another world war was almost inevitable.

One the features of the first World War was the way that it stimulated technological innovation, most notably aviation, but also surveying. Surveying became integral to making and implementing a battle plan. Initially the British did not send any surveyors to the front. They thought that the war would be over before surveyors had time to do anything useful. When they did finally send a surveyor, he was arrested by his own side as a spy. Who else but a spy would be roaming the front with a theodolite? That surveyor later became known as ‘The Astrologer’ due to his uncanny ability to pinpoint enemy targets for artillery fire.

Surveyors mapped the trenches – one surveyor mapped a whole trench network on Gallipoli using a compass and a 20 foot length of string. Others used plane tables- some even had theodolites. They developed formulae to be able to calculate the distance to an enemy gun by measuring the time difference between the flash and the bang. Eventually they used aeroplanes to take photographs of enemy trenches and developed the mathematics to project those images onto their ground maps.

Surveyors played a critical role in directing tunnelling operations. Both sides tried to tunnel underneath no-man’s-land. They would plant explosives beneath the other side’s trenches in the hope of forcing the enemy to give some ground. There are reports of some awkward encounters when opposing tunnel teams accidentally met in the middle.

By the time the war was ending, both sides were adopting new blitzkrieg style tactics more familiar to the Second World War, heavily reliant on the accuracy of maps made by surveyors.

The surveyors of the First World War were not back-room boffins. Their skills were needed at the front line and sometimes beyond. In a period of human history where madness seemed to be everywhere, the surveyors went about their business: telling the digger where to dig his hole, the gunner where to point his gun, the ambulance driver where to find the field hospital, or the general where to find the enemy’s flank. He was finding order in the chaos, as is his nature.

In this time of remembrance, we should spare a thought for him too.


Malcolm Lester

Former Regional Manager - VIC/SA/TAS

Malcolm Lester is a Registered Land Surveyor and Registered Town Planner. He is currently Veris’ Regional Manager for Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Malcolm was Managing Director of Lester Franks for 16 years until its acquisition by Veris in 2016, during which time he oversaw the expansion of the business from one small office in Tasmania to a national business with a reputation for innovation and quality. He is past chair of the Association of Consulting Surveyors Australia and the Australian Spatial Industry Business Association.