Huw Thomas, Map Curator at The National Library of Wales takes part in our #LoveMaps Campaign.
History, propaganda and the ‘Fate of the U Boats”
Amongst the many anniversaries listed on Wikipedia for today is the 103rd anniversary of the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Imperial German Navy during the First World War. Seeing this brought to mind one of the maps from our collection of First World War maps which was recently digitised. We are currently in the process of making these images available on our Website and though this map is not yet available a large number of them can be seen
The map itself is on two sheets, it was published after the war in 1921, and is fascinating for the stories it is trying to tell, not only the story of the major battles such as Jutland, but also the story of the submarine warfare which really began with the decision to ignore the normal ‘rules of war’ under which submarines had to surface and allow merchant ships to surrender before firing upon them and to instead sink merchantmen without warning.
Unrestricted submarine warfare was a controversial tactic from the beginning and was one of the factors which eventually brought the United States into the war. The German’s argued that it was a response to the British use of Q-ships, armed naval ships posing as unarmed merchantmen. During the Second World War the Germans used unrestricted submarine warfare again and some wanted to treat it as a war crime after Germany’s defeat, however, it was pointed out that the US Navy had used the same tactic against the Japanese and so it was decided not to prosecute anybody.
Returning to the map itself closer examination shows that in addition to the story of the war in the North Sea between 1914 and 1918 the map also tells the story of the defeat of the Spanish Armada over 330 years earlier. By juxtaposing one of the great English naval victories of history with the actions of the modern Royal Navy in the war the map seeks to perpetuate the idea of British maritime supremacy. The heroes of the Armada are pictured alongside the heroes of the modern day. Another interesting feature is the list at the bottom left of the Southern sheet titled “Fate of the U Boats”; it consists of a chronological list of all the U-Boats destroyed during the war.
The map is an unashamed piece of propaganda; the Germans are clearly shown as the villains of the piece, the suggestion being that their tactics of unrestricted submarine warfare and use of Zeppelin airships are somehow underhand. It is interesting that such a jingoistic map should be produced several years after the war, it is much more akin to maps produced for propaganda purposes during the war and there are few equivalents of such a late date.
As a piece of cartography this map isn’t great, it is far too cluttered and tries to tell too many stories in a limited space, and yet every time I look at it my eyes are drawn to some new detail or piece of information. It may not be much of a map, but as a historical document it is fascinating.
Why not subscribe to our blog posts and learn more about our work and collections? Please enter your email address in the right column.