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The Military Sketch: Types, Techniques and Uses

Draycot began his career as a topographer in the Boer War (1901–1904). No details are available as regards the extent of his experience and skill, nor did he mention his special expertise when he enlisted in 1914. It seems likely, however, that he acquired his sketching skills from the scouting movement. The founder of the movement, Lord Baden-Powell, was responsible for training scouts during the Boer War, and Draycot certainly shared a number of ideals with the scouting movement, including a readiness for action and a desire to think for himself.

It is no coincidence that he became a scout leader after the war (he was Chairman of the 5th North Vancouver Boy Scout Committee from 1928). It is likely that he read Baden-Powell’s Aids to Scouting for N.-C.Os. & Men as this was a standard work for military scouts during World War One. From this manual he could glean the basic principles of drawing sketches to scale, producing eye sketches at speed by ‘guessing the distances, angles, heights, etc. without accurately measuring them’,vi drawing memory sketches, and measuring the heights of trees and width of rivers.

Similar details are included in Baden-Powell’s more popular Scouting for Boys. A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship. Published in 1908, the handbook was one of the best-selling Anglophone works of the twentieth century, its publishing figures until after World War Two only being exceeded by the Bible in the English-speaking world. Scouting for Boys taught boys how to be good observers, how to track and how to record their observations in simple sketches.

A review of the techniques applied in military sketching is provided below. These are described in detail because they illustrate the importance of accuracy as well as compliance with accepted conventions. The Draycot collection at the North Vancouver Museum & Archives contains The Complete Guide to Military Map Reading. Specially Suitable for the New Army (1917, n.a.). The book is well used and includes Draycot’s own annotations on a variety of tasks, including how to calculate distances and the water supply of a stream measured in feet, breadth, depth and velocity per minute.

Draycot continued to produce maps and sketches after the war; his maps of the Lynn Valley area, for example, are the sole surviving source of information on the early days of the Valley and the surrounding area. They were drawn to scale using the so-called Whirter Retractor (image below), which was developed specifically for military sketching (one of Draycot’s books of local sketches in which he acknowledges his use of the retractor has survived and is housed at the North Vancouver Museum & Archives). An advertisement for the retractor is found at the back of the above-mentioned Complete Guide to Military Map Reading (see image below).
This instrument will simplify military sketching to those that have not had the training in drawing and perspective, and is useful for panorama work, detail sketching, range cards and general military drawing. When held up to the eye it at once gives the angles and relative positions of objects on a landscape. It is simple and can be used without elaborate instruction. For Platoon commanders, Scouts and Machine Gun Sections it will be found invaluable.
According to his memoir, Draycot was responsible for a broad range of sketches and charts. These included surveys of roads and damage to trenches, sketches for new designs of dugouts and nose caps, panorama sketches of battlefields, plans of villages and towns, and detailed sketches of specific localities such as the ramparts at Ypres.

The Whiter Retractor - click image to enlargeThe military sketch, or field sketch, was intended for presentation to a commanding officer and contained information required for troop deployment and other military purposes. As specified in an official manual, ‘No false information, nothing but what has been seen should be represented, and the tendency to sacrifice truth to effect must be guarded against’.vii

What, one wonders, is meant by ‘truth’ in the context of a sketch? What should be included or excluded to provide a ‘true’ picture, and who determines its selection? On two occasions in his memoir, the narrating ‘I’ describes in detail how the ‘truth’ of his sketches is contested by a superior officer, and how on both occasions he refused to make amendments; instead, he insisted that the officer concerned check his facts. He notes with satisfaction that his version of ‘the truth’ was eventually acknowledged to be the correct one. This was a form of validation that gave extra satisfaction because it was given by a high-ranking officer.


vi Robert Baden-Powell, Aids to Scouting, for N.C.Os. & Men (London: Gale & Polden, 1906), 92.
vii R.F. Legge, Military Sketching and Map Reading for Non-Coms. & Men (London: Gale & Polden, 1916), 1.

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