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The Great War and Modern Mapping: WWI in the Map Division


Surveying Landscape for Enemy. Image ID: 115706

This past August we marked the centennial of the Great War, a cataclysm that forever altered our political map. In the course of the war, no less than three major empires fell and were dissolved and new countries were created with the stroke of a pen or born in fire and blood. This was a truly global conflict which was far from limited to the muddy fields and trenches of Western Europe that have persisted in the popular imagination. Major land campaigns were conducted all over the map, from the fields of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Alpine mountains, the coasts of Turkey, the Caucasus, Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Mesopotamia, and more. Naval engagements likewise ranged throughout the globe.

We are still living with the effects of decisions made in the heat of that conflict and in its direct aftermath. The modern countries of Saudi Arabia and Yemen were among those created from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; and the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 between France and Great Britain with the acquiescence of Imperial Russia determining the modern borders of Syria and Iraq are just a few of many such examples.

Map Collections

With the passing of the centennial of World War I there has naturally been a lot of interest in the conflict. Here at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building we have an exhibit of WWI propaganda as it related to the American involvement in the conflict in “Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind” (now extended to August 15, 2015, so get in and see it). And at the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division we have no shortage of maps of all kinds that date from the war.

Among the hundreds of maps from the Great War, you'll find commercial maps produced for sale to the general public, pictorial propaganda maps, newspaper maps intended to illustrate the unfolding conflict, and military maps produced for a variety of purposes including training, planning offensive and defensive operations, troop dispositions and more. The languages printed on the map mirror the international range of the conflict.

Portion of "Carte de la guerre Europeenee..." [1914]
Portion of "Carte de la guerre Europeenee..." [1914]

One map that exemplifies the global nature of the conflict in a variety of aspects. Deceptively entitled, in French, a “Map of the European War,” it is actually a world map that depicts the major combatants and their various colonial holdings.

This map is all the more remarkable for being produced in one of those colonies, being published in Hanoi by the government of French Indochina, and was intended for use in schools there. The map is in French as well as Chinese, Khmer, and Vietnamese. The yellow regions show countries and colonies of the Central Powers and the green regions show those of the Allied Powers while pink is reserved for neutral countries. As can be seen, this map was produced some time prior to the entrance of the United States into the war on the side of the Allied Powers.

Commercial Maps

The London based Stanford’s Geographical Establishment was a prolific commercial publisher of maps whose aim was to elucidate various aspects of the war to the public. Many of their maps show the state of the different fronts, from the more familiar Western front in Europe to even going so far as to illustrate the loss of German colonial possessions in Africa. Stanford’s maps are particularly noteworthy for the creative way they represent this information.

The Battle Fronts of Europe
The battle fronts of Europe - Stanford's Geographical Establishment [1917]

A number of their maps use an interesting technique which helps contextualize geographic information about the war by means of comparisons with geographical regions more familiar to the viewer. Above is one such map which illustrates the scale of the fighting in Europe by superimposing a map of the major European fronts over a map of the continental United States. It had long been a common understanding that the United States spans vast distances and by means of this juxtaposition the long distances covered by the front lines of the European Theater are made starkly clear.

The Map Division also has maps from American commercial firms such as the familiar Rand, McNally & Co. and many others. There are also a large number of German commercial maps from such firms as Dietrich Reimer, Freytag, Justus Perthes and others. Many of these German maps were produced as sets of war maps called kriegscarte.

"On his way" New York Herald Magazine Section, April 15, 1915

Newspaper Maps

Newspapers were prolific publishers of maps and often printed them as illustrative accompaniments to stories on the latest developments of the war. Newspapers also frequently published maps as separate series meant to be kept for reference by the newspaper buying public. The Map Division has a set of such maps published by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other local papers.

As well as being more or less reliable sources of information about the war, newspapers were also conduits of propaganda. This spectacular example is from the New York Herald and shows the Dardanelles, site of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign then just getting underway—in fact, the date of the newspaper is same as the inaugural date of the campaign.

Trench Warfare, Trench Maps

“A map is a weapon.”

—Lt. Col. E.M. (Ewan Maclean) Jack, Royal Engineers, Maps GHQ, British Expeditionary Forces.

The Great War is well known for stimulating many innovations on the battlefield. From the introduction of the tank to aerial combat and reconnaissance, the use of poison gas, unrestricted submarine warfare and more. So striking and transforming were these innovations that each of them has become emblematic of the war. Military cartographic and surveying techniques are one often overlooked area that had at least as great an impact on how the war was fought than any of these.

World War I was, more than any other conflict to that point, a war of maps. Maps were used by the militaries engaged in the war for many purposes: making defensive preparations, planning offensives, training, etc. Probably the most important and innovative use of cartography in the war was in the use of maps for carrying out artillery strikes and barrages without having to preregister targets and adjust fire. In this way artillery barrages could be conducted with complete surprise. Creeping or walking barrages could be executed which enabled infantry to advance on enemy lines almost directly behind a moving curtain of deadly artillery fire, giving rise to the phrase “over the top." In a war in which it has been estimated that more than 60% of all casualties were caused by artillery these were deadly techniques. Known as predictive fire, this technique was a major innovation of the war and depended upon highly accurate surveying and detailed draftsmanship and was originally known as “map shooting.”

The most numerous of the military maps in the collection at the Map Division are the series of French artillery or trench maps used to plan such missions called the Plans Directeurs. There are well over 400 of these maps that are so evocative of the images of muddy trench warfare that dominate the popular imagination of life on the Western Front during the First World War.

Detail of the eastern portion of a map of Amiens, June 10, 1918 showing French trenches in red named after polar explorers and vessels. Note the names Shackleton, Erebus, Scott, Amundsen, and others. The western side of the map is named after British explorers of Africa such as Burton, Speke, Stanley and Livingstone; and the southern trenches carry names of famous scientists such as Boyle, Huxley, Faraday and Kelvin.

These maps were produced by by a specialized cartographic military unit created at the beginning of the war and assigned to each division of the French army known as the Groupe des Canevas de Tir des Armées, or GCTA. It was their job to survey the terrain and update the maps used by the French Army based on direct observation, aerial reconnaissance, sound ranging, and other methods.

British and German military maps were both based upon the Belgian Bonne projection, a method of projecting the curved surface of the earth onto a flat surface which accurately preserves distance. In 1915 the French began basing their military cartography on the Lambert projection. This projection preserves bearing and proved much more accurate and useful for plotting artillery missions, particularly when distances could be ascertained by other methods.

The American Expeditionary Forces adopted the French Plans Directeurs trench maps for their own purposes and set up a special topographic unit of its own, the 29th Engineer Regiment, whose purpose was to print and update these maps for both the American and French militaries. At least 40 of the maps in the collection of the Map Division are examples of these American reprints. There are also a smaller number of American Expeditionary Forces maps that were produced using the French GCTA methods but which are American originals. These maps came into the collections of the New York Public Library in 1920 from the American Colonel S.T. Mackall who served with the US Military Intelligence Division of the AEF; the remaining majority of the maps were a gift from the French Ministry of War.

These highly detailed maps show German positions, including entrenchments, barbed wire entanglements, machine gun emplacements, artillery batteries, airfields, barracks and other positions in blue ink overprinted on the map and, when shown, in red ink for French and Allied positions. One of the most interesting aspects of these maps are the various code names given to the trenches. Trench names were given both for Allied and German positions and were generally applied systematically, e.g. a network of trenches named after prominent Arctic explorers, or British scientists or after other locations, places in Paris or London, etc. Sometimes names given to German trenches by the French were disparaging but one occasionally is given pause when coming across a name such as “Trench of the Valkyries.”

Maps that include details of French and Allied trenches and other emplacements are often stamped “secret” in red ink, this is often accompanied with the admonition in bold red ink that the map is under no circumstances to be taken into the front line trenches or on aerial reconnaissance missions.

Map of Etain showing the front lines on August 3, 1918 with symbols denoting plans for artillery mission on August 24. This is one of the Plans Directeurs maps printed by the 29th Engineers regiment of the AEF for the French 2nd Army.

Some of the most interesting trench maps in this collection are those that depict a location just before and subsequent to some of the major battles of the war. Such as the two maps of Dun-sur-Meuse depicting the area a few weeks before and then after the Argonne-Meuse offensive of September-November 1918, which was the principal military engagement of the American Expeditionary Forces. The contrast between an earlier map covered mostly in blue, German, lines, and the subsequent map in red ink showing Allied victory can be quite affecting.

The American Expeditionary Forces maps are a fair mix, some being based on the French maps but many are original American cartographic work or were based on British or even captured German maps. A number of these maps show plans for operations including the Battles of St. Mihiel, Soissons, Argonne-Meuse, and others, with details about troop dispositions, artillery barrages and more. Others were printed just after the war and used to plan troop dispositions, display occupation zones, or used to analyze previous battles.
Other military maps in the collection include various British trench and other military maps that were a gift from the British Embassy, and even a set of seven Russian military maps from 1914-1916 analyzing various battles including the disastrous Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes.
Sheet 1. Belfort. Westlicher Kriegsschauplatz. Hubert Koehler. 1914.

German maps in the collection include a set of thirteen maps from early in the war analyzing the Battle of the Marne which threatened Paris and the Battle of Tannenberg on the Eastern Front but only a couple of German trench maps on the pattern of the highly detailed French and British trench maps described above. There is also a very colorful set of four small scale topographic maps showing French fortification plans on the Western Front from 1914 of which one, of Belfort, is shown here.

Notice that the map, despite being for military use, has no grid or graticule like that of the French trench maps that would be used for plotting artillery barrages. That they resemble road maps more than trench maps tells us a lot about the expected course of the war in 1914.

Books about World War I Maps and Mapping

In addition to the many maps dating from the war, the Map Division has a number of books about the maps and mapping techniques used during the war.

The American Expeditionary Forces published a book entitled Instructions Concerning Maps which tells you everything you need to know to read and interpret the French and American Plans Directeurs trench maps.

The British scholar Peter Chasseaud is one of the most prolific and authoritative sources on cartography and World War I and he has written many books on various aspects of the topic:

Mapping the First World War - Peter Chasseaud

Mapping the First World War, by Chasseaud makes a great overview of the topic, detailed but not overwhelming. A great place to start.

If you'd like to investigate the use and mapping of trenches during the war, Chasseaud's Topography of Armageddon: A British Trench Map Atlas of the Western Front 1914-1918, is a key work, along with Trench Maps, a Collectors' Guide: A Cartobibliography of Maps Printed at the Ordnance Survey, OBOS and by Field Survey Companies/Battalions in France, 1915-1918.

 battlefields of the great conflict from above by Simon Forty

Additionally, his Rats Alley: Trench Names of the Western Front, 1914-1918 is a detailed study and gazetteer of British trench names with extensive notes on French and German trench naming practices can be found in the General Research Division. Chasseaud is also the author of many other books about mapping and the war, with books such as, Artillery’s Astrologers: a history of British survey and mapping on the Western Front 1914-1918, about the British military cartographic organizations and Grasping Gallipoli: Terrain, Maps, and Failure at the Dardanelles, 1915.

One last recommendation is Simon Forty's altas of the war's battlefields, Mapping the First World War: Battlefields of the Great Conflict from Above.

The maps described above are all (and then some!) available in the collections of the Map Division. Unfortunately, the majority of the maps in the collection aren't discoverable through our online catalog, nor have they been digitized. If you have any questions about the maps or how to access them, reach out to the staff at


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Trench maps

Hello, Very interesting to read about these Trench maps. I hope these maps or at least a part of it will be available to see online. greetings from The Hague in Holland

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