One of the most illuminating groups of records found in the Cartographic Branch at the National Archives is Record Group 120: Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), 1848 – 1942 (seen in our catalog here). These records cover many different aspects of the war. Included are maps from various United States army divisions as well as maps created by cartographers in other allied armies, including France, Britain and Italy. Subjects covered in the records consist of trench layouts, road maps, situation maps, topographic maps and enemy information maps, among others.
Depending on what you’re looking for in these records, and especially if you’re just browsing, it’s easy to get lost and explore a number of different threads. There are so many places to look and so many ways to search through the records. You can search by army, division, corps, services and country. The records are organized into entries, which each have a description of what they hold and what types of maps you’ll find there. The record group contains 540 entries, all of which have varying numbers of maps.
Maps related to transportation are often found throughout the records, including roads and railroads.
Maps made by foreign allied armies were retained by the United States army and are found in these records. These maps show a different aspect of the types of records used by the allied forces and provide insight into other armies’ cartography.
Looking through these World War I maps, we get to see the finished products that the army used during the conflict. While digitizing World War I photographs in RG 111: Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 – ca. 1981 (seen in our catalog here), archivists in the Still Picture Branch came across some photos that showed a much earlier part of the cartographic process: the creation of the maps.
The photographs document the creation of the maps made by French cartographers in Paris. These cartographers were part of the Service Géographique de L’armée (French Geographical Service).
The maps that these cartographers are seen making would eventually be used by the allied armies and make their way to the Cartographic Branch at the National Archives. In fact, we were able to locate one of the maps in our holdings that is seen in the photo below.
The photo shows two French army cartographers creating a map of Le Bonhomme. A copy of the map shows up in our World War I cartographic records, seen below.
Our special media records help to create context for historical events, and this is clearly seen in our World War I records. From the creation process to the National Archives, these records help tell the story of our past and allow us to continue to learn about it. You can learn more about the World War I records at the National Archives here.
Thanks to Richard Green for contributions to this blog post.