Maps of the Great War: Army Cartography in World War I

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.

RG 120, Entry 61 (NAID: 74026425 and 74026408), 11/11/1918. This map, showing the military situation on Armistice Day, is included in a series of situation maps that show daily activity of the French and American forces between September and December 1918 and various days between January and May, 1919.

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.

RG 120, Entry 225, 1/1/1919. A G-3 situation map showing the locations of units of the 6th, 77th and 81st divisions.

Maps related to transportation are often found throughout the records, including roads and railroads.

RG 120, Entry 164, 1/6/19. This map shows railroads in the area of the 3rd army.

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.

RG 120, Entry 486, 10/12/1918. This map is part of an entry that includes Italian maps showing enemy information. These maps were produced by the Instituto Geografico Militare (Military Geographical Institute).

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.

111-SC-22588 (NAID: 55204879). This photograph shows cartographers operating printing presses to make maps for the allied forces. Paris, France, 8/1918.

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).

111-SC-22586 (NAID: 55204875). 8/1918.
111-SC-22587 (NAID: 55204877). 8/1918.

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.

111-SC-22585 (NAID: 55204873). French cartographers are shown making a map of Le Bonhomme using a wet collodian plate. 8/1918.

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.

RG 120, Entry 403, Le Bonhomme, 9/3/1918.

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.


One thought on “Maps of the Great War: Army Cartography in World War I

  1. I am so impressed you were able to match a map from the photo to an actual map in your holdings. What a great post. Thanks for sharing!

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