Figuring war with maps in Europe

17th-20th centuries

Military mapping is very old in origin, yet it was during the early modern period that this tool began to modify the nature of combat and its preparation. European states and their armies played a prominent role in this evolution. War shaped European cartography in the seventeenth century, and war was subsequently transformed by maps through their various combat-related uses, from battle planning to celebration. They also played a part in redefining it.

Agence Meurisse, War map along a boulevard, with curious onlookers, press photograph, 1918.
Jean-Baptiste Verzy, The Emperor Napoleon in his bivouac mentally preparing the victory of Austerlitz, aquatint, 19.2 x 28 cm, circa 1810. Source: Gallica
Kriegsspiel, war game created in 1812 by Georg Leopold von Reiswitz for Friedrich Wilhelm III (Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg)

The articulation between battle and mapping, understood here in its broadest sense, has a long history. Vegecius mentions the Roman army’s use of cartographic documents in his Epitoma rei militari (fourth century). It was with the birth of the early modern state that war maps began to play a decisive role in the construction of imagination and territories in Europe, and it was during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that they also contributed to their destruction. We can therefore suggest a typology of the cartographic gaze based on its relation to the temporality of combat, in an attempt to understand its role in the management of war.

The first group of maps includes preparatory maps, with which the combat to come was strategically thought out. In the early sixteenth century, Machiavelli advised generals in his Art of War to make sure they always had maps to master the terrain. The centralization of cartographic information for military purposes initiated in the seventeenth century. It contributed to the invention of European states. In France, the Dépôt de la guerre was created to this end in 1688, and most other European states soon created similar institutions. The first general maps based on systematic surveys often met the needs of military planning. The origins of the Ordnance Survey, which eventually became the British mapping agency, go back to the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland, when that part of the kingdom was mapped in detail to support English military efforts.

Cartography gradually became a central element in strategic thinking in the course of the nineteenth century, as underlined in the writings of early modern war theorist Clausewitz. It played a significant role in the defeats and victories that reconfigured European territories. The inaccuracy of available maps, a consequence of the period’s technological shortcomings, limited their effectiveness before the First World War. These weaknesses were blatant when armies fought distant wars in the nineteenth century. The British high command started the Crimean War (1854-1856), which opposed the Russian army and the Ottomans, assisted by France and the United Kingdom, with no reliable maps of the peninsula.

Armies first started to gather accurate and up-to-date mapping data in the early twentieth century, with the first air surveys, first from hot air balloons and later airplanes. Aerial reconnaissance, which underwent numerous advances during the Second World War and then the Cold War, transformed the gathering of data, its figuration, and the very manner in which combat was conceived. These evolutions were not linear. Military mapping capacities were often overhauled in a rush, as deficiencies were revealed by ongoing conflicts. Blanks and errors were sometimes cultivated in order to trick the enemy more effectively, as shown by the maps published by the Soviet Union for nearly fifty years. Most included calculated inaccuracies to deceive the enemy. Europe, redefined by two major conflicts and by the Cold War, has been a privileged field of experimentation for maps in their relation to power. They became crucial elements for the conquest and control of a given territory, and sometimes facilitated its concealment.

A second category includes maps used in the immediacy of combat, those that soldiers and officers took with them to make tactical choices and to grasp the battlefield under fire. The use of maps in combat—or rather sketches most of the time—often left few traces. The immediate anticipation of the battle, in the shape of lines in the sand to prepare tactical moves, was only intended for combatants. It was erased as soon as possible. Old board games, such as chaturanga from India, reflect this type of uses. They became a central element in the training of European officers, as illustrated by Reiswitz’s Kriegsspiel war game which was invented in the early nineteenth century.

The graphic representation of the battlefield can indeed become a weapon in itself. In 1870, the Prussian army’s use of maps impressed the French: soldiers in the cavalry would consult the up-to-date documents stowed in their haversacks, whereas French officers struggled to read theirs, which were often inaccurate on top of it. Major industrialized military powers created dedicated cartographic sections from the late nineteenth century, with contrasting results in terms of cartographic fluency. For instance, British officers complained that “the farms were never in the right place” on their maps during the “Bluecoat” operation in Normandy (summer of 1944). When maps were available and readable, soldiers still had to manipulate them under fire. Locating oneself at the intersection of different sheets could become an uneasy task in such a situation.

Another change occurred in the 1890s with the advent of indirect artillery fire, i.e. shooting at a target with no direct line of sight, using three-dimensional coordinates. It required accurate large-scale maps. Traditional mapping, which often figured a very approximate altimetry, proved insufficient for this purpose. Once again, aerial reconnaissance, more recent satellite imagery such as GPS, as well as drone surveillance, transformed the visualization of the battlefield in the second half of the twentieth century. The creation of integrated systems enabling combatants to locate themselves on the battlefield in real time through digital interfaces - the last stage in this process - has received considerable investment since the 1990s. The map now makes almost one with the territory, a sign that cartography as an exact replica of the world described by Jorge Luis Borges in “On Exactitude in Science” might no longer be the stuff of fiction.

Maps drawing lessons from a campaign or celebrating its outcome form a third and final group. The part they played in commemorating military glory accounts for their ubiquity in archival institutions. With the evolution of printing techniques in late nineteenth-century Europe, such figurations of the battle became commonplace illustrations of colonial wars. In the twentieth century, cartography evolved into an essential medium for war propaganda. The motif of leaders leaning over maps is a staple of modern war public relations. Hitler was repeatedly shown in this commanding position. Shortly after the Great War, maps also transformed into means to denounce violence. The map of Armenian massacres published in 1920 by Z. Khanzadian in his Rapport sur l’unité géographique de l’Arménie [Report on the geographical unity of Armenia] is a striking example of such uses. It became a memorial in its own right. Such maps often became constituent elements in national imaginations, particularly in Europe where cartographic literacy was fostered by geography’s position in school curricula from the late nineteenth century.

Before, during, or after the battle, maps which have served, first and foremost, to wage war—to use Yves Lacoste’s words—also participated in shaping the very entities they delineated, commemorated and sometimes helped devastate. Europe is not the only region that has been framed by this process but the articulation between government, military force and territory that developed in the area in the early modern period made it a distinct field of experimentation in this regard.

To quote from this article

Daniel Foliard , « Figuring war with maps in Europe  », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 22/06/20, consulted on 04/06/2023. Permalink :


Black, Jeremy, Maps of War: Mapping Conflict Through the Centuries (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016).

Chablat-Beylot, Agnès, Morgat, Alain, Corvisier-De Villèle, Marie-Anne, Du paysage à la carte. Trois siècles de cartographie militaire de la France (Paris: Service historique de l’Armée, 2002).

Harley, John Brian, Woodward, David, Lewis, G. Malcolm, Monmonier, Mark, The History of Cartography (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987-2017), 6 vol. (volumes 1 to 3 are available free online).