How National Geographic Mapped a World at War
By Michael Fry
Senior Map Librarian, National Geographic Library
From the earliest issues, National Geographic magazine’s map supplements were topical and timely, of equal interest to geographers and observers of world affairs. Polar exploration, the Spanish-American and Boer Wars, the decades-long effort to construct a canal across Central America—all were featured in the magazine’s pages, and all were illustrated by pull-out maps designed to give readers a sense of foreign and probably unfamiliar locales.
When the First Balkan War erupted in October 1912, Editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor contracted with Scottish map-making firm John Bartholomew & Co. to produce a “Map of the New Balkan States and Central Europe.” Such an item, Grosvenor thought, would apprise geography-minded readers of any boundary changes that might result from the conflict.
By early 1914, nearly 300,000 copies of the newly produced maps were delivered to National Geographic Society headquarters. But Grosvenor didn’t publish them immediately. He figured that an eventual European war would cause a spike in public demand for maps of the war zone, so he stored the maps in the Society’s basement and waited for developments in Europe to flare up again.
Grosvenor’s hunch paid off just months later, when Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated by a Serbian patriot. Within a few weeks Europe collapsed into full-scale war.
Grosvenor, vacationing in Canada, took advantage. He cabled Associate Editor John Oliver La Gorce, telling him to rush a new issue of the magazine to press, and to include the Balkan map with it. (La Gorce, perhaps unprepared for the butchery that would soon dominate headlines worldwide, replied: “Hell sure is a popping!”)
By the time August’s National Geographic was in the mail, nearly a quarter of a million men lay dead on European battlefields. Still-neutral Americans, riveted by the conflict, snapped up any and all available maps and atlases of Europe; the Society’s members had one delivered to their doorstep. Although not a large map, most of the war’s early hot spots—Liège, Mons, Ypres (all in Belgium); the Marne, France; Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine)—were visible.
Before the war’s opening year had run its grim course, however, Grosvenor realized that his Balkan map was inadequate for illustrating a conflict whose reach had extended from the English Channel to Palestine, Mesopotamia and beyond. He therefore contracted with yet another map publisher (the Buffalo, New York-based Matthews-Northrop Works) for a new and greatly enlarged map of the war zone.
This second map, called “Europe and Adjoining Portions of Africa and Asia,” covered a much greater sweep of territory and was rich in the topographical detail influencing the strategy and tactics of both sides. Readers could now see a far more complete picture of the war’s major theaters.
The Matthews-Northrop cartographers, however, had struggled to stay ahead of major developments in the war. In April, 1915, for example, the British Army embarked on the Gallipoli campaign, an ill-fated attempt to seize the Dardanelles and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. This disastrous undertaking, with the bogged-down British being raked by Ottoman guns, so captured the public interest that a last-minute flurry of changes had to be made to the nearly finished map. Matthews-Northrop ultimately added a close-up inset of the Dardanelles.
Although “Europe and Adjoining Portions of Africa and Asia” was released with the July 1915 National Geographic, Grosvenor, frustrated by relying on distant companies, had already begun to build an in-house cartographic department. Earlier in the year he’d hired Albert H. Bumstead, a former topographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, as the Society’s first Chief Cartographer. It now fell on Bumstead to create original maps especially suited to the magazine’s needs and Grosvenor’s own exacting standards.
Bumstead got to work immediately, and before long he was laboring on his first major assignment: the Society’s third supplement map dedicated to the so-called “Great War.”
“Map of the Western Theatre of War,” which appeared in the May 1918 issue of National Geographic, was much smaller in scope than the two previous maps. Whereas “Europe and adjoining portions of Africa and Asia” depicted more than 5.5 million square miles of territory on three continents, the Western Theater map was focused entirely on the 400-mile-long western front where, not coincidentally, General John “Black Jack” Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces had begun fighting in earnest alongside British and French troops.
This map was also virtually devoid of physical geography. Nearly colorless and lacking in battle lines, artillery placements, or other details that were certain to change over time, it was instead dedicated almost exclusively to place names—to the locations where this great tragedy had been unfolding. Grosvenor and Bumstead wanted to show virtually every minor and otherwise unremarkable town or hamlet—roughly 14,000 of them—that might be mentioned in the daily war news. And, therefore, to keep National Geographic’s maps relevant to the magazine’s (overwhelmingly American) readers.
For a further look at how these World War I maps shaped National Geographic, including reflections from former and current Nat Geo mapmakers and editors, read “How World War I Launched Mapmaking at National Geographic.”
Note: This piece is adapted from the work of former National Geographic Society historian Mark Collins Jenkins.