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Not Just Lines on a Map:

A History of Military Mapping

by Andrew Hershey

Maps & War



S&T 274 | MAYJUN 2012

ncient and medieval commanders such as Alexander

the Great, Julius Caesar, and
William the Conqueror relied on their
own appraisals of the landscapes
and battlefields over which their
armies marched and fought: whats
referred to now as the commanders
reconnaissance. Those men more
often than not led from the front. They
had to do so for a variety of military,
technological and social reasons.
One of the factors compelling them
to command in that style was the fact
maps were rare, and those that existed
werent reliable as to scale, directionality or detail. Moreover, military map
symbols the shapes that denote
units, their function and size along
with control measures lines and
arrows denoting attacks, withdrawals,
unit boundaries, etc. were unknown
to them. That lack of maps and
the means to efficiently interpret
them was therefore one reason why
personal and direct command of an
army had to remain commonplace
in warfare well into the 19th century.
Commanding generals like
Napoleon, Lee, and Grant, while no
longer leading men directly into the
fray, were still physically present on the
battlefield, observing and assessing
its unfolding course, in an attempt to
manage the struggles outcome in their
favor, just like their forerunners. In the
interim between Alexander and Lee,
however, the lethality of the battlefield
had pushed armies key commanders
farther to the rear. That wasnt enough
to preclude American Civil War corps
or army commanders, for example,
from being either wounded or killed
by direct fire. Nonetheless, it did
mean generals no longer generally
viewed combat with naked eyes, but
instead witnessed it through visual
aids like telescopes and binoculars.

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Other advances in science and
technology, specifically in cartography,
meant commanders also increasingly
had available reasonably accurate
representations of the topography
around them, as well as that miles
from them, and even of distant foreign
lands farther away. Maps became
accurate enough that commanders
could confidently march their armies
onto ground of their own choosing,
there to fight the enemy, despite the
fact theyd never actually traversed
the chosen terrain themselves.
Alexander wouldve been amazed and
intrigued by the enhanced potentials
for conquest accurate maps offered.
At the same time, though, the years
between Alexander and Lee had also
seen war become much more complex.
Whole nations now mobilized for
war, not just a professional elite or
cadre of citizen-soldiers. Moreover,
armies increasingly employed a wider
variety of weapons that raised both
the range and lethality of combat. To
effectively employ the power inherent
in a modern-era army, as well as to
maximize the benefits the science
of cartography had come to give a
commander, required them to invent
what was, in effect, a new language,
that of military map symbols. Accurate
maps and precise military symbols,
when linked with communication
devices like the telegraph, followed
by the wireless and, in our own era,
the satellite, have enabled commanders to wage war from ever greater
distances from the actual battlefield.

Prior to World War I, military mapping symbols werent sophisticated.
That was true despite the fact great
commanders such as Napoleon
took a keen interest in cartography.
As evidence of that, we know he
considered his Headquarters
Topographic Office the single most
important element within his staff.
In fact, other than himself, Napoleon
trusted only one individual, Bacler
dAlbe, to make changes on his maps
and situation charts, so important
did he reckon them to his success.
It must still also be noted, however, that the three combat arms at
Napoleons disposal infantry, cavalry
and artillery, by which, in his words,
war is made never gave him cause
to create an array of map symbols for
them. He was content to use variously
colored pushpins to represent units
on his maps. There is, for example, the
well known account from the Italian
campaign of 1800 of Napoleon lying
on the floor and pushing colored pins
into a large map, plotting how to bring
the enemy to battle on the plains of
Scrivia, which is where he eventually
fought and won the Battle of Marengo.
Doubtless, seeing Napoleon
sprawled on the floor in that manner,
or hunched over maps laid out on a
table, was a common sight at imperial
headquarters. The colored pushpins
he made use of, however, didnt
provide any details as to the units they
represented. Those data were found in
the carnets: notebooks updated daily
by his staff, and which he carefully
overhauled himself every two weeks.
The carnets contained orders of


battle, with each unit allocated its

own page in the notebook. Each unit
in turn had its own corresponding
colored pin; so Napoleon could refer
between a pin and the notebook
containing the appropriate data.
Thats still a far cry from actual map
symbols, and nowhere near the use
of modern control measures.

19th Century
By Lee and Grants time the main
combat arms, still largely unchanged
on the ground from Napoleons
day, were beginning to be illustrated
directly on maps. No single military,
nor any individual within any military,
seems clearly to be able to take credit
for initiating that change. It took place
throughout Western militaries during

Reading a Military Unit Symbol

The basic symbol for a friendly unit, most often a rectangle (a rectangular
flag would indicate a friendly headquarters) still requires additional information in
and around it to establish such things as its function, size, and parent units.
First look within the rectangle to determine the combat role or service arm of the unit. The
organizational size of the unit is then found centered directly atop the rectangle. The units
unique designation, such as 1st, 2nd or 3rd, etc., is found to the left of the rectangle, while its
higher-level headquarters is to the right of the rectangle. Finally, if the unit has any additional
assets attached to it, or if some of its organic assets have been taken from it, that will be noted by a (+) or () sign, respectively, found within parentheses to the upper-right of the higher
headquarters indicator. On occasion the exact attachment is noted by its own specific symbol.
Looking at this example, we see its an infantry unit (crossed lines), of
platoon size (three dots), and that its the third platoon (number 3 to the
left side) of G company, 2nd Battalion (the G/2 to the right), and that it has
machinegun assets attached (the up-pointing arrow symbol).

S&T 274 | MAYJUN 2012



the decades after Waterloo, and was no

doubt accelerated by the war maps that
began to appear in the growing number
of newspapers and books being printed.
The symbols used consisted of
partially or fully colored or shaded
rectangles indicating cavalry and
infantry, respectively, while hash
marks denoted individual cannon

or batteries. Maps, both printed and

those traced or copied from printed
versions, were in common enough
circulation they could be handed in
as part of after-action reports showing
troop dispositions and movements.
Units were shown in one of two
modes of maneuver: either line or column. It wasnt unknown for a units size

to be rendered relative to that of other

units by being drawn larger, smaller, or
the same size as other formations. Each
such rendering, however, was specific
to a particular battlefield map, and
there were still no universal measures.
On the one hand, such an
approach had advantages in that
it aided commanders in seeing the
strongest force and its locale. On the
other hand, it constituted a drawback
when trying to come to understand
an enemys overall combat potential.
An important consideration became
how to compare one large-sized unit
on one map to a similarly sized unit on
another map, especially if the two maps
had been drawn by different men.
Often inked in above, below, or to
one side of a unit would be its name,
commonly that of its commanding
officer, for example: Johnsons
Brigade. Other military features, such
as fortifications, were depicted by
polygons of varying thickness conforming to the basic outline and rough
strength of the obstacle itself. Often
those symbols lacked much in the way
of detail about a fortifications precise
defensive or obstructive value. Overall,
then, while pins, carnets, polygons and
hash marks drawn directly on maps
were innovative and served 19th century
commanders better than what had
previously been available, they still
werent sophisticated or flexible enough
for the ever-changing face of war.

World War I
The Great War, as in so much
else associated with it, initiated a
revolution in military mapping and

symbols. A war as complex as World

War I, in which an array of new unit
and weapon types a large number of
them previously unseen on battlefields,
such as heavy machineguns, chemical
weapons, flamethrowers, tanks, aircraft,
anti-aircraft artillery, etc. demanded
cartographic innovation. Simple
colored pins, or basic geometric shapes
with associated name tags, could no
longer suffice to help commanders
properly visualize and manage the
allocation of their forces and new
weaponry. Nor could it assist them in
understanding the enemys dispositions in those regards, allowing them
to better discern his true intent.
By the end of hostilities in
November 1918, all the major combatants had devised their own system of
military symbols to help graphically
depict the different branches, echelons
of command, and where they stood on
the battlefield, as well as the special
weapons each possessed beyond
their organic firepower. There was,
however, still no standardization in the
symbols the two alliances employed.
Admittedly, by the end of the war
the French and British did use generally similar systems, and they were
even able to agree on color-coding
methods: red denoted enemy forces
while blue signaled friendly ones. That
was a concession by the British, and
a complete reversal for them. Theyd
formerly used red to denote friendly
units, from the traditional color of
their uniforms prior to the late 19th
century. Of course, the French had just
as traditionally used blue, and for the
same reason. They won the argument
due to the fact their army was the single
largest land force in the Entente.
That blue had become the de facto
color for friendly also contributed
to the lexicon in English, by which
we now use the phrase blue on
blue to define what we mean when
friendly forces mistakenly attack one
another (also know as friendly fire).

system created during the war.

That system evolved to focus on four
elements: the size of the unit, its service
branch, the major weapons found
within it, and the units means of mobility, that is foot, horse-drawn, wheeled
(bicycle, motorcycle or truck), half or
fully tracked. With their system the
Germans were able to accurately and
in detail plot units on maps as small as
platoons, and even individual weapons
like a single machinegun. That was a
far cry from anything previously seen.
That was an important ability, since the firepower carried by a
platoon was considerable and could
tie up a unit three or four times its
own size if properly employed and
positioned. By May 1943, however,
the symbols had become so complex
the General Staff realized they had to
be simplified, or the information they
conveyed would become effectively
indecipherable within an increasingly
overwhelming amalgam of shapes.
The figure in the lower-left illustrates
examples of the basic elements used in
the German system. The figure in the
upper-right shows how those elements
combined to present a figurative depiction of a combat unit. (The examples
are shown using the revised and simplified versions in use after May 1943.)

We cant help but conjecture that

the greatly increased sophistication
in the symbols contributed, at least in
some degree, to the dynamic change in
warfare as unleashed by the Germans
in the opening phase of World War II.
Placing aside other considerations for
a moment, we can legitimately ask
if the Wehrmacht couldve modeled
or carried out blitzkrieg warfare so
effectively without all the right tools,
in this case the symbols necessary
to manage a complex battlefield in
which a myriad of ground, naval, air
and airborne forces were used in close

German Influence
Undeniably, the most sophisticated
developments in the field of military
mapping and control measures to
emerge from World War I came from
the German Army. Even after the
defeat of 1918, the German General
Staff, the first of its kind and originally established by Scharnhorst and
Gneisenau in the wake of Napoleon,
continued to improve on the mapping

S&T 274 | MAYJUN 2012

S&T 274 | MAYJUN 2012


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conjunction and in support of one
another. Later on in the conflict, by that
same token, we can wonder if Hitler
couldve micromanaged his armed
forces into oblivion without relying on
the detailed information contained in
such symbols as displayed on the maps
hanging on the walls of his command
bunkers. Clearly, in each case it seems
military mapping must be reckoned
to have played a role in those issues.


Though the tsarist Russians didnt
remain a combatant power in World
War I through to November 1918, they
nearly matched the Germans in the

complexity of the military symbols

they developed as a result of the war
(see below-left). Rather than using that
complexity for tactical or operational
detail, in the manner of their German
counterparts, the post-World War I
Soviets placed emphasis on depicting
formational alignments, both in the
attack and on the defense, as well
as delineating precise pathways
and points of command control.
Thats a characteristic that shouldnt
come as a surprise, considering such
concerns were central to almost all
of life in Stalins totalitarian state.
The military symbols evolved by
the Soviets between the World Wars
eventually became the basis for those

used by all the Warsaw Pact nations

after that alliances founding in 1955.
Despite the late US entry into World
War I, along with its tie to the FrancoBritish alliance, and even though the US
Army adopted the French General Staff
system, the American military didnt
copy either of those nations when it
came to military symbols. Instead, the
US Army Corps of Engineers, in charge
of cartography and map symbolism,
developed its own unique system.
The US system, created at the time
of the countrys entry in World War I,
was relatively simple in comparison to
its counterparts. In the initial US system
the branches of service were distinguished by abstracted depictions of
their primary function. So, for example,
an X represented the crossed
bandoliers of the infantry; a single saber
denoted cavalry; a small cannonballlike dot indicated artillery; a propeller
indicated aircraft, and a truncated
cross depicted medical units. A units
size was indicated by either a series of
small dots, vertical lines or Xs centered
above the type-rectangle, which
always held the unit branch within it.

to being shown in red, theyre also

depicted by diamond shapes.) That
did away with the previous practice
of depicting both friendly and enemy
units with rectangles (though enemy
units were shown within concentric
rectangles). Under the current NATO
system, rectangles are reserved
exclusively for friendly units. Unknown
or unidentified units are also given
their own symbol: that of a playing card
club, or to some eyes a cloud shape.
Neutral units, such as non-governmental organizations (NGO), which might
be providing humanitarian assistance
or otherwise operating in a warzone,
are indicated by the use of squares.

Two new color schemes were

also eventually added: yellow for
unidentified units and green for neutral
ones. Other nations, such as Israel,
have adopted and modified the NATO
symbols for their own use, in part
because of their practicality and utility.


phones, power-point projections, etc.

some important part of the information Home
he must manage is still to be found
within the military symbols themselves,
no matter the medium in which theyre
portrayed. Without a clear and effective
military map system, and a firm grasp
of its unique language, a commander
wont be able to bring the enemy to battle on ground of his own choosing.

Information is one of the most

important elements a battlefield
commander must manage, track and
process, even more so in this hyper-fast
net-centric age of warfare. While theres
a host of technologic tools available to
assist a commander computers, smart

That was the same general system
with which this magazines regular
readers are familiar. That system,
though modified after World War I and
further augmented during the course
of the Second World War for example,
a mini-parachute symbolized airborne
units, while an oval indicated fully
tracked armor eventually became the
standard for all countries that became
signatories of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949.
The creation of an overarching
multi-national military system like
NATO (or its counterpart, the Warsaw
Pact) mandated a coherent and
standardized symbol set be agreed
on. Command and control wouldve
otherwise been fraught with confusion, and would certainly have led
to chaotic results in the event of war.
To take just one example, prior to
NATO standardization, the symbol
for a British battalion, a cross in a
rectangle, could easily have lead an
American map reader to believe a
medical detachment was being shown.
The NATO system refined and
codified the World War II-era Americanbased set of symbols; however, the
NATO system also made it easier to
identify enemy forces. (In addition

S&T 274 | MAYJUN 2012

S&T 274 | MAYJUN 2012