Cartography in Times of War & Peace

An c.1855 military map of the Crimean theatre, from Francis Herbert's personal collection. © 2015 The Author.

An c.1855 military map of the Crimean theatre, from Francis Herbert’s personal collection. © 2015 The Author.

By Benjamin Sacks

On 2-6 December 2014 an international group of leading scholars of historical geography – including a large Royal Geographical Society contingent – converged in Ghent, Belgium to mark the centenary of the First World War and cartography’s extraordinary role in it. Soetkin Vervust, a PhD candidate in the University of Ghent’s Department of Geography, successfully organised and directed this week-long summit critically examining armed conflict’s diverse impacts on cartography, surveying, geographical information collection and dissemination, spatial awareness, and culture.

Francis Herbert, the RGS’s retired research library director and Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries, exhibited well over one hundred maps, guidebooks and ephemera from his personal collection. The trove spanned from the Crimean War (1853-1856) to decolonisation, with an appropriate emphasis on the two world wars. As a whole, Herbert’s collections vividly demonstrated how globalisation and technological advances in communications and transport brought military mapping from the battlefield into the very heart of popular culture. The Herbert Collection is particularly interesting as the source of much of much of his extensive scholarship, including (amongst numerous examples) ‘The “London Atlas of University Geography” from John Arrowsmith to Edward Stanford’ (1989).

A number of presentations pursued this theme. James Akerman, director of the Newberry Library’s Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for Cartography, discussed the fascinating, and occasionally bizarre, proliferation of battlefield guidebooks circulated immediately following the First World War. While many volumes published between 1918 and the early 1920s were authored with due care, respect, and deference to the conflict’s nearly unimaginable horrors and extraordinary loss of life, some guides smacked of sensationalism and reductionism, pointing out the best restaurants and stage shows to enjoy following an afternoon jaunt to the still-fresh craters of Ypres. Ralph Ehrenberg, director of the Library of Congress’s Geography and Map Division, similarly recounted the War’s dynamic role in popularising military engineers and cartographers, pilots, and their maps in the rapidly-globalising United States. Ehrenberg’s work on cartography, cartographers, and aviation complements and extends Michael Heffernan’s 1996 Transactions article examining the RGS’s intelligence-gathering role(s) in the First World War, and provides a fascinating historical context to Alison Williams’ 2011 Transactions article on the ‘multiple spatialities of UK military airspace’.

Joel Radunzel, a veteran of the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a current graduate student of Mark Monmonier at Syracuse University, combined a technical expertise of military strategy with historical and contemporary cartography data to critically examine how and why British forces reacted in particularly ways before, during, and after the 3rd Battle of Gaza (1-2 November 1917). Radunzel shed important new light, unavailable from existing, non-geographical analyses, into the British military’s decision-making processes, identifying the extents and limitations of their battlefield knowledge, and geographically-pinpointing where and when their intelligence of allied and enemy movements was correct, incorrect, and by how much.

Cartography in Times of War and Peace highlighted the maturation of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as a vital tool of historical analysis. Sandra Domingues and the Centre for Geographical Studies at the University of Lisbon brought the work, travels, and lives of the First World War’s Portuguese military postal service to life with a remarkable fusion of traditional maps and ArcGIS-based visualisations. Photographs and letters were georeferenced to their precise location in the trenches. Likewise, Utrecht University Library showcased how GIS digitisation revealed the city’s many fortresses and their centuries of influence on urban development.

The University of Ghent Conference Centre, host of 'Cartography in Times of War and Peace'. © 2015 The Author.

The University of Ghent Conference Centre, host of ‘Cartography in Times of War and Peace’. © 2015 The Author.

Napoleonic Iberia was a hotbed of cartographic experimentation and development. Pilar Chias and Tomas Abad (University of Alcala) elucidated the little-known world of Spanish military cartographers who operated alongside the Duke of Wellington’s forces against the French emperor. Spanish field surveyors incorporated their intimate knowledge of local geographies to create beautiful, highly useable, and secretive three-dimensional maps. These works of art provided allied armies with a level of battlefield intelligence the French could never hope to obtain, and undoubtedly played an important role in Napoleon’s eventual defeat in Spain. Kelly Henderson (Adelaide, Australia) reminded the audience that one British engineering surveyor active in the Iberian campaign was William Light (1786-1839), the ‘genius’ behind Adelaide’s equitable grid plan. The Light model subsequently became an important method in designing and administering nineteenth century Victorian colonial cities as far afield as Mumbai (Bombay) and Hong Kong. Henderson’s deep biographical and cartographical research articulated the global acquisition, production, and reproduction of planning knowledge from Britain and Spain to Australia. Their respective studies remind geographers from all fields of the very personal nature of maps, mapping, and exploration.

Belgium has been an importance centre of geographical discourse and cartographic advancement since at least the sixteenth century. Participants visited the Mercator Museum in Sint-Niklaas, where Gerard Mercator’s groundbreaking aardglobe (1541) and hemelglobe (1551) are carefully preserved and displayed. Jan de Graeve’s extensive personal collection of surveying instruments, another conference ‘treat’, also stressed Belgium’s historical position as a crossroads for geographers and cartographers. His collections include a rare copy of Roland and Duchesne’s Atlas-Manuel de Géographie, in effect, a cartographic proclamation of King Leopold’s global imperial ambitions.

On Saturday, 6 December the Brussels Map Circle hosted a one-day annual meeting celebrating the Ghent conference and highlighting ongoing major research in cartographic/geographic scholarship. Imre Demhardt (University of Texas, Arlington), a chair of the International Cartographic Association, updated audiences on his ongoing investigation into the diverse origins of the United States Corps of Engineers, and their efforts to survey, map, and rework the vast American landscape.

Suggested Sources

60-world2 ‘Cartography in Times of War and Peace‘, The University of Ghent (archived).

books_icon Herbert, F, ‘The “London Atlas of Universal Geography” from John Arrowsmith to Edward Stanford: Origin, Development and Dissolution of a British World Atlas from the 1830s to the 1930s‘, Imago Mundi 41 (1989).

books_icon Heffernan, M, ‘Geography, Cartography and Military Intelligence: The Royal Geographical Society and the First World War‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.3 (1996): 504-33.

books_icon Williams, A, ‘Reconceptualising Spaces of the Air: Performing the Multiple Spatialities of UK Airspaces‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 36.2 (Apr., 2011): 253-67.

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