Visualizing The Great War

On March 21st, 1918, at 7:15 AM, a charge ignited deep within a monstrosity of steel and concrete buried into the hills of Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique. A 234 lb. shell launched, shredding the lining of the barrel as it punched into the atmosphere. Above the French countryside it rose, higher and higher, five miles, ten, fifteen, twenty-five. Then it fell, stooped like a hawk. At 7:18 AM, the shell slammed into the Quai de la Seine, a full 80 miles away from where it had begun. This was the Paris Gun, and the first man-made object to penetrate the stratosphere.

War had reached new new heights.

The way the history of WWI is taught really bugs me, because it’s nearly always so limited. Nearly everyone only learns about trench warfare on the Western Front, submarine raiding in the Atlantic, maybe the Russian Revolution. The Great War was fought at greater heights than any before, as well as greater depths. Geographically, fighting occurred near or on every continent. Culturally, the armies of the First World War were more heterogeneous than any war fought before the creation of trans-national empires could. On the Western Front alone, the Allied Powers fielded soldiers and laborers from France, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, England, Russia, Portugal, Senegal, Algeria, Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia, the United States, Siam, Indochina, India, and China.

To attempt to help rectify this, I decided to try to create a visualization of the war, a map showing just how widespread and all-encompassing this conflict was. And to make this post slightly less self-indulgent, I included a selection of historical maps relating to the war I think help illustrate my point.

Click ‘View Image’ to Embiggen

Same As Above

As you can see, most of the major fronts formed a rough triangle stretching from northern to the ends of the Arabian peninsula, but fighting was much more widespread than that. Within Europe, the war reached places like Finland and Ireland that most people don’t associate with WWI, and there was scarcely an inch of coastal waters unbloodied. But Africa and the Pacific islands too were the sight of much combat, as Britain and France dismembered the German colonial empire. Even North America was not exempt from War—in 1916 German saboteurs blew up a munitions factory in Jersey City, and in 1918 a U-Boat shelled the town of Orleans, in Massachusetts.

German cruisers like the SMS Emden and SMS Karlsruhe bedeviled British shipping lanes in the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans. After they were hunted down, disguised merchant raiders were dispatched secretly to roam the oceans of the world. Even neutrality was no bar to being drawn into the conflict. Leaving aside the U-Boats propensity to torpedo any merchant ship in the vicinity of the British isles irregardless of nationality, Albania and Persia were both neutral nations that swiftly turned into battlefields. And though Germany is usually the one singled out for violations of neutral rights, the Royal Navy was infamous for entering the territorial waters of Sweden and Denmark to hunt the Kaiserreich’s ships. War was everywhere.

Keep Clickin’

This is another map that relates to geographical scale, transposing the European fronts onto a map of the United States. It’s undated, though from the position of the various front lines it appears to have been made in early 1917. The obvious point being made by this map is the sheer size and length of the fronts—nearly the distance from Chicago to San Francisco when laid end to end. But there’s also an untold dimension to this. Unlike the vast majority of maps, this diagram illustrates the various fronts in relation to one another. When this is done, we can see the territories of the Central Powers together as a whole. It is this area (let’s call it Mitteleuropa) that defined an emerging economic-political bloc that, if the war had gone differently, could have become the pivot of the world.

You know the drill

This is an interesting one. It’s a Norwegian translation of a British propaganda map showing what the world would look like if the Germans won. It’s more accurate than you might think! Not, of course, if we take this a program for actual German conquests, but the Imperial German government was actively planning a build a global Sphere of Influence post-war that was truly stunning in it’s ambition. Obviously, this map contains some exaggerations. Germany hoped to increase it’s influence in China, but I don’t think quite to the extent depicted here. And while it’s true that the German Empire had long hoped for a naval base in the Western Hemisphere, I don’t think they envisioned annexing all of South America. But everything else here seems to be based on actual stated German war aims, more or less.

In Africa, Germany hoped to annex the French and Belgian Congos, as well as the Portuguese colonies to form a trans-Continental Mittelafrika, though I’ve never seen indications they planned on gaining South Africa or Egypt. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was projected to become a virtual German puppet state. And in Europe, this fairly accurately depicts the projected borders of a post-war Mitteleuropa that was to give Germany enough resources to safely defend itself for ‘all time’. The only major accuracy I can see is that this map assumes the German annexation of all of Northern France, when in reality they planned to restrict themselves to control over the major Channel ports. 

You know what to do

Now, here we see the opposite, a German map designed to show Americans what the world would look like if the Allies won. It is, uh, substantially less accurate. As in, to the best of my knowledge, the United Kingdom never explicitly planned the re-colonization of the United States. (Though I wouldn’t put it past them….). What’s interesting about this though, is not the historical content, but the way in which the propaganda choices made reflect contemporary anxieties. Note ‘New Japan’ and ‘Anglo-Mongolian Ocean’. Anti-Asian sentiment was still extremely high in the American West during these years, and ‘Gentleman’s Agreements’ restricting immigration from Japan had been signed only in 1907. By drawing attention to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Germany seems to be attempting to call upon the racial fears of Americans of the ‘Yellow Peril’, as well as the specter of British collaboration with the ‘Asiatics’. Note too the ‘American Reservation’. There’s an old joke ‘The wogs begin at Calais’. The idea being that to an Englishmen, everyone, even other Europeans are considered racial inferiors. This map suggests that to the British, the Americans are no more their allies than the Native Americans were to the USA, and that the same fate awaits them.

These two maps, taken together, show the immensity of what was seen at being at stake. This was not just a squabble about responsibility for the death of an Austrian Archduke, it was a struggle for Imperial dominance, and to many, racial survival.


I love this map. It’s a pretty standard view of the World as of summer 1917, shown divided into Central Powers and Allies. What distinguishes it, of course, is that it’s Chinese. While mostly forgotten, the Republic of China officially entered the war on August 14, 1917, hoping to assure itself a place at the peace talks as a recognized independent nation. Though Chinese soldiers never fought, tens of thousands of labors shipped out from Guandong and Fujian to build trenches and fortifications in northern France. What’s great about this map is that it’s seriously one of the best contemporary maps of the war I’ve seen. It shows the territories each side is occupying in painstaking detail, and even seems to make a distinction between Allied powers actually part in the conflict and those merely nominal members. I’ve never seen any artifact that so easily sums up the universal nature of this war.

I’m not saying it again

To end this piece, I present: Another Way Forward. This is a map of a proposal for a radical reformation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wherein the German-Magyar dominance would be replaced by a federation of states roughly drawn along ethnic boundaries. The concept was advanced by a circle of idealistic young scholars surrounding the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (yeah, HIM). It was hoped that by such an arrangement the ancient Hapsburg Imperium could be perpetuated into the 20th century, the ethnic tensions tearing the realm apart defused by the promise of autonomy. Instead of a two-tiered system in which German Austrians and Magyars held virtually all power, the Franz Ferdinand Plan would give every ethno-nationalist group within the Empire a stake in perpetuating the system, as well as neatly breaking the power of the Hungarians, who were the biggest obstacles to coherent Imperial government.

The breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is today seen as inevitable, which is reasonable enough in some ways, given the medieval nature of it’s ramshackle structure. But there is increasing scholarship that looks at the ways in which Central Europe declined after the collapse of the Hapsburgs from the pivot of the continent to a battleground of more powerful nations. Prague, Budapest, Trieste, Vienna—all once some of the most important cities in the world, reduced to irreverence. Even in simple economic terms, the central European economy had developed as an integrated system, and suffered badly under the imposition of hard national borders in the 1920s and 1930s. There is no guarantee that a hypothetical Emperor Franz Ferdinand would have pushed through this plan to fruition or that it would have any success. But nevertheless, I think it serves as a cautionary reminder that history is never set in stone. There are always other paths.


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