This incredible chart tells the story of how a single battle line held the entire world in suspense. Produced at the end of The Great War, the armistice has been signed, bringing fighting to a halt. But the conditions of surrender had not yet been agreed upon (the Treaty of Versailles was not signed until some seven months later). As such, the map captures the desperate tension between armistice and treaty.
This United States Army map, entitled ‘Order of Battle on Western Front 11 A.M., Nov. 11, 1918’ measures 85 by 107 centimeters (33.5 x 42 inches) and covers the infamous Belgian front, as well as the front lines stretching through the Lorraine-Alsace region. It has been marked ‘SECRET MAP ROOM G-3 G.H.Q.’ and hand-numbered ‘Copy No. 133′.
This particular example of the map comes from the estate of General Robert C. Richardson Jr., who was a liaison officer to the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I, and who would come to (at least technically) command all U.S. Army forces in the Pacific during World War II.
The date in the title is of extreme import, as this was the day the final armistice between Germany and the Allies was signed. We are in other words in that short window between the cessation of hostilities and the formal peace constituted by the Treaty of Versailles (signed June 29th 1919). Thus, while the map on one hand reflects Germany’s surrender and the end of World War I, it also shows the caution and military preparedness that the Americans were exercising, should conflict break out anew. It is an encapsulation of the limbo between war and peace. If peace really hung in the balance, it did so at the line depicted on this map.
The chart was prepared by U.S. Army cartographers from the engineering corps and contains a wealth of information on the types of forces at the front (artillery, cavalry etc.), as well as their latest status (surrendered, dissolved, tired etc.). It was produced with the clear intention of displaying the full Western Front at the time when the final armistice was signed in Le Francport, near Compiègne. The date in the title of the map is in direct reference to this event (for more see context section below).
In addition to outlining positions along the front, the chart provides an array of data on the dispersion and strength of both the Allied and German forces. The front is subdivided into swathes of land on both sides, for which different units and divisions are responsible. These subdivisions are clearly marked with red line on both sides of the front, and within each swathe, division identifiers and the commanding officer are clearly noted, providing a comprehensive overview and status of the front at the formal cessation of ground hostilities. Any World War I history-buff will note the how many famous commanders (on both sides) are named explicitly on the chart.
The front itself consists of a thick red line running through the centre of the map. Extending perpendicularly on both sides of the line are the additional red lines, which divided the front into distinct swathes controlled by specific divisions. The front line itself carries a thick shadow line which changes color as one proceeds south. This is to indicate which national cadre among the allies held this particular stretch of the line. The division is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it provides a quick visual impression of exactly how big a part of the line each group held and what kind of opposition they were facing. Thus we can see that the U.S. Army was facing down two German divisions under the command of Generals Georg von der Marwitz and Max von Gallwitz at the southern end of the line. By comparison, the Brits hold a shorter stretch of the line, but against significantly stronger forces. Another aspect of the war that this chart helps to visualize is the great complexity involved in organizing an allied front.
Being a military chart, the map is endowed with many annotations in the form of divisional numbers. These are explained through a rather extensive set of legends positioned in the upper right corner and in the lower left corner of the map. The primary legend, in the upper right corner, identifies the different divisions engaged in the fight by use of letters. The long list demonstrates how many different parties were engaged in this global conflict. Below it we find the four color codes for subdividing the actual fronts of the war, which here break down into the Belgian, British, French, and U.S. fronts, respectively. That we are deeply into the war is among other things evidenced by the effort to distinguish between fresh and tired divisions by using black and red ink to position them on the map.
With the exception of an identifying legend for the flags denoting various types of Headquarters, the rest consist of four distinct tables. Immediately below the main legend we find perhaps the most important of the four tables, namely an overview of all the divisions in this regions and their status vis-a-vis troop numbers, readiness, and whether they are on the line or in reserve. The overview includes German forces. When the numbers for all of them are tallied, we find that while Allied Forces outnumber their opponents in total sum, this was only due to the large number of reserves they could draw on. The Germans still controlled a very substantial army at this late stage in the war, and most of that army was mobilized on this front, as the numbers unequivocally reveal.
Moving to the lower left of the map, we find three different tables, each referring to their own feature. Farthest left, all of the dissolved German divisions are identified and the date of their dissolution recorded. This was obviously an important point of military intelligence and needed to be this specifically recorded so that the chart could be used for in-field assessments of troop identification. Immediately next to this we find a table detailing the status of U.S. Divisions, including the specific reserve numbers and each division’s state of readiness (fresh vs tired). A third legend is a little more obscure in that it simply connects a series of numbered red stars to different U.S. Army Divisions (Depot, Cadre, SOS). To understand the meaning we must return to the legends on the top right, where at the bottom of the inserted text we see that the red star refers to U.S. Divisions that are not in an American-controlled sector, which seems to imply that they are under Allied command since there are no such markings behind enemy lines.
The map was printed as a multicolor overlay on a detailed topographical map of France and the Benelux region, originally issued at a scale of 1:600.000. This is clearly seen from the titles given to seas and maritime passages, which are all in French, but is also stated in the top left corner, outside the map proper. An interesting annotation in the lower right corner identifies this modified map as having been printed by the 29th US Engineers Base Printing Plant. It also provides a date of 1919, confirming again that this map was part of the tool-kit for handling the intermediary period between armistice and treaty. The armistice no doubt required such a swift response that there was no time to compile or find an American chart as the basis. In fact, it is entirely likely that this map was compiled based on the hand-drawn annotations of survey teams and field officers providing crucial intelligence for this overview.
Context is everything
The Armistice of November 11th 1918, also known as the Armistice of Compiègne, constituted the final submission of the German land, sea, and air forces. At this stage in the war, the Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, and Bulgarians had all surrendered, leaving Germany as the last opponent to the Allied Forces. The armistice was signed by French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who was the supreme commander of the Allied Forces. It did not entail a formal surrender quite yet, which is the raison d’être of this map, but it did signify the end of fighting with this as its final goal.
The terms of the armistice pushed the Germans back east of the Rhine, reducing its former holdings significantly. It also secured infrastructure, the release of POWs, and the confiscation of all military equipment, including aircraft and warships. While the armistice held until the treaty was signed seven months later, it was necessary to formally prolong its validity no less than three times. Even though the armistice was signed by both parties at 5.45 am, the fighting continued until 11 am, as marked on the map. In this interval of a little more than five hours, a total of 2,738 soldiers were killed, testifying to the ferocity of the conflict. Allied intelligence continued to work to secure a swift victory, should the fighting resume.