Interpreting Maps

Why are maps useful primary sources?

Using a map, you might be able to determine the distance between two places to better comprehend what it meant for someone to travel a particular distance in a particular amount of time, or to understand more clearly the relationship between different places discussed in a text. Maps can also show us the locations of key features like rivers and mountains, as well as the political boundaries between cities, counties, states and countries.

Some maps, like the one used in the example below, give us more information than geography alone can provide. This map shows us the locations of German troops two months after the invasion of Normandy.  Other maps can show us things like routes travelled or the locations of particular resources like industrial plants, mines, or farmland. 

How to interpret maps

Example

Source: CHAR 20/239/1

Description: Map of the Western Front marked "Top Secret" showing an estimate of the total number of German divisions.

Date: September 1944



Method

1. Think about what this source is

This British military map shows where intelligence indicated German troops were located along the western front.

2. Consider the background

Allied forces had landed in Normandy in June 1944, and this map two months later shows the locations of German troops (including some that are marked as being en route to surrender) at that point. In September 1944, Allied troops liberated areas that had been held by the Germans, including parts of France, Belgium and Switzerland. However, the war was by no means over and there would still be setbacks and battles with heavy Allied losses, such as the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

3. Consider what surface level information you can interpret from the map

Ask yourself:

  • Where are the largest concentrations of German troops?
  • What do you think the numbers and abbreviations on this map stand for?
  • Comparing this map to a map of modern Europe, what differences do you notice?
     

4. Consider what deeper level information you can interpret from the map

Ask yourself:

  • Why do you think this map was made? How do you think it was used? How accurate do you think it was?
  • Based on this map, how soon after it was made would you expect the war to end? Do the Germans seem to be in a position of strength or weakness?
  • For historians, how might this map help answer questions about military strategy (Axis or Allied) or about the accuracy of military intelligence?
  • What other ways of using maps in historical research can you imagine?

Need more help?

If you would like to learn more about this time period to contextualize this map, see this resource from the magazine The Atlantic which provides a description of the Allied invasion of Europe in summer and autumn of 1944, along with a variety of historical images

How do I interpret other types of primary source?