I can clearly remember when I first encountered Napolean’s March On Moscow, Charles Minard’s famous rendering of the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812-13.

In the late 1980s, laser printers were emerging as the standard for high quality office printing. One manufacturer chose Minard’s graphic to demonstrate the quality of which their new printer was capable and a full-page advert in The Independent newspaper included a redrawn, translated version at full broadsheet size.

Charles Joseph Minard

In the early 19th Century, Minard worked as a civil engineer throughout Europe on construction projects involving dams, bridges and canals. He began producing statistical graphics in the 1840s to assist in railway design, before retiring aged 70 in 1851.

Minard created a series of flow maps, showing French wine imports, British coal exports, freight traffic on French rivers and railways, European cotton imports and international migration. Napolean’s March On Moscow was published in 1869, a year before Minard’s death in 1870.

Napolean’s March On Moscow

By Charles Minard (1781-1870) – see upload log, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=297925

Original Description translated into English:


Figurative Map of the successive losses in men of the French Army in the Russian campaign 1812–1813.

Drawn by M. Minard, Inspector General of Bridges and Roads (retired). Paris, November 20, 1869.

The numbers of men present are represented by the widths of the coloured zones at a rate of one millimetre for every ten thousand men; they are further written across the zones. The red designates the men who enter Russia, the black those who leave it. — The information which has served to draw up the map has been extracted from the works of M. M. Thiers, de Ségur, de Fezensac, de Chambray and the unpublished diary of Jacob, the pharmacist of the Army since October 28th.

In order to better judge with the eye the diminution of the army, I have assumed that the troops of Prince Jérôme and of Marshal Davout, who had been detached at Minsk and Mogilev and have rejoined near Orsha and Vitebsk, had always marched with the army.

The remarkable image jumped out of the page and grabbed my attention immediately. It looked like no chart I’d ever seen: part map, part timeline, part temperature graph.

The following day, I saved the page from the bin and pinned it to my wall. I was fascinated. The more I pored over it, the more details of the story emerged. Somehow, this black and white image on a two-dimensional sheet of newsprint contrived to display six different types of data:

  • the number of Napoleon’s troops;
  • the distance travelled;
  • temperature;
  • the latitude and longitude;
  • direction of travel;
  • the location relative to specific dates.

The Story of a Doomed Campaign

These data combine to relate the fate of over 400,000 troops who crossed the River Neman in June 1812 (numbers vary according to sources) in pursuit of a retreating Russian army.

Minard’s snaking line narrows as the Grande Armée advances, stretching their supply lines to breaking point. The Russian army’s scorched earth tactics deny Napolean’s men resources en route and only 100,000 men arrive in Moscow in September.

Burning four-fifths of Moscow forces Naploean to withdraw in October, beginning a long march back as the Russian winter closes in. Temperatures plunge to -30 Celsius and starvation, diptheria, dysentery and typhus strike at an army only equipped for a summer campaign.

Now a thinning black line shows the remnants of the army in retreat, suddenly narrowing at perilious river crossings, occasionally bolstered by returning forces, but ultimately dwindling until a mere 10,000 men make it back to the River Neman in early December.

The Best Infographic Ever

There’s no fancy colour scheme or redundant explanation. Minard presents the information almost entirely dispassionately, yet he tells the story clearly and succinctly. Out of 400,000 men who left the Polish border for Moscow, a mere 10,000 returned.

What’s perhaps surprising is how Minard’s work has endured. Even now, 140 years later, Napolean’s March On Moscow is regularly held up as one of the best ever examples of graphical communication.

Wikipedia:

“Modern information scientists say the 1869 map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.

French scientist, physiologist and chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey praised “its brutal eloquence, which seems to defy the pen of the historian”.

Noted information designer Edward Tufte says it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn” and uses it as a prime example in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Howard Wainer identified Minard’s map as a “gem” of information graphics, nominating it as the “World’s Champion Graph”.

The Economist described it as one of “three of history’s best” charts”

Updated copy of Charles Joseph Minard's famous infographic depicting Napolean's doomed 1812 invasion of and subsequent retreat from Russia in 1812

By DkEgy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61466910

Categories: Infographics

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