Napoleon’s tragic retreat, pictured: Minard’s famous infographic.

minards chart napoleon pd

This afternoon while working diligently on my dissertation I came across the above image, which is one of the most famous–and one of the first–“infographics” in Western history. This is sort of a map, sort of a chart and sort of a graph, but is not altogether any of these. It depicts in graphical form the size and strength of the great army of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, during his invasion of Russia in 1812 (the top tan portion) and during the army’s retreat from Moscow. (You can click on it to see it a bit larger). Tens of thousands of Napoleon’s men perished on this disastrous campaign, not just Frenchmen, but also Poles, Italians, Germans and any other nationalities that the French officers could induce or impress into their army. After Moscow burned and Napoleon had to leave the Russian capital, his men died from starvation and cold in much greater numbers than those that were killed in battle by the enemy. Napoleon himself fled to Paris in a carriage in December, leaving the pitiful remnant of his army to trickle back to France. We’re not entirely sure of numbers, but according to this chart Napoleon set out with over 420,000 soldiers, and barely 10,000 made it back home.

This famous chart was drawn up in 1869 by Charles Joseph Minard, a noted engineer, statistician and graphic designer who had quite an interesting career in public service until he retired in 1851. Clearly he had a talent for reducing complex statistics to easily understandable visual form, which is the essence of what an infographic is. This famous version, obviously a final draft of a long and exhaustively-researched project, was dated November 20, 1869. Minard created many other similar graphics on various statistical and historical subjects and is remembered as a groundbreaking designer, but he will always be famous for this particular work. He died peacefully in Bordeaux, France in 1870 at the age of 89.

The inscription on the infographic is in French. Here is its translation in English which explains how to read it–even though you get the point just from glancing at it, even if you don’t speak French.

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

Drawn by Mr. Minard, Inspector General of Bridges and Roads in retirement. Paris, 20 November 1869.
The numbers of men present are represented by the widths of the colored zones in a rate of one millimeter for ten thousand men; these are also written beside the zones. Red designates men moving into Russia, black those on retreat. — The informations used for drawing the map were taken from the works of Messrs. Chiers, de Ségur, de Fezensac, de Chambray and the unpublished diary of Jacob, pharmacist of the Army since 28 October.
In order to facilitate the judgement of the eye regarding the diminution of the army, I supposed that the troops under Prince Jèrôme and under Marshal Davoust, who were sent to Minsk and Mobilow and who rejoined near Orscha and Witebsk, had always marched with the army.

This image is in the public domain.
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2 Comments

  1. As famous as this is, I had never seen it before. I’m not one for infographics usually, my mind just doesn’t quite work that way, I spend a good 10 minutes with them explaining to myself – ie converting them back into the words I am far more comfortable with – thus rendering their creator’s hard work redundant. However, this one just leaps up and grasps me by the face, telling a long, savage, complex story in an a few articulate seconds. It somehow manages to be almost 3-dimensional. I enjoyed this, thanks.

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