Visual Story Telling: Revisiting Minard’s Map of Napoléon’s Russian Campaign (1812–1813)

Another view at Minard’s famous flow map, AKA “the greatest infographic of all times”

Much has been said about Charles Joseph Minard’s famous flow map titled “Carte Figurative des pertes succesives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813” (Paris, 1869) and it is universally praised for its comprehensive depiction of an impressive variety of quantitative data, hence there shouldn’t be much left to add to this. However, as indicated in a previous post, “Observing Minard Observing Napoléon – Observations on textual strategy in infographics by the example of the ‘Greatest Infographic of All Times’.” (2018), Minard’s map may not be what it seems to be at first glance. While we concentrated in this first post mainly on the aesthetic choices and what is actually shown and not shown in the chart and the general context of that sheet, both in presentation and history, we are here going to have a closer look at the very choice of presentation, namely the choice of a flow map and the impli­cations thereof.

Charles Joseph Minard: Carte Figurative des pertes succesives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813. (reconstructed)

Charles Joseph Minard: “Carte Figurative des pertes succesives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813”, Paris, 1869. 62 × 30 cm, ca. Cleaned edition by me; N.L. (public domain)
· Click for a larger image (2,000 × 950 px).
Original image source: École nationale des ponts et chaussées, Fol. 10975, Bibliothèque numérique patrimoniale des ponts et chaussées.

(Yes, an advert.)

Mapping Paths

To begin with, it may be worth recapping some of the issues already observed in the previous post, for example, a peculiar Southern drift in Minard’s abstracted geography, which facilitates the focus on the return lag of the campaign and the apparent causation of the dramatic losses in the temperature graph provided at the bottom of the chart, while at the same time obscuring the rather important fact that the army was returning on the path previously taken on its invasive movement, by this depending on the poor means of a terrain, which had been scorched and exploited previously.

Charles Joseph Minard: Carte Figurative des pertes succesives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813, comparative geography
Comparative overlay of Minard’s map with the map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign by Karl Spruner von Merz and Heinrich Theodor Menke (1880).
Background terrain, city locations and actual paths as in “Napoleon’s Feldzug in Russland”, Karl Spruner von Merz, Heinrich Theodor Menke: Hand-Atlas für die Geschichte des Mittelalters und der neueren Zeit, 3. Auflage. Gotha, Justus Perthes, 1880)Image source: Wikipedia (Wikimedia Commons)

Another, even more important trait of the map, supporting its very narrative, is that a significant portion of the losses is rather mapped as a gradient, as opposed to the destinctive steps provided anywhere else in the map.

Charles Joseph Minard: Carte Figurative des pertes succesives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813, early losses
Losses occuring near the beginning of the campaign (upper left of the map), mapped by gradient and an omission from the frame. Added red bars depict losses in thousands of men per pixel. · Click to enlarge.

Early in the campaign, the army amounting to a total of 422,000 men splits into three parts, a detachment of 22,000 men to the North, a detachment of 60,000 men eventually arriving at Polotsk, and the remaining main stream of 340,000 men heading East towards Moscow. The first detachment suffers a loss of 16,000 men or 72.72%, which is entirely out of the frame of the map (we only see the diminished strength of the line representing those returning), the detachment to Polotsk loses half of its men, 30,000 or 50.00%, and the remaining majority of the army suffers a still significant loss of 165,000 out of 340,000 men or 48,53%, which is depicted as a gradient spreading out rather insignificantly over a quite long étape. By this, the map quite efficiently obscures the fact that a majority of the losses (211,000 out of 422,000 men or 50.00%) is occuring at the very beginning of the campaign, in what amounts to just about a third of the invasive movement. Arguably, this helps (or doesn’t help, depending on perspective) a lot in telling the story as provided by Minard’s map.

Which should turn our attention to the very means of mapping losses and how the choice of a flow map contributes to this.

Mapping Losses

The map explictly promisses to depict “distributed losses” (pertes succesives). But, does it?

At a basic level, a flow map renders the destribution of a quantity over time and geography. It essentially maps what there is, in our case, what’s remaining, and not what there isn’t (present anymore) or, in our terms, losses. While the difference may seem subtle, it is rather significant.

Let’s see what it looks like, if we reduce the path to a simple line and actually map the distributed losses, here as red bars according to the numbers provided by Minard [1]:

[1] The numbers provided by Minard for the several data points probably reflect more the remaining effective combat force rather than a total count of survivers.

Charles Joseph Minard’s Russian Campaign and distributed losses remapped
Distributed losses remapped. Added red bars depict losses in thousands of men per pixel.
Click to enlarge.

Note: This image and the following images are based on the image provided by Wikipedia. Mind that this is not the original map by Minard, but rather a redrawing by Elaine Morse provided in Edward R. Tufte, “Beautiful Evidence”, Graphics Press 2006, p.126. It just so happens that I had this already separated in informational layers before eventually discovering the provenance of this image. While based on copyrighted material, it is assumed that the educational purpose of this post and the amount of information added is sufficient to provide these derivative images under the terms of fair use.

As may be observed, the overwhelming majority of the losses — 286,000 out of 422,000 men or 67.77%) — occurs on the invasive leg. While the loss of 126.000 men out of 136.000 returning in total (100.000 returning from Moscow) is significant and highly dramatic on its own, it does neither represent nor explain the real drama of this expedition.

If we procede by adding some markers for major battles, we may even attribute a material part of the losses of this military campaign to attritional encounters of the invading army with the defending forces.

Charles Joseph Minard’s Russian Campaign and distributed losses and battles
Distributed losses and major battles. Added red bars depict losses in thousands of men per pixel.
Click to enlarge.

At this point, it should be hard to shift the focus on the returning leg and the temperatures provided by Minard, in order to tell the story of the ruin of the Grande Armée. Putting it all together, distributed losses, major military encounters, and the fatal logistics of progressing through scorched and/or previously exploited terrain, the temperature scale provided at the bottom of the map appears to be rather coincidental than of explanatory substance.

Charles Joseph Minard’s Russian Campaign and distributed losses and battles
Distributed losses, major battles, and temperatures. Added red bars depict losses in thousands of men per pixel.
Click to enlarge.

Finally, here’s a map of relative losses distributed over time, providing no indication of a significant correlation, other than heavily diminishing losses occuring early and late in the campaign:

Charles Joseph Minard’s Russian Campaign and relative losses
Distributed losses over time in percent. Click to enlarge.

Making Meaning

The subtle difference of the flow map rather showing what is still remaining than what is missing, as well as the color separation of the inbound and the returning legs of the campaign are contributing significantly to the story telling. We may even say, the choice of a flow map as a means of rendering is a significant prerequiste (together with the omission of any military encounters) for the story told by Minard’s map, the ruin of an army by extreme freezing conditions and attrition of health.

What really tells the story, however, is the scansion of date lines, which connect the black path of the returning leg with the temperature scale and its drama of descending slopes, which forms a visual accord with this very path and occupies about the same spatial extent as the actual flow graph. It’s providing meaning, where any other meaningful indications are lacking. By rather depicting what (still) is than what is lost, the map seems to suggest, what is not rather than what is occuring.

Finally, by providing the “bigger picture”, which is also the very context of this sheet, a transcending view over what outlasts millennia and still provides inspiration for those who study history (in 19th century context) in order to learn who they were in order to know who they ought to become, the map seems to shift its meaning, once again. Rather than lamenting the losses of human lives, is seems to praise the futile but still inspiring endeavor by comparing it in artful parallel to the epic drama of Hannibal crossing the Alps. Not the futility of the endeavor, not the drama of the outcome, but the struggle agains fate and the apparent boundaries of natural obstacles, human excellence rearing up against all odds is what is to be ultimately remembered and what is to fundamentally inspire human civilization:

Charles Joseph Minard: Hannibal's crossing of the Alps and Campagne de Russie 1812-1813 – Detail
Minard’s sheet in its entirety, Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps on top, the Russian Campaign of 1812-13 below. (62 × 54 cm, ca.)Image source: · Click to enlarge.

By facilitating this shift of focus, from the parable of the parallel red paths to apparent causes of the drama and back again, the color separation of the invasive and returning legs of the Russia Campaign provides the means to explore and eventually suspend the meaning of the graph in order to arrive at the bigger picture. Notably, it’s the choice of a flow map, which provides the means for this by the areal extent of the paths, which also benefits from the visually more significant invading motion in its parallel to the carefully oriented path of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps on the top of the sheet. The innocent positivity of the flow map and the choice of color work hand in hand in the production of meaning.


However, the production of meaning in visual media is still rather ambigue and is subject to socio-historical context and interpretation. Rather than depicting two heroic, while tragic, movements towards an Eastern opponent, much like the looming engagement with the Prussian army, which became a reality just the next year, the sheet has been read as a warning against hubris and tyranny.

Notably, in its heroic interpretation, the sheet echoes an earlier sheet of 1865 praising the military genious of Napoléon Bonaparte in a similar parallel to Charlemagne, “Similitude des dispositions stratégiques de Charlemagne et de Napoléon Ier. L’un dans sa campagne en 791 contre les Huns, l’autre dans sa campagne en 1805 contre les Autrichiens et les Russes.” (“Similarities in the strategic dispositions of Charles the Great and Napoleon I. The former in 791 against the Huns, the latter in his campaign of 1805 against the Austrians and Russians.”) In the summer of 1969, however, coinciding with Napoléon’s centenary, the public image of Napoléon Bonaparte had become subject to re-evaluation and was now increasingly perceived under the aspect of tyranny, which may contribute to the ambiguity of the sheet discussed here. The increasingly ambiguous perceptions of Napoléon Ier and of his nephew and self-proclaimed heir and mirror image, Napoléon III, may also have contributed to the striking omission of Napoléon’s name on this later sheet.

With the bonus of hindsight, the prevalent reading is still the one provided by Minard’s son-in-law, Victorin Chevallier, written under the impression of the war of 1870/71:

The image is gripping; and, especially today, it inspires bitter reflections on the cost to humanity of the madnesses of conquerors and the merciless thirst of military glory.
Victorin Chevallier, “Notice nécrologique sur M. Minard, inspecteur général des ponts et chaussées, en retraite” in: Annales des ponts et chaussées, Series 5, Vol. II, 2nd sem. (1871), pp. 1-22. Translation by Dawn Finley.

However, there isn’t much evidence indicating that Minard had foreseen such an outcome of the war. Rather, he was surprised by the progress of the victorious Prussian army, which let to a rushed flight, resulting not only in the ruin of his world view (“strongly frightened of the present as of the future, he was taken […] by an irresistible fever”) but eventually in Minard’s death. As recounted by V. Chevallier in his obituary:

His surprising memory, his intelligence as alive as always, his regular habits, his sober life, the care with which his family surrounded him, all put at a distance the idea of a coming end. But faced with the progress of the Prussian army his imagination carried him away; and after some hesitation he decided all of a sudden, Sunday September 11, 1870, to leave Paris, his books, his papers, his intellectual riches and the office which he occupied for twenty-five years. Leaning on crutches, in the middle of this throng of women, of children and of old people who fled as he did, he left for Bordeaux with one part of his family, carrying only one light bag and some studies already begun. He endured very well the fatigues of a night journey, and barely installed at Bordeaux, without other resources than his memory, he reapplied himself to work; but six weeks after his arrival, as strongly frightened of the present as of the future, he was taken for three days by an irresistible fever, and on October 24 he returned [his] soul, full with gratitude towards God, according to his expressions, for the portion of happiness which had been given to him on this earth.
Victorin Chevallier, ibidem.

Provided a lifelong connection to the regime as demonstrated by Minard’s biography, there isn’t much indication of a general shift in loyality. If there had been such a shift, we may rather expect a somewhat more radical expression than just the resumption of the explicit praise of the earlier sheet of 1865, maybe in a somewhat more restricted manner. The indications of artful intervention are just too many as to allow a meaning other than a parallelization of two epic endeavors in what is the heroic fable of human civilization and dignity — which had always been France’s claim to glory and entitlement, especially against her Eastern opponent.

We may conclude, there is indeed more to the innocent positivity of the flow map than what it may appear to be in the isolated context of rendering quantitative data. There isn’t such a thing as an innocent image, even in data visualization.