Monthly Archives: May, 2013

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino

Continuing The March

Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s march in detail. [2]


Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino

To the north, on the French left flank, Oudinot had been charged with linking up with Etienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre Macdonald – leading the 10th Corps and himself ordered to capture the stronghold of Riga – and pushing back Wittgenstein. Although Oudinot never succeeded in joining up with Macdonald, he did engage Wittgenstein between 30 July and 1 August. The first battle actually took place on 28 July, between Wittgenstein’s advance guard (under General Kulniev) and Oudinot’s light cavalry and the 6th infantry division, commanded by Corbineau and Legrand respectively, at Kliastitsy (35km north of Polotsk). This initial clash saw the French surprised and pushed back: the second meeting, which ran over 30 July, 31 July and 1 August, saw further French losses as the Russian artillery held the advance. Kulniev was however killed leading a charge late on 1 August, the Russians lost about one thousand men, and the battle came to an end with Oudinot withdrawing south towards Polotsk and Wittgenstein falling back northwards. As a result, Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, who commanded the Bavarian VI Corps and had already been instructed to offer Oudinot support, was obliged to force march from Biešankovičy (about 80km south-east of Polotsk) to Polotsk. Setting out on 4 August, the Bavarian corps reached Polotsk on 7 August. That same day, Oudinot set out from Polotsk, heading towards Wittgenstein’s position at a village called Rosiza, north of the Drissa camp. On 11 August, the Russian commander headed south towards Svol’na (Belarus), intent on cutting Oudinot off. The latter retreated back towards Polotsk. For the memoirs of D’Aupias which recount in detail this northern theatre, see here (text in French).

Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino

Source: Mr. Yankey’s World History Class, Owasso Mid High School, 8800 N 129th East Ave, Owasso, OK 74055,

By now, Alexander was aware that it was becoming politically dangerous to cede such huge swathes of Russian territory without a fight. He therefore wrote to Barclay de Tolly on 9 August indicating the need to go on the offensive and begin fighting back properly against the invaders. Despite the push from both within and without the army to attack Napoleon in open battle, Barclay de Tolly remained unconvinced. Arguing that pitched battle against the Grande Armée risked leaving the Russian empire completely undefended should he prove unsuccessful, Barclay de Tolly continued to pursue his defensive retreat, hoping that slowing Napoleon would allow Alexander time to put together a reserve force. Further south, in Gorodeczna (north-east of Brest-Litovsk, between Pruzhany and Kobrin), on 12 August troops under Schwarzenberg and Reynier defeated a Russian force commanded by Tormassov. On the afternoon of 15 August, troops under Murat and Ney arrived at the western edge of Smolensk, where elements of the 1st and 2nd Western Armies had convened (including Dokhturov’s VII Corps, infantry from Konovnitzin’s II Corps and Neverovsky’s 27th Division).
Over the course of 16 and 17 August, Ney’s and Murat’s troops, along with Poniatowski’s Polish Corps, clashed with the Russians pitched in Smolensk: Barclay de Tolly – who was resolved to continue the retreat and draw Napoleon ever eastwards – called a withdrawal. About 11,000 Russians died defending the city.   Back in the north west, the First Battle of Polotsk took place between 17 and 18 August and saw Oudinot’s troops, supported by Gouvion-St-Cyr’s Bavarians, meet Wittgenstein’s reinforced 1st Corps of about 22,000 men. The Russian attack centred on the village of Spas (near Polotsk) but by the end of the first day, both sides had maintained their positions. Oudinot was wounded during the day, and Gouvion-St-Cyr took over the command. On 18 August, a French counter attack was launched and succeeded in pushing Wittgenstein back, who decided that withdrawal was the best course of action. Although the Russians had withdrawn (Gouvion-St-Cyr was made a maréchal shortly afterwards, on 27 August, 1812), Oudinot’s march on St Petersburg was held up. The latter came in for some severe criticism from Napoleon, who considered that Oudinot had allowed himself to be cowed and bullied by Wittgenstein. Alexander, for his part, would later declare Wittgenstein to be the “saviour of St Petersburg” whilst Gouvion-St-Cyr praised the Russians for their orderly and combative retreat. The Russian troops fell back to Sivoshin, 40km or so from Potolsk, and there was to be no further combat until October.   The 1st and 2nd Western Armies’ march back in the direction of Moscow was to prove eventful. Having evacuated Smolensk (which was by now in ruins), and forced along poor country roads in order to avoid the French artillery, Barclay de Tolly’s rearguard – commanded by Eugen of Württemberg, Alexander’s cousin – was severely harried by Napoleon’s advancing troops, commanded by Ney and Murat. The retreat had begun in confusion and a complete lack of coordination, caused in part by poor organisation, difficult roads, and a night-time departure. As a result, Württemberg’s troops were caught by Ney’s advancing force.


Meanwhile, troops under Pavel Tuchkov (who was later captured during the combat and imprisoned), held their nerve and succeeded in protecting the Moscow road to the east of Smolensk. These skirmishes, which took place on 19 August near Valutino and Gedeonovo (on the outskirts of Smolensk, near modern-day Lubino), are often claimed as French victories. Although the Russians were forced to withdraw, the advancing troops under Ney and Murat were held up long enough to allow the Russians to retreat to a safe distance. Napoleon, who believed the Russians to have retreated further back than they in actual fact had, remained away from the frontline, installed in Smolensk since 16 August. In the end, the lack of concerted push from the French saved the Russian army. Smolensk had been left to the French, but Napoleon knew that Moscow would not be abandoned without a serious fight.   On 18 August, Kutusov was appointed supreme commander, replacing Barclay de Tolly, whose tactics had been widely criticised, particularly by Bagration. Barclay de Tolly remained in command of the 1st Western Army, but Kutusov now dictated the strategy. Since the retreat from Smolensk, a defensible position for battle with Napoleon had been sought somewhere along the Moscow road. Dorogobuzh and the nearby Usv’atye fields (the site of Colonel Toll’s open criticism of Barclay de Tolly’s strategy, an incident on 21 August known as the “Mutiny of the Generals”) were both suggested and rejected. Time was running out as the Russian forces retreated back towards Moscow. Eventually, the small village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow was chosen.   On 25 August, Napoleon – based near Dorogobuzh (about ninety kilometres east of Smolensk) – received the wounded Tuchkov, where he proposed peace talks. Tuchkov refused and later that autumn was dispatched to Metz.

By 28 August, the Grande Armée had arrived in the town of Vyaz’ma, 114km from Borodino. The retreating Russian troops had sought to raze it to the ground, but the French forces succeeded in extinguishing the fire and salvaging the town’s food stores. On 29 August, Kutusov joined up with the retreating Russian forces on the Moscow road. On 30 August, 2,000 reinforcements under General Miloradovich arrived, and at the start of September, the Russians were in Borodino. On 31 August, two cossacks were captured by Murat’s forces: Napoleon subsequently learned of Kutuzov’s promotion and arrival as commander of the Russian forces. On 1 September, Napoleon arrived in Gjatsk (modern-day Gagarin, Russia), just sixty or so kilometres from Borodino.

The run-up to  Borodino

Despite being chosen as the site to pitch battle, Borodino was not without its faults. The Old Smolensk Road, which cut in from the west behind the Russian position (the latter running from Maslovo, through Borodino and the destroyed village of Semenovskoe – Raevski’s Redoubt – and onto the Russian left-flank stationed at Shevardino), offered the advancing Grande Armée a route behind Russian lines. To avoid this, Bagration’s troops, stationed at Shevardino, started to push south eastwards to Utitsa, due south of Borodino.   On 5 September, the French advance guard under Murat appeared on the Russian left-wing near Shevardino, commanded by Major General Count Sievers. Murat, with Davout, captured the villages of Alexinki and Kolotsa, near Shevardino. Meanwhile Poniatowski moved up from the south and captured Doronino. During the fierce battle, the Russians lost between 5,000 and 6,000 men and were pushed back. French losses totalled about 4,000. As a result, a large majority of the Russian forces stationed at Borodino were squeezed into the small area of land between Semenovskoe and Borodino.   The morning of 5 September, French forces totalled slightly more than 140,000 men (of which Napoleon would commit 124,000, refusing to commit his elite Guards regiment), with the Russian troops at about 110,000. On 6 September, the two sides recuperated from the previous day’s battle and made preparations for the next clash.   The night before the battle, Kutuzov roused his troops, declaring: “Companions, Fulfil your duty. Think of the sacrifices made of your cities delivered to the flames and of your children who implore your protection. Think of your emperor, your lord, who considers you to be the source of his strength, and tomorrow, before the sun has gone down, you will have written your faith and your loyalty to your sovereign and your fatherland in the blood of the aggressor and his armies.” (Quoted in French in Marie-Pierre Rey, L’Effroyable Tragédie, 2012, p. 155) “Compagnons, Remplissez votre devoir. Songez aux sacrifices de vos cités livrées aux flammes et à vos enfants qui implorent votre protection. Songez à votre Empereur, votre Seigneur, qui vous considère comme le nerf de sa force, et demain, avant que le soleil ne se couche, vous aurez écrit votre foi et votre fidélité à votre souverain et à votre patrie avec le sang de l’agresseur et de ses armées.”

The Battle of Smolensk

At 2am on 7 September, Napoleon dictated his famous proclamation, to be read to the troops at about 6am: “Soldiers! Here is the battle that you have so much desired. From now on victory depends on you: it is necessary to us. It will give you abundance, good winter quarters, and a prompt return to the fatherland. Conduct yourselves as at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Vitebsk, at Smolensk, and let the most distant posterity point with pride to your conduct on this day. Let it be said of you, ‘He was in that great battle under the walls of Moscow.'” “Soldats ! Vous avez supporté les privations et les fatigues avec autant de courage que vous avez montré d’intrépidité et de sang-froid au milieu des combats. Vous êtes les dignes défenseurs de l’honneur de ma couronne et de la gloire du grand peuple. Tant que vous serez animés de cet esprit, rien ne pourra vous résister. Soldats, voilà la bataille que vous avez tant désirée ! Désormais la victoire dépend de vous : elle nous est nécessaire. Elle nous donnera l’abondance, de bons quartiers d’hiver et un prompt retour dans la patrie ! Conduisez-vous comme à Austerlitz, à Friedland, à Vitebsk, à Smolensk, et que la postérité la plus reculée cite avec orgueil votre conduite dans cette journée ; que l’on dise de vous : il était à cette grande bataille sous les murs de Moscou !”

Next: The Battle of Borodino


[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

[2] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

[4] Karl von Clausewitz, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – From Saltanovka towards Smolensk

Continuing The March

Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s march in detail. [2]


From Saltanovka towards Smolensk
Further to the south-east, at 7am on 23 July, General Rayevski’s 7th Corps (part of Bagration’s 2nd Western Army) met Davout’s infantry forces – commanded by Joseph-Marie  Dessaix , Compans and Claparède – and his cavalry squadrons at Saltanovka, just south of Mogilev. The French forces outnumbered Rayevski’s troops, and the Russian troops – instructed to force their way through to Mogilev – failed to make any headway. Rayevski’s attack did however buy enough time for the remaining troops of the 2nd Western Army to head north-east for Smolensk. Russian losses numbered about 2,500, whilst the Grande Armée saw over a thousand soldiers injured, killed or taken prisoner. And although Davout had prevented Bagration’s force from reaching Barclay de Tolly, thus forcing him westwards, catching up with the Russians remained beyond the Grande Armée. Davout’s aggressive march to cut off Bagration had also severely depleted his troops. Following his victory at Saltanovka, the marshal was obliged to halt at Mogilev and let the Russians withdraw.
From Saltanovka towards Smolensk
Source: Mr. Yankey’s World History Class, Owasso Mid High School, 8800 N 129th East Ave, Owasso, OK 74055,

On 24 July, Napoleon had reached Kamień, about 95km due west of Vitebsk. Oudinot was based near Dzisna, keeping an eye on Wittgenstein (who was based at the Drissa camp) but prepared to cross the river Dvina if necessary. The 1st Western Army had marched hard, with some of its forces reaching Vitebsk by 23 July. Barclay de Tolly still hoped to link up with Bagration but, aware that Napoleon was looking to force an engagement at Vitebsk, he dispatched Alexander Ivanovich Ostermann-Tolstoy, commander of the 1st Western Army’s 4th Corps, back to Ostrovno to create a screen and slow the Grande Armée’s advance.

On 25 July, Murat came across Ostermann-Tolstoy’s forces stationed in a defensible position near the river Dvina and the modern-day village of Astroüna (Ostrovno) at what was the first major clash between Napoleon forces and the 1st Western Army. As a result of Ostermann-Tolstoy’s limited qualities as a general, the French ambush succeeded in capturing a number of the 4th Corps’ guns. And a rash Russian infantry charge (not this time the general’s fault) was initially successful but eventually overwhelmed, losing 30% of its men. With an additional French division under Alexis Joseph Delzon advancing on the position, Ostermann-Tolstoy retreated back towards Kakuviachino. Although losses were high (about 2,500 killed, wounded or missing), the 4th Corps had succeeded in slowing down the French advance. The task of delaying the Murat’s troops further was handed over to Peter Konovnitsyn, commander in the 3rd Corps. The latter and his troops managed to hold the French off for another day until on 26 July. When however Barclay de Tolly learned that Bagration had been held at Mogilev and was not going to make Vitebsk, possibilities of facing Napoleon at Vitebsk were severely compromised. Russian generals, notably Ermolov, managed then to pursuade Barclay de Tolly that holding the position at Vitebsk risked being outnumbered by the advancing Grande Armée, and there was still the possibility that the 1st and 2nd Western Armies could become cut off from one another. At 4pm on 27 July, the First Western Army’s retreat from Vitebsk began east in direction of Smolensk. With Peter Pahlen, in charge of the rearguard, holding the French at bay and covering the Russian troops’ tracks, the 1st Western Army again succeeded in slipping away from Napoleon. The deft withdrawal, which left nothing to the French forces when they arrived in Vitebsk on 28 July, was a clear sign to some of the Grande Armée’s officers that the Russian forces in front of them were not going to be a pushover. By this point, Napoleon needed to give his troops a rest and Barclay de Tolly’s men were able to make their way on to Smolensk, arriving there on 1 August.

On 2 August, Bagration’s 2nd Western Army and Barclay de Tolly’s 1st Western Army finally convened in Smolensk.

From Saltanovka towards Smolensk

Having arrived in Vitebsk on 28 July, Napoleon decided to offer his troops some much-needed rest. The march, coupled with the heat (the daily temperature was by averaging 28-30° C), meant his troops could not continue any serious pursuit of Barclay de Tolly. That night, the French emperor declared to Murat, Berthier and Eugène that “The first Russian campaign is over… We shall be in Moscow in 1813, [and] in St Petersburg in 1814. The war with Russia is a three-year war.”

On 4 August, the French headquarters was thus in Vitebsk, with Eugene in Surazh (between Velizh, Russia, to the north-east and Janavičy to the south-west in modern-day Ukraine); Murat at Rudnya (just over the border in modern-day Russia, on the road between Vitebsk and Smolensk); Davout at the confluence of the Beresina and the Dnieper; Ney south-east of Vitebsk, at Liozna (Belarus); Junot in Orcha (Belarus); Poniatowski in Mogilev; Oudinot before Polotsk; and Schwarzenberg in Slonim (Belarus).

Next: Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino


[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

[2] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

Infographic: The Facts About Pee

Back in February, I blogged about an infographic that showed the composition of poop. To show that I can address both sides of our bodily functions, today I am blogging about an infographic that discusses the facts about pee.

Peeing may seem like a strange topic for an infographic but not if it will be posted on urinals in public bathrooms. Men are always wondering where to look while standing at the urinal trying to avoid any unintentional glancing at your neighbor. Now many public restrooms are solving this problem by placing images and articles in front of the urinal for guys to read. That is where this infographic comes from. This infographic displays some interesting facts about pee for you to read while you are peeing. [SOURCE]

From the percentage of people who pee in the shower to the amount of pee an elephant releases each day, you can find some very unique facts on the infographic. If you ever wondered what pee is made of then your questions will be answered with this infographic. Have you ever been to a pool and thought that someone may have peed in it well according to this infographic there is a good chance someone did.

Information like this is sometimes seen as crude or disturbing but why should we be ashamed of a very natural function of our bodies. The next time you think you have to pee really bad you may think of that elephant who pees 49 liters a day. Now that is a lot of pee!


DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – To Drissa via Saltanovka

The March Continues

Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s march in detail. [2]


The March Continues – Volkovysk and Polotsk

Bagration, at the head of the 2nd Western Army, had been stationed in the triangle of Volkovysk (modern-day Belarus) Białystok (modern-day Poland) and Brest-Litovsk when Napoleon crossed the Niemen. With less than 250km between the two commanders, Bagration was instructed to head back inland, and he left Volkovysk on 28 June. On 30 June, Jerome Napoleon, king of Westphalia, arrived in Grodno (modern-day Belarus), about 50 km to the north of Volkovysk so recently vacated by the Russians. However Jerome’s slow advance at the head of his Westphalian troops was not speedy enough for his infuriated brother, Napoleon. The emperor wanted Jerome to push on and harass Bagration’s force before it had a chance to withdraw and join up with the 1st Western Army.

While Bagration had initially been instructed to head straight for the Drissa camp, on learning of Davout’s position further north – near Achmiany (Belarus), heading for Minsk – which rendered his instructions impossible, the Russian instead set off due east for Bobruysk, also heading towards Minsk. Jerome’s advance troops eventually made contact with Bagration’s strong rearguard cavalry further down the line, but by then it was too late: Bagration had escaped Jerome and Davout and was able to continue his reluctant retreat.   By 4 July, the Austrian headquarters, commanded by Prince Schwarzenberg, had moved up from Lviv and was by now in Pruzhany (modern-day Belarus). His orders were to monitor Tormasov’s forces stationed on Alexander’s far left wing, in the Volynia region (modern-day north-western Ukraine, around Lutsk and Rivne).

5-27-2013 8-32-03 AM
To Drissa via Saltanovka

By 5 July, Jerome had still not made any serious advance on Bagration. On 6 July, Napoleon gave orders that in the event of Jerome’s and Davout’s troops reuniting, overall command would devolve to Davout as the more experienced general. He also instructed his stepson and Viceroy of Italy, Eugene de Beauharnais to lead his IV, the VI corps and the III cavalry corps to get after Bagration in support of Davout. The viceroy left Novo Troki (modern-day Trakai, Lithuania) on 7 July and headed south for Šalčininkai (Lithuania). On 8 July, Davout and his 1st Corps occupied Minsk.

The advance guard of the 1st Western Army, with Alexander, arrived at the fortified camp in Drissa on 9 July, followed two days later by Barclay de Tolly with the main body of the 1st Western Army. Yet by 17 July, the Russians were leaving the camp, having burned their remaining stores. Pursuing a policy of scorched earth and a total avoidance of open battle with Napoleon, the forces retreated back on Vitebsk. At the start of the campaign, General Matvei Platov’s flying cossacks offered cover for Bagration’s retreating force. With Jerome’s troops desperately trailing after the retreating 2nd Western Army, Platov’s cossacks ambushed Jerome’s advanced Polish lancers on 8, 9 and 10 July, near the villages of Kareličy and Mir (Belarus). These clashes were the first real combat of the campaign, and saw the Polish troops defeated, and indeed nearly routed, by the superior cossack light cavalry. These defeats ensured that a healthy distance remained between Jerome and Bagration’s retreating forces.

Finally, on 11 July Jerome’s two corps reached Navahrudak (Belarus) and continued east, reaching Nesvizh on 14 July. It was there that, on 16 July, he received Davout who informed him of Napoleon’s decision to amalgamate the forces and remove his younger brother from command. Furious, Jerome set off home to Kassel (back in Westphalia). Meanwhile, Bagration had reached Slutsk by 13 July, by now beyond the reaches of both Jerome and Davout. Davout’s presence did however prevent Bagration from immediately linking up with Barclay de Tolly at the Drissa camp. Forced to circle further to the south in order to stay out of Davout’s reaches, Bagration eventually met Davout later that month, at the Battle of Saltanovka (23 July).

Meanwhile, Napoleon remained in Vilna until 16 July, occupied with a number of important tasks. One was the organisation of the government of Lithuania. On 1 July, 1812, Napoleon had signed a text establishing the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (also known as the Provisional Government of Lithuania): the initial aim was to raise troops in the Lithuanian territories and provision the rearguard of the Grande Armée. Despite putting in place an extensive system of government and administration (he appointed diplomat Louis Pierre Edouard Bignon as imperial commissar and Dutch general Dirk van Hogendorp as governor), logistical difficulties and lack of material support beset the provisional government. Another key operation was the organisation of his supply line: a great deal of food and water provisions for the entire campaign had to come through Vilna. In the end, however, the three or so weeks that Napoleon spent in Vilna slowed the advance to such an extent that both Bagration and Barclay de Tolly were able to retreat back into Russia relatively unhindered.   Morale had however suffered greatly in the Russian camp in the early days of the campaign. In fact even the initial strategic withdrawal had proved extremely unpopular with a number of the tsar’s generals, who considered it not only militarily risky to cede ground so easily but also politically dangerous to abandon the Duchy of Warsaw and Prussia to Napoleon. Russian despondency surrounding this initial retreat was palpable.

On 10 July, 1812, the Russian officer Arseny Andreyevich Zakrevsky (who had served as adjutant to Barclay de Tolly earlier in 1812) wrote to Fieldmarshal Vorontsov with criticism for the strategy:   “We have retired hastily, towards the wretched position of Drissa which, it would seem, will be our ruin. We cannot now reassess our decision, or undertake a different strategy; it appears that we have chosen the worst.” And as time passed, the Drissa camp too began to appear unable to offer the protection required against Napoleon’s advancing Grande Armée. If Barclay de Tolly remained entrenched in the camp, Napoleon would be at liberty to direct his forces against Bagration and destroy the 2nd Western Army. Such an event would open up the Grande Armée’s march on Moscow and leave Barclay de Tolly dangerously exposed and threatened from behind.

And so, on 17 July, in another morale-sapping manouvre, Russian forces destroyed the camp’s magazines and marched out south-east, away from the border and towards Vitebsk. What had initially been built as the bedrock on which the entire Russian defensive strategy was to be abandoned only three weeks after the invasion. Peter Wittgenstein was to remain in the area with 25,000 men (the 1st Infantry Corps) and orders to protect the road to St Petersburg. On 18 July, having arrived in Polotsk, Alexander left his army in the hands of Barclay de Tolly and proceeded on to Moscow, before returning to St Petersburg. The Russian strategy appeared to be in tatters. On the same day (18 July), Napoleon arrived in Hlybokaye (modern-day Belarus), 86km to the south-west of Polotsk. Oudinot was by now just below the Drissa camp.


[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

[2] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812

DataViz History: Edward Tufte, Charles Minard, Napoleon and The Russian Campaign of 1812 – Part 5

Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812

Charles Minard's Flow Map of Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812

[Click on map to see full size version]

The chart above also tells the story of a war: Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812. It was drawn half a century afterwards by Charles Joseph Minard, a French civil engineer who worked on dams, canals and bridges. He was 80 years old and long retired when, in 1861, he called on the innovative techniques he had invented for the purpose of displaying flows of people, in order to tell the tragic tale in a single image. Edward Tufte, whose book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” is a bible to statisticians, calls it “the best statistical graphic ever drawn”. [SOURCE]

Minard’s chart shows six types of information: geography, time, temperature, the course and direction of the army’s movement, and the number of troops remaining. The widths of the gold (outward) and black (returning) paths represent the size of the force, one millimetre to 10,000 men. Geographical features and major battles are marked and named, and plummeting temperatures on the return journey are shown along the bottom.

The chart tells the dreadful story with painful clarity: in 1812, the Grand Army set out from Poland with a force of 422,000; only 100,000 reached Moscow; and only 10,000 returned. The detail and understatement with which such horrifying loss is represented combine to bring a lump to the throat. As men tried, and mostly failed, to cross the Bérézina river under heavy attack, the width of the black line halves: another 20,000 or so gone. The French now use the expression “C’est la Bérézina” to describe a total disaster.

In 1871, the year after Minard died, his obituarist cited particularly his graphical innovations: “For the dry and complicated columns of statistical data, of which the analysis and the discussion always require a great sustained mental effort, he had substituted images mathematically proportioned, that the first glance takes in and knows without fatigue, and which manifest immediately the natural consequences or the comparisons unforeseen.” The chart shown here is singled out for special mention: it “inspires bitter reflections on the cost to humanity of the madnesses of conquerors and the merciless thirst of military glory”.

What does the map show us [1]

  • Forces visual comparisons (the upper lighter band showing the large army going to Moscow vs. the narrow dark band showing the small army returning).
  • Shows causality (the temperature chart at the bottom).
  • Captures multivariate complexity (size of army, location, direction, temperature, and time).
  • Integrates text and graphic into a coherent whole.
  • Illustrate high quality content (complete and accurate data, presented to support Minard’s  argument against war).
  • Place comparisons adjacent to each other, not sequentially (people forget if they have to go from page to page ).
  • Use the smallest effective differences (i.e., avoid bold colors, heavy lines, distracting labels and scales).

Let’s look at the map in detail

Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an Englsh language version for us to use as we discusss the flow of Napoleon’s march in detail. [2]


Crossing the Niemen River – So It Begins

5-26-2013 8-37-35 AMAs Napoleon concentrated his enormous coalition army in preparation for the invasion of Russia,  three Russian armies were positioned to guard the western frontier: the 1st Western Army, under Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, the 2nd Western Army, under Prince Pyotr Bagration, and the 3rd Western Army, under Alexander Tormasov. In June 1812, the 1st Western Army was stationed along the frontier with East Prussia and the Duchy of Warsaw. The 2nd was placed further south in modern Belarus. The 3rd stood yet further south, but still in Belarus. The overall commander of these three armies was Alexander himself, who was installed in Barclay de Tolly’s headquarters near Vilna.

On 23 June, the Prussian major (and later military theorist) Karl von Clausewitz, who had recently entered Alexander’s service, reached the Drissa camp (northwest of Polotsk on the Dvina, near modern Verkhniadzvinsk in Belarus) to inspect the site and report on the progress being made on its defensive works and fortifications. He remained unconvinced of its defensive qualities and said so to Alexander on 28 June. Despite the fact that the camp had appeared central to Russian strategy pre-invasion, it would prove of little worth once the Russian forces had withdrawn from the western frontier.

News of the Grande Armée’s advance guard crossing the Niemen (24 June, 1812) reached Alexander and Barclay de Tolly that same day, late in the evening. The order to withdraw to the Drissa camp was issued shortly afterwards, and Barclay’s units fell back.

Between 26 and 27 June, the order to retreat back from borders spread to each of the Russian corps commanders. Although most of the 1st Western Army’s withdrawal was relatively untroubled, General Dokhturov’s 6th corps, stationed between Lida and Grodno, was almost cut off by the Grande Armée’s crossing of the Niemen and Davout’s troops making for Minsk. Only by force marching did the 6th corps avoid the advancing French troops and reach Drissa unmolested. It was also on 26 June that Alexander dispatched a letter proposing talks with Napoleon, provided that the French emperor retired back over the border. The messenger was held up by Davout and only succeeded in reaching Berthier and Napoleon at the end of the month. The evacuation of Vilna began late on 26 June: by the time Napoleon received Alexander’s messenger and letter, Vilna had been occupied by the Grande Armée. Barclay de Tolly left the city early on 28 June, having destroyed the remaining depots as well as the bridge across the Dvina. Napoleon’s advance troops arrived about an hour later.

Next: The March Continues


[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

[2] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

DataViz as Photography: Puffin Census on the Farne Islands

Every since I was a little boy, I have had a fascination and love affair with the puffin. I have little puffin figures and photos all around my house.

Leanne Burden Seidel [SOURCE] noted that every five years, National Trust rangers carry out a puffin census on the Farne Islands, off the northeast coast of England.  The beautiful birds return to their breeding grounds on the islands, which offer excellent sources of food, few ground predators, and good protection for nesting. This count carries particular significance because the last survey in 2008, recording 36,500 pairs, indicated that numbers had fallen by a third from the 2003 census. There is also fear that the extreme weather in the past year could affect the numbers. In March, thousands of birds washed up dead due to severely cold winds, and last summer, many of the birds were flooded out of their homes. Rangers are now faced with the daunting task of counting every burrow-nesting bird, which involves reaching down to each of the underground nests to see if it is occupied. The results will be ready in July.


Puffins return to their summer breeding grounds on the Farne Islands in Northeast England on May 16, 2013. They are often called “sea parrots” due to their colorful beaks. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

National Trust rangers Will Scott, David Kinchin Smith, Samantha Morgan and Laura Shearer put their hands into puffin burrows to check for nests during a census on the Farne Islands on May 16, 2013. A census is carried out every five years.(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
The Farne Islands offer good protection for the birds to nest, providing excellent sources of food, and few ground predators, despite the fear that the extreme winter could impact breeding numbers.(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Puffins return to their summer breeding grounds on the Farne Islands on May 16, 2013. According to the National Trust, the last census in 2008 recorded a large drop in the numbers at 36,500 pairs of puffins. In 2003, 55,674 pairs were recorded. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Members of the public visit the Farne Islands where puffins are returning to their summer breeding grounds on May 16, 2013.(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
National Trust rangers Will Scott and Samantha Morgan laugh as they put their hands into puffin burrows during the census. Puffins nest underground, so this is the only way to tell if it is occupied. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Will Scott, a National Trust ranger holds a puffin during the census. According to National Geographic, the birds weigh on average 17.5 ounces and are 10 inches tall.(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Rangers are worried that the extreme conditions this past winter could affect the numbers of puffins. The Farne Islands are a huge seabird colony, with 23 different species. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Members of the public take pictures as they visit the Farne Islands where puffins are returning to their summer breeding grounds on May 16, 2013. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Puffins can carry several fish in their beak to bring back to their nest at one time.(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Puffins often live 20 years or more. Thousands of dead birds were washed up on Northeast coast last March due to extreme weather. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
National Trust rangers Will Scott, David Kinchin Smith, Samantha Morgan and Laura Shearer put their hands into puffin burrows, which are about 2 to 3 feet long, during the census. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Puffins lay one egg per year with usually the same mate and they return to the same burrow each year. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Members of the public sit in front of the Chapel of St Cuthbert on Farne Islands where puffins are returning to their summer breeding grounds on May 16, 2013.(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Puffins are good fliers. They can flap their wings up to 400 times per minute and can reach speeds of 55 miles (88 kilometers) an hour. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

DataViz History: Edward Tufte, Charles Minard, Napoleon and The Russian Campaign of 1812 – Part 4

The Russian Campaign of 1812 (Below: The Battle of Berezina)


NOTE: The following text is from the following source. I have also provided a link to that source. I found this narrative one of the best discussions of the Russian Campaign of 1812 and wanted to include Major McGhee’s text in its entirety. The images I have added are mostly from The Battle of Berezina.

Soldiers of Fortitude: The Grande Armee of 1812 in Russia
by Major James T. McGhee [SOURCE]

Author and historian David G. Chandler identifies Napoleon Bonaparte as “one of the greatest military minds that has ever existed.” Indeed Napoleon’s exploits as a military commander and his subsequent rise to the position of Emperor of France and much of Europe has produced an enormous amount of scholarly interest. Historians, political scientists, military theorists and others have published volumes on Napoleon and his times.

Napoleon’s rise to power was achieved in a large part by his many military successes. His remarkable victories over the combined armies of Europe won him recognition and glory as a general and finally Emperor. However, through the many challenging and bloody campaigns it was the soldiers serving under Napoleon and in the Grand Army and their sacrifices that provided Napoleon with his power over Europe. Napoleon expected nothing less from his troops. He pushed them beyond human endurance to achieve total victory over his enemies. According to Napoleon, “The first qualification of a soldier is fortitude under fatigue and privation. Courage is only the second; hardship, poverty, and want are the best school for a soldier.” In 1812, Napoleon embarked on a campaign that would test the limits of these qualifications in his soldiers. Those who endured the brutal march of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 and survived may be considered, most certainly by Napoleon’s standards, some of the most qualified soldiers in the history of warfare.

On 31 December 1810, the Czar of Russia issued a ukase, which broke Russia’s alliance with France and threatened to destroy Napoleon’s Continental System and his strategy of economic warfare against England. Napoleon immediately began organizing a new Grande Armee large enough to ensure an overwhelming victory over the army of the Czar. Napoleon had immense resources at his disposal. His influence collected men and material from across Europe, including France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Prussia, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Although sources differ, Connelly declares that, “by June 1812, Napoleon had a field army of 611,000 men with 2000 guns and 250,000 horses.”

To defeat the Czar, Napoleon intended to use his proven strategy of forcing his opponents to engage in a decisive battle of annihilation designed to shatter the enemy’s capacity and will to resist and therefore avoiding the need to capture geographical objectives or the Russian capital. He did not intend on having to march too far into the interior of Russia to accomplish his objectives. Nonetheless, Napoleon ordered that extensive logistical preparations be made in Prussia to support his advance. In Danzig alone, Napoleon had concentrated rations to support 400,000 men and fodder to support 50,000 horses for 50 days. This consisted of millions of pounds of rice, wheat and oats. As many as 1500 wagons and 50,000 draft horses were required to transport the supplies. Meat rations were to be provided by beef on the hoof driven along behind the advancing army.

Napoleon’s main forces, dressed magnificently and singing glorious marching songs, crossed the bridges over the Niemen River on 24-25 June and moved immediately towards the city of Kovno. The oppressive heat characterized the Russian weather in June. The effects of the heat were exacerbated by the uniforms and equipment carried by the soldiers. Although uniforms within Napoleons “army of twenty nations” varied widely, the uniforms of the time were generally a dark color of blue or gray and were made of wool. These uniforms absorbed the intense heat making it all the more unbearable for the soldiers. The heavy weight carried by the individual soldier could also drain a man’s strength and test his endurance. A fully supplied French infantryman carried an average load of 60 pounds. This typically consisted of his basic uniform, his rifle, equipment including a bayonet, canteen (if available), a cartridge pouch with 60 rounds of ammunition, a blanket, and a knapsack containing two spare shirts, two pair of shoes, a spare pair of pants and half-gaiters, eating utensils, personal items and four days of rations (if available). There were however numerous shortages or variations in equipment across the different national armies within the Grande Armee . The Imperial Guard for example, carried their full dress uniform, adding another five pounds to their load. Additional equipment such as hand axes and small cooking pots were also issued to select individuals. Individual tents however were no longer issued to the troops. According to Napoleon, “Tents are unfavorable to health. The soldier is best when he bivouacs, because he sleeps with his feet to the fire, which speedily dries the ground on which he lies. A few planks and a morsel of straw shelter him from the wind.” The lack of shelter in Russia would prove critical over the coming months.

The considerable heat created very dry conditions along roads that were supporting the passage of hundreds of thousands of men, horses, wagons and carriages. Enormous clouds of dust arose from the dry roads of Russia, enveloping all who traveled them. The dust and the heat were oppressive and torturous. Lieutenant Karl von Suckow describes the march, “Of all the unpleasant things we had to endure, one of the most unbearable was the thick dust which enveloped us on the march, much of the way in very dry weather…. I recall that at one stage, so as to prevent anyone taking a wrong turning, a drummer was stationed at the head of each battalion, and his job was to beat the drum all the time. This fact alone will indicate just how dense the clouds of dust were.” An officer and veteran of the Peninsula Campaign in Spain reported, “I must admit that I had never been so troubled by the heat or the dust in the Peninsula as was so often the case on these marches during the summer of 1812 in Russia. The air along the wide sandy tracks was really like an oven, oppressively hot was it and so unrelieved by the slightest puff of wind. If one was unfortunate enough to be caught between the innumerable wagons, which ploughed along in deep sand ruts at the slowest pace of the draught animals, and have to remain among them for hours on end without being able to escape, then one would suffocate. Eyes, nose, mouth, and ears were often so clogged with grains of sand that one seemed to have lost the use of all one’s senses. The dust lay so thick on my dark-gray dolman, which was faced with red that it was no longer possible to make out the slightest trace of this color.”


Through the unbearable heat and suffocating dust, the army marched routinely 10-12 miles a day. Increases in the rate of march could double the distances traveled. Captain Roeder reports in his memoir of marching from six in the morning to seven in the evening. The French routinely provided only for very short breaks during the march. The soldiers traditionally received only five minutes every hour and thirty minutes only after marching 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). After five days of marching a day of rest might be given.

For many, the dust combined with the heat, the weight of their pack and the speed and distances of the march was too exhausting to allow them to continue. Soldiers and horses by the hundreds began dying almost immediately of exhaustion and dehydration due to dysentery.

Relief from the extreme conditions of heat and dust came on 28 June in the form of severe thundershowers. However, the relief of the showers found in cooler temperatures and fresh water soon brought even more despair. The soldiers lacked any clothing or shelter to protect them from the drenching rain. Their uniforms became soaking wet, adding additional discomfort, and weight to their already heavy loads. The rain also brought with it chillingly cool temperatures for which many were unprepared. Those men like Lieutenant Suckow, suffering from the heat of the previous days were now suffering in the cold, many having discarded excess clothing including their underwear. Sergeant Jean-Roch Coignet of the Imperial Guard was present when the weather changed, “On 29 June a violent storm broke. The hailstorm was so bad that we had great trouble in controlling our horses, and it became necessary to tether them to the wheels. I was half dead with cold, and unable to stand any longer. I opened one of my wagons and took refuge inside. The next morning a heart-rending sight met my eyes. The ground was covered with horses, which had died of cold. On reaching the road I found some dead soldiers who had not been able to withstand this appalling storm, and this demoralized a large number of our troops.”


The storms also turned the dry, dusty roads into a sea of mud and the fertile fields established as campsites were quickly turned into mucky bogs. Men slipped and fell or became stuck in the viscous mud. Uniforms previously covered in dust and washed by the drenching rains were now covered in the sticky mire of Russia. Captain Roeder remembers such a night, “The night was black as pitch. We were soaked to the skin and unable to see whether we were lying in a clean place or in the filth left by our predecessors. I myself first lay down in the proximity of a dead horse.” “I rolled myself in my rug with my wet cloak under me.” The muddy roads impeded travel as wagons and guns became foundered in the ruts created by hundreds of wagons before them. Provision trains began to lag behind and many wagons were discarded because of the loss of horses. The cattle following the army could not maintain the pace of the march and fell behind. Food became more difficult to obtain and hunger spread throughout the Army.

To combat the breakdown of the supply system soldiers began to forage the countryside in search of food, horses, and perhaps a bottle of wine. Foraging was not discouraged. Despite the immense logistical preparations, foraging by the army was expected. Jacob Walker encouragingly wrote that, “We now believed that, once in Russia we need do nothing but forage.” Napoleonic expert and author Gunther Rothenberg explains, “Despite his often-quoted pronouncement that ‘an army marches on its stomach,’ Napoleon remained essentially an improviser. He could never free himself from the experience of his first Italian campaign when a small, highly motivated army, moving rapidly in a rich countryside had sustained itself from local resources and captured supplies.”

The soldiers became experts at foraging. These expeditions could prove quite successful depending on the expedition’s location within the column of march and their persistence. Those located in the front of the march column tended to fair better than those in the middle while the supply trains trailing the army better supported those in the rear. The Russian countryside was not as rich as other countries in Europe but it could help sustain an army. Unfortunately for Napoleons men, it was sustaining the Russian army who retreated steadily in front of Napoleon’s advance. “It was custom with the Russian rear-guard to burn every village as they abandoned it. What they contained in forage and subsistence was rapidly used, and nothing therefore remained. This became a deliberate practice, which extended itself widely to the towns, great as well as small.” This destruction forced the Russian peasants to fear the Russian soldiers as much as the French, forcing them to hide their livestock in the woods or bury their food in the earth for safekeeping. French soldiers entering a town usually found very little initially. But persistent and thorough searches more often than not turned up something of value. A thorough search by Jakob Walter’s foraging parties uncovered such caches, “It was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything and to turn upside down everything that was covered. Under one such floor, which had large beams resting side by side, we found pots full of sausage stuffed into casings four to five feet long and filled with pieces of bacon and meat an inch thick. Here we also found hidden pots filled with lumps of cheese. In another well-plundered village nothing could be found in the houses; and so, urged on by our hunger, we dug in the ground. Here I with several others removed a large pile of wood, which had probably just been put there. We removed this, dug in to the ground, and found covered roof of planks. Under the planks, there was an opening twelve feet deep. Inside there were honey jars and wheat covered with straw.” Successes of this type helped to sustain many in Napoleon’s army but they did not relieve the great misery of the masses of men and horses.

Following a two-week stay in Vilna, Napoleon on 16 July ordered his troops to march towards Vitebsk. The welcome rest in Vilna had provided the supply system an opportunity to provide some rations to the soldiers. The men of Captain Roeder’s company were each issued sixteen loaves of bread. However, many sold the bread being “less afraid of collapsing from hunger than from fatigue.” The blistering heat of July, combined with the miserable dust, biting insects and the exhausting pace of the march, continued to devastate the ranks of Napoleon’s army. Those soldiers marching in the middle or rear of the column often had to march past the corpses of those men and horses who had fallen. The sights seen along the road are remembered once again by Captain Reoder, “We saw a good 3,000 horses lying by the roadside, overcome by fatigue or bad feeding, mostly from being overfed with green corn, and more rotting human corpses, which at this season of the year make a hideous stench. On some stretches of the road I had to hold my breath in order not to bring up liver and lungs, and even to lie down until the need to vomit had subsided.”


The shortage of water affected thousands. Wells found along the route were often drunk dry to quench the thirst of those who arrived first, leaving nothing for those who followed. Very often the Russians had polluted the wells before their retreat. Many soldiers drank from putrid wells only to discover afterwards human corpses or the remains of a dead horse left behind as a surprise by the Russians. For many, water could only be found in the low areas or swamps. According to Walter, “In order to obtain water for drinking and cooking, holes were dug into the swamps three feet deep in which the water collected. The water was very warm, however, and was reddish-brown with millions of little red worms so that it had to be bound in linen and sucked through with the mouth. This was, of course, a hard necessity of our ways.” Thousands became ill from drinking the water and developed severe dysentery. Others marched without water until they were overcome by either heat exhaustion or dehydration.

Napoleon assured his army they would get a break at Vitebsk but this did little to relieve the sufferings of his men. An unnamed civilian traveling with the army as a painter wrote of the condition of the army in July, “The weary horses often stumbled and fell. Whole columns of hundreds of these poor beasts had to be led in the most pitiful conditions, with sores on their withers and discharging a stream of pus. They had all lost weight till their ribs stood out, and looked a picture of abject misery. Already in the middle of July the army was in this state! I am beginning to lose heart. Two whole months on the march and for what purpose? And through what country? It distresses me to be compelled to waste God-given time so wretchedly.” Many men had reached the end of their physical and mental endurance and could withstand no more. Suicide became a common escape chosen by many. Lieutenant Suckow remembers, “Hundreds killed themselves, feeling no longer able to endure such hardship. Every day one heard isolated shots ring out in the woods near the road.”


Napoleon entered Vitebsk unopposed on 29 July, the Russians retreating and once again denying Napoleon the decisive battle he so urgently sought. The destruction of the enemy’s main field force, rather than the mere occupation of territory or the capture of the enemy’s capital remained Napoleon’s main objective. However, if the enemy continued to elude destruction and if he was able to fall back into endless depths of Mother Russia, then Napoleon faced severe problems. Every mile that Napoleon advanced weakened his army while it allowed the Russians to fall back on their reserves of men and supplies.

The Russians had retreated back to the ancient, walled city of Smolensk were they intended to make a stand against Napoleon. Napoleon, seeing an opportunity to engage the Russians in a decisive battle ordered his army to march onward to Smolensk. He needed his victory, as the state of his army continued to deteriorate. His officers began doubting the fruitfulness of continuing the campaign. On 11 August as the army approached Smolensk, General Erasmus Deroy commanding the 19th Division sent a report back the King of Bavaria announcing, “The food is bad, and the shoes, shirts, pants, and gaiters are now so torn that most of the men are marching in rags or barefoot. Furthermore, I regret to have to tell Your Majesty that this state of affairs has produced a serious relaxation of discipline, and there is such a widespread spirit of depression, discouragement, discontent, disobedience, and insubordination that one cannot forecast what will happen.”

On 16 August, French troops began to position themselves in a semi circle around the city in preparation for their attack. The main battle took place on the 17th. The Russians put up a fierce resistance on many fronts but were steadily forced to withdraw in the face of advancing infantry and devastating artillery fire. The French discovered on the morning of the 18th that the entire Russian army had vacated the city during the night and formed positions on the other side of the Dnieper River. Napoleon achieved a costly victory at Smolensk but failed to destroy the Russian army. He lost between eight and nine thousand men during the battle and three fourths of the city had been burned and destroyed. Russian losses were also high with as many as 7,000 bodies found on the field.


The battle at Smolensk had not provided Napoleon with the decisive victory he so desperately needed. He had to decide to pursue the Russians to Moscow, if necessary, or remain in the already devastated city of Smolensk. The combatant strength of his Army was down to 150,000 soldiers, having lost a great portion of his army during the march. A Wurttenburger Major described to Captain Roeder the effects thus far of the march and the battle of Smolensk on his Regiment, “When we left home we had 7,200 infantry, but although we have fought no battle other than that at Smolensk, we cannot muster more than about 1,500 men, as a result of the battle a third of these were lost, so that now we are scarcely more than 1,000 or 900 strong.” The urge to continue on and defeat the enemy proved too great for Napoleon to overcome. In the past he had never failed to defeat his opponents in a single campaign and this one would be no different. He decided to continue the march to Moscow, another 310 miles away.

The Road to Moscow led through the cities of Dorogobush, Semlevo, Viasma, and Gzatsk. The absolute misery and poverty of the army continued, as best described by Walter,

“The march up to there, as far as it was a march is indescribable and inconceivable for people who have not seen anything of it. The very great heat, the dust which is like a thick fog, the closed line of march in columns, and the putrid water from holes filled with dead people, and cattle brought everyone close to death; and eye pains, fatigue, thirst, and hunger tormented everybody. God! How often I remembered the bread and beer, which I had enjoyed at home with such an indifferent pleasure! Now, however, I must struggle, half wild, with the dead and living. How gladly would I renounce for my whole life the warm food so common at home if I only did not lack good bread and beer now! I would not wish for all my life. But these were empty helpless thoughts. Yes, the thought of my brothers and sisters so far away added to my pain! Wherever I looked, I saw the soldiers with dead, half-desperate faces. Many cried out in despair, ‘If only my mother had not borne me!’ Some demoralized men even cursed their parents and their birth.” Napoleon reached the city of Gzatsk on 1 September. There, the number of 150,000 soldiers who had left Smolensk was now down to 133,000. None-the-less, upon arrival at Gzatsk, Napoleon’s mood was joyous. Scouts had returned to report that the Russian’s were preparing battle positions near the town of Borodino.

Napoleon allowed three days for his supply trains to move forward, and to plan his attack. On September 4th his Army marched to Borodino and by the evening of the sixth the two armies faced one another. Orders were given by Napoleon to attack on the morning of September 7th. At 2:00 a.m. a proclamation from Napoleon was read to the troops, “This is the battle you have longed for! Now the victory depends on you: you need it. It will give you abundance, good winter quarters, and an early return home.”[24] At 6:00 a.m. over 500 guns began to roar.


The battle of Borodino was one of violence and confusion. It was fought bitterly by both sides. The fighting was often hand-to-hand and the number of casualties was severe. Captain Charles Francios served in the 1st Division and took part in the battle, “Our regiment was ordered to advance. We were riddled with grapeshot from this battery and several others flanking it, but nothing stopped us. Whole files, half-platoons even, went down under the enemy’s fire, and left huge gaps. A Russian line tried to stop us, but at thirty yards range we fired a volley and passed through. Then we dashed through the redoubt and clambered through the embrasures. The Russian gunners received us with handspikes and rammers, and we fought them hand to hand. They were redoubtable opponents. I had been through more than one campaign, but I had never found myself in such a bloody melee and up against such tenacious soldiers as the Russians.” Arguably, total victory was in Napoleons grasp but he hesitated and failed to commit his prized Guard. The Russians began to fall back but it was too late in the day for Napoleon to prevent their withdrawal. That night the Russians made a hasty retreat from the battlefield. Napoleon was the victor but at a horrible cost. French casualties ranged from 28,000 to 31,000 men including 47 generals. Russian casualties were even greater, numbering at least 45,000. The road to Moscow was open but the Russian army was intact and Napoleon was no closer to victory.

Those men who were killed at Borodino were perhaps the more fortunate, for the survivors could not possibly know the hardships and misery that awaited them in the future. Those who suffered the most at present however were the wounded. Medical services during this time were archaic. Many wounded were left on the field for days. Others managed to make it back to a hospital on their own. Those removed from the field often had to endure an agonizing ride on a jolting wagon. At the hospitals there was little knowledge of hygiene, antibiotics did not exist and the most often used treatment for severe battle wounds was amputation. Patients lay in the hospitals enduring not only the pain of their wounds but also, thirst, flies, the cries of the living and the stench of the dead. A vivid description of conditions comes from the recollections of a young commissary, Alexandre Bellot de Kergorre, “When I took up my duties I had to look after the needs of the hospitals. These contained three thousand patients lying in two stone-built houses. Our poor, unfortunate wounded were dying of hunger and thirst. They were bandaged with hay for lack of lint and linen, and they groaned dreadfully. For the first few days they lived on the few grains they could find in the straw they lay on, and on the little flour I was able to give them. The absence of candles was a terrible privation. A shocking thing was the impossibility of removing the dead from among the living. I had neither medical orderlies nor stretchers. Not only was the hospital full of corpses, but so were the streets and a number of houses. After attending to the most pressing needs of the living, I used some carts I had found to remove corpses from the hospital. On my own I took away 128, which had been serving as pillows to the sick and were several days old.”

The Russian’s retreated back to Moscow were they considered once again to make a stand against Napoleon in defense of the ancient capital. However, the Russian commander, Kutuzov, arguing that the survival of the army was more important than the defense of the city, decided not to defend Moscow. “You are afraid of falling back through Moscow, but I consider it the only way of saving the army. Napoleon is a torrent, which we are as yet unable to stem. Moscow will be the sponge that will suck him dry.”


On 14 September Napoleon entered Moscow, finding a city completely undefended and nearly deserted. The army had strict orders not to pillage but the men could not be controlled as they forced themselves into the palaces and houses. Two days later fires swept through Moscow for three days, burning down four fifths of the city. Despite the immense destruction of the fires, the soldiers were able to find an abundance of vegetables, preserves, sugar and spirits. Shortages of meat and bread remained. Walter remembers, “Here one could find and buy provisions; for each soldier was now a citizen, merchant, innkeeper, and baker of Moscow. Silks, muslins and red Morocco leather were all abundant. Things to eat were not wanting either. Whoever could not find something could buy something and vegetables in sufficient quantity stood in the fields. It was still good weather, and one could sleep warm enough under a coat at night”

Napoleon worked feverishly to sign a treaty with the Czar who he was certain was ready to negotiate a peace. For four weeks Napoleon hesitated in Moscow while his attempts failed. Ignoring warnings about the coming winter, Napoleon considered his options. He could not safely winter his troops in Moscow and his marshals adamantly opposed a march to St. Petersburg. The weather began to turn colder. Freezing rain and snow began to fall. The Russian winter was fast approaching. The army once again began to deteriorate as the effects of exposure to the cold, wet weather, and disease killed hundreds of men and thousands of badly needed horses. The Emperor Alexander refused to sign a peace, leaving Napoleon no choice but to retreat. The goals of his campaign were unachievable and a failure as everything had been calculated on the destruction of the Russian Army and a negotiated peace.

Napoleon decided to make a strategic withdrawal from Moscow and move south towards Kaluga. By taking this route, Napoleon hoped to travel through cities that had not already been pillaged or devastated. The army began leaving Moscow on 19 October 1812. The great retreat from Moscow had begun.

Preparations were made, and 100,000 soldiers departed Moscow trailing some 40,000 carriages and wagons, many filled with the riches of Moscow rather than the provision necessary for the march. “For nearly forty miles I had to pick my way through the army’s procession of horse-drawn vehicles,” noted Colonel Count Roguet.  “Every one was laden with useless baggage.” Some soldiers such as Jacob Walter made better preparations for the march. Walter says, “I put on a round hat, wrapped my head with silk and muslin cloths and my feet with thick wool cloth. I had on two shirts and two vests and over my doublet a thick large Russian coat, which I had taken from a Russian in exchange for my own at Smolensk on my trip into Russia. Over this I wore a thick fur.”

The Russian army moved to cut off Napoleon’s route and stood firm at the key town of Maloyaroslavets. A fierce battle was waged and both sides suffered heavy losses with the Russians losing about 7,000 soldiers and the French losing 4,000. Napoleon realized that if he continued to move to the south his army would meet further resistance. He made the fateful decision to trace his return route along the same road on which he had advanced to Moscow. The retreating Russians had already burned down this route and the French had already exhausted what was left behind. On 25 October, the French army departed Maloyaroslavets with 96,000 soldiers.

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The Russian winter arrived with all its severity on the 6th of November. Unimaginable suffering overtook the army. Ice and snow covered the roads, making transport nearly impossible. Horses slipped on the ice and could not be lifted back to their feet. Men began dying of exposure, freezing to death where they fell as the temperature dropped to 17 degrees below zero. Starvation once again began to devastate the ranks. Foraging parties left the main column of march in search of food only to be driven away, killed or captured by the Russian Cossacks. “The soldiers knew there was plenty to be had if they could move to the left or right, but they were hemmed in on either side by the Cossack horsemen, who knew that all they had to do was ride, as for killing, they could leave that to General Winter. Confined to the great road the whole army was now living almost entirely on horse flesh.”

Many faced the risks of leaving the road to forage. Those soldiers captured by the Russians received little mercy. Very often they pleaded to their captures to kill them and end their misery. But vengeance demands suffering and few had their desires of a quick death satisfied. Prisoners were routinely stripped naked and marched through the sub zero temperatures. Others were either tortured or killed by the peasantry whose methods of revenge were most horrific. Prisoners were reported has having been burned or buried alive. One observer witnessed “Sixty dying naked men, whose necks were laid upon a felled tree, while Russian men and women with large faggot-sticks, singing in chorus and hopping round, with repeated blows struck out their brains in succession.”

Those who were able to continue would retain the haunting memories of suffering masses during this march to Smolensk. Of the 96,000 who left Maloyaroslavets, nine days later only 50,000 would enter the city. The temperature had dropped to 28 degrees below zero. The barrels of the muskets were so cold that they stuck to the hands of those carrying them. Only those who witnessed the events are able to accurately describe the horrors of those nine days. Sir Robert Wilson witnessed, “The naked masses of dead and dying men; the mangled carcasses of 10,000 horses which had in some cases been cut for food before life had ceased; the craving of famine at other points, of forming groups of cannibals; the air enveloped in flame and smoke; the prayers of hundreds of naked wretches flying from peasantry, whose shouts of vengeance echoed incessantly through the woods; the wrecks of cannon, powder-wagons, all stores of every description: it formed such a scene as probably was never witnessed in the history of all the world.” General Count de Langeron, commander of a Russian infantry division, “saw a dead man, his teeth deep in the haunch of a horse which was still quivering. I saw a dead man inside a horse, which he had disemboweled and emptied in order to crawl inside and get warm. I saw another man tearing with his teeth at the entrails of a dead horse.”

Smolensk contained warehouses full of supplies unable to be moved to support the army due to inadequate transportation. The first soldiers to enter the city looted the depots for themselves leaving almost nothing for the poor wretches who followed. Discipline within the army had completely broken down. It had become a world of every man for himself as if all humanity had vanished for anyone who would stop to help his fellow man would be the next to fall. The soldiers had seen so much suffering and death that they had become numb to the sufferings and deaths of others. In a rare act of compassion Sir Robert Wilson attempted in vain to help a suffering soldier, “I was just putting a bit of biscuit into my own mouth, when I turned my eye upon a French grenadier’s gaze. It was too expressive to be resisted; I gave him what I designed for myself. The tears burst from his eyes, he seemed to bless the morsel, and then, amidst sobs of gratitude, expressed his hope that an Englishman might never want a benefactor in his need. He lived but a few moments afterwards.”

The march immediately proceeded through Smolensk in the direction of Vilna. Leaving Smolensk, Captain Roeder remembers, “What a frozen multitude are lying in the streets! Many have laid themselves there in order to freeze. One steps over them almost unmoved because the daily scenes of horrible misery of this accursed war have dulled all feeling for the suffering of others.”


The road to Vilna required the army to cross the Berezina River in order to prevent his dwindling army from being completed surrounded and annihilated by Russian forces concentrating there. At this time of year, the river was usually frozen over but the weather suddenly turned unusually warm making the ice too thin and the river impassable without a bridge. Napoleon decided to make a feint attack at the Russians near Borizov while his engineers built bridges across the river at Studenka. On 26 November, Napoleon executed his plan. “At eight o’clock in the morning the bridge-builders began placing their trestles at equal distances in the river, which was thick with large floes. The men went into the water up to their shoulders, displaying superb courage. Some dropped dead and disappeared with the current, but the sight of this tragic end did not diminish their comrades’ efforts. The Emperor watched these heroes and did not leave the river bank.” The construction of the first bridge was completed by 11:00 o’clock that morning. Oudinot’s Corps was across the river and had established a bridgehead by dark. The following morning, Napoleon ordered the corps of Ney, Davout, Junot, and Eugene with the reserve and Guard across the river. A mad rush ensued to cross the bridges to safety. The scene was a continuance of the misery and chaos plaguing the army. As the army fought a defensive action, the Russians rained fire and shell down upon those who were attempting to cross the river. Captain Francois Dumonceau records, “The crowd of disbanded troops had arrived and created a block by flocking from all sides, infiltrating everywhere, congesting the ground over a considerable area and refusing to give way or let us through. This disordered multitude persisted in moving forward, and formed a confused tangle of men, horses and vehicles which increased in numbers all the time almost to suffocation-point, pushing up to the river where several were drowned-thus renewing in all their horror the appalling scenes of the various earlier passages, but this time on a much larger scale in relation to the extent of ground.” Hundreds of corpses covered the ground within two hundred yards of the bridges. Russian cannon balls tore through the ranks of people each killing three to five people crossing or pushing their way onto the bridges in the hope of saving themselves. One shot struck a powder magazine in a wagon causing a great explosion, which killed hundreds.


At 9:00 a.m. on the 29th the French rear guard could no longer hold back the Russians and was forced to cross the river and burn the bridges behind them. Ten thousand stragglers were left behind to fall into the hands of the Russians. The army had been saved and Napoleon could claim another “victory” but only at the high cost of 25,000 battle casualties. The road to Vilna with its large stores of supplies was now open.

The next day Count De Rochechouart found himself at the bridge site, “Nothing in the world more saddening, more distressing! One saw heaped bodies of men, women, and even children; soldiers of all arms, all nations, choked by the fugitives or hit by Russian grapeshot; horses, carriages, guns, ammunition wagons, abandoned carts. One cannot imagine a more terrifying sight. Both sides of the road were piled with dead in all positions, or with men dying of cold, hunger, exhaustion, their uniforms in tatters, and beseeching us to take them prisoner. However much we might have wished to help, unfortunately we could do nothing.”157912~Napoleon-1769-1821-after-his-Abdication-Posters

The suffering of the survivors was far from over. A Russian major describes the soldiers as they marched toward Vilna, “Most of them had neither boots nor shoes, but blankets, knapsacks or old hats around their feet. No sooner had a man collapsed from exhaustion than the next fell upon him and stripped him naked before he was dead.” However, with the road open, Napoleon hastily left his army for Paris to raise a new army and protect his government from any attempted coup.

What remained of the Grande Armee was turned over the command of Murat. He led them into Vilna on 8 December. A repeat of Smolensk ensued; the soldiers immediately looted the supply depots, discipline once again being non-existent. The weather turned according to Coignet, “so severe that the men could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze.” Not wanting to become trapped in Vilna, Murat ordered the army to march onto to Kovno and then onto Posen. “There in mid-January 1813, he could count 40,000 organized troops, if demoralized, troops (including some from garrisons along the way) and perhaps 20,000 stragglers-many pitiful scarecrows, some stark mad from their experiences.”

Napoleon’s splendid Grande Armee had been completely decimated in the Russian campaign under his generalship. The immense sufferings and the enormous loss of life caused by his actions hardly affected the Emperor. Important matters had to be attended. He still had to attempt to hold together his coalition and build a new army. He would remark, “Those men whom Nature had not hardened against all chances of fate and fortune seemed shaken; they lost their cheerfulness and good humor, and saw ahead of them nothing but disaster and catastrophe. Those on whom she had bestowed superior powers kept up their spirits and normal dispositions, seeing in the various ordeals a challenge to win new glory.”

Napoleon’s maxim of hardship and want was tested to the limits of human endurance during the catastrophic campaign in Russia. The soldiers who survived most certainly endured hardships unsurpassed by those who have never seen the horrors of war. They would emerge from their trials victorious as survivors and as perhaps, the most “qualified” soldiers in the world by Napoleon’s standards.

Next: Charles Joseph Minard’s Now Famous Map

DataViz History: Edward Tufte, Charles Minard, Napoleon and The Russian Campaign of 1812 – Part 3

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon BonaparteNapoleon Bonaparte (French: Napoléon Bonaparte, Italian: Napoleone Buonaparte; 15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the latter stages of the French Revolution and its associated wars in Europe. [SOURCE]

As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815. His legal reform, the Napoleonic Code, has been a major influence on many civil law jurisdictions worldwide, but he is best remembered for his role in the wars led against France by a series of coalitions, the so-called Napoleonic Wars. He established hegemony over most of continental Europe and sought to spread the ideals of the French Revolution, while consolidating an imperial monarchy which restored aspects of the deposed Ancien Régime. Due to his success in these wars, often against numerically superior enemies, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, and his campaigns are studied at military academies worldwide.

Napoleon was born at Ajaccio in Corsica in a family of noble Italian ancestry which had settled Corsica in the 16th century. He trained as an artillery officer in mainland France. He rose to prominence under the French First Republic and led successful campaigns against the First and Second Coalitions arrayed against France. He led a successful invasion of the Italian peninsula.

In 1799, he staged a coup d’état and installed himself as First Consul; five years later the French Senate proclaimed him emperor, following a plebiscite in his favour. In the first decade of the 19th century, the French Empire under Napoleon engaged in a series of conflicts—the Napoleonic Wars—that involved every major European power. After a streak of victories, France secured a dominant position in continental Europe, and Napoleon maintained the French sphere of influence through the formation of extensive alliances and the appointment of friends and family members to rule other European countries as French client states.

The Peninsular War and 1812 French invasion of Russia marked turning points in Napoleon’s fortunes. His Grande Armée was badly damaged in the campaign and never fully recovered. In 1813, the Sixth Coalition defeated his forces at Leipzig; the following year the Coalition invaded France, forced Napoleon to abdicate and exiled him to the island of Elba. Less than a year later, he escaped Elba and returned to power, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. Napoleon spent the last six years of his life in confinement by the British on the island of Saint Helena. An autopsy concluded he died of stomach cancer, but there has been some debate about the cause of his death, as some scholars have speculated that he was a victim of arsenic poisoning.

Events Leading Up to the Russian Campaign of 1812

The Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 resulted in the Anglo-Russian War (1807–12). Emperor Alexander I declared war on the United Kingdom after the British attack on Denmark in September 1807. British men-of-war supported the Swedish fleet during the Finnish War and had victories over the Russians in the Gulf of Finland in July 1808 and August 1809. However, the success of the Russian army on the land forced Sweden to sign peace treaties with Russia in 1809 and with France in 1810 and to join the Continental Blockade against Britain. But Franco-Russian relations became progressively worse after 1810, and the Russian war with the UK effectively ended. In April 1812, Britain, Russia and Sweden signed secret agreements directed against Napoleon.

In 1812, at the height of his power, Napoleon invaded Russia with a pan-European Grande Armée, consisting of 650,000 men (270,000 Frenchmen and many soldiers of allies or subject areas). He aimed to compel Emperor Alexander I to remain in the Continental System and to remove the imminent threat of a Russian invasion of Poland. The French forces crossed the Niemen River on 23 June 1812. Russia proclaimed a Patriotic War, while Napoleon proclaimed a Second Polish war. The Poles supplied almost 100,000 men for the invasion-force, but against their expectations, Napoleon avoided any concessions to Poland, having in mind further negotiations with Russia.

Although the Napoleonic Empire seemed to be at its height in 1810 and 1811, it had in fact already declined somewhat from its apogee in 1806-1809. While most of Western and Central Europe lay under his control – either directly or indirectly through various protectorates, allies, and countries defeated by his empire and under treaties favorable for France – Napoleon had embroiled his armies in the costly and drawn-out Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal. France’s economy, army morale, and political support at home had noticeably declined. But most importantly, Napoleon himself was not in the same physical and mental state as in years past. He had become overweight and increasingly prone to various maladies. Nevertheless, despite his troubles in Spain, with the exception of British expeditionary forces to that country, no European power dared move against him.

The Treaty of Schönbrunn, which ended the 1809 war between Austria and France, had a clause removing Western Galicia from Austria and annexing it to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Russia viewed this as against its interests and as a potential launching-point for an invasion of Russia.In 1811 Russian staff developed a plan of offensive war, assuming a Russian assault on Warsaw and on Danzig.

In an attempt to gain increased support from Polish nationalists and patriots, Napoleon in his own words termed this war the Second Polish War:

Soldiers, the second war of Poland is started; the first finished in Tilsit. In Tilsit, Russia swore eternal alliance in France and war in England. It violates its oaths today. Russia is pulled by its fate; its destinies must be achieved! Does it thus believe us degenerated? Thus let us go ahead; let us pass Neman River, carry the war on its territory. The second war of Poland will be glorious with the French Armies like the first one.

Napoleon’s “first” Polish war, the War of the Fourth Coalition to liberate Poland (from Russia, Prussia and Austria), he saw as such because one of the official declared goals of this war was the resurrection of the Polish state on territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Alexander I of Russia
Alexander I of Russia

Tsar Alexander found Russia in an economic bind as his country had little in the way of manufacturing yet was rich in raw materials and relied heavily on trade with Napoleon’s continental system for both money and manufactured goods. Russia’s withdrawal from the system was a further incentive to Napoleon to force a decision.


The invasion of Russia clearly and dramatically demonstrates the importance of logistics in military planning, especially when the land will not provide for the number of troops deployed in an area of operations far exceeding the experience of the invading army. Napoleon and the Grande Armée had developed a proclivity for living off the land that had served it well in the densely populated and agriculturally rich central Europe with its dense network of roads. Rapid forced marches had dazed and confused old order Austrian and Prussian armies and much had been made of the use of foraging. In Russia many of the Grande Armée’s methods of operation worked against it and they were additionally seriously handicapped by the lack of winter horse shoes which made it impossible for the horses to obtain traction on snow. Forced marches often made troops do without supplies as the supply wagons struggled to keep up. Lack of food and water in thinly populated, much less agriculturally dense regions led to the death of troops and their mounts by exposing them to waterborne diseases from drinking from mud puddles and eating rotten food and forage. The front of the army would receive whatever could be provided while the formations behind starved.

Napoleon had in fact made extensive preparations providing for the provisioning of his army. Seventeen train battalions, comprising 6000 vehicles, were to provide a 40-day supply for the Grande Armée and its operations, and a large system of magazines was established in towns and cities in Poland and East Prussia. At the start of the campaign, no march on Moscow was envisioned and so the preparations would have sufficed. However, the Russian armies could not stand singularly against the main battle group of 285,000 men and would continue to retreat and attempt to join one another. This demanded an advance by the Grande Armée over a network of dirt roads that would dissolve into deep mires, where ruts in the mud would freeze solid, killing already exhausted horses and breaking wagons. As the Minard’s map will show us, the Grande Armée incurred the majority of its losses during the march to Moscow during the summer and autumn. Starvation, desertion, typhus and suicide would cost the French Army more men than all the battles of the Russian invasion combined.

Grande Armée

On 24 June 1812, the 450,000 men of the Grande Armée, the largest army assembled up to that point in European history, crossed the river Neman and headed towards Moscow. Anthony Joes in Journal of Conflict Studies wrote that:

Figures on how many men Napoleon took into Russia and how many eventually came out vary rather widely.

  • [Georges] Lefebvre says that Napoleon crossed the Neman with over 600,000 soldiers, only half of whom were from France, the others being mainly Poles and Germans.
  • Felix Markham thinks that 450,000 crossed the Neman on 25 June 1812, of whom fewer than 40,000 recrossed in anything like a recognizable military formation.
  • James Marshall-Cornwall says 510,000 Imperial troops entered Russia.
  • Eugene Tarle believes that 420,000 crossed with Napoleon and 150,000 eventually followed, for a grand total of 570,000.
  • Richard K. Riehn provides the following figures: 685,000 men marched into Russia in 1812, of whom around 355,000 were French; 31,000 soldiers marched out again in some sort of military formation, with perhaps another 35,000 stragglers, for a total of fewer than 70,000 known survivors.
  • Adam Zamoyski estimated that between 550,000 and 600,000 French and allied troops (including reinforcements) operated beyond the Niemen, of which as many as 400,000 troops died.

“Whatever the accurate number, it is generally accepted that the overwhelming majority of this grand army, French and allied, remained, in one condition or another, inside Russia.”

—Anthony Joes

Russian Imperial Army

The forces immediately facing Napoleon consisted of three armies comprising 175,250 Russians and 15,000 Cossacks, with 938 guns as follows:

General of Infantry Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armies, a field commander of the First Western Army and Minister of War until replaced by Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov who assumed the role of Commander-in-chief during the retreat after the Battle of Smolensk.

As irregular cavalry, the Cossack horsemen of the Russian steppes were best suited to reconnaissance, scouting and harassing the enemy’s flanks and supply lines.

These forces, however, could count on reinforcements from the second line, which totaled 129,000 men and 8,000 Cossacks, with 434 guns and 433 rounds of ammunition.

Of these about 105,000 men were actually available for the defense against the invasion. In the third line were the 36 recruit depots and militias, which came to the total of approximately 161,000 men of various and highly disparate military values, of which about 133,000 actually took part in the defense.

Thus, the grand total of all the forces was 488,000 men, of which about 428,000 gradually came into action against the Grand Army. This bottom line, however, includes more than 80,000 Cossacks and militiamen, as well as about 20,000 men who garrisoned the fortresses in the operational area.

Sweden, Russia’s only ally, did not send supporting troops. But the alliance made it possible to withdraw the 45,000-man Russian corps Steinheil from Finland and use it in the later battles (20,000 men were sent to Riga).

Next: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812

DataViz History: Edward Tufte, Charles Minard, Napoleon and The Russian Campaign of 1812 – Part 2

Minard_09_10_11Charles Joseph Minard

Charles Joseph Minard, born on March 27, 1781 in Dijon, France, is most widely known for a single work, his poignant flow-map depiction of the fate of Napoleon’s Grand Army in the disastrous 1812 Russian campaign. This “Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armee Francais dans la campagne de Russe 1812-1813″ has been called “the best graphic ever produced” by Edward Tufte, one which seemed to “defy the pen of the historian by its brutal eloquence.” [SOURCE]

More generally, Minard was a true pioneer in thematic cartography and in statistical graphics, and developed many novel graphics forms to depict data, always with the goal to let the data speak to the eyes. The definitive biography of Minard and his contributions to thematic cartography by Robinson begins, “When the complete story of the development of thematic cartography is finally added to the history of cartography, the name of Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870) will again take on some of the lustre it had during the later part of his lifetime. The fifty-one cartes figuratives that came from his fertile mind and adept hand show a combination of cartographic ingenuity and concern with the graphic portrayal of statistical data that was almost unique during the central portion of the century.”

The present sketch of his career and contributions to statistical graphics also draws on: (a) the necrology by Minard’s son-in-law Chevallier, (b) Palsky’s seminal overview of quantitative graphics and thematic cartography in the 19th century, (c) an analysis of his contributions to statistical graphics from a modern perspective, and (d) a complete online catalog of all of his graphic works.

Charles Joseph Minard was the son of an official of the constabulary and comptroller of the local college in Dijon. At age 15 he was accepted in science and mathematics at the renown Ecole Polytechnique in Paris (1796-1800); among his professors Fourier and Legendre made a strong impression. In 1800, he transferred to the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chausees (ENPC), the premier training school for engineers responsible for building ports, roads, canals, and later railroads in France. He remained with the ENPC for his entire professional career (1803-1851), first as a field engineer, later as an instructor on “interior navigation” and railroad construction. In 1830, Minard was appointed a superintendent, then divisional inspector (1839), and finally Inspector General of the ENPC (1846) at age 65. Even after mandatory retirement on his 70 birthday in 1851, Minard continued his role on the advisory board of the ENPC journal, Annales des ponts et chausees. More importantly, his development of new graphic forms and themes nearly doubled in rate for 10 years, and continued up to his death at age 90.

Minard’s first career was as a practical engineer; but even here he showed a  flair for novel visual explanation and portrayal. His report on the collapse of a bridge on the Rhone includes a superposed before-after drawing that shows directly to the eyes that the bridge collapsed because the supports collapsed on the inflow side of the river.

Minard’s second career, as a visual engineer and developer of new forms of statistical graphics and thematic cartography begins in 1844, with his first tableaux graphiques. These attempt to show the differential costs for transport of goods and people, for the entire route of a line vs. the parcours partial of rates for intermediate travel. To show this in a “graphic table”. Minard invented a new form of the divided bar chart, where the widths of bars were scaled to distance along the route, and the heights of sub-divisions of the bars were scaled to proportions of passengers or kinds of goods. Consequently, the area of each rectangle would be strictly proportional to the cost or price of transport, in pounds or people-kilometers. These graphic tables were important early progenitors of modern mosaic displays.

Quite shortly, Minard realized that geographically-based quantitative information could better be shown on a map, as bands of width strictly proportional to those quantities, so that again, area equals length times width would convey total numbers or amounts. From a first crude flow-map of passenger travel from Dijon to Mulhouse, Minard would proceed to develop this graphic representation of  flow-over-space into a near art form, always allowing the precise portrayal of statistical data precedence over the confines of the space. His graphic catalog contains numerous instances. Perhaps the most dramatic are a pair of flow-maps showing the trade in cotton in Europe in 1856, and again in 1862, after the outbreak of the American Civil War. Just a glance makes clear that blockade on exports of raw cotton from the US South stimulated this trade with India.

Map showing the need for a new post office

Map showing the need for a new post office

Proportions of meat sold in Paris

Proportions of meat sold in Paris

Qualities of cotton in imported wools

Qualities of cotton in imported wools

Throughout his later years, and especially after his retirement, Minard continued to study new topics and to invent new graphic forms. He was the first to use pie charts on a map, where he extended Playfair’s use of them (NOTE: more on Mr. Playfair in another blog) to show both the relative proportions (of meats sold in Paris: beef, veal, or mutton) by angular slices, and the total amount of meats by the area of each pie. In 1865, the city of Paris needed to build a new central post office. Minard’s solution was a map showing the population of each arrondisement by squares with area proportional to population, so that the ideal location was their visual and geometric center of gravity.

Minard’s influence and contribution to visually-based planning was such that, from about 1850-1860, all Ministers of Public Works in France had their portraits painted with one of Minard’s creations in the background. At the 1857 Vienna meeting of the International Statistical Congress, the “methode a la carte graphique du chemin de fer francaise” (an apparent reference to to Minard) was recognized favorably in the debate on standardization and classification of graphical methods. In 1861, some of Minard’s works were presented to Napoleon III (a singular honor for an engineer of middle-class background), who received them with enthusiasm.

Minard’s most famous work, his depiction of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, deserves special mention in this brief biography, in part because it is the only known graphic portrayal of a national defeat, in France, or elsewhere. Chevallier makes the reasons clear: As a young engineer in Anvers in 1813, he witnessed the horrors of war in the siege by the Prussian army. In his final year, he sensed the renewal of the Franco-Prussian war and, though frail and infirm, fled to Bordeaux with his family. Among his last works, he drew a pair of flow-maps together: the famous one of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, and another of Hannibal’s retreat from Spain through the Alps to Italy, again with great loss of life. “The graphical representation is gripping; … it inspires bitter reflections on the human cost of the thirst for military glory.” It may well be, for this reason, that Minard’s most famous graphic defied the pen of the historian.

Next: Napoleon and the events leading up to The Russian Campaign of 1812

DataViz History: Edward Tufte, Charles Minard, Napoleon and The Russian Campaign of 1812 – Part 1

[Note: I am about to start a multi-part series on Minard’s map related to Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812. I am going to introduce the players related to this map first, then discuss the map in some detail.]

I first learned about Minard’s map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 when I attended a one-day workshop from Edward Tufte in San Diego back in the mid-2000s. Mr. Tufte told the story of the war as it related to the map with great passion. He talked about little interesting events that occurred and I was hooked. This moment was my epiphany. I came to a strong realization that I loved everything Mr. Tufte was talking about an I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

Edward Tufte

Edward TufteEdward Tufte is an American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University. He is noted for his writings on information design and as a pioneer in the field of data visualization. Mr. Tufte is known for his seminal best-selling books The Visual Display  of Quantitative Information (1983), Envisioning  Information (1990),  Visual Explanations (1997), and Beautiful Evidence (2006). [SOURCE]


Mr. Tufte  has provided the discipline with a vocabulary for bad design (chartjunk, the lie factor), for  particular graphic constructions (small multiples, micro/macro readings), and for his own criteria of good design (high data-ink  ratio, high data density). [SOURCE]


In his book, Beautiful Evidence, Mr. Tufte introduced the original concept of sparklines. He also refers to sparklines  as “wordlike graphics” or “datawords”. A sparkline  usually consists of either a fluctuating line like in a line chart, or of a  string of very tiny bars. It is usually longer than high, and is not  accompanied by an x- or y-axis or other scale. A sparkline enables the visual  display of a large amount of data in a tiny space. In addition, sparklines  are often presented in a set, enabling comparisons between the data in  different sparklines. Tufte presents interesting examples of sparkline uses,  and provides practical advice for their design (some draft pages for  this chapter can be seen here).

The Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design

“The fundamental principles  of analytical design” is the title of the fifth chapter of Beautiful  Evidence (I will refer to this book as “BE” going forward). Here Mr. Tufte provides an in-depth analysis of the by now well-known graphic showing the devastating  losses of the French Army in Napoleon’s Russian campaign (drawn by Charles  Joseph Minard). [Note: We will discuss this map in more detail later in this blog series.]

Ironically, this graphic was basically unknown  before Mr. Tufte introduced it to the world in his book The visual display of  quantitative information (1983). Then, twenty-six years later, he  uses it again in BE to illustrate and explain in detail his six fundamental  principles of analytical design, which he formulates as:

  1. Show  comparisons, contrasts, differences.
  2. Show  causality, mechanism, explanation, systematic structure.
  3. Show  multivariate data; that is, show more than 1 or 2 variables.
  4. Completely  integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.
  5. Thoroughly  describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and  sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point  out relevant issues.
  6. Analytical  presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance,  and integrity of their content.

Mr. Tufte declares that “The  purpose of an evidence presentation is to assist thinking”, and that these  six principles of analytical design “are derived from the principles of  analytical thinking.” (BE, p. 137). He claims that these  design principles are universal and “not tied to any particular language,  culture, style, century, gender, or technology of information display.” (BE, p. 10).

There are many other key data visualization topics that Mr. Tufte discusses in his books, but I wanted to at least introduce those topics related to Charles Minard’s map. I will be discussing Mr. Tufte and his work more in future blogs.

NEXT: The Life and Works of Charles Joseph Minard


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