This is a post about the use of maps to tell a story.  One of the most famous maps ever produced recounts Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia in 1812.


So I’ve been reading a novel recently that revolves around Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, which by all accounts, was the final nail in the coffin of the French emperor’s long run of power.  Clearly it’s stirring stuff, enough to inspire Tchaikovsky to write his 1812 Overture, and Leo Tolstoy to deliver the massive tome of War and Peace.  While reading, I’ve often found myself flicking back and forth between the text and a map.  So where did he choose to cross into Russian territory?  And where is Borodino anyway?  Maps are absolutely essential for military strategists and the effect of location is a lens through which possibly all battles can be viewed.  But there’s quite a human story behind Napoleon’s ill-chosen push into Tsar Alexander’s realm.  Once in Russian territory, the Grande Armée seemed invincible as it relentlessly marched east to Moscow, but a combination of French hubris, Russian tactics and a lot of support from the Russian autumn ultimately brought about Napoleon’s defeat.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Though agreement on the actual numbers vary quite a lot, Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed into Russia at the Nieman River with around 500,000 men (only around 40% of whom were actually French) on 24 June 1812 from what is now Poland;
  • On September 7th, the Battle of Borodino was fought ( which the 1812 Overture was mainly written about).  The Grande Armée faced one of its only significant battles of the entire campaign here.  Though the French won the day, it was a Phyrric victory for the emperor – his lines were overextended and the fleeing Russians burnt their villages and crops so as to leave nothing for the invaders. (This seems to have been done spontaneously rather than as a planned strategy, at least according to Tolstoy.  The inhabitants of Smolensk started it early in the piece and everyone else seemed to think it was a good idea.)  Napoleon’s strategy had been that his soldiers would forage for food while on the move.  For someone who is credited with saying that an army marches on its stomach, this was a surprising choice;
  • The Moscow he arrived in on 14 September had been veritably burnt to the ground by order of Moscow’s governor;
  • It was soon clear that no peace would be negotiated with Tsar Alexander and the Grand Armée began its withdrawal in mid-October – autumn in the northern hemisphere and the beginning of Russia’s mud season, “rasputitsa“;
  • Forced by Russian attacks to go back the way he came, Napoleon’s army marched through an increasingly dark autumn along the road that had already been ravaged – no food, little shelter, and constant guerrilla warfare from Russian forces;
  • The Grande Armée crossed the Berezyna River with great loss of (French) life.  The river usually freezes over but this year, it hadn’t, though that’s not to say that it wasn’t icy.  Pontoon bridges had to be built and the Russians were moving in from three sides.  At about this time, Napoleon abandoned the army to address a coup d’etat back in Paris, leaving the survivors of this crossing to limp home;
  • When the army crossed back into French territory in November, it crossed with about 10% of the soldiers it began with.  By some estimates, 380,000 men died along the way from starvation or typhus or bitter cold, and 100,000 were captured (or deserted).  By 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate his throne, and exiled to the island of Elba.  After his defeat at Waterloo and second exile, he died (of stomach cancer) on the island of St Helena in 1821.

So, what does this have to do with GIS?  Well apart from the whole “Geography Matters” point of view, this event inspired one of the most famous maps of all time.  Charles Joseph Minard was a French engineer and specialised in the building of bridges, canals and harbours.  He also liked to create informative graphics that told stories.  And here’s the one he put together for this one:


And here’s an Anglicised version:


(see below for a translation of the caption – apologies – this was the largest image I could find) This map is famous for its relative simplicity in telling a complicated story that takes place in space and time.  Geographic features themselves are kept to a minimum – no roads, few rivers, no contour lines, just the facts, ma’am.  What is often pointed out are the five dimensions of the story that are portrayed here:

  • The size of the army is shown by the thickness of the brown and black bands.  This allows us to see how the size of the army changes through time (and note the decrease in width when the Berezyna River is crossed during retreat at center left);
  • Direction is indicated by the colour of the band – brown for advance, black for retreat;
  • Location is shown as the army moves at the centre of the coloured bands.
  • The location is also shown with respect to dates;
  • Temperatures during the retreat are plotted along the bottom showing how it changed with time and location (Interestingly, the temperature scale is degrees Réaumur – values can be multiplied by 1.25 to get degrees Celsius).  The maximum temperature reached is zero.

Amongst cartographers, this is an exemplar of good design and ability to tell a story.  Edward Tufte features this in his landmark book, the Visual Display of Quantitative Information, where he says it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn”.  Properly categorised, this is a flow map, one that shows the flow of objects be they people, wine, oranges or orang-utans.  Here’s another example of his work – the exports of wine from France for 1864:


And another one of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps:


A quick search on Minard and Napoleon will deliver scads of pages on discussions about his work.  His map of the invasion ranks right up there with Snow’s cholera map and the London Tube map, though may not be quite as widely known.  An interesting permutation is here and a slew of other attempts to revise the original can be found here.

Though I’m struggling to find a reference, I’m reasonably sure that Napoleon said something to the effect that in invading Russia, he came to fight men, not the weather.  Ultimately, his undoing was driven by choices he made about how the invasion was carried out.  As a record of his hubris, Minard’s map is an visually eloquent statement, and an ideal we mere mortal cartographers can hope to achieve when next we hit the layout button.


Here’s a translation of the French caption for the 1812 figure:

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

Drawn up by M. Minard, Inspector General of Bridges and Roads in retirement. Paris, November 20, 1869.

The numbers of men present are represented by the widths of the colored zones at a rate of one millimeter for every ten-thousand men; they are further written across the zones. The red [now brown] designates the men who enter into Russia, the black those who leave it. —— The information which has served to draw up the map has been extracted from the works of M. M. Thiers, of Segur, of Fezensac, of Chambray, and the unpublished diary of Jacob, pharmacist of the army since October 28th. In order to better judge with the eye the diminution of the army, I have assumed that the troops of prince Jerome and of Marshal Davoush who had been detached at Minsk and Moghilev and have rejoined around Orcha and Vitebsk, had always marched with the army.

The scale is shown on the center-right, in “lieues communes de France” (common French league) which is 4,444m (2.75 miles).

The lower portion of the graph is to be read from right to left. It shows the temperature on the army’s return from Russia, in degrees below freezing on the Réaumur scale. (Multiply Réaumur temperatures by 1¼ to get Celsius, e.g. −30°R = −37.5 °C) At Smolensk, the temperature was −21° Réaumur on November 14th.