‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ is immediately visually rich, but it is also so unique that reading it takes a little getting used to.
For one, the map is not obviously Russia. Friendly (1997) writes that “Minard almost invariably chose accuracy of the representation of data over the “tyranny of precise geographical position” whenever conflict arose – It is for this reason he carefully labeled his maps cartes figuratives et approximatives.” Without the distraction of detailed geography, the data is more clear, and the map becomes more intuitive the more you look at it.
It takes the user from the far left of the page and the crossing of the Nieman River all the way to Moscow, and back again. The width and lighter color of the advance have greater visual hierarchy and grab the eye. The line leads through its brutal, jagged diminution to the far edge of the map, where it doubles with the stark black line of the number of men on the retreat. This leads the user back across the page, until the line stops at the river it started at. The map equates life with width, and having followed the course of this journey from its beginning, then wide enough to correspond with 422,000 lives, the thinness at the very end is genuinely terrible.
All of Minard’s brilliant choices were also practical ones. Choosing to change the color of the line to show the retreat was a good move to differentiate it from the advance, but the genius was in picking black. In contrast with the alive-feeling color of the advance, the journey on the way back feels, simply put, doomed. It intuitively expresses the failure of the enterprise, and how the return was an entirely different experience for the forces than the advance. There had been no glory for the Grande Armée, and the spare sobriety of the Napoleon infographic’s palette makes that abundantly clear. The change to black ultimately makes it easy for the user to imagine the experiences that narrowed that line, and turns a military retreat into a horror story that is as emotionally affecting as it is intellectually compelling. This simple, evocative choice is one of the most foundational to the infographic’s success.
Another important choice was that Minard included the rivers, drawn with relative, undistracting accuracy. Again, the map does not look like Russia, but the rivers ground the map in recognizable geography. They also serve two other purposes. The first is that with its bends, forks, varying widths, and turns, the line showing the advance and retreat in ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ visually references the rivers it crosses. The shape feels recognizable, almost organic; as a flow map, this is not a far reach. Minard operates on many levels, and a more conceptual metaphor works as well. Lives were carried along this course, directed by the decisions of Napoleon and a scattering of his officers: an unstoppable, inescapable, and deadly current.
Rivers were also of particular significance in the campaign. The Nieman was the start button of the whole affair, and bookended the entire, horrible reality of it. Every river narrows the line of how many lives remained on the campaign, from the Mohilow to the Moskva, just before Moscow. However, as Minard shows cleanly but poignantly, one river exacted a particularly harsh toll: the Bérézina.
An article from The Economist which covered Minard reports that “the French now use the expression “C’est la Bérézina” to describe a total disaster.” As the map shows, over halfway through the retreat, the 20,000 remaining forces who actually made it to Moscow (and survived the retreat to that point) were reunited with 30,000 men who had branched off early in the campaign to hold a more northern part of Russia. Their death rate was comparatively low (5,000/35,000). Without the journey to Moscow it is likely that their experience was substantially less horrific than their compatriots, but this did not last. The combined forces shortly reached the freezing Bérézina river. Minard shows the sudden, jagged cut to the width of the line; 22,000 men, almost half of the combined forces, never made it across.
On the map this event is given no notation or description to mark it- just the change in width and numbers on either side of the river. No explanation is required; the user can find the event with ease, immediately understand what it shows, and feel the repercussions. Minard’s representational devices are almost entirely self-sustained. It is worth noting that in English language articles, ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ is almost never shown translated or given a translation in the article text. This is because the description, simple as it, is almost superfluous. If the user has heard of Napoleon and knows that the infographic is about the Napoleonic campaign into Russia, the map can do the rest.
E.J. Maray is quoted as saying that the piece “seemed to defy the pen of the historian by its brutal eloquence.” Everything is clear, and nothing obstructs appreciation of the horrors of the data, like the crossing of the Bérézina River. The representation is impartial, clinically beautiful, and does not soften the reality of the events it depicts. This is the “brutal elegance” to which E.J. Maray refers. Minard’s obituary writer explains that his directive with information graphics was “that the first glance takes in and knows without fatigue, and which manifest immediately the natural consequences or the comparisons unforeseen.”
Minard’s retirement, which began in 1851, was spent in the years of France’s Second Empire (1852-1870), a Bonapartist regime. Under this administration, people were encouraged to be nostalgic about the years of France’s ascendancy during the first imperial period and the Napoleonic wars were heavily romanticized. For as public and respected a figure as Minard to make ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign,’ so accurately and horrifically depicting the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall and greatest military catastrophe in his career, much less in the history of the country of France, was a statement as clear as it was bold. The fundamental purpose of ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ was to show the cost of war, and to force a revisionist public to remember that cost, and own their loss. At this, he succeeded.