Vintage Infographic: Napoleon’s Tragic Russian March

When it comes to tragic military events, few would rate worse than the French invasion of Russia in 1812. A disastrous combination of situations resulted in the once powerful Grande Armée being reduced from nearly half a million strong, to a shockingly small 10,000 following their retreat. This vintage information graphic detailing the event was created by Charles Joseph Minard in 1869. It is an early masterpiece of good design.

The graphic includes a large amount of detail in its clear presentation: the shrinking size of the army and the massive suffering on its retreat (be sure to notice the huge losses as they crossed rivers); the geographical co-ordinates, latitude and longitude, of the army as it moved; the direction of the army as it advanced and retreated, including when it split and rejoined; the location of the army at certain important dates; and the bitterly cold winter temperatures during the retreat. Few graphics today manage to convey this quantity of information with such clarity. (continued below)


So, what led to the disastrous downfall of the French army as detailed in this dramatic graphic? For one, the Russian army proved to be very elusive, retreating from the French for 3 months as they waged a campaign of scorched-earth tactics and light but demoralizing assaults. Finally on September 7th, the two armies met near Moscow in the Battle of Borodino. In what was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the Napoleonic Wars, 70,000 solders were killed, ultimately seeing the French take control of the battlefield but failing to destroy the Russian army.

When the French army entered Moscow on September 14th they found the city largely deserted – except for criminals which had been purposely released to cause trouble. In October, with no clear sign of victory in sight, Napoleon ordered the army to retreat. This coincided with the normal Russian mud season, seriously slowing the troops and using up their dwindling supplies. Throughout the remaining march they were subject to constant guerilla warfare from the Russians, a severe lack of food and an unusually cold winter with temperatures dipping to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). Ultimately, the event drastically changed the course of European history both for the French and Russians, as well as the continent as a whole.

Click here or the image below for a full-sized view of the graphic:

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