Fate of the French soldiers during Napoleon's 1812 Russian campaign - Re-imagining of Minard's graph by Positive Thinking Company
This data visualisation is a re-imagining of Minard's graph on the French invasion of Russia in 1812. This campaign marked a turning point in Napoleon's reign. Nearly a million men died, equally divided between the two sides.
This version uses interactivity to walk through the different events of the campaign, providing details of what happened on the ground, as well as an idea of survival rates and chronology of events.
Redoing a famous graphic seemed too much of a challenge at first. What would be left to improve? Especially if it is considered by experts to be "probably the best statistical graph ever drawn".
The change in perspective due to the passage of time inspired this reimagining. In fact, the time that has elapsed between the publication of the original chart (1869) and today has had a dual effect:
- Familiarity with the course of events: Minard's contemporaries must have been more familiar with the events that unfolded, whereas today these events are less deeply rooted, if not distorted, in the collective memory of the French people.
- Availability of new technologies and historical studies: The campaign was studied by historians from both sides and archive documents were collected to shed new light on the events.
Looking at Charles Joseph Minard's original graph from a contemporary perspective, the following questions come to mind:
- What were the main events during the campaign?
- What happened on the ground and why did the soldiers disappear? Was it mainly fighting? What role did the weather play in the loss of life? What role did other factors play?
- When did the events take place? (The chronology is incomplete, as the dates are only available after the French troops left Moscow.)
- How can the loss of life be represented? The human toll of the campaign is enormous, but at first glance I had the impression that I was missing the human aspect.
- What happened on the Russian side?
Re-imagining the graph helped to answer some of these questions:
- Animate the graphic to see the information one date at a time, to better grasp the major stages of the campaign, as well as its temporal aspect. This would free up the color code for a dimension other than outward/return journey.
- Display a timeline to make it easy to understand when the main events took place.
- Add a unit chart using man and cross icons to represent the proportion of survivors at each stage of the campaign.
- Provide details of each main event in the campaign to provide context and clues as to what happened.
Research into this campaign has highlighted the importance of context, the uncertainty of figures for such events (Napoleon did not get the right figures from his officers) and the need to find reliable sources of information.
NB: Most of the information comes from Adam Zamoyski's book "1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow".