A map of the impostor Success

Above is perhaps the most famous map and chart of all time (via the Wikimedia Commons). It is too small in my post, so please click through to the image. Its French caption begins:

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. …

What’s the big deal? 1) It is perhaps the first time in history that somebody thought about visualizing data. 2) Just look at the scale of this Impostor and Disaster!

You see the thick trunk of Napoleon’s Grande Armée as it invades Russia in 1812. Next you see Napoleon sweeping through Russia in apparent victory. His army is decreasing (the brown line is getting thinner), in part to casualties and in part because he has to leave troops behind to guard supply lines. But he is winning. And thus he takes Moscow.

Now the impostor drops his veil! Russia does not surrender. Napoleon does not win the war. Instead, he has to retreat. In the Russian winter. While the Cossacks attack. As Russian peasants pull away French stragglers and spear them with their pitchforks. The French starve, freeze and bleed to death. The black line shrinks.

And then, perhaps the most chilling pixels (you have to click through to see it well): As the French cross the freezing river Berezina, they discover that hell has indeed frozen over. You see a thick-ish black line on the eastern bank, a thin trickle on the western bank. The river became a mass grave. That’s why the French still today have a phrase to describe disaster: C’est la Berezina!

And if you’re new to this blog and wondering why I keep mentioning the word Impostor, here is why.
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2 thoughts on “A map of the impostor Success

  1. I have a framed copy of this map. I think I bought the print from an Edward Tufte seminar on visualizing information. Doesn’t Professor Tufte own the copyright?

  2. If you have the framed map, you can see the subtleties better, such as the temperature markers at the bottom.
    I took the map from the Wikimedia Commons, which says that the image is so old that its copyright has expired. But two people have now told me about Edward Tufte, so I will check him out….

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