This has been described as one of the best statistical graphics ever drawn.

Minard - wiki commons image

It is also a powerful portrayal of the crucial role of disease in warfare.

Charles Minard (1781-1870), ‘Carte Figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’armée française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813’ (1869). Often simply called ‘Napoleon’s March on Moscow’.

Charles Minard, its author, was a French civil engineer who was interested in how information and data was portrayed.  He created graphics (or ‘figurative maps’, as he called them) of passenger flows on public transportation, the movement of foodstuff and other French goods, and in his most famous image here, the French army invading Russia under Napoleon in 1812 alongside its retreat six months later.

What Minard portrays is not battles or fighting.  Instead, he depicts the French campaign in Russia through the thickness of a colored column dwindling in precise relation to the loss of French manpower.  Napoleon began his campaign with half a million French troops; he returned to Poland six months later in December 1812 with only 20,000.  Minard’s column thus captures this staggering loss of over 450,000 troops.  By the end of the campaign, what started out as a thick block of brown has become a pinpoint of a black line.

This loss – only 20,000 surviving out of an original force of 500,000 – is all the more amazing given that the Russian campaign did not consist of many battles.  The tremendous loss of men was due overwhelmingly to disease and starvation, rather than fighting.  For most of history, deaths from disease have always grossly outnumbered deaths from combat, with often seven or eight men dying from disease for every one dying from battle.  It was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that more soldiers and sailors were killed from battle than from diseases.  This wasn’t because of new technologies.  The change in disease-to-battle ratio happened prior to the discovery of antibiotics, and had nothing to do with more efficient killing tools such as machine guns.  Instead, it was the focused application of sanitation and hygiene that provided armed forces, such as the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, with vastly lowered rates of disease.

Disease and War: A Long History

While we might be surprised to hear of such rates of disease during war, people in the past were well aware of the crucial role that disease played in campaigns.  Minard’s original image actually juxtaposed Napoleon’s invasion of Russia with another famous campaign: Hannibal’s invasion of Italy by crossing the Alps in 218 BCE.

Here is Minard’s full figurative map of 1869, thanks to the wonderful Gallica digitization project of France’s National Library, with Hannibal’s campaign at the top:


While Hannibal’s march across the Alps was an impressive feat, it was also expensive in terms of manpower.  Historians estimate that during the expedition he lost half of his troops and two-thirds of his powerful war elephants.  And, the Romans continued with what is now known as the Fabian strategy (named after the Roman commander who successfully countered Hannibal’s operations in central Italy): rather than fighting Hannibal directly in a pitched battle, the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus engaged in indirect skirmishes that drew out Hannibal’s invasion into a lengthy sixteen-year campaign.  No wonder that the Roman general’s nickname was ‘the delayer’.

The Russians employed a similar strategy in countering Napoleon.  Vastly outnumbered by French troops, the Russians simply used the weight of time – drawing out Napoleon’s campaign – letting Napoleon’s lack of supplies in a foreign country, poor infrastructure, and the onslaught of winter result in thousands of deaths from malnutrition, contagious diseases, and exposure to the cold.  Military officials not only knew of the role that disease played in campaigns, they indeed incorporated it into their strategy.

For me, Minard’s image is powerful not only because it tangibly traces the role of disease.  It also provides us with an image of campaigns – not simply battles.  Most images of war provide us with a snapshot: one instant, whether glorious or horrific.  Minard, by contrast, makes his subject the very long passage of time.  He captures the relentless passage of time during campaigns, and thereby also captures the relentless problems of disease and logistics during campaigns in foreign territory.

4 thoughts on “Images of War II: Disease

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