Another one picture worth a thousand words…this time…a depiction of hubris.

This graph is an English language representation by the French civil engineer, Charles Minard, of Napoleon’s disastrous losses suffered during the Russia Campaign of 1812.


Mind’s map (French original version for details); (English version of map-click to enlarge for details)


First, who was Napoleon (for the very uninitiated)…


Here is how the lesson in hubris all started…

In 1806, Napoleon decided to punish the British with an embargo that became known as the Continental System. Napoleon knew he was limited militarily against England due to the strong British naval fleet and thus his only recourse was the embargo.

But by the end of 1810, Russian Czar Alexander-I had stopped complying with the embargo, due to its deleterious effect on Russian trade and the falling value of the Russian ruble. To punish the Czar for not honoring a prior agreement to maintain an embargo on England, in 1812, Napoleon decides to invade Russia.

June 24, 1812- 

Napoleon Bonaparte, the master of continental Europe, raises an army of nearly half a million troops from all over Europe (most diverse European army since the Crusades) and leads them into the depths of Russia to enforce his will upon Czar Alexander I. By comparison, George Washington’s army during the American Revolution rarely numbered more than 10,000 or 15,000 men.

Napoleon’s goal was to win a quick victory that forced Alexander to the negotiating table. Napoleon remained confident. “I have come once and for all to finish off these barbarians of the North,” he purportedly declared to his top military advisors. “The sword is now drawn. They must be pushed back into their ice, so that for the next 25 years they no longer come to busy themselves with the affairs of civilized Europe.”

On the other hand, with greatly inferior forces, Russia could not afford to confront Napoleon head on.  The Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, of necessity adopted Fabian tactics, by harassing the invaders but avoiding pitched battle when possible. As the Russians kept retreating into the Russian steppes  they followed a scorched earth tactic by burning down everything in its retreat thus denying the French army any sustenance as it advanced. As the summer heat become oppressive, the Grande Armée soldiers come down with insect-borne diseases such as typhus and water-related diseases like dysentery.

September 14, 1812

Napoleon’s Grande Armée entered the ancient capital of Moscow, only to see it too become engulfed in flames. Most residents had already escaped the city, leaving behind vast quantities of hard liquor but little food. French troops drank and pillaged. The Russian army had retreated, burning everything behind them, and even burning Moscow itself. Napoleon’s starving army arrived in Moscow with few provisions, and in the exodus faced a brutal Russian winter. Napoleon waited for Alexander to sue for peace but no peace offer ever came. By this time, Napoleon was down to some 100,000 troops, the rest having died, deserted or been wounded, captured or left along the supply line.

The Russian winter began 2 weeks early. With snow flurries having already fallen, Napoleon led his army out of Moscow on October 19, realizing that it could not survive the winter there.

Originally he planned a southerly retreat, but his troops were forced back to the road they took in after a replenished Russian army engaged them at Maloyaroslavets. All forage along that route had already been consumed, and when the army arrived at Smolensk it found that stragglers had eaten the food left there. Horses were dying in droves, and the Grande Armée’s flanks and rear guard faced constant attacks. To top it off, an unusually early winter set in, complete with high winds, sub-zero temperatures and lots of snow. On particularly bad nights, thousands of men and horses succumbed to exposure. Stories abound of soldiers splitting open dead animals and crawling inside for warmth, or stacking dead bodies in windows for insulation.

In late November, the Grande Armée narrowly escaped complete annihilation when it crossed the frigid Berezina River, but it had to leave behind thousands of wounded. From then on, it was almost every man for himself. On December 5, Napoleon left the army under the command of Joachim Murat and sped toward Paris amid rumors of a coup attempt. Nine days later, what little remained of the Grande Armée’s rear guard , ~10,000 soldiers stumbled back across the Niemen River.

Emboldened by the defeat, Austria, Prussia and Sweden re-joined Russia and Great Britain in the fight against Napoleon. Although the French emperor was able to raise another massive army, this time it was short on both cavalry and experience. Napoleon won some initial victories against his enemies, but he suffered a crushing defeat in October 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig. By the following March, Paris had been captured and Napoleon was forced into exile on the island of Elba. In 1815 Napoleon made one more attempt to take power but was overcome at the Battle of Waterloo.

Much later in 1869, Joseph Minard, French engineer, wanted to “inspire bitter reflections on the cost to humanity of the madness of conquerors and the merciless thirst for military glory.” Incorporating geography, time, temperature, the course and direction of the army’s movement, and the number of troops remaining,  Minard created the ‘best statistical graph ever drawn.” 

The illustration depicts Napoleon’s army departing the Polish-Russian border. A thick band illustrates the size of his army at specific geographic points during their advance and retreat. It displays six types of data in two dimensions: the number of Napoleon’s troops; the distance traveled; temperature; latitude and longitude; direction of travel; and location relative to specific dates without making mention of Napoleon; Minard’s interest lay with the travails and sacrifices of the soldiers.


Never in history, perhaps, did a man of such extraordinary military genius suffer so extraordinary a military disaster.

“From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step” 

– Napoleon, Warsaw Dec 10, 1812 when he stumbled into Warsaw from snowy Moscow and the biggest military fiasco of his career


Some good though came out of this disastrous campaign:

#1: A history lesson on hubris and overconfidence and its consequences

#2: The 1812 Overture, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1880

WARNING: Cannons may make dogs bark, scare your mom, leave your neighbor dumbfounded, make cats panic, leave your co-passengers in airports scrambling for cover…and/or blow up your ears if listening with ear plugs; among other things…
0:00 Opening theme represents Napoleon advancing his way towards Moscow with a huge army size and devastating weapons. The Russians gathered in churches across the country and prayed. This is represented through the hymn that is played in the beginning. 2:17 The tension rises and it could be heard in the ascending base notes as France gets ever so close to Moscow. In addition, the continuous 16th (not sure, might be 32nd) notes in the background really drives this section foward. The 16th notes represents the distressed Russians rushing to churches to pray and rushing home to be safe. 3:44 The first battle between Russia and France is getting ready to take place as the snare drums are used to keep the marching tempo. The melodies are kind of like the calm before the storm. 4:46 The battle actual starts 5:30 Napoleon’s anthem taken from a Russian 6:12 The French national anthem is played to represent how they overwhelmed the Russians and won early vicotires. In the next 6 minutes, the two countries start fighting and as more Russians come out of their homes to fight for their country, Russian melodies become more and more prominent as the French anthem and Russian melodlies go back and forth. 8:10 The folk melody “At the gate, at my gate” is heard. The name is pretty self explanatory 🙂 9:59 French anthem heard once again 11:10 Once again, “At the gate, at my gate” is heard. 11:30 Notice that after everytime this melody is played (5:24 and 9:03), the French anthem is played right after to show how they are victors in battle. This time however, this is not the case and the melody goes straight into… –> –> … 12:01. This signifies the turning point of the war where the French start to lost their stronghold and grip against the Russians. The name of the conflict is the Battle of Borodino. This is marked by 5 cannons blasts. 12:16 The descending line marks the French retreat 12:55 The victory celebration is represented through 11 cannon blasts and bells ringing in the background. The melody is an iteration of ‘O Lord, Save Thy People’

Some say that this performance of using loud sounds in music should be considered the birth of rock music!!!

#3: a literature classic in…

Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 5.56.31 PM

#4: Doubling of the size United States of America as a result of the Napoleonic Campaign:


Given Napoleon failure to re-enslave the population of Haiti, and little revenues from sugar colonies in the Caribbean, he abandoned his plans to rebuild France’s New World empire and initiated the sale of the Louisiana. Although the French foreign minister opposed the plan, on April 10, 1803, Napoleon told the Treasury Minister that he was considering selling the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States. The American representatives were prepared to pay up to $10 million for New Orleans and its environs, but were dumbfounded when the vastly larger territory was offered for $15 million. Jefferson had authorized Livingston only to purchase New Orleans. However, Livingston was certain that the United States would accept the offer. The Americans thought that Napoleon might withdraw the offer at any time, preventing the United States from acquiring New Orleans, so they agreed and signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty on April 30, 1803. The Louisiana Territory was vast, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to Rupert’s Land in the north, and from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west. Acquiring the territory would double the size of the United States, at a sum of less than 3 cents per acre.The Louisiana purchase in 1803 doubled the size of the U.S. (around 23% of the U.S.A. today). The funds from this purchase, in part funded the Napoleonic Campaign which ended with Napoleon taking on the disastrous invasion of Russia in 2012.


#5: No major wars in Europe for the next 100 years:

After the (first) defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the victorious allies gathered at the Congress of Vienna. The Congress, which lasted until 1815, was praised by Henry Kissinger who argued that it was an example of how to conclude a successful peace unlike the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 after World War I that unraveled in two decades. The system that emerged from the Congress of Vienna, the Concert of Europe, maintained a balance of power that prevented a general European war until 1914. This feat was accomplished by skilled diplomats such as Metternich (Austria) and Talleyrand (France). The trick was to give no country complete satisfaction or dissatisfaction in regards to their strategic and territorial interests. Multiple states both lost and gained territory. The aggrandizement by victorious powers such as Prussia and Russia was limited. Most importantly,  the major defeated power, France, was offered a generous peace and was soon allowed back into the European system with dignity. While France lost all the territory it gained during the Napoleonic Wars, it kept all of its original territory. This prevented resentment that could have led to revanchist tendencies and instability in the new European system. Unfortunately, the French themselves failed to apply this lesson of generosity after the defeat of Germany in World War I.



The graphical presentations here are all taken from this excellent write-up on these website




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