20 October 2012

Charles Joseph Minard

Died in Bordeaux SW France 24 October 1870

It was about 20 years ago that someone introduced me to Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. One of the most impressive examples he provided has the title:
Carte Figurative des pertes successive en hommes de l’Armée Francaise dans la campagne de Russie 1812 - 1813 Dressée par M Minard, Inspecteur Général des Ponts et Chaussées en retrait Paris. le 20 novembre 1869  
Figurative Map of the successive losses in men of the French Army in the campaign in Russia 1812 - 1813 Prepared by Monsieur Minard, Inspector General of Bridges and Roads in retirement Paris. 20 November 1869.
This image (left) is now well-known, and much admired for its skillfully combining time, space, attrition and temperature data relating to Napoleon’s campaign, now regarded as to be avoided. Tufte’s website explains Minard’s sources (some of the data he used are subject to later revision) and also provides a translation of his obituary taken from the Annales des ponts et chaussées. The latter appears as Annals of Bridges and Roads and I wonder whether the translator understood the significance of ponts et chaussées in France, referring as it does to the members of an elite corps of engineers, Le corps des ingénieurs des ponts et chaussées, established in 1716, one of the grands corps de l’État. Traditionally the ponts et chaussées recruited from the École polytechnique in Paris (one of the grandes êcoles), whose graduates are known as les X. But France is changing like everywhere else and the École polytechnique, like the École des ponts, which Minard had directed during his illustrious career, is now part of ParisTech.   ParisTech has recently opened an institute in Shanghai, and Minard’s corps has become the corps des ingénieurs des ponts, des eaux et des forêts!

Reading the obituary, I noticed that Minard had retired in 1851, at the age of seventy, and also that on 11 September 1870, within a year of completing his Russian campaign map, he left Paris. The Franco-Prussian war, which had begun on 19 July 1870, was going badly for the French, Napoleon III and his army being captured at the Battle of Sedan on 2 September. Minard, anticipating the route to be taken by French governments in 1914 and 1940, departed for Bordeaux eight days before the siege of Paris began. Sadly, he died of a fever six weeks later on 20 October.

It occurred to me that Minard might have been buried in the Cimetière de la Chartreuse in Bordeaux. But this seems not to have been the case. Although the Bordeaux municipal archives very kindly provided me with a copy of his death certificate (below), they hold no burial record. I can only assume that his remains were returned to his place of birth, Dijon in the Côte d’Or département of the Burgundy region, perhaps for internment in a family vault there. It would be interesting to find out.

It was only when reading Cartographies of Time by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton that I learnt that Minard had in fact produced a pair of campaign maps (below), the first showing the attrition during Hannibal’s trans-Alpine advance on the Roman Republic in 200BC. A recent programme in Melvyn Bragg’s BBCR4 In our Time series, available for download until October 2013, describes Hannibal’s career and legacy.

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