This Europe: Mass grave shows how hunger and cold devastated Napoleon's army

Michael Tarm,In Vilnius
Friday 31 January 2014 04:56
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Arunas Barkus, an anthropologist, pokes at a leg bone in a pile of skeletal remains, tagged No 151, on an autopsy table at Vilnius University. The bones belong to a victim of a catastrophic military adventure.

The remains of 2,000 men unearthed last year in a mass grave in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, were soldiers in Napoleon's army that invaded Russia 190 years ago.

When bulldozers accidentally uncovered the remains at a housing development, many believed they were political dissidents executed by secret police during Soviet rule, which ended in 1991.

But as crowds gathered to stare at ribs and skulls poking through the sand, and coins with Napoleon's image and buttons of his Grand Army were found, it quickly became clear they were remnants of the ill-fated French force.

Olivier Poupard, the deputy French ambassador, said that the find was the largest and most significant of its kind. He added: "We've been very moved by this discovery. Suddenly, history was more vivid. You could see it with your eyes. ... It's a history so much a part of the collective French memory."

Emperor Napoleon, who then controlled much of Europe, attacked Russia in June 1812. The 500,000-strong Grand Army that marched into Lithuania bound for Moscow was one of the largest invasion forces ever assembled.

Six months later, the surviving 40,000 men stumbled back into Vilnius in retreat. Cold and desperate for food, some are said to have pillaged local medical schools to eat preserved human organs.

In temperatures dropping to -22F (-30C), thousands of dead French soldiers soon littered the streets. The Russians spent three months cleaning up. They could not dig graves in the frozen ground so they tried burning bodies, but the smoke and stench were unbearable. Instead they threw them into a defensive trench dug earlier by the French – the trench uncovered nearly two centuries later.

Mr Barkus and his team spent months charting and tagging the skeletons – then examining each to determine age, sex and possible cause of death.

The size of skeleton No 151 indicates it belonged to a male, said Mr Barkus; the unworn teeth suggest he was about 20. Several bones belonged to boys as young as 15, probably drummers who signalled commands to troops. Many skeletons were curled up and undamaged, suggesting the soldiers died of cold.

"What killed these men was cold, starvation and disease," Mr Barkus said.

DNA tests are being done to check the theory that a lot of men died of typhus.

Napoleon blamed the weather for the disaster. Some historians say that was an excuse for sloppy planning. But experts say the findings in Vilnius seem to back Napoleon's version.

The catastrophe is viewed as the beginning of the emperor's downfall, which was sealed at Waterloo in 1815.

With the last remains removed, a road has been built over the site, but archaeologists will soon begin searching for at least 10,000 other skeletons they believe could be near by.

Since Napoleon's soldiers came from all over his empire, the remains would not be returned to France, said Mr Poupard.

Most of the remains have been moved to a hilltop cemetery chapel to await ceremonial burial in October. A monument paid for by France will be unveiled later.

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