Napoleon’s tragic retreat

08 Nov 2017
Napoleon by the Town Hall, Vilna (J. Damiel, 1846)

A grisly discovery in a northern suburb of Vilnius revealed the scale of the tragic retreat of Napoleon’s doomed march on Moscow in 1812.

In autumn 2001, while clearing a site for construction in the Šiaurės miestelis (Northern Town) district of Vilnius, workers dredged up something horrifying – a pit of heavily decomposed bodies and bones. Several thousand corpses had, at one time or another, been hastily thrown into a mass grave, piled on top of each other, and hastily forgotten.
The remains were carefully extracted, each body numbered and sent to a forensics team. It quickly became clear that these unfortunates had not been the victims of the KGB or the Nazis but were from a great calamity that had occurred 200 years before.
Of the 3269 bodies, the vast majority were male and most had been in their twenties when they died.
Typhus and tuberculosis were ruled out as major causes of death, nor did the bones reveal chronic long-term malnutrition. But around 80% had lesions indicating venereal disease. Many had severe injuries that had healed or were in process of healing. Others had broken bones in the feet and deformed vertebrae, indicative of excessive marching. But there were no signs of a massacre or combat, hinting that starvation and cold may have been the main cause of death.
However, it was the fragments of uniforms and regimental buttons that left no doubt that these sad remains dated from Napoleon’s doomed and tragic march on Moscow in 1812.

Hopes of conquest
In 1812, the French emperor assembled half a million men from countries across Europe into the biggest army the world had ever seen. His aim? To stop Russia from continuing to trade with his greatest enemy, Britain. The plan involved quickly luring the Russian Army into a decisive battle, to force Tsar Alexander I to join the pan-European economic blockade.
In June, morale was high as the endless trail of men, carts and artillery that formed the fearsome Grande Armée passed through towns and villages such as Vilkaviškis, Pilviškiai and Skriaudžiai, where Napoleon dined with the parish priest.
The army gathered on the southern bank of the River Nemunas near Kaunas, which then formed the border of the Russian Empire. Besides the French ranks were Prussians and Portuguese, Saxons and Swiss, Dutch and Italians, and countless other nationalities.
Poles and Lithuanians, hoping for the return of their own state which had been carved up between neighbouring empires barely 20 years before, had their own unit, the Vistula Legion. In total, the troops carried with them three weeks of rations, in wagons and on their backs.
The hill where Napoleon and his generals are said to have stood surveying the landscape across the river is today known as Napoleon’s Hill, a few kilometres south of Kaunas’ city centre, though it’s hard now to see much from its tree-covered summit. It took two days for the army to cross the river on three pontoon bridges. The invasion had begun. Just a fraction of this great army, numbed, battle-worn, starved and half-crazed, would return to this point six months later.

The battles begin


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