The Skeletons in Napoleon’s Closet

  • 2015-09-03
  • By Raymond Gaff

A 203 year-old mystery was solved earlier this summer when analyses revealed the true cause of death of soldiers from Napoleon’s army, found in a mass grave in Vilnius.
The mass grave, excavated in March of 2002 in the northern suburbs of Vilnius, tells of the beginning of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat. Over 40 regiments discovered were identified by their buttons and scraps of fabric belonging to troops of the Grande Armée that spread across Western Europe in the 1800s. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but around 20,000 soldiers limped back towards Lithuania after a pyrrhic victory in Russia in 1812. At least 3269 dead soldiers were found closely packed and showed little sign of physical trauma. These were not the victims of a battle.

Prior to returning to Vilnius, Napoleon’s troops were warmly welcomed by the Lithuanians who, like Poland, were under Czarist rule. Napoleon’s original staggering amount of troops, some 675,000 men in all (and about half of them French), marched north towards Russia but suffered great losses along the way due in part to low supplies, exhaustion, and the effects of the summer’s heat.

Even with the defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon resolutely stayed strong and maintained a trade embargo against England. Under the guise of liberating Poland, Napoleon invaded Russia in an attempt to stop their trade with the English. But the closer the troops came to Smolensk, the more the Grande Armée dwindled. Smolensk was a fortified city and the first of five battles Napoleon would fight in Russia. Napoleon’s remaining troops practically equaled the Russian forces at Smolensk. The resulting conflict left both armies crippled and pressing onward, away from the smoldering city the Russian troops set aflame. Throughout Napoleon’s war, regiments would encounter destroyed food stores and spoiled supplies. Napoleon felt spurred on by the Battle of Smolensk and again encountered a burning city, this time Moscow, and pressed his luck by making camp as winter crept in. Czar Alexander I, while in St. Petersburg, refused to negotiate as Napoleon lingered in Russia, possibly knowing that the French Emperor could mount no other offensive in response. After several weeks, the remaining French troops returned west, spurred on by promises of abundant food and the memory of the warm reception they received that summer.

Through the harsh first frosts, typhus, and a lack of food, Napoleon’s remaining 20,000 paused in Vilnius, and never left. Napoleon fled for Paris prior to reaching Vilnius, the Russians recaptured Lithuania, and buried the dead soldiers in the trenches dug by the French troops during their summer campaign.
With the demolition of Soviet-era barracks, the mass grave was brought to light. Professor Rimantas Jankauskas of Vilnius University excavated what turned out to be over 20 different nationalities of soldiers. More recently, osteological analysis, that is, the testing and examination of the bones of a portion of the soldiers, revealed a large range of European backgrounds, but no locals, even though Lithuanians comprised a portion of the Napoleonic troops. Analysis of the soldiers’ femurs by both Sammantha Holder and Serenela Pelier, students of University of Central Florida, uncovered signs of starvation, unsurprising during wartime in winter.

These findings correspond to the writings of Belgian officer Francois Dumonceau who, in 1812, wrote of what he saw in Vilnius:
‘a veritable moving mountain, more than 2 metres deep, of dead and dying, pushing, shoving, hemmed in on all sides, at each step risking being thrown down by the convulsive spasms of those we were trampling underfoot.’
This was the most significant find of Napoleon’s troops ever found. It was speculated that more burial sites exist even though, as with the case of epidemics, many bodies were burned and more yet were thrown into a local river. Still, researchers continued searching for further remains and discovered a second grave 100 meters away from the first.
In 2003, the some 3000 soldiers were reburied in Antakalnis Cemetery, the final resting place for many of Lithuania’s artists and heroes. Their interment draws to mind Warsaw’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which, like the Antakalnis Cemetery for Lithuania, honors those troops who gave their lives for Poland in conflicts like the Battle of Smolensk.

Like the site of the Magdalene Laundries discovered in Ireland in 1993, mass graves tell us much about life in the past, no matter how it was hidden. Napoleon may have reported greater losses in battle than he actually suffered to conceal his shortcomings in other aspects of the campaign. This story is far from over. What will additional graves expose? Only time will tell.

Photos courtesy of Rimantas Jankauskas 

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