NAPOLEON'S LOST; A Undisturbed for Nearly Two Centuries, This Mass Grave of 1,000 Soldiers Pays Silent Testimony to One of the Most Savage and Humiliating Defeats in Military History

By Roberts, Andrew | Daily Mail (London), May 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

NAPOLEON'S LOST; A Undisturbed for Nearly Two Centuries, This Mass Grave of 1,000 Soldiers Pays Silent Testimony to One of the Most Savage and Humiliating Defeats in Military History


Roberts, Andrew, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: ANDREW ROBERTS

THE STORY began last October, when they unearthed a solitary human bone from the sandy ground during a construction project. From that single find they have now discovered one of the biggest mass graves in history, containing the skeletons of 1,000 men - soldiers who died an agonising death in desperate conditions.

These decomposing corpses, found in the ancient Lithuanian town of Vilnius, bear ghastly witness to one of the most astonishing stories of military history: the defeat of Napoleon's Grande Armee and its tortuous retreat from Moscow in the bitter winter of 1812.

Never before has a mass grave of soldiers from the French Imperial Army been found. Yet these men are but a tiny proportion of up to 80,000 who perished near Vilnius alone.

So great were the numbers of dead that the city's inhabitants, fearful of epidemics, started burning them. But the acrid smell of burning bodies seems to have become so unbearable that they decided to bury them instead.

Some in the mass grave had frozen to death, their skeletons buried while still embracing each other for warmth.

Others died from disease and starvation, so hungry says the grave's anthropologist, Dr Rimantas Jankauskas, that they had broken into the town's medical school and eaten human organs kept in jars of alcohol for anatomy classes.

Studies of their teeth show that many were only in their teens. The older soldiers in the grave had been in several campaigns and showed signs of injuries, with broken limbs which had healed.

All were victims of the greatest of Napoleon's blunders - for in Russia he squandered the most impressive fighting force assembled since the days of Rome.

'It's for history to judge,' said Napoleon in exile on St Helena, 'whether I made a mistake in going to Moscow.' HISTORY has rightly judged him harshly, yet - in a premechanised age - he did capture the Kremlin, when 130 years later Hitler's Wehrmacht managed only to reach Moscow's outer suburbs.

For all that he lost in the campaign, Napoleon added Warsaw and Moscow to the list of great capitals through which he rode in triumph, which included Madrid, Berlin, Vienna, Rome and Cairo.

On June 24, 1812, Napoleon crossed the River Niemen into Russia, at the head of an army of more than 450,000 men. As one of those who took part recalled with bitter irony years later: 'Morale was high, there was courage aplenty, and all were animated by boundless optimism.' Napoleon planned to crush Tsar Alexander I by engaging the Russian army in a decisive battle and then forcing him into an abject surrender. It was the same modus operandi that had been successful against every country he had invaded until then.

But Napoleon had failed to take the Russian psychology into account. He entirely reckoned without the wiliness of the Russian commanders, who, led by the 76-year-old Marshal Prince Kutuzov, refused to give the French the satisfaction of a pitched battle, but rather drew the invaders further into their vast country, steadily extending and making more vulnerable the French lines of communication.

It was a painful and controversial policy in the Russian high command, since proud and ancient cities such as Smolensk had to be evacuated. Some accused Kutuzov of cowardice but, since the Tsar supported him, his was the policy the Russians followed.

WHEN on September 7 the Russians finally gave battle at the village of Borodino, near the River Moskva, they fiercely defended a strongly-held position against Napoleon's frontal assault on their centre, at the cost of 40,000 Russian dead to 30,000 French. Of the quarter of a million men who took part in the battle, nearly one-third were casualties.

It was a foretaste of the kind of slaughter the world was to see again in the Great War a century later.

Napoleon entered Moscow a week later on September 14, still believing that the Russians must sue for peace. …

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NAPOLEON'S LOST; A Undisturbed for Nearly Two Centuries, This Mass Grave of 1,000 Soldiers Pays Silent Testimony to One of the Most Savage and Humiliating Defeats in Military History
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