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Napoleon's Lost Army: The Soldiers Who Fell

Remains found in a mass grave outside Vilnius in Lithuania hold vital clues to the fate of Napoleon's Grand Army and the catastrophic retreat from Moscow in 1812. Paul Britten-Austin takes up the tale.

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The discovery of a grave

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Vilnius, venerable capital of Lithuania, is sometimes called 'the city built on human bones'. It stands in the main Berlin to Moscow corridor, which for over 200 years has been the battlefields of the armies of Napoleon, the Tsars of Russia, Hitler and Stalin, as well as Poles and Prussians - hence its sinister description.

Early in 2002, while bulldozing some ugly Soviet barracks on the outskirts of Vilnius, municipal workers uncovered a mass grave. Thousands of skeletons were discovered there, laid out neatly in layers. Where did these bones come from? Were they those of Jews, massacred by the Nazis? No. For here's a metal button, with '61' stamped on it. Here's another, stamped '29'. And here's a patch of an ancient uniform, once blue. Also to be seen is a gold 20-franc coin from Napoleonic times, and a 'shako' (a French infantryman's helmet), squashed flat.

The drivers of the bulldozers stopped in their work. This was news - archaeological news - and these were the remains of some of the men that Napoleon had led into Russia in his pursuit of world supremacy in 1812.

By 1812 Napoleon had conquered the whole of continental Europe - from southern Italy to the Baltic, from Portugal to Poland. England herself he couldn't get at, not after the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805, when Lord Nelson had defeated the combined French and Spanish navies. Despite this, Napoleon hoped to undermine the economic superiority of Britain, by banning trade with her and excluding the products of the 'nation of shopkeepers' from European markets.

In 1807 the Tsar of Russia, defeated for the second time, had agreed not to trade with the British, but harsh economic reality spoke louder than treaties, and Russia continued to trade despite the ban. In response, on Midsummer Day in 1812, Napoleon crossed the River Niemen into what was then the Russian province of Lithuania, in a bid to conquer Russia with the biggest, most spectacular army Europe had ever raised. This army consisted of almost half a million men, only half of them French. The rest were drawn from Napoleon's European empire, the result of his conquests over many countries. Some of these, including Holland, for example, he incorporated, along with their armies, into France. In this way he had an almost inexhaustible supply of soldiers.

Now Napoleon had ten army corps, against the Russian Tsar's two. After a 'good battle' (as he called it) with his 'brother the Tsar', to bring him back into the fold, he planned - perhaps - to march their combined armies to India, and strangle the supplies of British gold that had been financing successive coalitions against France. The entire Russian campaign, in fact, was actually aimed at Britain.

Nothing went as planned. There was no battle in Lithuania - where the French leader had hoped to start his campaign. The Russian army simply withdrew. This made it possible, four days later, for Captain Victor Dupuy of the French 7th Hussars to gallop into Vilnius, at the head of the invading army. Eyewitness accounts describe the scene:

..the most joyous acclamations. The ladies in their party dresses were throwing down flowers and biscuits to us from the windows.'

'...all the windows were filled with wildly enthusiastic ladies. Every hand seemed to be waving a handkerchief.'

The faster the Russians withdrew, the further Napoleon was dragged into Russia. Tens of thousands of soldiers, many of them very young French and allied soldiers, died of exhaustion, thirst or starvation in its summer heats ('worse than anything we'd known in Egypt').

Then at Borodino, a week's march from Moscow, the French and Russian armies, by now about equally matched, fought to a sanguinary standoff. Napoleon was undeterred, however, and marched on to the almost deserted Moscow, which the next day was sent up in flames - burnt down by its Russian governor. The French leader hung around for eight weeks, arrogantly waiting for the Tsar - who was in St Petersburg - to make peace. The Tsar, however, was by now in no mood for negotiation. 'My campaign, led by General Winter, is just beginning', he said. 'There can be no peace with Napoleon.' Napoleon, laden with booty, eventually set off to lead his army back to France, just as winter was approaching.

The snow came down, men froze, and horses starved. The last lap of the almost two-month trek back to Vilnius, was the worst of all. The soldiers barely managed the crossing of the Berezina River - over two frail bridges - and there were perhaps as only as few as 50,000 half-stunned survivors of the Grand Army who, harried by Cossacks, tottered on through icy temperatures towards the town. Man after man 'did a bear', tumbling with his haggard face downwards into a snow-filled ditch, never to rise again.

On the icy morning of 9 December 1812, outside Vilnius's deep vaulted gate, Victor Dupuy (now a colonel) had to be prevented by his few surviving comrades from sitting down and dying, 'overcome by lassitude and drowsiness, gripped by the frost'. Another (Belgian) officer, Francois Dumonceau, had to lead his horse over:

 

'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.'

Some of these unfortunates certainly ended up in the mass grave discovered in 2002. And there are sure to be other graves, too, as yet undiscovered. Probably as many as a half of the starving survivors who had managed to reach Vilnius died once they got there. They may have over-eaten, in their desperation to assuage their hunger, or drunk themselves silly. Many had frost-bitten noses, toes or fingers, which turned gangrenous. Some died of exhaustion or cold almost on arrival. As for lodgings, 'the stronger drove out the weaker', so that many a soldier, especially those with no Moscow gold to pay with, froze to death on an inhospitable doorstep.

Others again simply refused to go on, or were captured by the Cossacks - who had harried them throughout their retreat, and had starved the army to death by keeping it to one narrow highway. The prisoners were driven naked all the way back again into Russia.

Although Vilnius's 17 typhus-ridden monasteries had already been turned into makeshift hospitals, they lacked food or medicines, and many thousands of men died in them. On entering one such monastery-hospital, General Sir Robert Wilson (Britain's emissary to the Tsar), who had arrived in Vilnius with the Russians, saw thousands of bodies 'strewed [sic] about in every part... all the broken windows and walls were stuffed with feet, legs, arms, hands ...to fit the apertures, and keep out the air from the yet living.'

In another account, Count Rochechouart, a French aristocrat in the Tsar's service, tells how he did his best to stop Russian soldiers flinging the 'yet living' out of upstairs windows to make room for their own wounded. And yet another description comes from the German writer Ernst Moritz Arndt, who arrived in January 1813 to see the frozen corpses piled up three-storeys high, and to hear them 'rattling' in the streets as sleighs went about collecting them.

Some he saw 'flung into the Vilia river' to float down to the Niemen and out into the Baltic where, he said, 'they'll make a meagre diet for the fishes.' Meanwhile, the glamorous French cavalry leader 'King' Joachim Murat (Napoleon's brother-in-law whom he had made King of Naples) was left in command at Vilnius. He, however, simply panicked and fled, declaring 'I'm not going to be trapped in this piss-pot'.

The stunned, frozen and starving spectres who had managed to stagger to Vilnius, many of them to end their days there, had come from all over French-occupied Europe. Eventually, at most some 20,000 soldiers - of the 400,000 who'd marched into Russia at midsummer - finally recrossed the Niemen into Poland. They were meant to rejoin Napoleon, but he'd already gone ahead to Paris to give the news of the catastrophe, and to raise new armies. Men could easily be replaced, but not horses. Tens of thousands of soldiers had died in Russia, but it was because of his lack of cavalry that Napoleon was eventually defeated by Austria, Prussia, Sweden and Russia, in 1813.

Successive occupiers - Russians, Prussians, Poles, Nazis, Soviets - have tried to stamp out Lithuanians' memories of their national history. And indeed many of today's Lithuanians, newly coopted into the EU, in fact know absolutely nothing about the horrific events at Vilnius in December 1812. The discovery of the mass grave has made Lithuanians aware of what happened, and hopefully this knowledge will help ensure that such things never occur again.

Now, 183 years later, the splendid museum in Vilnius displays many objects relating to the Napoleonic adventure. What's this button, made of an alloy of copper and tin, stamped '61'? It comes from a blue uniform jacket, almost certainly that of a Dutchman. For the 61st Line Regiment was made up largely of (mostly unwilling) conscripts from the Netherlands

This helmet plaque, with the remains of a tricolour cockade and an imperial eagle upon it, must be that of someone who fought at Borodino and got to Moscow - only to collapse and die in Vilnius. And this sleeve-button, stamped with a '29'? A relic of some recruit in Loison's ill-fated reserve division, which in December 1812 was brought up in far sub-zero temperatures, and in summer clothing, to save anything that could be saved of the doomed wreckage of Napoleon's army. Unfortunately these young men died too, almost to a man.

The Lithuanians have allowed some bones and teeth from the recovered bodies to be brought to the UK for lead isotope testing. The earliest water we drink as children leaves an indelible fingerprint in our teeth and bones, which means that isotope testing can tell Dr Mike Richards - the British pathologist involved in the analysis - what part of Europe the owner of a particular bone or tooth stemmed from, whether from the Po, the Elbe, or the Seine. The tests have also helped determine the cause of death of some of the victims, as well as what illnesses they suffered from. None of them seem to have died in battle.

This summer there's to be a solemn reinterment ceremony in Vilnius. It will be attended by ambassadors from every European Union country that once contributed, whether they liked it or not, to Napoleon's Grand Army of 1812.

 

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FAREWELL TO THE OLD GUARD

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A truly dramatic moment in history occurred on April 20, 1814, as Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France and would-be ruler of Europe said goodbye to the Old Guard after his failed invasion of Russia and defeat by the Allies.

In 1812, the seemingly invincible Napoleon made the fateful decision to invade Russia. He advanced deep into that vast country, eventually reaching Moscow in September. He found Moscow had been burned by the Russians and could not support the hungry French Army over the long winter. Thus Napoleon was forced to begin a long retreat, and saw his army decimated to a mere 20,000 men by the severe Russian winter and chaos in the ranks.

England, Austria, and Prussia then formed an alliance with Russia against Napoleon, who rebuilt his armies and won several minor victories over the Allies, but was soundly defeated in a three-day battle at Leipzig. On March 30, 1814, Paris was captured by the Allies. Napoleon then lost the support of most of his generals and was forced to abdicate on April 6, 1814.

In the courtyard at Fontainebleau, Napoleon bid farewell to the remaining faithful officers of the Old Guard...

"Soldiers of my Old Guard: I bid you farewell. For twenty years I have constantly accompanied you on the road to honor and glory. In these latter times, as in the days of our prosperity, you have invariably been models of courage and fidelity. With men such as you our cause could not be lost; but the war would have been interminable; it would have been civil war, and that would have entailed deeper misfortunes on France.
I have sacrificed all of my interests to those of the country.
I go, but you, my friends, will continue to serve France. Her happiness was my only thought. It will still be the object of my wishes. Do not regret my fate; if I have consented to survive, it is to serve your glory. I intend to write the history of the great achievements we have performed together. Adieu, my friends. Would I could press you all to my heart."

Napoleon Bonaparte - April 20, 1814

Following this, Napoleon was sent into exile on the little island of Elba off the coast of Italy. But ten months later, in March of 1815, he escaped back into France. Accompanied by a thousand men from his Old Guard he marched toward Paris and gathered an army of supporters along the way.

Once again, Napoleon assumed the position of Emperor, but it lasted only a 100 days until the battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815, where he was finally defeated by the combined English and Prussian armies.

A month later he was sent into exile on the island of St. Helena off the coast of Africa. On May 5, 1821, the former vain-glorious Emperor died alone on the tiny island abandoned by everyone. In 1840 his body was taken back to France and buried in Paris.

 

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Napoleon I (Bonaparte)

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Emperor of the French second son of Charles Marie Bonaparte and Maria Lætitia Ramolino, b. at Ajaccio  in Corsica  15 August, 1769; d. on the Island of St. Helena, 5 May, 1821.

His childhood was spent in Corsica at the end of the year 1778 he entered the college of Autun.  in 1779 the military school of Brienne, and in 1783 the military school of Paris. In 1785, when he was in garrison at Valence,  as a lieutenant, he occupied his leisure with researches into the history of Corsica, and read many of the philosophers of his time, particularly Rousseau. These studies left him attached to a sort of Deism,  an admirer of the personality of Christ, a stranger to all religious practices, and breathing defiance against "sacerdotalism" and "theocracy". His attitude under the Revolution was that of a citizen devoted to the new ideas in testimony of which attitude we have his scolding letter, written in 1790, to Battafuoco, a deputy from the Corsican noblesse, whom the "patriots" regarded as a traitor and also a work published by Bonaparte in 1793, "Le Souper de Beaucaire", in which he takes the side of the Mountain in the Convention against the Federalist tendencies of the Girondins.

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Napoleon's Biography

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He was born Napoleone di Buonaparte (in Corsican Nabolione or Nabulione) in the town of Ajaccio on Corsica, France, on 15 August 1769, one year after the island was transferred to France by the Republic of Genoa. He later adopted the more French-sounding Napoléon Bonaparte.

He first rose to prominence as a general of the French Revolution, leading several successful campaigns against the First Coalition and the Second Coalition. At the turn of the nineteenth century, over the course of little more than a decade, the armies of France under his command fought almost every European power and acquired control of most of continental Europe by conquest or alliance. He appointed several members of his family and close friends as monarchs of countries he conquered and as important government figures.

The disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 marked a turning point. Following the Russian campaign and the defeat at Leipzig in October 1813, the Sixth Coalition invaded France, forcing Napoleon to abdicate in April 1814. He was exiled to the island of Elba. Shortly afterward, he staged a comeback known as the Hundred Days (les Cent Jours), but was defeated at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Napoleon spent the remaining six years of his life on the island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean under British supervision.

 

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PHOTO ONE~

nter a place

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Napoleon Bonaparte as a young officer
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PHOTO TWO

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Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, . (1868)
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PHOTO THREE

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Napoleon on his Imperial throne.
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PHOTO FIVE

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Napoléon on Bellerophon at Plymouth, before his exile to Saint Helena.
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PHOTO SIX

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The frigate Belle-Poule brings back the remains of Napoléon to France

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PHOTO SEVEN

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Napoleon's first wife, Jos├ęphine de Beauharnais
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