Napoleonic grave helps explain defeat

Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 11:30 p.m.
VILNIUS, Lithuania - Arunas Barkus pokes at a leg bone in a pile of skeletal remains, tagged No. 151 and sprawled on an autopsy table at Vilnius University. At the touch of his fingers, marrow crumbles into the dust of one of history's most catastrophic military adventures.
What's clear, says the anthropologist, is that the remains of 2,000 men unearthed in a mass grave in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, were in Napoleon's army that invaded Russia 190 years ago.
When bulldozers accidentally uncovered the remains at a housing development last year, many thought they were political dissidents executed by secret police during Soviet rule, which ended in 1991.
But as crowds gathered to stare at the tangle of 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 these were remnants of the ill-fated French force.
Deputy French Ambassador Olivier Poupard said the find was the "largest and most significant" of its kind.
"We've been very moved by this discovery," Poupard said. "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. His 500,000-strong Grand Army that marched into Lithuania bound for Moscow was one of the largest invasion forces ever assembled.
Six months later, what was left of it, some 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 minus 22 Fahrenheit, dead French soldiers littered the cobblestone streets within days. The number of corpses nearly equaled the city's population.
Reoccupying Russians spent three months cleaning up. They couldn't dig graves in the frozen ground so they tried burning bodies, but the smoke and stench were unbearable.
So they threw them into a defensive trench dug earlier by the French themselves - the trench the bulldozers uncovered nearly two centuries later.
Barkus and a dozen other researchers spent months charting and tagging the skeletons - then examining each individually to determine age, sex and possible cause of death.
The size of skeleton No. 151 indicates it belonged to a male, said Barkus; the unworn teeth suggest he was around 20. Several bones belonged to boys as young as 15, probably drummers used to signal commands to troops.
Many of the skeletons were found curled up and undamaged, suggesting they died of cold, not cannonballs, bullets or bayonet thrusts.
"What killed these men was cold, starvation and disease," Barkus said.
DNA tests are being done to test the theory that a lot of men tied of typhus.
The emperor blamed the weather for decimating his army. Some historians say that was an excuse for sloppy planning. But experts say the findings in Vilnius seem to back Napoleon's version.
The debacle is viewed as the beginning of Napoleon's downfall, which was sealed at Waterloo, Belgium, in 1815.
With the last remains removed, a road has been built over the site, but archeologists will soon begin searching again.
, saying at least 10,000 other skeletons could be nearby.
Since Napoleon's soldiers came from all over his empire, there was never a question of returning the remains to France, said Poupard, the deputy ambassador.
Most of the remains already have been moved to a hilltop cemetery chapel to await ceremonial burial in October, and a monument paid for by France will be unveiled later. The chapel's oak door opens to a grove, shaded by pines, that will be the soldiers' final resting place.
"This is an occasion, especially with Lithuania on the verge of entering the European Union and the NATO alliance, to show reconciliation between former enemies that are now partners," Poupard said.

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