Bone Apart, the Remains of Napoleon’s Defeated Army

The remains of 2,000 soldiers from Napoleon’s army, killed by cold, hunger and disease during the French emperor’s disastrous invasion of Russia in the winter of 1812, have been discovered in a mass grave in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

It is the first such grave to be found and is expected to yield evidence revealing how 450,000 soldiers from the army that Napoleon led into Russia died during the retreat from Moscow. “Some of the bodies were in postures which showed they had frozen to death,” said Rimantas Jankauskas, an anthropologist and anatomist at Vilnius University, who led the Lithuanian-French excavation team at Vilnius, then known by its Polish name of Wilno.

Workers discovered the remains last autumn when digging trenches to lay telecommunications cables at the site of a former Soviet base. At first it was thought that they might date from the Second World War, but then buttons, medals and scraps of French uniform from the Napoleonic era were unearthed among the bones in a 300ft trench, probably dug by the French as part of their defensive works.

The skeletons were of males aged between 15 and 25.

None of the bones showed signs of recent battle wounds.


Above is Charles Minard’s map of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign. Drawn in 1861, the graph illustrates the relative size of Napoleon’s Army by the width of the bands during the invasion (top/gold) and retreat (black). Minard also charts the freezing temperatures encountered during the retreat. Many consider this one of the greatest statistical maps ever made and, of course, a profound anti-war statement.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).