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Napoleonic Europe

Mass Grave in Lithuania

Edited from BBC News, 2 September 2002. Updated 8 January 2021

The remains of two thousand men were unearthed in a mass grave in Lithuania in 2001. It was subsequently determined that they had been members of the 'Grande Armée' of Napoleon Bonaparte which had invaded Russia in 1812.

When bulldozers accidentally uncovered the remains at a housing development, many thought they had been political dissidents who had been executed by secret police during Soviet rule, which ended in 1991. But Arunas Barkus, an anthropologist at the University of Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, and a dozen other researchers were able to determine the identity of the skeletons.

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. Suddenly, history was more vivid. You could see it with your eyes... It's a history which is so much a part of the collective French memory,' he said.

Mr Barkus and his team spent months charting and tagging the skeletons, and then examining each individually to determine age, sex, and possible cause of death. Coins bearing Napoleon's image and buttons from the uniforms of his troops were also found at the site, making it clear that the remnants were those of the ill-fated French and allied forces.

Several bones belonged to boys who had been as young as fifteen, probably drummers who were used to signal commands to the troops. Many of the skeletons were found curled up and undamaged, suggesting that they had been killed by the cold, not by cannonballs, bullets, or bayonets. DNA tests were being carried out across 2002 and beyond to test the theory that large numbers of men died of typhus.

French defend against Prussians. Leipzig 1813
French grenadiers of the line defend against an attack by Prussian infantry in the three-day Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, dubbed the 'Battle of the Nations' due to the number of states involved, in this 1914 painting by Richard Knötel

With the last remains having been removed from the site, a road was built over it. Archaeologists were soon to begin searching again, however, saying at least ten thousand further skeletons could be in the vicinity.

'Since Napoleon's soldiers came from all over his empire, there was never a question of returning the remains to France,' said Mr Poupard. Most of the remains were due to undergo a ceremonial burial in October 2002, and a monument which had been funded by France was to be unveiled later.

'This is an occasion, especially with Lithuania on the verge of entering the European Union and the Nato alliance [which it did in 2004], to show reconciliation between former enemies which are now partners,' Mr Poupard said.

Grande Armée rout

Emperor Napoleon, who by 1812 controlled much of Europe, attacked Russia in June of that year. His 500,000-strong Grande Armée which marched into Lithuania on its way to Moscow was one of the largest invasion forces ever assembled up to that point in history.

Six months later, what was left of it - some 40,000 men - stumbled back into Vilnius in full retreat. Cold and desperate for food, some are said to have pillaged local medical schools to eat preserved human organs. In temperatures which were dropping to -30C, dead French and allied soldiers littered the streets within days. The number of corpses nearly equalled the city's population.

Thrown in trench

Reoccupying Russians spent three months cleaning up. They could not 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 which had been dug earlier by the French themselves. This was the trench which had been uncovered by the bulldozers nearly two centuries later.

The emperor blamed the weather for decimating his army. Some historians say that was an attempt to excuse sloppy planning, but experts say the findings in Vilnius seem to back up Napoleon's version. A winter temperature of -30C in Vilnius is certainly an exception rather than the rule.

The debacle is viewed as being the beginning of Napoleon's downfall, which was sealed at Waterloo in Belgium in 1815.



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