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Lithuania: Vilnius Mass Grave Testifies To Napoleon's Ill-Fated 1812 Russian Campaign

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Last fall, construction workers in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, uncovered one of the largest mass graves of Napoleonic soldiers ever found. Discovered on the site of a former Soviet military base, the grave has begun to reveal secrets about a tragic episode in Europe's military history -- Napoleon's ill-fated 1812 Russian campaign, which claimed some 450,000 lives. RFE/RL discusses the significance of this unique find with the two anthropologists who co-directed the excavation.

Prague, 16 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, a joint French-Lithuanian team of scientists completed excavation work at the site of a mass grave containing the remains of soldiers from Napoleon's Grand Army.

The nearly 190-year-old burial site was uncovered last fall on the premises of a former Russian and Soviet military base known as the Northern Town in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

Anthropologists and historians hope the grave may help them learn more about one of the most dramatic episodes of the Napoleonic Wars -- the 1812 Russian campaign. The site is believed to contain the remains of at least 2,000 soldiers who died during the tragic retreat from Moscow back to Germany.

Rimantas Jankauskas, an anthropologist at Vilnius University's Faculty of Medicine, directed the excavation works, in cooperation with a French team headed by Olivier Dutour, an anthropologist from Marseille University's Faculty of Medicine.

In an interview with our correspondent, Jankauskas said construction workers digging trenches to lay down telecommunication cables uncovered a 100-square-meter ditch filled with bones:

"Initially, we did not know what it was. We thought it might be a legal case. The first finds were therefore transported to the forensic medicine institute. But later on, together with bones, buttons [were uncovered]. After some historical analysis, it turned out that these were French military buttons. And it became clear that the site might be a mass grave for French soldiers. And the only [occurrence] when the French army came to Lithuania was during Napoleon's campaign in 1812."

On 24 June 1812, in a bid to force Russian Tsar Alexander I to comply with the French-sponsored Continental Blockade imposed on Britain, Napoleon crossed the Niemen River at the head of what is considered one of the most formidable armies of all time. The river separated the newly created Grand Duchy of Warsaw from Russian-controlled Lithuania.

What would be regarded by history as the Grand Army included troops drawn from more than 20 nationalities: French, Swiss, Dutch, Belgians, Poles, Italians, Neapolitans, Croatians, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Germans from the 38-member Confederation of the Rhine. Both Prussia and Austria, allied with France, reluctantly contributed troops to the campaign.

There is still uncertainty over the size of Napoleon's Grand Army, but historians generally estimate that between 600,000 and 800,000 men -- of whom some 450,000 would be used in the invasion -- crossed the Niemen in the summer of 1812.

Only one-tenth of them would cross back over the river six months later at the close of the disastrous campaign. Hundreds of thousands of French and allied soldiers would die on the battlefield, fall into the hands of Russian partisans, or perish from disease, hunger or cold.

The French emperor reached Moscow in mid-September 1812, soon after the battle of Borodino. The day after the entry of the Grand Army into Moscow, Russian arsonists set fire to the city, destroying most of its much-needed supplies.

Hoping that the tsar would agree to a peace treaty, Napoleon remained in Moscow for five weeks before signaling the retreat. The Grand Army initially headed southward, to Kaluga, but Napoleon later ordered his troops to march back to Lithuania, through regions devastated by the Russians' scorched-earth policy.

Starving, caught out by temperatures of minus 35 degrees Celsius, and harassed by swarms of Cossacks, Napoleon's soldiers died by the thousands. By all estimates, a mere 50,000 of them reached Vilnius -- then known by its Polish name of Wilno -- with Alexander's army on their heels.

How many managed to escape from the undefended city before the Russian advance guard reached its walls 24 hours later is unclear. Some contemporary accounts suggest that as many as 20,000 men, almost all of them sick, remained behind after Napoleon's army retreated further.

Jankauskas says the Vilnius mass grave is the first of its kind ever uncovered: "As far as we know, this is the first such [Napoleonic] mass grave [found] in Europe -- more or less intact -- that contains remains of soldiers who did not die on the battlefield, but from other [causes]: [cold], hunger and, maybe, epidemics."

Initial findings show the bodies found in the grave are those of male soldiers between the ages of 15 and 25.

Dutour heads the team of French anthropologists who rushed to Vilnius earlier this year to help Lithuanian experts unearth the remains. He told our correspondent that bones and teeth found in the ditch will help historians and scientists learn more about the ages and physical condition of Napoleon's soldiers.

Dutour also said initial study of the grave corroborates contemporary accounts of the suffering endured by the French and their allies: "Some skeletons were hunched up in unusual positions, suggesting that the bodies are those of soldiers who probably froze to death. They have kept the positions of the bodies at the time of death, stiff with the intense cold that prevailed in December 1812 in Vilnius. Our field observation fully corroborates historical data and shows firstly that it was extremely cold. Secondly, that bodies were frozen and that the Russians threw them into defensive trenches that the French had themselves dug [after they had occupied Vilnius in the summer]."

Witnesses have described in painful detail the ordeal suffered by both armies during the campaign. Yet accounts of the devastation in Vilnius after the relics of the Grand Army hastily left the city in the early hours of 10 December 1812 are scarce.

Among them is an account left by Robert Wilson, a British military observer attached to the Russian General Staff. He spoke of his visit to a Vilnius monastery that the retreating French had hastily turned into a makeshift hospital.

"The hospital of Saint [Basileus] presented the most awful and hideous sight: 7,500 bodies were piled up like pigs (blocks) of lead over one another in the corridors; carcasses were strewed [sic] about in every part; and all the broken windows and walls were stuffed with feet, legs, arms, hands, trunks and heads to fit the apertures, and keep out the air from the yet living."

Rafail Zotov, a 16-year-old student who was drafted into the St. Petersburg militia at the outset of the campaign, wrote in his diary that most French and allied prisoners died from epidemics that broke out in Vilnius after the departure of the Grand Army and which rapidly spread to the local population. Zotov describes how the bodies of dead soldiers "were piled up in carts and buried outside the city walls." Other witnesses say corpses were simply thrown into what is now the Neris River or incinerated outside the city.

Contemporary accounts suggest that hundreds of prisoners and wounded soldiers were executed or tortured to death by Cossacks and local residents.

However, both Dutour and Jankauskas told RFE/RL that preliminary study of the bones found in Vilnius does not substantiate those claims. Jankauskas: "We have just started the osteologic analysis. There are no evident signs of trauma. [All this] corresponds very well to [most] historical data that show that these soldiers died from [cold], [starvation] or from some kind of epidemics. [But] only future analysis will show [whether we are right in our assessment]."

Buttons, head gear, coins, and pieces of cloth found in the grave will be restored and will most likely remain the property of Lithuania. The fate of the human remains, which were temporarily removed to Vilnius University's Faculty of Medicine, is less certain.

No decision has been taken yet on their reburial. More importantly, there is still uncertainty over their legal status. Dutour says it will be up to the governments of France and Lithuania to reach agreement on that issue.

Although evidence found with the skeletons suggests the soldiers died wearing the French uniform, questions remain about their nationalities. During the retreat, soldiers commonly stripped dying or dead comrades of shoes, trousers or coats to protect themselves from the cold, making them difficult, if not impossible, to identify.

Jankauskas believes that, since these men died "under the French flag," they should legally be considered French.

However, what is true for Dutch, Belgian, or Croatian soldiers, born in provinces that at the time were formally part of the French Empire, may not be necessarily true for the tens of thousands of German or Polish soldiers whose rulers were linked to Napoleon by alliance treaties.

Yet, there seem to be no negotiations so far with other European governments over the fate of the remains found in Vilnius.

Dutour says the significance of the find could serve as an incentive for the European Union to fund a major research project in the area. All the more so since Lithuania is a front-runner for EU admission, and the probability that there might be other mass graves in the area remains high.

Dutour says: "Our estimate is that we've unearthed perhaps only one-10th of the bodies contained in that particular grave. It could well be that the most interesting finds are still to come. There may be enough here to justify a major French-Lithuanian state-funded project. We could even envisage an all-European project, since, after all, nearly all Europe was represented in the Grand Army."