A mass grave in Vilnius sheds light on a catastrophic military campaign that changed the course of Europe.
By Michael Tarm
Anthropologist Arunas Barkus pokes at a leg bone in a pile of brittle skeletal remains tagged No. 151 and spread across an autopsy table at Vilnius University. At the touch of his fingers, dried marrow crumbles to the floor like snow.
Whatâ€™s now clear, he explains, is that the remains of 2,000 men unearthed in a pool-sized grave in Vilnius last year were soldiers in Napoleon Bonaparteâ€™s Grand Army that attacked Russia 190 years ago.
Less certain was just how they died and what that might reveal about one of historyâ€™s most horrific and consequential military adventures, one that became the stuff of epic legend in the intervening years.
When bulldozers accidentally uncovered the bones on the Northern Village housing development last year, many first believed they were victims of Soviet secret police. The area was once a Red Army base, a fact that spurred on this initial theory.
But as crowds gathered to behold the tangle of rib cages and skulls poking through the sand, coins and buttons stamped with Napoleonâ€™s image appeared amid the debris; crucifixes, wedding rings, belt buckles, boots and shards of French uniforms were also found. It became clear that these were remnants of the ill-fated French force.
It was the first mass grave of soldiers from Napoleonâ€™s Grand Army ever found, according to a recent edition of Archaeology Magazine. The U.S.-based scientific journal called it the most important discovery of its kind.
â€œIt confirms how important a role Vilnius played in this big war…. It puts us on the map,â€ said Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas, adding the find would draw France and Lithuania closer and could even prompt more French tourism.
His enthusiasm was, to say the least, shared at the nearby French Embassy.
â€œWeâ€™ve been very moved by this discovery…we were shocked, even,â€ said Deputy Ambassador Olivier Poupard, a blue, white and red French tricolor fluttering in bright sunshine outside his office window. â€œSuddenly, history was more vivid. You could see it with your own eyes.â€
â€œItâ€™s a history thatâ€™s so much a part of the collective French memory.â€
Napoleon was in control of nearly all continental Europe when he invaded Russia in June, 1812. Marching into Lithuania bound for Moscow, his 500,000-man armyâ€”a sea of infantry, grenadiers and artillery cannonsâ€”seemed invincible. It was the largest single invasion force ever assembled.
One secret to Napoleonâ€™s earlier triumphs was that his army could move much more quickly than opposing militariesâ€”by carrying fewer provisions and by living off conquered territories as they went.
But the Russians had burned fields and villages in advance to deny the invaders food and shelter; they dumped horse carcasses down wells to poison the water. So the French began dying from the outset, though they technically never lost a single battle.
Like Germanyâ€™s Wehrmacht that attacked Russia around the same time of year in 1941, Napoleonâ€™s troops were being sucked into a trap they didnâ€™t see coming and from which most would never escape.
â€œThe French army pushed on to Moscow, its goal, its impetus ever increasing as it neared its aim, as the velocity of a falling body increases as it approaches the ground,â€ wrote Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, a novel revolving around the French attack and in which Vilnius, or Vilna, features prominently.
The Czarâ€™s scorched-earth strategy took on unprecedented proportions when, just as the conquering French Emperor settled down smugly to dine within the Kremlin, Russian agents set Moscow itself alightâ€”destroying two-thirds of it.
â€œMountains of red, rolling flames, like immense waves,â€ as Napoleon himself described the scene later. â€œIt was the most grand, the most sublime and the most terrifying sight the world has ever beheld.â€
He remained in Moscow for five weeks waiting in vain for Czar Alexander I to agree to peace. The French only began their 900-kilometer retreat along the same route whence theyâ€™d come in November.
The delay proved fatal.
Thousands of troops, already sick and hungry, died each day in early winter weather. Czarist Cossacks, too, lashed at the flank of the increasingly unwieldy, panic-stricken French caravan as it dragged toward Lithuania.
â€œOur lips stuck together. Our nostrils froze,â€ remembered one soldier, probably not unlike the man whose bones Barkus cradled. â€œWe seemed to be marching in a world of ice.â€ Some lost their ears or tongues to frostbite.
Survivors of what had turned into a death march were hopeful that Vilnius, the main French base during the invasion, would provide relief.
But when the Grand Armyâ€”now reduced to a mere 40,000 menâ€”finally staggered into Vilnius, there was little food or shelter to be had.
Desperate soldiers are said to have raided medical schools to eat alcohol-preserved human organs. Others gnawed on leather in a bid for nourishment. There were reports that some cannibalized their fellow soldiers.
Lithuanians, subjugated by Russia just two decades before, had welcomed the French as liberators when they marched in six months earlier. But they now shrank from the crazed scavengers, bolting their doors; frightened residents also knew Czarist troops would enter the city within days.
Napoleon was said to be smitten by Lithuaniaâ€™s ancient capital, saying, as legend has it, that he wanted to carry the cityâ€™s quaint Gothic Church of St. Anneâ€™s back to Paris in the palm of his hand.
But when French soldiers came back to Vilnius in retreat, their commander was no longer with them. He had galloped to Paris days before to quash rumors that heâ€™d been killedâ€”talk that could have prompted a coup.
Napoleon vowed he wouldnâ€™t be taken alive if intercepted. Around his neck, flanked by just two aides for the journey, he carried a leather pouch filled with poison.
With temperatures in Vilnius sinking to -30 Câ€”colder than inside a contemporary kitchen freezerâ€”half the troops died in days, their bodies littering the cobblestone streets. Corpses soon equaled or even surpassed the cityâ€™s 30,000 native population.
Makeshift hospitals were visions of hell.
â€œSome 7,500 bodies were piled up like (stacks) of lead over one another in the corridors,â€ recalled Robert Wilson, a British officer attached to Russiaâ€™s army. â€œThe 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.â€
Another witness, a local countess, described similarly gruesome scenes in city-center squares: â€œCorpses… seated on the ground, leaning against walls, preserved by the cold, their limbs shrunken and stiff in the position in which Death had overtaken them.â€
The reoccupying Russians spent three months removing bodies from the halls, from the streets and alleys of Vilnius. They couldnâ€™t dig new graves because the frozen earth was as impenetrable as stone. They cremated some of the dead, but the smoke and stench of burning flesh hung in the air like fog and became intolerable.
It took the modern-day Lithuanian construction crews to solve the mystery of how the Russians had disposed of so many corpses: theyâ€™d stacked them, three-deep, in a V-shaped defensive trench made in the summer by the French themselves. In the grisly humor of fate, the French had unwittingly dug their own graves.
Barkus and a dozen other researchers spent months excavating the site, 2 kilometers from the Vilnius old town. They charted and tagged the skeletonsâ€”then carefully examined each to determine age, sex and possible cause of death.
The size and structure of skeleton No. 151 indicate it belonged to a male, said Barkus (photo); the unworn teeth and incoming third molar suggest he was about 20. He was tallâ€”the petite Emperor apparently favoring height in elite units.
Several bones were of boys as young as 15, probably drummers used to signal commands. Dozens belonged to women, possibly laundresses, officersâ€™ servants or even prostitutes.
From the unique wear of some teeth, specialists could even tell that some of the soldiers were avid pipe smokers.
Tellingly, virtually none of the bones showed signs of blunt trauma that could have come from cannon shrapnel, bullets or bayonet stabs, suggesting those buried in the trenches didnâ€™t die of war wounds.
Many of the skeletons were found in a tight, curled-up posture, a poignant signâ€”even across two centuriesâ€”of the human suffering. People who die of exposure tend to assume a fetal position in their final minutes, according to Barkus.
â€œWhat killed these men was cold, starvation and disease,â€ he concluded.
And why did none have signs of battle wounds from recent engagements?
â€œThe explanationâ€™s quite simple really,â€ said Barkus. â€œAnyone who was wounded even slightly fighting the Russians died quickly en route from Moscow. Only the relatively healthy made it this far, then died here.â€
An absence of obvious wounds also appears to discount some French accounts that blood-thirsty Cossacks swept upon the ailing soldiers, hacking them to death with their sabers.
DNA tests are being done to try to determine whether an unusually large proportion of the soldiers, as some historians contend, died of typhusâ€”a lice-born disease that typically plagued armies of the age.
Upon his arrival in Paris, Napoleon told his Senate that â€œmy army had some lossesâ€ but that this â€œwas primarily due to the rigors of the season.â€
While some historians have argued he exaggerated the winterâ€™s severity as an excuse for sloppy planning, Archaeology Magazine concluded the evidence gleaned from the Vilnius graves â€œthus far seems to support Napoleon.â€
Russians have also been wont to grant too much credit to General Winter, saying their historic victory was mainly due to ingenious strategy.
The debacle is widely viewed as the beginning of the end of Napoleon, whose veil of invincibility was now gone. The downfall of the most influential figure of the age was sealed at Waterloo, Belgium, in 1815.
During Napoleonâ€™s 15-year reign, a million French soldiers had died under his commandâ€”nearly half of them during the disastrous Russian campaign alone.
While troops who marched on Russia were French soldiers, they werenâ€™t necessarily French; at least half were conscripts from across Napoleonâ€™s vast empire. So Deputy Ambassador Poupard said there was never a question of returning the remains to France.
â€œWe have no idea which remains belong to a Pole, an Italian, a Dutchman, a German or over a dozen other nationalities who fought,â€ the French diplomat said. Thousands of Lithuanians also served in the Grand Army.
â€œIn any case, this is part of Lithuanian history now. They belong here.â€
A planned road was finally built over the initial grave siteâ€”the last remains having been removed. But archeologists recently found another bone-filled pit 100 meters away in the shadow a brand new apartment block. The over 2,000 sets of bones were in the same V-trench complex and in a similar condition as those found before. There may be over 20,000 other skeletons nearby.
Lithuania and France agreed the soldiers will be buried soon in Vilniusâ€”in a ceremony that will include a gun salute by a Lithuanian honor guard. A monument paid for by France and designed by Lithuanians will be unveiled later.
â€œThis 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,â€ said the French official.
Mayor Zuokas added that the international attention the discovery is sure to generate will drive home just how connected Lithuania is to historical events that made Europe what it is today. Local tourism officials are already drawing up plans for what they call â€œNapoleon tours.â€
Some 1,700 skeletons were already moved to a hilltop chapel in the cityâ€™s exclusive Antakalnis Cemetery, normally reserved for artists and independence heroes; the others, including unknown soldier No. 151, will arrive here soon.
Sets of bones in individual white mortuary bags crowd one wall of the garage-sized sanctuary, next to a groundkeeperâ€™s rakes, a wheelbarrow and a small statue of an angel undergoing repairs.
The chapelâ€™s oak door creaks open to a grove, shaded by pines, that will be the soldiersâ€™ final resting-place.