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Remains of European soldiers of Napoleon's Grand Army, who died of starvation, disease and the elements, in a mass grave in Vilnius, Lithuania

Remains of 3,000 of Napoleon’s soldiers found in mass grave show signs of starvation

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Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is 'Do not march on Moscow.' – Bernard Montgomery, British military figure.

About 675,000 men of Napoleon's Grand Army set out for Moscow to conquer Russia in June 1812, looting and pillaging along the way. By the time of the retreat from Moscow in September, the army, which had swelled to 900,000 along the way, was reduced to 100,000. When the retreating troops reached Vilnius in Lithuania, Napoleon's Grand Army was not so grand anymore: they had been further reduced to about 50,000 vermin-bitten, diseased, cold, and hungry men and women with provisions for 40 days. Now a new study on the remains of 3,000 of Napoleon’s soldiers found in a mass grave has revealed they were starving when they died.

Historical records suggest the soldiers had pillaged the vicinity of Vilnius on the way to Russia and on the way back to Europe, so the locals did not accommodate them. The remnants of the Grand Army quickly gobbled the provisions Napoleon Bonaparte had left them in Vilnius and then began to starve again. At first, as the European soldiers died of starvation, disease and the cold, the locals burned the bodies. But the stench was so great that the locals started burying them en masse, using trenches the soldiers had dug on their way to Russia as graves.

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, a painting by Adolf Northern

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, a painting by Adolf Northern (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2001, archaeologists excavated one of these mass graves with the remains of 3,269 people, mostly men 20 to 25 years old, but also some women who were camp followers or who sold goods to Napeleon's troops.

Recently, researchers conducted isotope studies on the bones of the some of these unfortunate victims of Napoleon’s unaccountable quest to dominate. The studies show they had high levels of nitrogen, which is considered an indication of starvation and dehydration. Analysis of oxygen and carbon showed where they were from, where they lived, and what types of food they ate.

A thesis (PDF file) by Serenela Mont Pelier of the University of Central Florida, an archaeology  student researching the case, says:

“The most important discovery is that none of the individuals had values consistent with Lithuania or surrounding areas. Stable oxygen isotope analysis demonstrates that the majority of these individuals are from central Europe, especially around southern France, Spain, Portugal, and parts of Italy. Based on historical context, these areas are where Napoleon conscripted his soldiers to build the Grand Army to attack Russia in 1812. Interesting finds within this sample included: (1) an individual that may have participated in the Egyptian campaign; (2) a possible French female who accompanied the Grand Army to Vilnius; and (3) the oldest male individual who might have lived in the southern mountains of Europe before joining the army.”

Napoleon meeting with Alexander I of Russia on a raft in the middle of the Neman River

Napoleon meeting with Alexander I of Russia on a raft in the middle of the Neman River (Wikimedia Commons)

Pelier and her colleague, Sammantha Holder, tested the mineral content of the bones and found one of the chief causes of the Grand Army members' deaths was starvation.

“But Holder was much more interested in the nitrogen isotopes. More than two dozen of the people she sampled had high nitrogen values,” reports Forbes magazine in a story about the research. “Often, this is an indication that someone was eating high on the food chain, as nitrogen levels are higher in carnivorous animals compared to herbivores. Holder suspected, though, that something else was going on with these soldiers. When the human body is deprived of protein, nitrogen isotope values can skyrocket. So conditions like anorexia, prolonged morning sickness, vitamin D deficiency, and starvation can cause an increase in nitrogen signatures.”

Ms. Pelier writes that the Napoleonic Wars of 1803 to 1815 allowed Napoleon to conquer most of Europe, including France, Austria, Prussia, Switzerland, Italy, Westphalia, Poland, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Lithuania, Poland, Croatia, Illyria, and Russia briefly. Napoleon dubbed his control of Europe the Continental System, the primary goal of which “was to isolate Great Britain economically, France’s ultimate rival, and force them to succumb to Napoleon’s control. Control over Russia was the last piece to Napoleon’s plan to completely disrupt Great Britain’s economic system. Initially, Czar Alexander I signed the Treaty of Tilsit with France agreeing to cooperate with Napoleon’s strategy to starve and bankrupt Great Britain.”

Napoleon in Moscow,  Russia

Napoleon in Moscow,  Russia (Wikimedia Commons)

But the Continental System hurt the economy of Russia, so Alexander terminated the treaty and resumed relations and trade with Britain. Pelier wrote that the czar also antagonized Napoleon by refusing to allow him to marry his sister, by threatening to invade Poland and by continuing to undermine the Continental System. “Napoleon responded by creating a Prussian state to force Russia to negotiate, but to no avail. Out of desperation and the belief that war was inevitable, Napoleon implemented the notorious Russian campaign in 1812 to capture Moscow,” Ms. Pelier wrote.

The remains of the 3,269 people exhumed from the mass grave in Vilnius are now in a military cemetery there. Ms. Pelier's thesis has a wealth of information about the people buried in the grave, artifacts found with them and facts about the campaign and other history.

Featured image: Remains of European soldiers of Napoleon's Grand Army, who died of starvation, disease and the elements, in a mass grave in Vilnius, Lithuania (Photo by Rimantas Jankauskas)

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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