Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Tiny Enemy that Caused the Failure of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign: The Louse!

by Kathryn Hadley

According to the latest research published in a new book by the American author, Stephan Talty, Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812 failed primarily as a result of the spread of typhus amongst the ranks of the Grande Armée. The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army was published last month by the Crown Publishing Group. The author reconstructs the medical history of Napoleon's Russian campaign and concludes that its failure was in reality caused by an epidemic of typhus exanthematicus spread by lice.

Napoleon’s Grande Armée, larger than the population of Paris at the time, with over 600,000 men and 50,000 horses, embarked on its march to Russia in the spring of 1812. It invaded Russia on June 24th, 1812. Before the fighting began, however, many soldiers had already died.

New research into the causes of the demise of the Grande Armée began in 2001, following the discovery of a mass grave containing 2,000 bodies in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. Belt buckles and inscriptions of regimental numbers on the uniform buttons of the corpses revealed that the men were not victims of the KGB, nor were they Jews who had been killed during the German occupation; they were soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. The analysis of DNA samples taken from the teeth of the bodies showed that they carried pathogens of typhus exanthematicus, known in Napoleon’s era as ‘war plague’, and spread by crawling parasites.

It is believed that in the first week of the campaign, 6,000 men a day fell ill. In field hospitals along the route contagious soldiers were not isolated from their reasonably healthy comrades and the disease spread rapidly following an outbreak of lice. The only remedies used at the time were bloodletting, herbs and a mixture of wine, water and a bit of lemon juice. By the time Napoleon’s army reached Moscow, his men were far too weak to conquer the city and on October 19th, 1812, Napoleon turned the Grande Armée back towards France.
The Belgian physician at the time, J.L.R. de Kerckhove, was quoted in an article published on the website of Der Spiegel:
‘The numbers of the sick grew in overwhelming numbers, and they crawled along
the road where many of them died’.

The Westphalian batallion commander Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg was also quoted in the same article in a letter to his wife:
‘Napoleon doesn't give a damn how many of his soldiers are collapsing on the

For further information on Napoleon’s Russian campaign and the responses of Russian populations, read our article Napoleon in Russia: Saviour or Anti-Christ?

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