Why Napoleon Lost Against the Russians in 1812, One of the Great Military Upsets

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Dec. 11 2012 3:47 PM

Napoleon Wasn’t Defeated by the Russians

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture gives too much credit to cannons.

Adolph Northen's (1828-1876) painting of "Napoleon's Eetreat from Moscow".
"Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow"

Painting by Adolph Northen/Wiki Commons.

History has taught us that Napoleon, in his invasion of Russia in 1812, marched into Moscow with his army largely intact and retreated only because the citizens of Moscow burned three-fourths of the city, depriving the army of food and supplies. The harsh Russian winter then devastated the army as it retreated. The Russians’ victory, commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, was one of the great upsets of military history.

But no one recognized the truly great power in this war.

In Vilnius, Lithuania, during the winter of 2001, workers were digging trenches for telephone lines and demolishing the old Soviet barracks that had stood for decades. A bulldozer scraped-up something white, so the operator hopped down and, to his surprise, saw the skull and other bones of a human being. Another worker later claimed that “the things just kept coming out of the ground—there were thousands of them.” Eight years earlier, a grave had been found with the remains of 700 people killed by the Soviet Committee for State Security, commonly known as the KGB. Could this be one of those secret places where the KGB disposed of its victims? Or could it be one the mass burials of Jews murdered by the Nazis?

When archeologists from the University of Vilnius arrived, they found that the bodies were stacked three deep in V-shaped trenches that were apparently dug as defensive positions. It appeared that the skeletons were the remains of soldiers. Two thousand skeletons were excavated, along with belt buckles with regimental numbers on them. Along with the finds were 20-franc coins dating from the early 1800s. It finally dawned on the scientists what they had found: the remains of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Napoleon had led 600,000 men into Russia with the intent of conquering the country; of these, only about 30,000 survived, and of that number, it is said that fewer than 1,000 were ever able to return to duty.

What incredible circumstances could have caused the defeat of one of the greatest armies on the European continent, led by one of the greatest generals of all time? Surprisingly, it wasn’t enemy soldiers or the normal privations soldiers experience that devastated Napoleon’s army. Most of his soldiers were battle-hardened young men, so they should have been able to tolerate the cold, hunger, long marches, and fatigue. No, it was a microscopic organism that wreaked havoc and annihilated Napoleon’s army and his grand plans for conquest. A microbe called typhus, spread by a scourge of lice.

Napoleon initially had no real reason to invade Russia. During the Battle of Friedland in June of 1807, Napoleon’s army defeated the Russian army, and on July 7, 1807, France and Alexander I of Russia signed the Treaties of Tilsit, which made the two countries allies (and, among other things, prohibited Russia from doing business with Britain). Surprisingly, Napoleon did not take any land from Russia or request war reparations. By early 1812, Napoleon controlled most of the land between Spain and Russia. However, England controlled the seas, and Napoleon wanted India, which was then an English colony. Napoleon’s only hope of taking India was to take it by land, which meant controlling Russia.

Since the Treaty of Tilsit, France and Russia had been tense allies. Russia had been violating the treaty by trading with England, and Napoleon, finally fed up, used this as an excuse to invade Russia. In June, 1812, Napoleon’s army assembled in eastern Germany. With magnificent fanfare, Napoleon reviewed his troops on the west bank of the Niemen River on June 22, 1812. Napoleon’s engineers built a pontoon bridge over the river and the army entered Russian-controlled Poland the next day. Things were going well—the summer, though hot and dry, made marching over the roads easy. The supply columns stayed slightly ahead of the soldiers, so food was readily available, and the soldiers were in good health. Though military hospitals were established along the route to Poland in Magdeburg, Erfurt, Posen, and Berlin, there was little need for their services. The army reached Vilnius in four days, meeting no resistance from Russian troops.

Poland is where things started going badly for Napoleon. He found the region filthy beyond belief. The peasants were unwashed, with matted hair and ridden with lice and fleas, and the wells were fouled. Since the army was now in enemy territory, the supply trains had to move to the rear. The roads were soft with loose dust or were deeply rutted from the spring rains; the supply trains lagged farther and farther behind the main body of soldiers, and it became difficult to provide food and water. The army was so huge that it was nearly impossible to keep military formation intact, and the greater part of the army dissolved into straggling, sprawling mobs. Many of the soldiers pillaged the homes, livestock, and fields of the local peasants. Nearly 20,000 army horses died from lack of water and fodder on the way to Vilnius. The homes of the peasants were so filthy that they seemed to be alive with cockroaches. The typical battlefield diseases of dysentery and other intestinal diseases began to appear, and though new hospitals were set up in Danzig, Königsberg, and Thorn, they were unable to deal with the large numbers of sick soldiers sent back to the rear.

But Napoleon’s problems were just beginning.

Several days after crossing the Nieman, a number of soldiers began to develop high fevers and a red rash on their bodies. Some of them developed a bluish tinge to their faces and then rapidly died. Typhus had made its appearance.

Typhus had been present in Poland and Russia for many years, but it had gotten worse since the Russian army had devastated Poland while retreating from Napoleon’s forces. A lack of sanitation combined with the unusually hot summer made an ideal environment for the spread of lice. Typhus is caused by the organism Rickettsia prowazekii. It would be an entire century after the 1812 campaign before scientists realized that typhus is found in the feces of lice.

The typical French soldier was dirty and sweaty and lived in the same clothes for days; this is the perfect environment for lice to feed on his body and find a home in the seams of his clothing. Once the clothes and skin of the soldier were contaminated with lice excrement, the smallest scratch or abrasion would have been enough for the typhus germ to enter the soldier’s body. To compound the problem, the soldiers were sleeping in large groups in confined spaces for safety; they were concerned that the Russians would attack or the Poles would retaliate. This closeness allowed the lice to jump quickly to soldiers who were not infested. Only a month into the campaign, Napoleon lost 80,000 soldiers who were either incapacitated or had died from typhus. Under military surgeon Baron D.J. Larrey, the army’s medical and sanitary measures were the finest in the world, but no one could have coped with the scale of the epidemic. An eyewitness account gives details of one soldier’s experience with a lice infestation:

Bourgogne went to sleep on a reed mat and was soon awakened by the activities of the lice. Finding himself literally covered with them, he stripped off his shirt and trousers and threw them into the fire. They exploded like the fire of two ranks of infantry. He could not get rid of them for two months. All of his companions swarmed with lice; many were bitten and developed spotted fever (typhus).

On July 28, three of Napoleon’s officers raised concerns with him that the fight with the Russians was becoming dangerous. The loss of troops from disease and desertion had reduced his effective fighting strength to about half. Adding to this difficulty, the problem of finding provisions in hostile territory was becoming daunting. Napoleon listened to their arguments and agreed to end the campaign, but only two days later, he changed his mind and told his generals: “The very danger pushes us on to Moscow. The die is cast. Victory will justify and save us.”

So Napoleon and his sick, weary soldiers continued on. Smolensk fell to Napoleon on Aug. 17, and Valutino fell quickly after that. The Russians retreated as the French advanced, drawing Napoleon deeper into Russian territory. Napoleon had split his army into three parts. By Aug. 25, Napoleon had lost 105,000 of his main army of 265,000, leaving just 160,000 soldiers. Within two weeks, typhus had reduced the army to 103,000.

Gen. Mikhail Kutusov of the Russian forces set up a defensive position in Borodino, about 70 miles west of Moscow. On Sept. 7, French forces engaged the Russians. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. Napoleon then marched into Moscow, but it was a Pyrrhic victory; only approximately 90,000 French soldiers remained. Napoleon expected the Russians to surrender; however, the citizens of the city simply left Moscow to Napoleon. Three-fourths of the city had been burned by the time Napoleon’s army arrived and there was no food or other provisions for them. Fifteen thousand reinforcements joined Napoleon in Moscow, but of those, 10,000 died of disease. With the Russian winter rapidly approaching, Napoleon had no choice but to retreat back to France. Napoleon and the remains of his army stumbled into Smolensk, hoping to find food and shelter. Arriving on Nov. 8 during the bitter cold, Napoleon found the hospitals already crowded with sick and injured. Discipline was deteriorating, and the final blow came when Napoleon found that the supplies he had hoped were waiting for him had been consumed by reserve and communication troops. Leaving Smolensk on Nov. 13, the army arrived in Vilnius on Dec. 8. Only 20,000 soldiers remained that could be considered fit enough to fight. Having heard of an impending coup d’etat in France by Gen. Claude François de Malet, Napoleon left Gen. Joachim Murat in charge and hastened to Paris. Murat refused to make a stand in Vilnius—he left his guns and the booty obtained in Moscow to the advancing Russians and retreated back toward the Nieman, crossing on Dec. 14 with fewer than 40,000 men, mostly incapacitated. So ended Napoleon’s great dream of reaching India through Russia.

Many of the dead soldiers were buried in defensive trenches that were dug during the retreat. It was in one of these trenches that, almost two centuries later, construction workers found the remains of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

Didier Raoult from the Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France analyzed the dental pulp of 72 teeth taken from the bodies of 35 of the soldiers found in Vilnius. The pulp from seven soldiers included the DNA from Bartonella quintana, an organism responsible for trench fever, another louse-borne disease that was common during World War I. The DNA from three soldiers contained the sequences from R. prowazakii, which causes epidemic typhus. Overall, 29 percent of the remains had evidence of R. prowazkii or B. quintana infection, implying that a major contributing factor to Napoleon’s defeat was lice.

Most Americans are familiar with the ending of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, commissioned by Russia to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. The musical score ends with the sounds of cannons booming and bells pealing; however, if Tchaikovsky wanted to accurately record the sound of Napoleon’s defeat, one would only hear the soft, quiet sound of lice munching on human flesh. An organism too small to be seen by the human eye had changed the course of human history.

Joe Knight is a retired physician assistant and medical history writer focusing on how disease affected the outcome of historical battles.