Disease, Starvation, and the Brutal Russian Winter – Why Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia Failed

In 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée (Great Army) invaded Russia. Though made up of about 680,000 soldiers, they lost. Historians have given many reasons as to why they did – citing weather, logistics, and crazy Russian tactics which didn’t care how many of their own civilians suffered and died.

While all true, a recent discovery revealed another, more devastating explanation.

It was made in Vilnius, Lithuania in the autumn of 2001. Workers were destroying a Soviet Army barracks and digging trenches to lay down telephone wires when they came upon something gruesome – human bones.  A lot of them.

Given where they were found, everyone was convinced that they were victims of the KGB. Eight years before, they had found a mass grave filled with about 700 bodies – all confirmed KGB killings.

So they called in the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s office, which in turn called on the Institute of Forensic Medicine. But the bones predated the Soviet occupation, so they called in archaeologists.

Digging a little more, they discovered 3,269 bodies at one site, alone. A search through the historical records found that after Napoleon’s retreat, locals dumped 7,190 people and 12 horses in the area.

Vasily Vereshchagin's, "On the Big Road," depicting the the Grande Armée's retreat Image Source: Shakko CC BY-SA 3.0
Vasily Vereshchagin’s, “On the Big Road,” depicting the Grande Armée’s retreat


They also found coins, medals, buttons, belt buckles, and the remains of uniforms belonging to Napoleonic France. Forensic evidence not only supported the historical narrative, but it also revealed something new.

So first the history. Napoleonic France was originally allied with the Russian Empire, but there was a problem – Britain.

Thanks to its vast navy, Britain ruled the waves and wasn’t happy about Napoleon. The feeling was mutual, so to force them into submission, he imposed the continental system – a trade embargo meant to isolate the British and force them into a peace treaty.

But the Russians weren’t happy, either. They were rich in natural resources but were technologically backward and poor. Britain was the exact opposite, so its growing number of factories were always hungry for raw materials. Desperate for cash, Russia defied the blockade.

Nikolay Samokish's "Courage of General Raevsky," depicting Russian forces at the Battle of Saltanovka on July 23rd, 1812 Image Source: Wikipedia
Nikolay Samokish’s “Courage of General Raevsky,” depicting Russian forces at the Battle of Saltanovka on July 23rd, 1812.


Which upset Napoleon, of course. Under the pretext of liberating Poland, he invaded Russian Poland. The bulk of his troops gathered at Kaunas and Aleksotas (both in Lithuania) and crossed the Neman River into Western Russia on June 24th, 1812.

Supplying such a large army wasn’t easy, but he had expected a quick victory. It was anything but quick, as the Russians kept avoiding him save for some engagements like those at Smolensk in August and at Borodino in September.

When not fighting, Russian troops would burn their own towns and fields to deprive the invaders of food and shelter. Unfortunately, it had the same effect on their own civilian populace.

Starving, exhausted, and facing the brutal Russian winter, Napoleon withdrew his army to Smolensk and Vilnius with the Russians in hot pursuit. Only about 27,000 soldiers made it out, leaving some 100,000 captured and another 380,000 dead.

Napoleon’s invasion ended on December 14th, 1812 – and with it, his reputation was devastated and his eventual defeat assured.

John Heaviside Clark's "Crossing the Neman," by the Grande Armée Image Source: Wikipedia
John Heaviside Clark’s “Crossing the Neman,” by the Grande Armée.

The mass grave proves that his army had indeed suffered from hunger, cold, and other injuries associated with war. They also came from other parts of Europe, consistent with the fact that the Grand Armée was an international force. A few were also women who served as cooks, clothes-washers, and nurses, as well as wives and camp followers.

The most devastating thing the archeologists found, however, were DNA samples of the bacteria which cause trench fever and typhus.

You can’t get either from cold, hunger, or injury. You can only get them from lice. So that was the other thing they found – DNA from lice. It was on everything. Sadly, even that is mentioned in the historical records.

Across the river, most Russian roads were nothing more than dirt tracks. Though not a problem for the infantry and cavalry, it was a problem for the supply wagons and slowed them down considerably.

Even before they reached Vilnius, records show that they lost almost 20,000 horses due to the lack of water and fodder. Men became delirious from high fever, others got rashes all over their bodies, and still others turned blue in the face before dropping dead. The doctors just couldn’t cope with the numbers.

Lack of adequate sanitation, wearing the same uniform for weeks on end, as well as close quarters, made excellent breeding ground for lice, fleas, and disease.

According to Baron Dominique Jean Larrey (the head military surgeon), the lice were everywhere because of the unusual summer heat. When it became too much, men would rip their off uniforms and burn them for fun.

Why for fun?

Because the clothes were so thickly infested that they’d first explode. Then they’d fizzle before bursting out in tiny fireworks from the burning insects.

Charles Joseph Minard's famous 1869 chart depicting the Grand Armée's losses during the Russian Campaign Image Source: Wikipedia
Charles Joseph Minard’s famous 1869 chart depicting the Grand Armée’s losses during the Russian Campaign.

Winter took care of the insects, but most didn’t have sufficiently warm clothing to deal with the extreme cold. With supply wagons bogged down, the land insufficient to sustain such vast numbers, and the Russians burning what was left, hunger did the rest. But it doesn’t end there.

The archaeologists also found that all of the bodies had been malnourished since childhood. While some may have joined the Grand Armée for glory, many must have done so in the hope of regular meals, and the chance of a glorious reward which never came.

Shahan Russell

Shahan Russell is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE