Dying in a Winter Wonderland — Unearthing the Hidden Cause of Napoleon’s Stunning Reversal in Russia

One of the largest armies in history was forced into a cruel wintery retreat by the smallest of foes -- lice.

One of the largest armies in history was forced into a cruel wintery retreat by the smallest of foes — lice.

Two hundred years ago today, the last of Napoleon’s Grande Armee staggered out of Russia frostbitten, starving and half dead.

The ramshackle column of fewer than 50,000 scarecrows was all that remained of the seemingly unstoppable 690,000-strong invasion force that fearlessly marched into the Tsar’s empire on June 24.

By the end of the ill-fated six-month campaign, more than half a million of Bonaparte’s troops were dead, missing or captured. Some had died for lack of provisions. Others were killed in the epic battles at Smolensk and Borodino or the countless small skirmishes that were fought on the road to Moscow. Tens of thousands of others had deserted or even changed sides.

For a complete account of the 1812 epidemic in the Grande Armee, check out the book The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army by Stephen Talty.

For a complete account of the 1812 epidemic in the Grande Armee, check out the book The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Greatest Army by Stephen Talty.

Yet according to a piece posted yesterday on Slate.com entitled, “Why Napoleon Lost In Russia, One of the Great Military Upsets”, it wasn’t enemy generalship, the resolve of the Russian soldiers or even the brutal winter that gutted the greatest army that had ever marched, it was rickettsia prowazekii — a microscopic bacteria that lives in the feces of body lice. Most however know the dangerous pathogen by another name: typhus. A deadly disease characterized by high fever, cough, debilitating pain, a body rash, headaches and often death, typhus felled more of Napoleon’s army, than the other dangers combined.

Body lice thrive in environments that most modern humans would consider filthy and cramped (like a 19th Century army camp for example). Not surprisingly, the men of the Grande Armee were teeming with the parasites. In fact, according to the article by Joe Knight, typhus was tearing through the ranks of the French army before the June campaign was even underway — while it massed in eastern Poland

As Napoleon’s columns marched deeper and deeper into Russia, thousands of his troops were dropping dead from the disease daily. According to the article, within the first month of the invasion, typhus had claimed the lives of 80,000. By September, the largest of the Emperor’s three army groups had been whittled down to little more than 100,000 effectives. Following his triumph at Borodino, Bonaparte raced to reach Moscow and end the campaign before his army disintegrated altogether. As the French neared their objective, Russians emptied the city of all provisions and torched the place before evacuating. Starving, freezing and after waiting weeks in vein for the Tsar’s surrender, Napoleon finally ordered his men to retreat.

For the next three months, the remnants of the Grande Armee would trudge westward into the teeth of an early and unusually cold Russian winter. Only a handful would make it home. The defeat would leave Bonaparte’s empire teetering and ripe for conquest. According to Knight’s piece, the long downward spiral to defeat and exile for one of the greatest conquerors of all time can be traced back to lice, their droppings and the typhus it caused.

To read the full story, click here.

Napoleon’s army wasn’t the only one to be destroyed by disease. Check out this story from August entitled Microscopic Enemies: The Epidemics that Destroyed Armies.

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4 comments for “Dying in a Winter Wonderland — Unearthing the Hidden Cause of Napoleon’s Stunning Reversal in Russia

  1. 15 December, 2012 at 4:13 am

    My g*d…

  2. 20 December, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Reblogged this on Gemmahistory and commented:
    A fantastic blog post concerning Napoleon’s retreat from Russia!

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