Frozen in time

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Hundreds of twisted, huddled skeletons found on a building site have begun revealing the horror of Napoleon's disastrous 1812 campaign on Moscow. Stanislaw Waszak reports from Vilnius.

"This army, so splendid on the 6th November, was totally changed by the 14th, with almost no cavalry, no artillery, no transport", wrote Napoleon Bonaparte as his 700,000-strong Grand Army was forced into retreat from Moscow at the end of his epic but ill fated 1812 attack on the Russian Empire.

"Those men whom Nature had not hardened against all chances of fate and fortune seemed shaken. They lost their cheerfulness and good humour, and saw ahead of them nothing but disaster and catastrophe," he continued.

The remains of an estimated 1,000 of Napoleon's soldiers have been discovered under what is now a construction site close to the Lithuanian capital dumped in a deep ditch which they had first built when advancing east. It is the largest mass grave of Napoleonic soldiers ever found.

The remains will help anthropologists and historians learn about the physical condition of soldiers of the Grand Army as it retreated from Moscow in 1812.

"Thanks to methods from molecular biology, we can test whether typhus, which existed in the period, was widespread in the region" and contributed to the large numbers of deaths of soldiers, said Olivier Dutour, an anthropological biologist at the University of Marseille's school of medicine, who heads a five-man team from France's National Centre for Scientific Research, now urgently retrieving the remains before building work on the site is to resume.

 "What we can learn from this find is the age of the soldiers in the Grand Army and their state of health on the march back from Moscow," said Rimantas Jankuaskas, chair of the anthropology department at Vilnius University, who is leading the excavation work.

The Russians pursued a scorched-earth policy, even setting light to Moscow, leaving Napoleon's troops to freeze to death in the unusually harsh winter and reducing the Grand Army to just one-fifth of the 700,000 men from 20 nations that it initially contained.

So far the grave site is testimony to the severe cold which claimed many lives. "Looking at the skeletons, we can say that the bodies were buried frozen," said Dutour.

He points to a skeletal finger, the only bones recovered from one man, bent in an "abnormal" curled position.

"This man died from exposure at a temperature of around minus 30 degrees centigrade (minus 22° Fahrenheit) in a crouched position," said Dutour.

The grave was found last October as preparations were made to begin construction of a residential complex on land that has been used for military purposes by Czarist Russian, Polish, Nazi and Soviet troops since the end of 19th century.

Work had to be quickly suspended because of the winter, and was resumed only in mid-March after the snow melted.

Investigators originally believed the remains may have been those of Polish soldiers killed by the Soviets, but later identified them as belonging to the Grand Army, based on buttons and other articles of clothing.

Work is pursuing at a rapid pace because the construction company only gave researchers one month, or until 11 April, to complete their work.

The scientists don't have adequate time to record in detail the position of each of the skeletons found. "We've been forced to focus on just several individuals," said Michel Signolis, the deputy director of the French team.

The team was dispatched to Vilnius with such haste that they did not even receive a formal budget for the trip, and are sleeping at the site in an old camper made available to them by a French citzen who resides in Lithuania.

"We must keep watch over and protect our treasures from the curious" who can easily gain acess to the open site, said Signolis.

The remains are being removed to Vilnius University's Anthropology Institute while a decision is taken on their final burial.

The city is "in contact with French officials to determine a dignified burial site for these soldiers," Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas said.

Additional experts from the French defense ministry were expected in Vilnius to help the Lithuanians examine the remains and review information on yet other trenches where more soldiers may have been buried.

According to historians, the remains of a total of some 40,000 soldiers were either buried or burned when the Grand Army fled from Vilnius in 1812.

With AFP

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