Skip to comments.New Study Identifies Louse-Borne Diseases That Ravaged Napoleon's Army
Posted on 12/15/2005 5:32:37 PM PST by blam
: Infectious Diseases Society of America
New Study Identifies Louse-borne Diseases That Ravaged Napoleon's Army
Using dental pulp extracted from the teeth of soldiers who died during Napoleons disastrous retreat through Russia in 1812, a new study finds DNA evidence that epidemic typhus and trench fever ran rampant among the French Grand Army. The study, published in the Jan. 1 issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, now available online, identifies the specific species of louse-borne pathogens that were a major cause of death among the remains of the retreating army.
Napoleon marched into Russia in the summer of 1812 with a half-million soldiers. Only a few thousand staggered out again, victims of war, weather, and disease. Twenty-five thousand arrived in Vilnius that winter, but only 3,000 lived to continue the retreat. The dead were buried in mass graves.
Construction work in 2001 unearthed one such grave, containing between 2,000 and 3,000 corpses. Didier Raoult, MD, PhD, from the Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France, and colleagues identified body segments of five lice in a forensic excavation of two kilograms of earth containing fragments of bone and remnants of clothing. Three of the lice carried DNA from Bartonella quintana, which causes the disease commonly known as trench fever, which afflicted many soldiers in World War I.
The team analyzed dental pulp from 72 teeth, taken from the remains of 35 soldiers. Dental pulp from seven soldiers contained DNA from B. quintana, and pulp from three soldiers contained DNA from Rickettsia prowazakii, which causes epidemic typhus. Testing for other organisms gave negative results, and other appropriate controls were negative.
In all, 29 percent of the soldiers tested had evidence of either R. prowazkii or B. quintana infection, suggesting that louse-born diseases such as typhus and trench fever may have been a major factor contributing to Napoleons retreat from Russia. The authors conclude that searching for DNA of infectious agents in dental pulp may become an important tool for investigating the history of communicable diseases.
Eeesh! Lousy way to go!
A half-million man army reduced to 3000 pathetic survivors. Amazing.
Louse? Are they talking about Bob Beckel? 'Cause it sure sounds like Bob Beckel.
Moral of the story: Don't invade Russia.
Don't invade Russia... Without blankets and bug spray. :)
I wonder how many 'bugs' Hitler's boys had?
I'm reminded of an early conversation between Stalin and one of his generals about the occupation of America after we had been defeated...Stalin said: "You don't occupy a country with 200 million snipers." Our citizens are armed.
Yup. I've stared at that for a long time on several occasions.
no, bring winter gear
Did anyone see the dramatization of this on one of the cable shows? It was hosted by James Woods and had re-enactments of different eras in history. This was one of them and it was mind-numbing. At one of the shelters/hospitals they stacked bodies in the windows to keep out the draft. I can't imagine being a soldier then, either freezing to death yourself or watching your comarades die by the thousands from disease.
Unless my memory is off, I don't believe Stalin ever defeated the United States.
Notice however that virtually all of the decline takes place on the inward journey, when it was still summer. The reality is most of the losses came from desertion caused by inability to supply so large a force. He could not move rations from his stockpiles to the army efficiently, because it was advancing rapidly and his supply of horses was quite limited. They died first. Men trying to live off the land found it practically uninhabited compared to what they were used to in western Europe, and strayed far from the main body looking for food. Often as not, they found cossacks instead.
I too have pondered that graph on more than one occasion and had the same observation/question. Napoleon launched the campaign with some 600,000 men, roughly two thirds of them in the main body and the remainder in detached forces guarding his flanks. By the time of Borodino, the main body was reduced to about 120,000. About 100,000 reached Moscow, and somewhat fewer started out on the retreat. I'm writing from distant memory so give me a little Kentucky windage here, but that's in the ballpark.
While the retreat was a catastrophe, the fact remains that most of the army had been attrited during the advance. I wonder if someone here can point me to a more detailed analysis of the losses. Presumably a much larger percentage of the flanking armies survived the campaign than was the case in the central army group. One would also need to adjust for troops detached for line of communications duty and sick men left in hospitals and eventually invalided home (or back to Germany) during the summer. Plus desertion.
None of this alters the fact that the campaign was an unmitigated disaster, but "they all froze in the snow" is neither accurate nor satisfying. Does anyone have a good handle on this? I plowed through David Chandler's big book on Bonoparte years ago but am not otherwise familiar with the literature.
Nope but, their plans were to do so.
I don't think there is all that much mystery in it, though the mechanics of it are somewhat murky and no doubt the result itself was distinctly unanticipated by Napoleon himself.
What is really operating is pre-railroad logistics limitations. There is a reason armies of 600,000 men are not encountered in history earlier. They don't work. Not until iron horses can deliver hundreds of tons a day in supplies, at will.
See, a typical army in the age of muscle power was limited in overall size, above all in the size operating as a single body, by inherent logistical limits set by muscle power on the one hand, and the typical density of food and fodder per unit of settled area on the other. There is a pretty hard limit at around 100,000 men. Above that you can operate briefly, if you have magazines or water transported supplies. Otherwise you start evaporating, and the farther you are above that level the faster you melt.
There is only so much food within a day or two's march. You need to gather hundreds of tons per day. Horses or oxen can help fetch more from farther away, but eat their own load weights in fodder in a relatively short distance. If there isn't fodder for them or they are overworked, they die themselves (and are eaten by the hungry troops). Napoleon's earlier armies are down in the 50,000 to 100,000 range. Army corps are meant to maneuver separately in part to avoid overtaxing a given forage area, and are only 25,000. Those can live off the land indefinitely, if the land is reasonably developed and it isn't the depths of winter. Brief concentrations for battle - days - are OK, make no difference.
But you can't push above 100k for weeks without eating out the entire countryside within forage distance of the column. And as soon as you do, if you don't stop or disperse, your horses and cattle start dying, which reduces forage gathering ability still further.
All of that would operate even in western Europe. But in addition, this was Russia, not Germany. And northern Russia - heavily forested and low population density at this time. There was much less forage than in western Europe, per average mile of march.
So what did they do? Men straggled because they were out looking for food farther than a day or two's march from the column. By the time they had found some and tried to return to the column, it wasn't easy to catch up. And its wake was picked bare. So men tended to radiate away from the column. At first not intentional desertion, just forage parties, then fed up and just looking for food, then having no intention of coming back.
Napoleon could not pause to gather them - the usual remedy for stragglers - because the main body would starve if it did not enter fresh forage territory. Above all, the livestock. The horses died much faster than the men, enough to impair the cavalry as early as Borodino. (Supply services give out first, battle cavalry last).
So what happened to all the stragglers? Some of them straggled out of Russia no doubt, before the crisis of the campaign. But many of them fell to the cossacks, either during the advance or while hanging around, scattered, that winter. Or even to local peasants. They weren't exactly paying for things and would have been treated as brigands.
Foraging parties smaller than infantry divisions would not have stood up to the cossacks, who roamed everywhere in brigade strength. (Notice, a few thousand irregular cavalry constantly on the move, can forage easily over a wide area. Not tied to anything, and able to reach many times the distance every day).
The numbers not in the side groups or the main column aren't dead in the fall, though a portion probably are. But not many of them are still alive by the end of the winter, and those that are, are either not in Russia, or have "gone native" (getting along with locals rather than fighting them - if they fight, next time cossacks come through they lose).
No doubt disease also helped, and for some of them simple starvation, wandering around the forests without maps looking for anyplace not vehemently hostile where there is food to be had.
The bottom line is Napoleon had nothing remotely like adequate logistics to support the size of army he gathered. Armies that large were not supply-able in that era anyway. He did not know it. He had used improvised forage for most of his supply needs - looting in other words - since Italy. But there was a lot less to loot in northern Russian forests, and a lot more men to feed than ever before. It was physically impossible. The core of the army continued on as ordered, eating their animals in the process, while the excess above the "carrying capacity" of the land melted away.
The force he was able to supply at Moscow, wasn't enough to withstand the force the Russians could still supply east of Moscow. So it all failed. Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics, the adage runs.
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