VILNIUS (Reuters Life!) - The remains of 18 soldiers from Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armee were reburied in Lithuania on Monday, almost 200 years after the siege of Moscow failed and the men were forced to flee westwards in the freezing cold.
A small group of French and Lithuanian officials, diplomats and soldiers attended the reburial of the men at a cemetery in Lithuanian capital Vilnius. A mass reburial of 3,500 Napoleonic soldiers took place in 2003, but these men were found elsewhere.
“These soldiers are men of Napoleon’s army, who participated in the Russian campaign and were coming back from Moscow...They died here in Lithuania from starvation and cold,” Michael Bourlet, a military historian from the French military school of St Cyr, told Reuters.
Napoleonic soldiers had retreated 1,100 km (700 miles) in freezing temperatures when Napoleon’s attempt to take Tsarist Russia failed in the winter of 1812.
“Maybe there were some 20,000-30,000 soldiers who died around Vilnius at the beginning of December 1812...It’s hard to give a precise number because the army was so disorganized,” Bourlet added.
The French emperor, who suffered a final defeat at Waterloo only three years later, got out of Vilnius on December 5, deserting his soldiers just days before Russian forces arrived.
The Cossacks found few left to vent their anger on and had to dispose of all the bodies. They opted for mass graves as funeral pyres proved too smelly and time-consuming.
Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis, editing by Paul Casciato