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Vilnius 1812: Ghosts of Napoleon’s Grande Armée through their Artifacts

Vilnius 1812: Ghosts of Napoleon’s Grande Armée through their Artifacts

Vilnius 1812: Ghosts of Napoleon’s Grande Armée through their Artifacts

Paul Richardson and Stephen Summerfield

Ken Trotman Publishing, 2021

Hardback, 160 pages

Illustrations: 500


In 2001 a mass grave of at least 3,269 skeletons was unearthed at Vilnius in Lithuania, identified as belonging to Napoleon’s Grande Armée that invaded Russia in 1812. The authors state in their introduction that this discovery:

…has given us another dimension to the story. The exploration of the anthropology, buttons, uniform fragments, shakos, personal items, and scientific papers have enlightened our understanding of the disease, lack of medical provision, nutrition and weather that contributed to the demise of his army.

This book is packed with information covering all the factors that influenced the campaign and the men who ultimately paid the price for Napoleon’s military ambitions. It contains over 500 illustrations and is a feast for anyone with an interest in both this campaign and the Napoleonic period in general. The book is not only a pleasure to read but also a pleasure to look through the numerous and varied illustrations, maps, and tables. The reader will learn much from this work.

The book is divided into three parts, each of which has several chapters dealing with sections of the story. The first looks at the story of the bones, with the discovery of a mass grave on the site of a former Soviet Red Army barracks, and the identification of those remains as soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée through the artefacts found alongside the bodies. When Napoleon had entered Vilnius in June 1812, he had ordered the town to be defended by a system of trenches and redoubts, and it was into these that the bodies of men who died on the retreat were buried, alongside the remains of some horses.

What makes this a fascinating book to read is the amount of detail included, such as examining the state of Poland and Lithuania in 1812, Napoleon’s preparations for war (including comprehensive tables detailing the structure of his forces), and the region of operation. There is an interesting section on the weather in Russia during the summer and winter of 1812, which examines the disastrous effect the hot summer months had upon the army. Accounts of the campaign are always overshadowed by the retreat during the winter, but the summer advance saw the army being reduced by a third (185,000) before any major battle had been fought. The weather during the disastrous retreat is detailed on a day-by-day basis.

Chapter 4: The Human Remains details the excavation work undertaken, and the artefacts recovered – buttons, fragments of uniform, underwear, shoes, boots, and headwear; plus, personal belongings such as coins, religious objects, and rings. Photographs of the remains are included alongside the text that analyses their gender (there were some women), height, injuries, and diet. Complementing this is a chapter on the medical provision provided and how this fared during the campaign, including the illnesses suffered by the troops and their treatment.

Turning the pages of this book reveals an incredible amount of detail about the artefacts retrieved. For example, the authors have related the shako components discovered with the patterns of such headgear worn at the time, which should fascinate anyone with a particular interest in the uniforms of the era. The same approach is applied to the fragments of tunic discovered, with a section on the textiles used in manufacturing uniforms. Buttons, epaulettes, legwear, footwear, cartridge boxes, horse harness, and even the improvised winter uniform the soldiers acquired on the retreat are examined and related to surviving uniforms and images of the army in 1812.

The campaign history includes details of Vilnius in 1812 using both contemporary and modern images. The campaign is described on a day-to-day basis, generously illustrated with maps, paintings, and tables of data. This must be one of the most detailed accounts of the campaign available, detailing each stage of both the advance into and retreat from Russia. The role of Vilnius as a supply depot and refuge for the retreating soldiers is described, again on a day-by-day basis. One aspect of the campaign that I did not appreciate is that while the Grande Armée was in retreat during the terrible Russian winter, there were reinforcements advancing into Russia, many of whom were conscripts wearing summer clothing, who, taking one look at the haggard and suffering men coming towards them, disintegrated and joined the retreat.

The book ends with an analysis of Napoleon’s political errors, his ego, his poor choice of men, poor reconnaissance and confused administration and poor staff structure, the authors argue that all of which contributed to the disastrous campaign. Included is a useful reference section that lists memoires and scientific papers relevant to the subject.

The authors declare in their preface that this book,

…is a feast for the archaeologist, military historian, militaria collector, re-enactor and wargamer…

This reviewer would totally agree with that statement. The amount of information included, and the analysis provided make Vilnius 1812 a classic work on Napoleon’s campaign against Russia in 1812. Once you start reading it you will not be able to put it down. Highly recommended.

Paul Chamberlain

March 2022