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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

The Illustrious Dead

Talty, Stephan. The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army. N.Y.: Crown. 336 pp. ISBN# 9780307394040. Hardcover. $27. ISBN# 9780307394057. Paperback.  $15.

In 2001 construction workers in Lithuania excavating a former Soviet military base unearthed 3000 contorted skeletons. The immediate conclusion was that this was the handiwork of Stalinist death squads that had spread terror throughout the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s.1 Then they found the buttons.  Scattered among the remains, the buttons were all that remained of the military uniforms of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée after its Moscow retreat.

In the summer of 1812 Napoleon gathered his fearsome army on the banks of the Niemen River.  He was about to undertake the most daring of his many campaigns: the invasion of Russia.  Napoleon launched his invasion on June 24, 1812. The Grande Armée was a multinational force of more than half a million that set out to conquer Russia. Meeting only sporadic opposition and easily defeating it, the huge army advanced ineluctably onto Moscow through the long hot days of summer.  After a swift march through Germany, the Grande Armée began to experience difficulties in Poland.

First, the Polish roads were unable to withstand the weight of the artillery guns and more importantly, the heavy supply wagons. Supply trains came to a standstill after crossing the Nieman River. Ignoring advice, Napoleon ordered his army to advance as quickly as possible into Russia leaving his supply trains to catch up.

Poland offered yet another impediment.  Napoleon’s surgeon warned that the country was a large foci of typhus and that the Polish peasantry was rife with this disease.  While orders were issued forbidding soldiers from fraternizing with the Poles under penalty of death, these orders largely went unheeded, as his army, now running out of food and supplies, began raiding nearby villages.  These forays inevitably brought soldiers into contact with the Polish population and soon the Grand Armée was replete with epidemic typhus.

Talty here enters into the realm of epidemiology. Typhus is the common term for several similar diseases caused by either Rickettsia typhi or Rickettsia prowazekii, a bacteria. The name comes from the Greek typhos meaning hazy, describing the state of mind of those affected. The causative organism rickettsiae is an obligate parasite that cannot survive for long outside living cells. The form of typhus depends on which type of bacteria causes the infection. 

Typhus symptoms appear around 12 days after exposure.  Symptoms include fever, headache, chills, tiredness and muscle aches. About half of those infected develop a flat red rash that begins on the back, chest and stomach and spreads to the rest of the body.  A heavy besotted expression is present in classic cases. Fever usually lasts about 14 days. Convalescence is characterized by weakness and depression. Mortality ranges from 10% to 100% in adults.

A principal vector for typhus is the human body louse (Pediculus humanus corporis). These are most commonly found where clothing comes in close contact with the body. Lice feed on the blood of infected patients. Lice defecate when feeding on a new host, excreting R. prowazekii in the feces.  Transmission occurs when organisms in the louse feces are rubbed into the bite wound.

Napoleon’s army had already experienced major encounters with disease outbreaks. Bubonic plague significantly undercut his Egyptian expedition and yellow fever devastated his army in Haiti.  Thus, Napoleon believed in preventive medicine, saying “Health is indispensable in war.”2 Over the years Napoleon assembled a fine medical corps.  Napoleon himself was aware of the importance of sanitation. But, so fixated was Napoleon on subduing the Russian Czar that he ignored his own dictum.

Moreover, he disregarded his chief surgeons’ advice to prepare for the impending winter. Napoleon argued that the Russian winter could not be that much worse than the French winters to which his troops were accustomed. His commanders recommended that the Russian invasion be conducted in late spring, to obviate the need for special weather preparations. Again Napoleon refused, ostensibly on the grounds that the Grande Armée was invincible and the restoration of France's glory could not wait.

Instead of fighting the French head on, the Russians retreated across their vast plains. As they did so, they burned crops and tilled wells with soil. By July, the Grande Armée was short of food and water. Soldiers deserted; others were killed or captured by Cossacks. The intense summer heat also took its toll as thousands of horses dropped dead making it difficult to move artillery, ammunition and supplies. Then typhus swept through the Grande Armée.

More than 80,000 French soldiers died the first month of the epidemic. The abnormally hot summer produced drought conditions. What scarce water was available was used for drinking; bathing and clothes washing was nearly impossible. In this environment heavy infestations of body lice were inevitable. Russian raiding parties were dispatched nightly to harass the French. These raids slowed the French advance. Morale sank to the point where there was little vestige of hygiene.

On September 7, 1812, the Russian army made a stand at the town of Borodino, about seventy miles from Moscow. While Napoleon won this victory his casualties were heavy. A week later, after covering seven hundred miles, the Grande Armée— now one-sixth its original size— entered an eerily deserted Moscow.  Except for a few thousand sick and wounded, the Moscow was nearly deserted. That night, the city began burning. Five days later over two-thirds of Moscow was reduced to ashes.  And as the French army sacked the city, they found that all the food stores had been burned making the French food shortage even worse. 

In mid-October, snow flurries began. With Moscow in ruins, his supply lines overextended and the Russian winter upon him, Napoleon decided to abandon Moscow.   On October 19, Napoleon reluctantly gave the order to retreat. Back the Grande Armée went over a route almost completely lacking in food and water. By the end of October, the dreaded Russian winter had set in. Snows were heavy, and the temperature fell to 22 degrees below zero. The men of the Grande Armée lacked winter coats, boots, gloves or hats. The road was soon littered with frozen corpses and lined with abandoned artillery and discarded loot. Soldiers were reduced to eating their horses and dogs. There were even episodes of cannibalism.

On November 28, the Grande Armée— now down to 40,000 freezing, starving men— crossed the Berezina River. Then, learning of an attempted coup against him, Napoleon abandoned his troops and rushed back to Paris, his soldiers left to make their way home.

The 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon's Grande Armée ranks as one of the worst military fiascoes of all time. Of the half a million soldiers sent toward Moscow, only about 5% made it back.  Typhus continued in the aftermath of the Russian campaign.  “Then,” writes Talty, “inexplicably, it disappeared.”  In the epilogue to this searing account, Talty tells how the typhus puzzle would take another 100 years to decipher. In 1909, a French scientist (who would win the Nobel Prize for Medicine) working in Tunisia proved that body lice transmitted the disease. 

The Illustrious Dead is military history that treats typhus as a second front silently killing thousands of French soldiers, frustrating Napoleon's ambition, weakening his reign and changing the course of European history.

1.         Michael Wines, "Baltic Soil Yields Evidence of a Bitter End to Napoleon's Army", in New York Times. September 14, 2002

2.         R.G. Burton, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia. Special Campaign Series. 1914, New York: The Macmillan Company, p. 142.

Reviewed by Cristóbal S. Berry-Cabán

Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2012

Cristóbal S. Berry-Cabán, PhD is an epidemiologist at Womack Army Medical Center, Fort Bragg, NC 28310-5000.  He is the author of numerous articles that explores Soldiers health.