Early in 2002, some drab ex-Red Army barracks in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, were being demolished, when suddenly the driver of the bulldozer stopped his machine. He had seen something. There, tumbled up out of the soil under the blade, were human skeletons - scores of them. Management was quickly called in. Was this another Katyn Wood from the Second World War? Yet another Nazi massacre of Russian prisoners? Gingerly they began to pick about among the bones. What did they find? Here a button with the number ‘29’ within a ring; then another with ‘61’; then a rhombic metal plate bearing a crowned eagle; a squashed felt and leather shako. The artefacts littered among the bones now began to tell a story. Not of a deliberate massacre, but of a human tragedy of massive scale, which took place 190 years before, in December 1812.
At that time, a starving, terrified horde of sick, injured, disoriented refugees flooded westwards out of Russia, harried by the Cossacks and crushed by the icy winter winds into numbed automata, their only wish - to survive. These few thousands were the unhappy remnants of one megalomaniac’s twisted dream of world domination. They were all that was left of his ‘Grande Armée’.
Wilna, as Vilnius was known in December 1812, was a major depot of food, forage, weapons and equipment for Napoleon’s army. It was also a major hospital. But the then authorities of the city knew nothing of the almost total destruction of that army in the foregoing months: nothing could have prepared them for the climactic events that were to burst upon them in the next few days.
The tide of human misery washed into the city, hoping to find warmth, rest, food and shelter. The astonished commissary officials refused to open the depots to them, unable to believe that these ragged tramps really were the proud regiments that had marched through the city not six months before, on their way to capture Moscow and bring Czar Alexander to heel.
In the resultant chaos of the next two or three days, thousands died of starvation, frostbite, disease, sickness - and a few from enemy action - in Wilna, before the wreckage of that army shuffled on westwards to Kowno and to Prussia. Thousands of the corpses were hurriedly dumped into the River Niemen, through holes hacked in the ice, and borne away. It is likely that most of the bodies in the building site were buried there either in the autumn months of 1812 (the patients of the hospitals who had died) or in the spring of 1813, when the clean-up operation took care of the corpses exposed by the melting snow.
A museum has now been opened in Vilnius to house the artefacts found in the trench. They bear witness to all the nationalities that went to make up the invading army: Frenchmen, Germans, Swiss, Italians, Portuguese, Croats and Illyrians, Poles and Lithuanians.
What a monument to the incredible human folly of one man.
Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Author’s collection.