Insects, Disease, and Military History


The Napoleonic Campaigns and Historical Perception


Robert K. D. Peterson

This article is reprinted and adapted from Peterson, R. K. D. 1995. Insects,disease, and military history: the Napoleonic campaigns and historical perception. American Entomologist. 41:147-160.

The article is copyrighted by the Entomological Society of America and is reprinted with permission. Other reproduction of this material is prohibited.

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Section V
Destruction of the Grand Armée

Napoleon's invasion of Russia is one of the best studied military campaigns in history. It has been discussed extensively during the past 180 years. According to popular belief, Napoleon entered Russia and marched triumphantly into Moscow with his army largely intact. He was forced to retreat in the winter of 1812 because fires intentionally set in Moscow destroyed three-fourths of the city. Finally, the Russian winter devastated the army on the retreat from Moscow. As we have seen, perceptions of historical events do not always represent what actually transpired. This is especially true for Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

By spring 1812, Napoleon controlled most of Europe, from Spain to Russia. England, however, controlled the seas. Napoleon wanted to control India, which was then a British colony. Because of Britain's superior naval strength throughout the world, his only hope was to take India by land, which meant controlling Russia. Russia and France had been uneasy allies since 1807. Russia did not like Napoleon's resurrection of Poland, and Napoleon, who referred to Russia as the "Colossus of the Barbarian North," did not trust Russia's imperialist intentions in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

Russia was violating Napoleon's Continental System by trading with England. Napoleon used this as an excuse to invade the "Colossus" and began gathering his huge army in cantonments that reached from northern Germany to Italy. In June 1812, the entire army of 500,000 men congregated in eastern Germany. (Although estimates vary because precise records were not kept, Napoleon's central French army contained about 265,000 soldiers. French reinforcements and allied forces constituted an additional 235,000 soldiers.) With breathtaking fanfare, Napoleon reviewed his troops on the west bank of the Niemen River on 22 June 1812.

The next day, the army crossed the Niemen. In four days, the army entered Vilna, unopposed by Russian forces. Despite the lack of combat, the French soldiers were already struggling on their march through Russian territory. Supplies for the huge army were grossly inadequate, so food and water were difficult to obtain. The French soldiers were forced to forage for food in the countryside, pillaging from the peasants. Memoirs by the French soldiers and their allies indicate that the Polish peasants were infested with fleas, lice, and bed bugs. The peasant homes were so filthy that hundreds of cockroaches swarmed the cottages day and night. Within a few days of crossing the Niemen, several soldiers began to develop high fevers and pink rashes on their bodies. Typhus had broken out in the Grande Armée, and, because of this scourge, most soldiers would not see Moscow.

Typhus. Typhus has always been associated with war. Indeed, one of its many colloquial names is war fever. Zinsser (1934) stated, "Typhus had come to be the inevitable and expected companion of war and revolution; no encampment, no campaigning army, and no besieged city escaped it." Rickettsia prowazekii (da Rocha-Lima), a bacterialike organism, causes the dreadful disease. The human body louse, Pediculus humanus L., has been a scourge to humans for centuries. It transmits typhus to humans and humans return the "favor" by infecting the louse, which is also a victim of the disease, seldom surviving its attack. Typhus truly is a disease of humans and lice; no animal reservoirs are known to be involved in the disease cycle.

A louse becomes infected with typhus by taking a blood meal from a fever-ridden human. Once in the louse's gut, the rickettsiae reproduce to such enormous numbers that they cause cells in the insect's gut to rupture. The rickettsiae then are present in the feces of the louse. Humans become infected by rubbing or scratching the lice feces into their skin or into their mucous membranes. It is an interesting disease because even though lice imbibe human blood, the parasite is not transmitted to humans during this process. Most of the other diseases carried by insects are transmitted through the bite.

Once infected, humans experience a high fever that continues for approximately two weeks. Simultaneous symptoms may include severe headaches, bronchial disturbances, and mental confusion. Indeed, typhus is from the Greek word typhos meaning stupor. After approximately six days, red eruptions appear on the torso, hands, feet, and face (Fig. 6). Mortality is incredibly high under epidemic conditions, nearing 100%.

The conditions of war are perfect for typhus to explode into a raging epidemic because poverty, crowding, mass migrations, inadequate housing, and malnutrition encourage its spread. The Plague of Athens in 420 B.C., during the Peloponnesian War, may have been the first recorded typhus epidemic. Typhus' association with war and its devastating effect continued until World War II. A potentially horrific epidemic was averted in Sicily and Italy in 1943 through a concerted delousing campaign engineered by the Allies using the then miraculous compound, DDT.

The French army continued to march east, virtually unopposed. The Russians were simply no match for the Grande Armée. As they have many times in their history, the Russians gave up their land to the invading army, encouraging the invaders to be drawn deeper and deeper into Russia.

Just one month into the campaign, Napoleon had lost 80,000 soldiers to typhus and dysentery (Fig. 7). Moscow was still 480 km to the east. Smolensk fell on 17 August and the battle at Valutino quickly followed, claiming 6,000 French casualties. However, the Russians continued to retreat. By 25 August, Napoleon had lost 105,000 of his central army of 265,000. Two weeks later, typhus and exposure reduced the army to 130,000 (Chandler 1966).

The Russians, led by Marshall Kutusov, favored retreat. Kutusov knew he would be at a greater advantage the farther he drew the French into Russia. However, Tsar Alexander I forced Kutusov to fight. He did so reluctantly, and the battle at Borodino was fought on 7 September. It was a bloody confrontation; the French suffered 30,000 casualties and the Russians lost 50,000 soldiers. However, the Russian army was not destroyed; it retreated again, leaving Moscow open to the French.

Napoleon entered Moscow one week after his victory at Borodino with approximately 100,000 tired men. Most citizens had already taken their belongings and evacuated Moscow by the time the French arrived. The Russians deliberately set fires, and burned three-fourths of the city. Although there was still some habitable shelter, there was no food in Moscow, and typhus raged in the city. The French would stay in Moscow for only one month. There was nothing that they could use in the city, so it was impossible to stay there for the Russian winter. The Russians refused Napoleon's overtures to surrender. On 19 October, 95,000 French soldiers retreated into the cold, back to Smolensk.

Thousands more died from typhus fever as the cohesion of the army disintegrated. Cossacks and peasants constantly harassed the soldiers. Many soldiers threw away their weapons and joined the ever-growing band of stragglers. The first snows fell on 3 November, and the temperature became bitter cold. Many soldiers froze to death. Prince Eugène, reported, "I must not conceal from Your Highness that three days of suffering have so dispirited the men that at this moment I believe them incapable of making any serious effort." (Anderson 1813). The tattered army reached Smolensk on 9 November, but the supplies were severely depleted. Napoleon knew his army could not remain in Smolensk for the winter. After a brief stay, the French left Smolensk with approximately 24,000 soldiers.

A few days later, the Russians reclaimed Dorogobouche. General Robert Wilson, the British Military Commissioner stationed at the Russian headquarters, was stunned by what he saw:

"The naked masses of dead and dying men; the mangled carcasses of ten thousand horses, which had, in some cases, been cut for food before life had ceased, the craving of famine at other points forming groups of cannibals; the air enveloped in flame and smoke; the prayers of hundreds of naked wretches, flying from the peasantry whose shouts of vengeance echoed incessantly through the woods; the wrecks of cannon, powder-waggons, military stores of all descriptions, and every ordinary as well as extraordinary ill of war combined with the asperity of the climate, formed such a scene as probably was never witnessed to such an extent in the history of the world." (Brett-James 1964).

Captain Franz Roeder, of the Hessian Lifeguards, commanded a company of only 58 soldiers on 12 November; 46 were sick or dead and 46 were missing. Roeder battled the hunger and cold, unable to remove the lice from his shirt for 10 days. He contracted typhus and dysentery, and, later in the month, he and his remaining troops were captured by Cossacks. He was later released and returned to his family in Germany (Roeder 1960).

When the French crossed the Beresina River on 28 November, only 28,000 troops remained. In addition, 30,000 stragglers may have crossed with the French army. Many people drowned or were crushed trying to cross the river. Private Walter Jakob related a particularly disturbing scene at the crossing, "...our sick who had been conveyed to this point in wagons and consisted almost entirely of officers, were left to themselves; and only deathly white faces and stiffened hands stretched toward us." (Raeff 1991).

Between the towns of Smorgoni and Vilna, 20,000 more perished. On December 8, the army reached Vilna with only 7,000 soldiers under arms and 20,000 stragglers. Vilna contained sufficient quantities of supplies, but rioting reduced the food and other supplies to nothing in short order. The French army moved on by 10 December, leaving the sick and wounded in Vilna. Typhus spread throughout the countryside that winter. The typhus victims huddled together on rotten straw, mixed with their own excrement. They were delirious from fever and hunger; many gnawed on leather and fed on the flesh of their fellow soldiers. General Wilson recounted,

"The hospital at St. Bazile [in Vilna] presented the most awful and hideous site: seven thousand five hundred bodies were piled like pigs of lead over one another in the corridors...and all the broken windows and walls were stuffed with feet, legs, arms, hands, trunks and heads to fit the apertures, and keep out the air from the yet living." (Brett-James 1964).

Dung was burned in the streets because the Russians believed that the smoke drove off pestilential vapors. By the end of December, 25,000 sick people crowded Vilna; only 3,000 were still alive by June 1813.

By the end of December, fewer than 40,000 soldiers and stragglers crossed the Niemen. (Although Fig. 7, drawn in 1861, shows that 10,000 crossed the Niemen, a recent treatise by Riehn (1990) estimated that the total was closer to 40,000 men.) The Grande Armée was utterly destroyed during the Russian campaign. It is estimated that 400,000 soldiers may have died from illness, exposure, or battlefield injuries. As many as 220,000 may have died solely from disease. In addition, the Russians captured nearly 100,000 French, but only half survived the harsh conditions of internment, including typhus. The Russian army also suffered from dysentery, typhus, malnutrition, and exposure. Although records are not as accurate for Russian troops, at least 100,000 soldiers died from wounds and disease. Countless other Russian and Polish peasants succumbed to disease and exposure.

Causes of the Epidemic. Why did typhus become an explosive epidemic in the Russian campaign, killing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people? The factors are manifold. According to French diaries and memoirs, the Polish countryside was littered with lice-ridden peasants (Roeder 1960, Frezensac 1970, Bourgogne 1985, Raeff 1991). Both the peasants and the lice were reservoirs for typhus, which had long been an endemic disease of Russia and Poland. The soldiers were stressed by poor food and water. Dysentery had reach epidemic proportions.

The peasants lived in wretched, filthy homes, so dirty that the French troops had to bivouac. Colonel Frezensac wrote, "As soon as one enters Poland one encounters only the image of servitude and misery, brutish peasants...fields that are scarcely tilled, and for houses, miserable huts that are quite as filthy as their inhabitants." (Frezensac 1970). Additionally, Russian soldiers burned many villages and farm houses as they retreated east. This "scorched earth" policy further stressed the soldiers and caused many peasants to wander the countryside, joining the teeming mass of refugees. The troops had to sleep close together because of the threat of Russian attack and peasant reprisals. Poor crop yields resulted in little straw available for bivouacs, so soldiers had to sleep on the moist ground (Etling 1988). This provided an ideal environment for the spread of lice and typhus.

The body lice thrived on their anguished hosts. Private Jakob Walter noted, "...the lice seemed to seek supremacy, for their number on both officers and privates was in the thousands." (Raeff 1991). In his memoirs, Sergeant Bourgogne wrote, "I had slept for an hour when I felt an unbearable tingling over the whole of my body...and to my horror discovered that I was covered with vermin! I jumped up, and in less than two minutes was as naked as a new-born babe, having thrown my shirt and trousers into the fire. The crackling they made was like a brisk firing..." (Bourgogne 1985). Private Walter's major asked him to kill the tormenting lice in his shirt collar. He wrote, "I did it; but when I had his collar open, his raw flesh showed forth where the greedy beasts had gnawed in." (Raeff 1991).

Spring rains turned the dirt roads into a muddy, rutted morass. Transport of supplies was severely lacking. The soldiers had no choice but to pillage the peasants. This activity brought the soldiers and peasants close together, enabling typhus to spread to the French units. The summer of 1812 was intensely hot and dry. Because of poor supplies of water, many French soldiers suffered from heat exhaustion. Private Walter wrote, "The very great heat, the dust which was like a thick fog, the closed line of march in columns, and the putrid water from holes filled with dead people and cattle brought everyone close to death; and eye pains, fatigue, and thirst, and hunger tormented everybody." (Raeff 1991).

Few had a change of clothing and fewer still could wash themselves adequately. The Russian winter was severe that year, but most of the damage was done to the army before winter reached full fury. The freezing conditions only made things worse, as soldiers were forced to huddle together for warmth, facilitating the movement of lice.

French military strength never fully recovered from its losses in Russia. Clearly, the typhus epidemic played a key role in the fate of Napoleon's army. The retreating French army and the pursuing Russians spread typhus throughout eastern Europe. Private Walter did not contract typhus until he was in Thorn, Prussia. Fever shook him "frightfully" and he could not eat or drink whiskey. After finally arriving home, he was overtaken by typhus fever again. He wrote, "...I became delirious and everyone doubted that I would recover...I was now so weak that I had to be lifted into and off of the wagon and I could take nothing more but drinking water...I was laid immediately in the room where all were brought who were near death." (Raeff 1991). Walter recovered and was quarantined with many other typhus patients in a town hall to prevent the spread of "nervous" fever.

Perhaps most importantly, Napoleon's reputation of invincibility was shattered (Chandler 1966). Napoleon attempted to make the best of a horrific circumstance. He blamed his misfortune on the Russian winter. On 20 December, he reported to the Senate, "My army had had some losses, but this was due to the premature rigors of the season." Chandler (1966) stated, "From these words...a celebrated historical myth has emerged." At the time, his supporters believed him. Madame Junot, wife of General Junot, wrote in her memoirs (1901), "Muscovite vanity was reluctant to acknowledge that THE WEATHER had had a large share of the victory; though it was a general remark among the common people in Russia that it was not General Kutusov, but General FROST, who had destroyed the French army." Cartwright (1972) stated that "...this is the accepted opinion but, to make the picture complete, we should add the name of General Typhus and General Napoleon."

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