28 January 2010

"The men ate their own amputated fingers"

I think anyone with even a modicum of interest in history should read an account of Napoleon's disastrous 1812 campaign against the Russians. I recently finished The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Greatest Army by Stephan Talty (Crown Publishers, New York, 2009).  It provides a detailed account of the military campaign, with a special emphasis on the role played by typhus in decimating Napoleon's forces.  Here are some notes and excerpts:

As he headed east, Napoleon’s army was the size of a city; between 550,000 and 600,000 soldiers crossed entered Russian territory, accompanied by 50,000 wives, whores and attendants, the horde was more than lived in the entire city of Paris.  It was in effect the fifth-largest city in the world at the time, guided by a masterful administration that could move messages at 120 mph (via semaphore).

But they weren't very tall.  Napoleon's Imperial Guard of 50,000 men were hand-picked "immortals" who met the criteria of being able to read and write and standing over 5'6" tall (most Frenchmen at the time were closer to 5' tall).

Napoleon had prior experience with typhus with his armies.  During his wars in Spain 300,000 of his men died of disease while only 100,000 died in battle.  As this army entered Poland 60,000 were sick and 30,000 had already died.  When they reached Vilna, Napoleon was losing 4000-6000 soldiers a day.

The Russians experienced similar problems: "Russian Colonel Ludwig von Wolzogen met a lieutenant resting with 30 to 40 men behind the front line and ordered him to rejoin his regiment. “This is my regiment!” the man cried. He had lost approximately 1,250 men."

After the army entered Moscow, Russian arsonists torched the wooden city while the French army pillaged it:
“Thousands of men prowled the streets brandishing Turkish scimitars inside their leather belts or sporting enormous fur hats or bits of Tartar costume. Great heaps of swag made their appearance: a jewel-encrusted spittoon from a prince’s palace, silver candlesticks and icons from the local churches, silk Persian shawls threaded with gold, bracelets thick with emeralds and diamonds, enormous rugs and even embroidered armchairs from the finest salons…”
During the retreat, the ditches along the road were filled with this booty:
Along the road one saw silver candelabra, gold crucifixes, the Complete Works of Voltaire bound in Moroccan leather, wall hangings laced with silver thread, “cases filled with diamonds or rolls of ducats.”
To keep warm, the soldiers wore their booty:
“Gaunt soldiers wore silk dresses over their uniforms; fur capes and throws; chartreuse, lilac, or white satin capes… Some wore remnants of carpets stolen from glossy Muscovite floors.
And they ate anything in their path - dogs, bears, leather, and corpses.
The men ate their own fingers that had been amputated because of frostbite, and drank their own blood…”
The final numbers for the campaign of 1812: Total dead conservatively 400K. Fewer than a quarter died of enemy action; the majority died of disease, cold, hunger, and thirst. The Imperial Guard returned with only 1500 of its original 47,000 members. The losses were magnified by the small populations of the time – a Polish loss of 75,000 then would be equivalent to 750,000 now. The Russian losses were also heavy – total dead during the war easily over 1 million.

And one final intriguing tidbit. During the march to Moscow,
“Some troops cut crude sunglasses out of bits of stained-glass window and wore them…”
Quite clever. I've never heard of that before.

The embedded image is Minard's famous graphic of the size of Napoleon's army during the approach to, and retreat from, Moscow; it also depicts the route and the temperatures encountered.  Click the image to examine in more detail.


  1. This revealing graphic came to my attention because it won a high honor in a book that catalogues "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information."


  2. "Short Napoleon" is basically just a misunderstanding of the difference between French inches and English inches.

    From Wikipedia:

    Napoleon's height was 5 ft 2 French inches according to Antommarchi at Napoleon's autopsy and British sources put his height at 5 ft 7 British inches: both equivalent to 1.7m


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