Vilinius which is the capital of Lithuania is also called the ‘city built on human bones’. The city stands in the main Berlin to Moscow corridor. Over 200 years it has been the battlefield for Napoleon’s armies, Tsras of Russia, Hitler and Stalin, Poles and Prussians. Thus many lives have been lost in this city. In early 2002 while bulldozing some Soviet barracks on the outskirts of Vilinius, municipal workers discovered mass graves. Thousands of skeletons were uncovered. Could these be skeletons of Jews massacred by the Nazis? No. Because soon there were metal buttons found with ‘61’ and ‘29’ stamped on them. There was also patch of ancient uniform that was once blue. A gold 20-franc coin from the Napoleonic times was found and a French infantryman’s helmet. It was soon confirmed by the archaeologists that these were the remains of men Napoleon led into Russia in 1812.
In 1807 Napoleon inflicted second loss upon the Tsar of Russia. The Tsar agreed not to trade with the British. But soon this treaty was broken in lieu of economic reality. So, in midsummer of 1812 Napoleon crossed River Niemen into the Russian province of Lithuania in a bid to conquer Russia. He had a spectacular and probably the largest army in Europe. The army was about half a million men and consisted of French and other allied nations whom Napoleon had subjugated. Napoleon had ten army corps against two army corps of the Tsar. The campaign was not only meant to conquer Russia, but to march into India as well. But nothing went to plan.
There was no sign of Russian resistance in Lithuania. Russian army simply withdrew when they saw the French army arriving. In four days’ time Captain Victor Dupuy of the French 7th Hussars galloped into Vilinius. His army was met with a warm reception and there was joy all over. The tale continued further, as Napoleon’s marched towards Russia, Tsar’s armies withdrew. But summer heat was exhausting the French soldiers of thirst and starvation. Many soldiers died in the heat. When Napoleon’s army reached Bordino, which was about a week’s march from Russia, both the armies were equally matched. There was a trifle fighting here, but the French armies overcame that. They marched into Moscow and waited for the Tsar (sitting St Petersburg) to start negotiations. But the Tsar was in no mood for negotiations. He knew harsh Russian winter was about to start.
Soon the snow came down and Napoleon’s men froze and their horses starved. The trek back to Vilnius was very taxing for all the soldiers. They barely managed to cross the Berezina River. They had the Cossacks at their back and were harried along the narrow highway. The temperatures were icy. When the army came to Vilnius half of them dropped dead on the spot. Others died within a few days. Some of them even died due to over eating or drinking more. The bodies uncovered showed frozen toes, fingers and noses which had turned gangrenous. The monastery in Vilnius was turned into an emergency hospital but most of the soldiers were in a degraded state. The bodies of all these soldiers were piled up and laid for mass burial.
Such significant loss in personnel hampered the success of Napoleon all other successive campaigns and finally led to his fall.