In December 2001, Lithuanian workers made a strange discovery. On the side of a hill at Siaures Miestelis, north of Vilnius (the modern town of Vilna), they were surprised to uncover a multitude of skeletons, all piled haphazardly in a communal pit. Among the remains they discovered shreds of uniforms in blue and green cloth, pieces of gaiters, buttons bearing regimental identification numbers and a 5 franc coin bearing the imperial profile of Napoleon.
But who were these men? And how did so many come to rest in the same place?.
These skeletons are the ghosts of Vilnius, the burial ground for more than 3000 infantrymen, cavalrymen, officers and hussars of the once mighty French Grande Armee. These are some of nearly 500 000 men who never made it back to France from Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812.
Arguably the greatest General the world has ever seen, why then was Napoleon's Russian campaign such a disaster?.
There were several reasons for why Napoleon failed to conquer Russia in 1812: poor discipline, deficient logistics, disease, the unforgiving weather and Napoleon himself.
Napoleon's method of warfare was based upon rapid concentration of his forces at a key place enabling him to destroy the enemy. In order for this strategy to work, he needed to move his men as fast as possible to the place they were needed the most. He did this by advancing his army along several routes, only merging them at key places. Whilst Napoleon's soldiers were able to march 15-25 miles a day, the supply wagons were generally limited to 10-12 miles per day. So to avoid his army being slowed down, Napoleon instated that his troops lived off the land as much as possible. However unlike in previous campaigns where the environment cooperated with this plan, the route to Russia was laden with unforseen problems. .
When the campaign began in June 1812 Napoleon left France for Russia with The Army of Twenty Nations, comprising of around 600,000 men, 90,000 horses and 25 000 wagons and carts.