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Napoleon's plagued retreat


© O. Dutour

Excavations of mass graves in Vilnius, Lithuania.


Despite not losing a major battle and successfully occupying Moscow, Napoleon's Grand Army was destroyed during its retreat from Russia. From the 25,000 soldiers who fell back to Vilnius, Lithuania, just 3000 were able to continue their retreat from there. Popular tradition holds that it was the Russian winter that was the cause of so many deaths, although infectious diseases are also thought to have played a role. Didier Raoult and his colleagues have developed powerful techniques in paleobiology and used them to study the remains of French soldiers in a recently discovered mass grave near Vilnius.1 Sifting through two kilograms of earth containing fragments of bone and clothes from the dead soldiers, they found the remains of five body lice. DNA analysis confirmed that the remains were indeed lice, and that three of the five carried Bartonella quintana, the bacterium responsible for a disease known as “trench fever,” that affected many soldiers during the First World War.


The team then went on to analyze the human remains. In particular, they used a technique developed in 1999 by Raoult and his team: analysis of the DNA in the vascular tissue inside the teeth, known as dental pulp. They found DNA of B. quintana in seven of the 35 bodies examined, confirming that they had indeed been infected. Furthermore, they also found that dental pulp from three of the 35 bodies contained DNA of R. prowazekii, the causative agent of another louse-borne disease: typhus. The Franco-Lithuanian collaboration has thus confirmed the scale of the problem of infectious disease in the retreating Grand Army, with almost one third of the bodies being infected with louse-borne disease. The technique developed by Raoult promises to be a powerful tool for studying the history of infectious pathology.


Alex Edelman

Notes :

1. Raoult D, et al., “Evidence for louse-transmitted diseases in soldiers of Napoleon's Grand Army in Vilnius,” J Infect Dis. 193 (1): 112-20. 2006.

Contacts :

Didier Raoult
Unité des Rickettsies et pathogènes émergents, Marseille.


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