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How Lice Thwarted Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia

December 11, 2009

Frank Thadeusz in Der Spiegel:

His invasion of Russia failed miserably, leaving a trail of corpses from Moscow all the way to Paris. In a new book, one historian blames not the wintry march but the spread of “war plague” — typhus — through Napoleon’s Grand Army.

The fate of Napoleon’s Grand Army was sealed long before the first shot was fired. In the spring of 1812, more than 600,000 men marched towards Russia under the command of the diminutive Corsican — an army larger than the population of Paris at the time.The massive army was on its way to topple the Russian Czar Alexander I. Yet long before the fighting started, a few soldiers staggered out of the ranks and collapsed at the side of the road. Were the men drunk as skunks, or was something else at work?

Given the sheer numbers of soldiers underway, no one took much notice of a few derelict drunks. Not until 200 years later did it come to light that these first casualites of Napoleon’s long march weren’t hopeless alcoholics but rather marked the beginning of the army’s downfall.

That’s the claim of Stephan Talty, the American author who reconstructs the medical history of Napoleon’s doomed Russian campaign in his new book “The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Greatest Army.” Talty carefully documents why 400,000 men never made it home. Like few historians before him, he illuminates the critical role of a tiny enemy: the louse.

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