The graves of an estimated 200 soldiers from Napoleon’s Grand Army have been discovered at a construction site in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Napoleonic soldiers’ remains were found nearby in 1979, so archaeologists were employed to survey the site before work began. They have so far unearthed about 30 skeletons; the 200 figure is an estimate based on the dimensions of the site.
Unlike the mass grave unearthed in Vilnius, this is a burial ground where each individual was buried neatly in his own coffin, which means the skeletal remains are in significantly better condition.
Andrea Hampel, the heritage and historic monuments director in Frankfurt, said it was certain that the “tombs were erected in an emergency”. Hampel said the skeletons were aligned in a row, without funeral articles, in a north-south orientation – not an east-west axis as was common for European Christians at the time – suggesting they were buried in haste.
I don’t really get that. How could it be an emergency burial if the buriers took the time to inter each body in its own coffin? Surely a mass grave would be the way to go in an emergency. Also, why is it any faster to inter coffins along a north-south axis rather than the traditional Christian east-west orientation? The expenditure of time and resources in the building of coffins and their deliberate arrangement, not in selecting one axis over the other. It’s weird.
Also weird is that in all the articles I’ve read on this find, Olaf Cunitz, the Mayor of Frankfurt, is quoted stating at a press conference that preliminary analysis indicates these are soldiers who died after fighting the coalition armies at the Battle of Hanau during the brutal retreat from Russia. That can’t be right. The retreat from Russia was in the winter of 1812 and it all but destroyed Napoleon’s Great Army. Hanau was fought on October 30-31st, 1813, in the wake of the four-day Battle of Leipzig. It was a rearguard action intended to block what was left of Napoleon’s second Great Army, hastily assembled in the summer of 1813, from reaching the Rhine where they could regroup.
Had it succeeded, it would have obliterated the second Great Army, which had suffered immense losses during the Battle of Leipzig, but Napoleon won the Battle of Hanau. Outnumbered, outhorsed and outgunned, Napoleon’s troops still inflicted 9,000 casualties on the Bavarian army under the command of Karl Philipp von Wrede which had literally weeks earlier been fighting on France’s side, only switching teams after Leipzig. Napoleon suffered half the number of casualties in the battle, but 10,000 of his men were captured. The rest of the Great Army headed for their rear base at Mainz, reaching Frankfurt on November 2nd.
Buttons found in the graves confirm the 1813 date, and given that the Great Army was actually in Frankfurt and environs in late October of that year, it seems likely these soldiers were from the second Great Army, not the Russian retreat.
The excavation will continue for another four to six weeks. Archeologists hope to unearth all of the graves and then study the remains to figure out how they died. Battle wounds are likely candidates for cause of death, as is typhus which had far killed more soldiers in the first Great Army than violence did. There was a major epidemic of typhus in Frankfurt in late 1813, spread by the soldiers, prisoners and city residents who looted the battlefield and brought back deadly microorganisms along with dead soldiers’ belongings.