200 Napoleonic soldiers’ graves found in Frankfurt

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.

One thought on “200 Napoleonic soldiers’ graves found in Frankfurt

  1. Apperently, 2015 is a good year for finding graves from the Napoleonic wars… I completely agree that the information about this one so far is weird. I’m sure the Mayor just didn’t get his history right and no-one who checked that speech bothered which date, or rather year, checking. Stupid but it happens.
    The comments by the heritage director are weirder though. This type of burial does not really suggest haste but it does suggest an intention to deviate from the norm. The east-west orientation of Christian graves at the time had a religious motivation so it would have been understandable if the zealots in the early days of the French Revolution had tried to get rid of the practice. However, Napoleon had lot since restored the Catholic Church to a prominent position in his Empire and huge numbers of soldiers in both Great Armies came from the occupied territories and not from France itself so even if the French had, in the spirit of the Revolution, changed the axis at which to bury their dead, it’s unlikely this would have been a factor in 1813 Frankfurt.
    One thing though: The Revolution was hardly the first movement to attack Roman Catholic tradition and before Napoleon, what is now Germany was a complicated patchwork of states, each with the religion of its ruler. Was the east-west orientation of graves also common among German Protestants?

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