Typhus was one of Napoleon’s worst enemies

The history of Napoleon Bonaparte is filled with impressive victories and military campaigns that changed the course of Europe. However, in 1812, during the invasion of Russia, Napoleon faced an unexpected and deadly enemy: typhus. This illness, along with the harsh conditions of the Russian campaign, played a crucial role in the defeat of the Grand Armée, marking the beginning of the end for the Napoleonic empire.

Napoleon's Army

The Russian campaign of 1812

Napoleon Bonaparte launched a massive invasion of Russia in 1812. His goal was to force Alexander I of Russia to reintegrate into the continental system, an economic policy designed to isolate the United Kingdom. The Grand Armée, composed of approximately 600,000 soldiers from various European nations, marched east.

During the campaign, living conditions were deplorable. The troops faced serious shortages of food and drinking water. The long marches and overcrowding in the camps worsened the situation, favoring the spread of diseases such as typhus.

Typhus: an invisible enemy

Typhus is an infectious disease transmitted by lice, which became a deadly enemy. This disease causes high fever, intense pain and extreme weakness. The symptoms were intensified, especially in the harsh conditions of the Russian winter, and caused a high mortality rate.

Epidemic fever decimated Napoleon’s troops. It is estimated that more than 80,000 soldiers died from this cause before even facing the enemy. The weakening and reduction in the number of soldiers seriously affected the combat capacity of the Grand Armée. Without achieving a decisive victory, Napoleon withdrew from the area during the harsh winter, suffering heavy casualties from typhus, hunger, cold, and Russian attacks.

The disastrous Russian campaign marked the beginning of the end of the Napoleonic empire. Of the approximately 600,000 soldiers who began the invasion, only about 100,000 managed to return. Napoleon’s inability to foresee and manage sanitary and climatic conditions resulted in one of the greatest defeats of his career and changed the course of European history.

Defeat became a hard lesson

Analysis of mass graves revealed body lice and bacteria such as “Bartonella quintana” and *Rickettsia prowazekii*, responsible for the diseases that decimated Napoleon’s army.

The bacteria Bartonella quintana causes typhus
Bartonella quintana bacteria – Image from Wikipedia

A group of researchers from the Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille analyzed the dental pulp of soldiers who died during the campaign, discovering that typhus and trench fever, diseases transmitted by lice, were common in the Grand French Army.

The Russian campaign of 1812 demonstrated that diseases could be as decisive as battles in military campaigns. Typhus turned out to be an invisible enemy that played a crucial role in Napoleon’s defeat. The terrible result highlights the importance of caring for sanitary conditions and proper management of diseases also in military conflicts.

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