- December 14, 2012
Remains of Napoleon’s Grand Army in Vilnius Region.
On the map of the Vilnius Region in Riešės district, there is a small village Niemenczynek (Nemenčinėlė) inhabited by only 60 people. Three French generals and their 500 soldiers rest there. They died exactly 200 years ago while struggling with extreme exhaustion, starvation and sharp frost during the Great Retreat of Napoleon’s Army from Moscow.
Our office was informed about a grave by the village’s inhabitant Valdas Sidavas: “Maybe something still can be done about it. Those people died also for our freedom, for our liberation from Russian tsarism. Birches are the only memorial commemorating them! Time will pass and they will be forgotten, the kurgan will be ploughed and the only trace of French Army will vanish.”
Mr Valdas sounds distressed. He has lived in Niemenczynek for 20 years and he heard about French soldiers from other inhabitants. We went from Vilnius to Niemeczynek on the way to Malaty, we turned left after passing Grand Rzesza. Unfortunately, only a metal waste container serves as a signpost. We forced our way through thick snow, ruffling its surface, and there it is. A mound of considerable size, covered with snow with dried stalks around it. Next to it there is a birch protruding and a bit further the remains of another tree. Concrete posts from an unfinished lumber mill are sank into the ground.
Franciszek Warkowski from Niemeczynek is our guide. His family has lived here for generations. He heard stories about French soldiers buried here. He points with his cane to the mould and warns us not to go further into the snow as “there are hollows and you can break your legs.” Apparently on the other side of the mould, there are remains of granite gravestones. Unfortunately, the thick snow does great job guarding the secret. According to some stories, three French generals rest in this kurgan. Mr Franciszek says that there is a mass grave with French Army soldiers near the forest. How many soldiers rest there? Nobody knows exactly. Some people claim that even 4,000, but 400 is a more feasible estimate.
“These three birches were planted in honour of those three generals,” says Antoni Rudak who since 1978 was an agronomist in kolkhoz in Pikieliszki. “After the war some civilians from France came here and planted these trees. Only one birch continues to grow, the second one withered when people started to build the lumber mill, and the third one is a stump. The kurgan survived. Young people were looking for weapons in it, however, they found only bones.”
“We can learn from old stories that the whole forest grows on soldiers’ bones. There are fields covered with hollows, which were probably trenches, behind the forest,” says Antoni Rudak. “People claim that many soldiers died in lake Gulbiny in Riešės district. During the Grand Retreat they covered steep lake’s banks. As their carriages were packed full with army equipment and hauls the ice on the lake broke and neither horses nor soldiers had enough strength to get out of the icy water. Also a story about the village of Dowciany near Pikieliszki circulates in the neighbourhood. It is said that a battle between two French reconnaissance units and Russian cavalry took place there. French soldiers were slaughtered, each and every one of them.”
It was 200 years ago that, after an unfortunate invasion on Russia and dramatic events near Moscow, the “God of War” was forced to retreat. At the beginning of December 1812 when the French troops returned to Vilnius they were meagre, wretched remains of the fine army. Napoleon spent one day in Vilnius whereas thousands of his loyal soldiers stayed there forever.
On the 10th of December, 9,800 soldiers, seven generals and 5,200 wounded and ill kept in Vilnius hospitals were taken to Russian captivity. 40,000 dead soldiers were lying on Vilnius’ streets. In total, 80,000 soldiers died in those days. They died of starvation and physical exhaustion, frost and illnesses. Most of them had no strength to get to a storehouse with food. Bodies were lying there all winter. To prevent the outbreak of an epidemic, authorities decided to bury corpses in the city’s fortifications at the beginning of spring. Some corpses were burned at the stake in Žvėrynas district.
Russian army laid siege of Vilnius for more than a hundred years on 10 December 1812. The period of French rule in Lithuania was brought to the end. The French rule period can be described as the time of unfulfilled dreams about the old Republic of Poland regaining independence with the assistance of France. As Czesław Jankowski wrote: “the non-rebuilt Poland glittered, twinkled and faded, and disintegrated.”
In 2002 in Vilnius district “Północne Miasteczko” a mass grave was discovered in which about 3,000 French soldiers had been buried in 1812. It is one of the biggest mass graves of Napoleonic soldiers in Europe. About 2,000 sets of human remains was identified. In 2003 they were ceremoniously buried in the Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius.
Franciszek Warkowski from Niemenczynek shows the burial place of French generals who died in 1812
In 2002 the ashes of French soldiers were buried with full military honours in Antakalnis Cemetery
Tłumaczenie Patrycja Olszówka w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Patrycja Olszówka the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.