Journalist Talty (Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign, 2007, etc.) examines how typhus became the primary killer in Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia.
Drawing on the legions of soldiers from nations that he had conquered, Napoleon had amassed a huge army by the spring of 1812—690,000 strong, Talty estimates. Alexander I of Russia, in contrast, had only about 162,000 on the front line. Driven by “dry calculation” and the need for fresh victories, Napoleon and his troops crossed the Niemen River on June 24, and were soon struck by an ancient microbe transmitted by the common body louse. By the attack on Smolensk in mid-August, Napoleon’s effective fighting force was reduced to 175,000, with the vanishing of the army attributed more to deprivation and the heat than to the dreaded “war fever.” After the bloodbath of Borodino in early September, the hospitals for the sick and wounded became incubators for the epidemic, even though, notes Talty, “a germ theory of disease had been in place for almost two hundred years.” Retreating from Moscow in November, Napoleon had lost nearly 400,000 men, as many as 200,000 from disease. By the time the army limped back into Germany, there were only a few thousand left, who would go on to infect their homes as “fatal messengers” of the doomed Russian campaign. Talty speculates on the outcome if typhus had not ravaged Napoleon’s forces, and shows how French doctor Charles Nicolle’s isolation of its transmission helped avert the decimation of European troops in World War I.
Dark, intriguing military history.