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Why Did Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia Fail?

While Napoleon Bonaparte didn't meet his Waterloo until three years later, the failure of his 1812 invasion of Russia was one of the greatest upsets in military history. But evidence now suggests that it was neither the Russian people nor the harsh winter that played the greatest role in defeating the famed French military leader -- it was the smallest of enemies. Archaeologists who excavated the remains of some of the approximately 570,000 French soldiers who died during the war say that the majority of these deaths were caused by typhus, a disease caused by several types of bacteria and spread by lice.

The lice moved rapidly from soldier to soldier, who typically bunked near one another and wore the same clothes for days. In fact, 80,000 French troops died from typhus just one month into the Russian invasion. Prior to this discovery, most historians believed that the largely intact French army that pushed with little resistance into the Russian capital only turned back after the citizens of Moscow burned most of the city, denying Napoleon's troops the food and supplies they needed to survive. Another commonly held theory is that many French troops perished in the harsh cold during their retreat.

What you don't know about Napoleon:

  • Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon was not particularly short for his time: He was about 5 feet, 6 inches (168 cm), which was the average height for a man.
  • In 1799, during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, one of Napoleon's soldiers discovered an old basalt stone with writing on it: We know it today as the Rosetta Stone.
  • Napoleon was finally defeated by the Seventh Coalition at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was exiled to the island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821 at age 51.
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