Napoleon's troops to get proper burial in Lithuania

Saturday, May 31, 2003

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- The remains of some 3,000 soldiers who died during Napoleon Bonaparte's catastrophic invasion of Russia nearly two centuries ago will be laid to rest in a cemetery in Vilnius this weekend.

The ceremony includes re-enactments of battles during the ill-fated French attack on the Russian Empire in 1812. Some 1,000 men dressed in period costumes will stage mock battles Saturday in a Vilnius park. Forty horses and antique cannons will also be used. An actor depicting Napoleon will be given symbolic keys to the city of Vilnius.

The remains -- discovered two years ago in a mass grave -- will be buried Sunday in the Atakalnis Cemetery, a forested, hillside graveyard in the capital traditionally reserved for Lithuanian independence heroes, writers and leading politicians.

A monument paid for by France and designed by Lithuanians will be unveiled during the ceremony, which is expected to be attended by diplomats from across Europe.

Since Napoleon's soldiers came from all over his empire -- including Italy, Germany, Poland and Lithuania -- there was never a question of returning the remains to France, officials said.

When bulldozers uncovered the remains at a housing development in 2001, many thought they were dissidents executed by secret police during Soviet rule, which ended in 1991.

But as coins with Napoleon's image and buttons of his Grand Army were found amid the tangle of skulls and rib cages, it became clear they were remnants of the French force, said Arunas Barkus, a researcher from Vilnius University who examined them.

When Napoleon's army marched into Lithuania bound for Moscow, it was one of the largest forces ever assembled. Six months later, what was left of it, some 40,000 men, retreated to Vilnius in freezing cold. Most quickly died.

Reoccupying Russians spent three months cleaning up. They couldn't dig graves in the frozen ground so they tried burning bodies, but the smoke and stench were unbearable.

So they threw them into a defensive trench dug earlier by the French themselves. It was this trench the bulldozers uncovered.

Several thousand more remains were discovered at the same housing development last year, but are still being examined. Barkus said there may be as many as 20,000 other skeletons buried nearby.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- AP Correspondent Michael Tarm in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.

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