Europe

Mystery of Napoleon's favourite general may be solved in Russian discovery

The supposed remains of French General Charles Etienne Gudin de la Sablonniere in Smolensk, Russia, 7 July 2019 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The one-legged skeleton is said to belong to a man who died aged 40-45

A one-legged skeleton discovered under a dance floor in Russia may hold the key to a centuries-old mystery involving Napoleon's favourite general.

Charles-Étienne Gudin died aged 44 after he was hit by a cannonball during the French invasion of Russia in 1812.

He had to have his leg amputated and died three days later from gangrene.

Archaeologists believe the skeleton found in the city of Smolensk, west of Moscow, is his. Samples have been sent to France for DNA testing.

At a press conference in Moscow on Thursday, the team of Russian and French archaeologists said they were unable to provide a conclusive answer, and that the final results would need to come from a laboratory in Marseille.

The skeleton was discovered in July in a wooden coffin in a park beneath building foundations.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Archaeologists at a site of Gudin's supposed burial place in Smolensk, Russia

The remains, they said, displayed injuries consistent with those sustained by Gudin, a veteran of both the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

At the time of his death, the French army removed Gudin's heart and buried it in Paris, but the whereabouts of his skeleton remained unknown.

"As soon as I saw the skeleton with just one leg, I knew that we had our man," the head of the archaeological team, Marina Nesterova, told AFP news agency.

A preliminary report concluded that the skeleton belonged to a man aged between 40 and 45 at the time of his death.

The latest search for Gudin's remains began in May and is being led by Pierre Malinowski, a historian with support from the Kremlin.

Researchers used the memoirs of Louis-Nicolas Davout, another French general of the Napoleonic era, who organised Gudin's funeral and described the location. They then followed another witness account, which directed them to the coffin.

Gudin, who died on 22 August 1812, attended the same military school as Napoleon Bonaparte and is believed to have been one of the French emperor's favourite generals.

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Image caption Charles-Étienne Gudin was thought to be one of Napoleon Bonaparte's favourite generals

A bust of his likeness resides in the Palace of Versailles, his name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris and he also has a street in the French capital named after him.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia ended in a disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812.

His Grande Armee of 400,000 men was thought to be unbeatable and he himself had anticipated a rapid victory.

But having initially captured Moscow after the Russian army withdrew during a harsh winter, the emperor then realised he too had to turn back.

In a letter in which he vowed to blow up the Kremlin, Napoleon exposed his frustration at the campaign, with his army ravaged by disease, cold and hunger: "My cavalry is in tatters, a lot of horses are dying."

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