When Experts Dug Up A Russian Dance Floor, They Untangled A Massive Napoleonic Mystery

Archeologists are carefully removing soil in an unlikely location. They’re digging below the surface of an outdoor dance floor in the city of Smolensk, which lies about 250 miles to the west of Russia’s capital, Moscow. And what they’re about to uncover will solve a 200-year-old mystery associated with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated invasion of Russia.

It was the summer of 2019 when a team of French and Russian archeologists were excavating a park in Smolensk. And what they found would help solve an enduring mystery about General Charles Etienne Gudin, one of Napoleon’s most favored senior military leaders, and one of the most successful in battle.

Now, Gudin was one of many generals who served Napoleon in his seemingly endless campaigns across Europe. But he was an extraordinary leader, and one particularly respected by Napoleon. To succeed in his conquests, the Emperor had great need of men like Gudin who were brave, loyal and dependable.

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And it wasn’t just the Emperor who had a high regard for Gudin – so it seems did the French people. For instance, Gudin’s memory is honored by a Parisian street name – Rue Gudin, just off the Avenue Versailles. What’s more, his name was inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe, the towering victory arch at the end of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

We’ll come back to those archeologists in Smolensk and their startling discovery shortly. But first let’s get to know the man at the center of our story, Charles-Étienne César Gudin de La Sablonnière. And that extravagant name immediately tells us that he was born into France’s aristocracy.

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So Gudin came into the world in 1768 at a time when France’s penultimate monarch, King Louis XV, was on the throne. He died in 1774 to be succeeded by his son Louis XVI. And he, of course, was the last French king, his rule violently terminated by the French Revolution of 1789, which ultimately led to his execution by guillotine in 1793.

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But when Gudin was born in the town of Montargis, few could have predicted that within 25 years the French would be decapitating their king. Meanwhile, Gudin did what many an aristocratic son had done before him and enrolled at the Brienne Military School. You see, it was an academy reserved for the sons of nobility. And who should be there when he arrived?

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None other than Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s future emperor, was a fellow student at this elite school. And he’d joined the institution at the age of nine in 1779. The school roll of 120 consisted of 60 boys from wealthy families and 60 scholarship pupils from impoverished aristocracy. Napoleon, from a background of obscure Corsican nobility, was one of the latter.

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Of course, in such a small academy, Napoleon and Gudin probably knew each other. For there were only about 18 months between them in age, with Gudin the senior. In the years to come, the relationship between the future general and the future emperor would be absolutely central to Gudin, and to his ultimate fate, as we’ll see.

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So Gudin finished his schooling in 1782 and joined the King’s Guard before becoming a second lieutenant with an infantry regiment. And although the French Revolution came in 1789, it seems to have had little effect on the trajectory of Gudin’s military career. Come 1791, now a full lieutenant, Gudin set off on overseas duty to Santo Domingo.

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You see, there had been a slave insurrection in San Domingo led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Gudin was part of the French military force sent to suppress the rebels. After that he returned to France, and in 1793 he was given the post of aide-de-camp to General Etienne Gudin, his uncle.

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Now, Gudin’s successful military career continued through the 1790s with various senior appointments. And in 1799, just a few days from his 31st birthday, he attained the rank of brigadier general. Then, in 1800, he was involved in various battles as the French took on other European powers across Europe.

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And these conflicts that Gudin fought in came to be known as the French Revolutionary Wars, from 1792 until 1802. Then, in 1803, the military campaigns almost seamlessly merged into what historians call the Napoleonic Wars. Gudin, with the rank of full general, was to be a key participant in these conflicts.

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You see, in 1805 Gudin was given the prestigious position of commanding the 3rd Division of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. By this time, he’d earned a reputation as a courageous leader who was not averse to coming under fire himself during battle despite his elevated rank. An example of his bravery and determination to gain victory came at the Battle of Auerstädt and Jena in 1806.

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Indeed, the Battle of Auerstädt saw Napoleon’s forces ranged against those of Prussia’s King Frederick William III. And it was fought in Saxony, a region that is now in Germany. Some 122,000 Frenchmen faced around 114,000 Prussians and Saxons. And as the Russians were newly allied with the Prussians, the French leader was keen to engage the latter before they could join up with the Russian forces.

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Interestingly, two battles happened on the same day, at Auerstädt and at Jena, places some 13 miles apart. And it was at the former where Gudin was engaged, leading the 3rd Division of Marshall Louis-Nicolas Davout’s 26,000-strong force against the main body of the Prussian Army. Strikingly, the Prussians had 63,000 men on the battlefield, so the odds were stacked against the French.

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Bravely, Gudin’s 3rd Division was the first into action at Auerstädt, staging an attack on the Prussians under cover of fog. Fierce fighting at a village called Hassenhaussen saw Gudin’s force repel repeated Prussian cavalry attacks. Gudin himself was right in the middle of the bitter battle. Eventually, though, dogged French determination led to a Prussian rout.

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Yes, Gudin’s men continued the fight, defeating a rearguard action by the enemy. It was a complete victory, but it came at a high cost. You see, Gudin’s division sustained casualties of some 40 percent, and the general himself was badly wounded although he went on to make a complete recovery. This allowed him to lead his victorious troops into Berlin a couple of weeks after the Battle of Auerstädt.

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So Gudin continued his run of military successes over the years and was awarded many honors by a grateful Emperor. Also, he was wounded again, this time at the Battle of Wagram in 1809. Indeed, he sustained four gunshot wounds at that battle where Napoleon’s forces defeated an Austrian army. And it was an exceptionally bloody engagement, fought by 300,000 men and resulting in 80,000 casualties.

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Then, in 1812, Napoleon ordered his army to invade Russia. Of course, Gudin was part of the invasion force, again leading the 3rd Division, part of a corps commanded by Marshall Davout. Staggeringly, the French Emperor assembled the largest army in world history at the time, an invasion force of some 685,000 men. And Napoleon believed that he could defeat Russia in as little as 30 days. He was to be proved completely wrong.

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You see, in June 1812 the French army marched into Russia, but the Russians adopted a tactic of avoiding a pitched battle, retreating in the face of Napoleon’s advances. And as they retreated, the Russians resorted to a scorched earth policy, denying the French much-needed supplies by setting fire to their own infrastructure. However, there was one major engagement in the early stages of the campaign, the Battle of Smolensk.

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Now, the Battle of Smolensk ended in victory for Napoleon. But yet again, the Russians burnt their own city to the ground and retreated, making good their escape. Directly after Smolensk came the Battle of Valutino. In this engagement, the French attacked a Russian rearguard force some 12 miles from the destroyed city.

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The Russian rearguard had taken a position on marshy land, occupying a clever strategic spot on a plateau. And that’s when Gudin’s troops attacked them, supporting French soldiers who’d so far found it difficult to take the position. It was now that Gudin paid the price for his willingness to be in the thick of the action.

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Indeed, because during the melee a cannonball smashed into Gudin’s legs. His left leg was all but destroyed while the calf of his right was completely shot away. Now bleeding heavily, the severely wounded general was transported to Smolensk. So the French won the day at Valutino, but at the expense of some 7,000 casualties, including one of their most feted generals.

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The reaction to Gudin’s wounding was extraordinary. French historian Philippe-Paul Ségur described the response in his 1825 work, History of the Expedition to Russia undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon, in the year 1812. He wrote “…when the tidings of this misfortune reached the Emperor, they put a stop to everything – to discussion and action. Everyone was thunderstruck; the victory of Valutino seemed no longer to be a success.”

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The next day Napoleon visited Gudin’s sickbed. There, he was reported to have asked surgeons to amputate Gudin’s most severely wounded leg to save his general’s life. In fact, he apparently stayed to witness the operation. But gangrene took hold of Gudin’s wounds and he died the following day. The Emperor’s grief was overwhelming.

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You see, Napoleon wrote a glowing memorial of Gudin in his 14th Bulletin. According to the Fondation Napoleon website, the Emperor wrote, “General Gudin was one of the most distinguished officers of the army; he was estimable for his moral qualities as well as his bravery and intrepidity.” And Napoleon also composed a letter of condolence to Gudin’s wife. He wrote, “I share in your regret; the loss is great for you; it is likewise for me too.”

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It appeared that Napoleon saw Gudin’s death as a harsh blow. However, worse was ahead for the Emperor. Although his army reached Moscow, the Russian army continued its retreat ahead of him, having torched their capital city. Eventually, the French were forced to retreat through the rigors of the harsh Russian winter. Some 380,000 soldiers of the French Army had lost their lives and another 100,000 had been captured.

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After Gudin’s death, his heart was removed and returned to France where it was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The remains of his body were buried in Smolensk. If the French had hoped to return to retrieve Gudin’s body, their miserable retreat from Russia clearly made that impossible. And over the years, the location of his grave in Smolensk was lost.

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But Frenchman Pierre Malinowski decided that it was time for General Gudin’s final resting place to be found. He had researched the General, a man who seemed largely forgotten despite his illustrious military career. Speaking to CNN in November 2019, Malinowski said, “There’s a street with his name on it in Paris, he’s on the Arc de Triomphe. He’s quite a figure, so I wanted to know what happened to him.”

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Malinowski continued, “I read that Napoleon cried when he died. And that he buried him in a Smolensk park because he didn’t have time to take the body with him. His plans were to repatriate him later but that never happened because they had to retreat. Basically, no one believed in this story, and that motivated me. I found teams of experts, and set up a project that started in May [2019] in Russia.”

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At first Malinowski’s research team, which had support from the Russian government, tried to track the likely location of the grave. And it did this by referring to Marshall Davout’s diary. For you see, Davout had arranged Gudin’s burial, and his diary included a description of Gudin’s grave. However, the evidence provided by Davout’s account failed to turn up the General’s last resting place.

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Next, the researchers turned their attention to other documents describing the General’s burial. One of those was an eye-witness account of Gudin’s burial. This led them to the outdoor dance floor we mentioned earlier. And sure enough, digging below the surface of the Smolensk park, they came across fragments of a coffin.

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Intriguingly, the skeleton inside the moldering coffin belonged to a man estimated to have been aged between 40 and 45. Well, Gudin was 44 when he died. And even more encouragingly, this skeleton was missing a leg. However this was not yet conclusive proof that the team had really found Gudin’s grave. After all, thousands died during the French invasion of Russia, and no doubt many of them had lost limbs.

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So Malinowski realized that he would need stronger evidence to be sure that Gudin’s body had finally been discovered. He hatched a daring plan. He packed part of the skeleton’s femur and some teeth into a suitcase and jumped on a flight to Marseille, France. It was a nervy journey. As Malinowski told CNN, “It’s not every day you travel with human remains in your suitcase.”

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Back on French soil, Malinowski handed over the bones to DNA expert Professor Signoli in Marseille for testing. However, to prove that the bones belonged to Gudin, the remains of some of the General’s relatives were needed for comparison. And thankfully, getting samples from the Gudin family wasn’t as tricky as finding the General himself.

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You see, the Gudin family have a crypt in the French town of Saint-Maurice-sur-Aveyron. And the bones of General Gudin’s parents and his son were disinterred so that DNA could be extracted from them. Now it would be possible for scientists to make DNA comparisons between the different sets of remains.

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And the results of the DNA testing could not have pleased Malinowski more. As he told Radio network France Bleu in November 2019, “The DNA fits 100 per cent. There is no longer any doubt.” So it seems Malinowski had achieved exactly what he’d set out to do. For his team had found General Gudin’s remains, mislaid in Smolensk for more than two centuries.

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A jubilant Malinowski continued, “This is the greatest day of my life. Napoleon was one of the last people to see him alive which is very important, and he’s the first general from the Napoleonic period that we have found. We were very lucky to find a skeleton after all the tragedies that Russia went through in 1812.”

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Albéric d’Orléans, a descendant of General Gudin, was another who welcomed the discovery. He told The Daily Telegraph, “This is the man who stood up to the Prussians during the Battle of Auerstädt, he deserves a national tribute.” D’Orléans added that he would like his distinguished ancestor to be reburied at Les Invalides in Paris. That would certainly be fitting, since it’s where Napoleon’s remains lie.

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