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Lice: Secret destroyer of Napoleon's Grande Armee !

The biggest destroyer of Napoleon's army was Pediculus humanus - the human louse, say scientists.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2006 14:00 IST

he history books say that after reaching Moscow in 1812, Napoleon's army was laid low by the Russian winter and then finished off by hunger, battle wounds and low morale as it straggled back to France.

The truth, say scientists, is more intriguing but rather less poetic: the biggest destroyer of the Grande Armee was Pediculus humanus - the human louse.

A team led by Didier Raoult of France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) examined the remains of Napoleon's soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, 800 kilometres west of Moscow.

Samples of earth, cloth and teeth recovered from the site suggest that more than 30 per cent of these troops were killed by bacterial fever transmitted by lice.

The parasites caused relapsing fever, through the bacterium Borrelia recurrentis; trench fever, a condition well known in the Western Front of World War I, caused by the germ Bartonella quintana; and typhus, caused by the Rickettsia prowazeki bacterium.

The evidence comes from remains of the fleas that were found in the common grave and in the soldiers' uniforms, and from the presence of Bartonella quintana in some of the fleas themselves.

In addition, seven teeth, among 35 that were examined, were found to have Bartonella quintana in the dental pulp while Rickettsia prowazeki was found in three other teeth.

The unusual research is found in the January issue of Journal of Infectious Diseases.

First Published: Jan 05, 2006 14:00 IST