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A Silent Killer

Sunday, June 28, 2009

THE ILLUSTRIOUS DEAD

The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army

By Stephan Talty

Crown. 315 pp. $27

Napoleon's Grande Armée was a marching city-state, a multinational force of more than half a million that set out to conquer Russia in May 1812. By December, nearly everyone was dead. According to Stephan Talty, typhus was the main reason. A fast-paced sketch of this disastrous campaign, "The Illustrious Dead" is a military history that treats typhus as an invisible army on the battlefield, silently slaughtering hundreds of thousands of French soldiers, frustrating Napoleon's ambition, weakening his reign and changing the course of European history.

The narrative shifts between war history and epidemiology. Both sections can be rather macabre. Typhus has feasted on armies for centuries, with a mortality rate greater than that of the plague, and its victims do not die pleasantly: "A thick noxious film covered their tongues and their teeth turned black," Talty writes. " 'Tendon jolts' set arms and legs snapping into the air. . . . Patients called out for someone to blow their brains out." The campaign climaxed at Borodino, a bloodbath that followed months of retreat by the Russian army and attrition from typhus for the French -- all of this told masterfully. Moving from the battlefield to the command tent, Talty shows how the reduced French numbers drastically affected Napoleon's tactics and effectiveness. Breezy rather than exhaustive, "Dead" will be enjoyed by armchair historians, if not the squeamish.

-- Alexander F. Remington

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