In a quiet, small town in eastern Austria lies a mass grave containing possibly thousands of soldiers who died at battle during the Napoleonic wars.

Approximately 55,000 soldiers are said to have died during the Battle of Wagram, a turning point in French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's quest to conquer Europe. The battle lasted two days, earning casualties on both the French and Austrian sides.

In the end, however, the French troops crushed the Austrian forces, the remnants of which have been dug up by a team of archaeologists before the Austrian government puts up a highway over them.

Mass Grave Discovered From Battle Of Wagram

From 1799 to 1815, Napoleon set out on a mission to subdue the rest of Europe under the French empire. However, in the spring of 1809, the Austrian and British empires came together in an attempt to thwart Napoleon's cause in what is known as the War of the Fifth Coalition.

Napoleon suffered his first serious defeat in May 1809 at the Battle of Aspern-Essling, but he made a major comeback just six weeks later. Under the guise of a thunderstorm, Napoleon's army surprised the Austrian troops at their camp in what is now known as the Battle of Wagram. The Austrian defeat dealt a major blow to their armed forces and caused the dissolution of the Fifth Coalition.

Only traces of the historic battle are left over from the past as archaeologists dig up the remains of soldiers, possibly from both sides, just lying beneath the farms in what is now known as Deutsch-Wagram.

Major Highway Construction Leads To Discovery

The mass grave was discovered prior to the construction of a speedway that cuts right through Deutsch-Wagram straight to Slovakia. ASFINAG, Austria's highway authority, is compelled by law to get in touch with archaeological experts to excavate any historical remains that may be damaged due to the construction.

The excavation team found skeletons of soldiers, 50 of which have been dug up and examined, as well as guns, bullets, medicine bottles, metal buttons, buckles, and other items that may have been dropped on the battlefield.  

"We are in the hotspot of the battle," says archaeologist Alexander Stagl, CEO of Novetus, a cultural resource management firm. "This is the reason I think we have so many findings."

The financial and time costs of the project are staggering. The team started digging in March 2017. They estimate they will continue doing so until the end of this year. The Austrian government has allocated a $3.5 million budget, half of which will go to the farmers who are renting out their lands for the excavation.

Findings Show Insight Into Soldiers' Lives

Over the course of two centuries, the soldiers' uniforms have disintegrated into dust. However, the metal accessories left behind may help archaeologists identify whose side they were on and what their ranks were.

Stagl says they have already found a French officer. With further research, he hopes they will be able to identify who the man is.

The team is also working on studying the skeletons, 50 of which have been dug up for the purpose. Novetus' Hannah Grabmayer and Michaela Binder from the Austrian Archaeological Institute suggest that most of the men sent to battle were aged 16 to 30.

A look at their bones show evidence of scurvy caused by Vitamin C deficiency, joint inflammation from the long journeys on foot carrying huge packs on their backs, and pneumonia and other infections that may have spread around camp.

"I think bioarchaeology has the responsibility to document their stories," Binder says. "These were the men that bore the brunt of the battles."

Binder also studied the remains of the Battle of Aspern-Essling, which broke out six weeks before the Battle of Wagram. Her investigations show the devastating effects of military life on the soldiers' health.

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