General Gudin:
The Russian-French hunt for Napoleon’s brother-in-arms

On 24 June 1812, Napoleon I’s Great Army crossed the River Neman, invading the Russian Empire. Numbering in all around 680,000 men, two-thirds of them French, it was the largest army the world had ever known.

Its mission: to defeat the Russian Army in decisive battle and thus force Russian Emperor Alexander I to fall back in line with the French emperor’s grand plans for Europe.

However, the decisive battle proved elusive as the outnumbered Russian forces kept retreating and the French penetrated ever further into Russian territory.

On 17 August, they took the city of Smolensk. Two days later, the Russians evaded encirclement by fighting a rear-guard action near Valutina Gora. Losses were heavy on both sides.

One casualty was Napoleon Bonaparte’s schoolmate, General Charles-Etienne Gudin. After his childhood friend’s death in hospital in Smolensk, Napoleon had him buried in an elaborate ceremony.

After that, the mystery thickens. The location of the burial was disputed and Gudin’s remains were never found.

That is, until a joint French and Russian archaeological expedition set out to find the lost general in the spring of 2019.

French infantry at the Battle of Valutina Gora
French infantry at the Battle of Valutina Gora, by Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur. 1830s

Death of a General and Birth of a Legend

The circumstances of General Gudin’s death and burial are known thanks to two eyewitness accounts, one by Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Philippe-Paul, count of Segur, and the other by Louis-Francois, baron Lejeune, who was in charge of Gudin’s funeral.

They underline the sorrow felt by Napoleon on a personal level, and also the blow to the Great Army’s morale caused by the loss of a popular general.

Battle of Valutina Gora General Tutchkov counter attacks with the Ekaterinoslavsky regiment
Battle of Valutina Gora General Tutchkov counter attacks with the Ekaterinoslavsky regiment, by Peter von Hess.

However, the way the authors describe the exact location of Gudin’s grave is not sufficiently detailed and may appear contradictory. Segur places the burial inside the citadel, that is inside the most fortified area of Smolensk’s walled city, while Lejeune locates it “towards the great bastion” to or at (the French preposition “au” could mean either) the south-east of the city. He also compares Gudin’s resting place to a Gallic tumulus or burial mound. But did he mean the Sheinov bastion, an elevated mound just south-east of the fortifications, or one of the five bastions inside the pentagonal King’s fortress, on the south-western corner of the city’s fortified walls? This one also included an elevated earth mound.

Gudin’s heart was buried at the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris; his name is mentioned twice among Napoleon’s generals at the Arc de Triomphe, and a street in the French capital’s 16th district also honours his memory. Yet for over 200 years, his burial place remained a mystery, contributing to the poignant legend of the lost general.

Death of General Gudin at the Battle of Valutino, 1830S
General Gudin, who has been mortally wounded by a cannon shell, hands over the command of his division to General Gerard, Illustration by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux. Death of General Gudin at the Battle of Valutino, 1830S.

These are the two first-hand accounts that guided the joint team of archaeologists in their search for Gudin’s remains:

Gudin was taken to Smolensk and received the Emperor’s ministrations there. They proved useless; he died. His remains were buried in the town’s citadel, which they hold in honour, a worthy tomb for this warrior - a good citizen, a good husband, a good father, a fair, gentle and intrepid general, with both integrity and shrewdness; a rare combination in an age where too often the decent men lack cunning and the cunning lack character.

Memoirs of the Comte de Ségur, History of Napoleon and of the Great Army during the year 1812

Philippe-Paul, Count of Segur, was attached to Napoleon’s personal staff as an aide-de-camp during the Russia campaign. His memoirs provide an insider’s account of the battle of Valutina Gora and more generally of the dissensions among the high command during that fateful campaign.

Two-thirds of the city of Smolensk were still in flames, and while we were still trying to save from the fire what remained of the Russians’ enormous provisions, while my comrades from the engineering corps were rebuilding the great bridge which had burnt down, I was directing the funeral convoy towards the great bastion, at the south-east of the town; and it was in the midst of this great construction, which I deemed a mausoleum worthy of this illustrious warrior, that I had his tomb dug. I ordered that 20 rifles broken in battle and arranged in a star-shaped formation be placed on the body of the deceased, so that one day when Time, which destroys everything, would uncover the bones of a hero, this weapons trophy would call on them the same feelings of attentiveness and respect which we show towards the remains of our valiant Gauls, placed under their ancient burial mounds.

Memoirs of General Lejeune published by Germain Bapst – In Prison and at War.

Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, was a painter by training who also enjoyed a distinguished military career. He took part in the Russia campaign as a “général de brigade”, and was in charge of General Gudin’s funeral.

Unearthing the mysteries of Valutina Gora battlefield

During May 2019, a joint Russian and French team conducted an archeological survey of the site of the Napoleonic battle of Valutina Gora near Smolensk in Western Russia. The field work was led by Maria Nesterova and Anastasia Ivanova, with the participation of anthropologist Tatiana Shvedchikova. They managed a team of archeologists from the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Archaeology’s Sambian expedition, whose director is Alexandr Khokhlov. They worked together with specialists from the French National Institute of Preventative Archaeological Research, as well as students from both countries.

Investigation of Valutina Gora Battlefield
Investigation of Valutina Gora Battlefield, © Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

This was the first time professional archaeologists had surveyed the site, although archeological looters had already been there. They made important findings which confirmed the written accounts of the battle, including the story of how General Gudin was mortally wounded. “We can now say precisely how it happened and where it happened”, Alexandr Khokhlov declared.

The team took aerial photographs of the area around the Strogan river valley and proceeded to map the battleground, comparing their topographical survey with existing sources, including written accounts and paintings. They found traces of the old road from Smolensk to Moscow and of the bridge over the Strogan river that was causing problems for the French Army.

The archeologists were able to locate the probable position of Russian artillery that was firing at General Gudin’s columns from high ground on the left bank of the Strogan river, and were able to determine where the general was hit. They also found the remains of several Russian Jaegers in the marshy flood plain of the Strogan River, that is light infantrymen, some human bones, as well as uniform buttons, and a large quantity of bullets and shrapnel.

Investigation of Valutina Gora Battlefield
Military uniform buttons Found near Valutina Gora, © Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

Searches in Smolensk

The first attempt to find Gudin’s body at the Sheinov Bastion

Initially, the Smolensk 1812-2019 joint French and Russian archeological expedition searched for General Gudin’s grave at the site of Smolensk’s Sheinov Bastion during May 2019.

Alexandr Khokhlov, the director of the Sambian expedition of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Archeology headed the fieldwork, which was carried out by Marina Nesterova and Dmitry Soloviov, in partnership with archeologists from the French National Institute of Preventative Archeological Research.

Death of General Gudin at the Battle of Valutino, 1830S
Sheinov Bastion during excavations, © Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

Baron Lejeune, who had directed his funeral and his superior, Marshal Davout, claimed in their memoirs that Gudin had been buried in a mound at the South-East of the citadel. As a courtesy to the French side, who favoured this hypothesis, it was decided to dig up the only mound in this area. Known as the Sheinov Bastion, it is located next to the old city walls in a public park.

The defensive element dates back to the 17th century. At that time, Polish and Lithuanian troops had besieged Smolensk and breached its fortified walls in several places. To close the gap in the city’s defences , an earth mound was later erected there, which was named after Shein, a military commander, and became known as the Sheinov Bastion.

The fortifications dug up at Sheinov Bastion
The fortifications dug up at Sheinov Bastion, © Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

The archeologists discovered that the upper layer of the bastion dating from the beginning of the 19th century had been destroyed by bulldozers when the public square was laid out in the 1960s. This meant there was no chance of finding bodies buried during 1812.

“There used to be wooden and earthen constructions there. We were able to retrace the specifics of construction of this defensive element”.

Once it became clear that no graves of any kind would be found, the team decided to abandon excavations at the Sheinov Bastion.

The Search at the King's Fortress bastion

After the search for General Gudin’s remains at Smolensk’s Sheinov Bastion was stopped, the French archeologists went home and the Russian archeologists decided to explore the second hypothesis: that Napoleon’s friend was buried in the King’s Bastion. The fieldwork was carried out by a unit led by Marina Nesterova and Dmitry Soloviov from the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Archeology’s Sambian expedition, whose director is archeologist Aleksandr Khokhlov.

King’s bastion during search for General Gudin’s grave
King’s bastion during search for General Gudin’s grave, © Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

The “King’s Bastion” is the name locals use to refer to an area of the city’s fortifications known in historical documents as the King’s Fortress, the Sigismund Fortress or Smolensk Citadel. This is a fortification made up of five bastions. It was built in the 17th century following the destruction of part of the Smolensk Kremlin (meaning fortified city in Russian) walls, and was intended to host Sigismund, King of Poland.

One set of written accounts placed Gudin’s funeral in the Smolensk Citadel. However, they diverged as to the bastion where the general was buried. Some indicated he was buried in the centre of the citadel, and others that his grave was dug in the bastion to the right of the main entrance. The central part was inaccessible, because it was covered in concrete by a concert area, so the team opted for the bastion next to the gate. They started off by delineating a rectangle measuring forty square metres, and then added another forty, and commenced excavations.

How Gudin’s skeleton was found

It was doubtful that anything remained of the Napoleonic era, since fighting had been particularly destructive during World War II in Smolensk. Moreover, a dance area had been built there following the war. It was subsequently removed and replaced by grass, but the brick foundations remained and made the initial work difficult. Once they got beyond that, Aleksandr Khokhlov recalls, they used the horizontal excavation method. Using very fine trowels, the archeologists scrape the cultural layer that corresponds to this or that historical period, so that the different coloured soils indicate how the site was used at that time.

Smolensk 1812-2019 expedition finds a 19th century grave
Smolensk 1812-2019 expedition finds a 19th century grave surrounded by faint traces of round pits, © Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

This is when the team made their key find: they uncovered six circular pits in a different colour of soil set up in a circle around one central rectangular pit of the dimensions of an adult’s coffin, first spotted by Marina Nesterova. These fitted with Lejeune’s description of Gudin’s funeral (Death of a General and Birth of a Legend).

Lejeune wrote that they had placed broken cannons vertically around the coffin, to serve as columns supporting a metal roof. Once the French had moved on from Smolensk, locals took the cannons because their bronze was a valuable material, leaving only the pits.

“After this, we called Pierre [Malinowski, leader of the project] and told him,” Aleksandr Khokhlov related. “From that time on, we started uncovering the grave very carefully and slowly. We dug out what had filled the hole of the grave, and we got to the level where there were human remains and decayed planks, remaining from the coffin. […]

Smolensk 1812-2019 expedition finds General Gudin’s grave
Smolensk 1812-2019 expedition finds General Gudin’s grave, © Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

They were in a very poor condition. Planks that were originally 2.5 cm thick now measured only 2-3 millimetres. We obviously cleaned these remains of the coffin very carefully.”

They found what remained of the lid, and then started to see the skeleton of the deceased. “Very importantly, the buried person’s right leg was whole, but the bones of the left leg were missing below the knee. That is, there was a fracture just above the knee,” the archeologist added. “And that was the final evidence supporting the fact that this was the resting place of Charles–Etienne Gudin, division general, and Count of the empire. Because all the written sources repeated that he had lost his leg and due to loss of blood had died three days later in a Smolensk hospital.”

Smolensk 1812-2019 expedition finds a one-legged skeleton
Smolensk 1812-2019 expedition finds a one-legged skeleton, © Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

How DNA analysis confirmed Gudin’s identity

The one–legged skeleton found in Smolensk in July 2019 seemed to be that of General Gudin. The fact that he was missing his left leg, and that his skull bore signs of having been cut open, which is consistent with a post-mortem examination,, as well as the location of his grave, corroborated the written accounts of his death and burial. However, only DNA analysis could confirm his identity.

This was carried out in France by the bio-cultural Anthropology, Law, Ethics and health (ADES) research unit at Aix-Marseille university, led by Professor Michel Signoli, a specialist in funerary anthropology with a focus on Napoleonic wars. To do this, they needed to compare the General’s DNA with that of close relatives and then work out the probabilities of a match. The team included Caroline Costedoat (genetic anthropology), Emeline Verna (forensic anthropology) and Loïc Lalys (anthropology of the living).

Gudin family grave at Saint Maurice-sur-Aveyron cemetery
Gudin family grave at Saint Maurice-sur-Aveyron cemetery
© UMR ADES E.Verna ,

Obtaining the necessary samples turned into a nail-biting adventure. First Pierre Malinowski took a skull fragrment, the femur and four teeth of the deceased from Russia to France, carrying the body parts in his hand luggage. Then, in what proved to be the lengthiest part of the process, permission was sought and finally granted to exhume the bodies at the family grave in the cemetery of St-Maurice-sur-Aveyron, in the Loiret district close to General Gudin’s birth place. The ADES team took some bone from his mother, father, son, grandson and father's twin brother, and extracted Gudin’s DNA from his femur, Emeline Verda recalls.

French anthropologists open the Gudin family grave
French anthropologists open the Gudin family grave,
© UMR ADES E.Verna

Following this, the laboratory of Marseille’s scientific police examined everyone’s DNA. They analysed both their mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed on by mothers, and several markers for nuclear DNA, which is transmitted by both parents.

Within two weeks, all the results were available: it was established with 99.9% probability that the remains were indeed those of Napoleon’s friend, Charles-Etienne Gudin. All samples apart from those of his uncle, proved usable. The exciting news was made public on 4 November 2019.

The team of anthropologists that exhumed the bones of General Gudin’s close relatives
The team of anthropologists that exhumed the bones of General Gudin’s close relatives,
© UMR ADES M.Signoli

Although the Napoleonic general has a direct living descendant, Alberic d’Orleans, his DNA could not provide conclusive evidence. On the one hand, with each generation, the increase in the number of relatives competing to pass on fragments of their DNA means that more and more information gets lost. On the other, since Mr d’Orleans descends from one of the general’s grand-daughters, the Y chromosome was lost at that point, and with it irreplaceable genetic information.

General Gudin’s homecoming

After resting for two hundred years in Russian soil, Charles-Etienne Gudin's remains are finally going home to France.

Following a meeting between the French and Russian presidents at the Paris summit in December 2019, French officials submitted a formal request for Russia to release the General's remains, according to French magazine Le Point, quoting Elysées Presidential palaces sources.

The current plan, which has not yet been confirmed by the Russian or French Presidency, is to rebury the General in the Dome church of the Invalides, France's historic military complex, next to his friend Napoleon's grand tomb, during a special ceremony attended by Presidents Putin and Macron.

To avoid possible embarrassment, French military historians reviewed the General's biography to make sure there are no incidents that might make him unworthy of the tribute. They concluded that General Gudin was "an honourable man", according to the French magazine, Le Point.

General Charles Etienne César Gudin de la Sablonnière by George Rouget, 1839