Russia returns remains of Napoleonic general to France

Gudin’s one-legged skeleton was found in the summer of 2019 in a park under the foundations of a dancefloor in Smolensk.

He was one of Napoleon’s favourite generals. Now the mortal remains of Charles-Étienne Gudin have been returned to France, two years after they were discovered in Russia.

Gudin’s one-legged skeleton was found in the summer of 2019 in a park under the foundations of a dancefloor in Smolensk. His identity was later confirmed by DNA testing, as this magazine reported at the time (MHM September 2019).

Charles-Étienne Gudin. He was killed aged 44 during the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

An aristocrat by birth, Gudin was a veteran of both the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He attended the same military school as Napoleon and the two became close, with the general following his commander into the doomed French invasion of Russia in 1812.

It was during the Battle of Valutino, an attack on the city of Smolensk, 250 miles west of Moscow, that Gudin was fatally injured by a cannonball. His leg was amputated, and he died of gangrene three days later.

While his body was buried nearby, Gudin’s heart was returned to Paris. There, his name was given to a street and inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe. He was also honoured with a bust of his likeness, installed at the Palace of Versailles.

In July this year, Gudin’s coffin was officially received by the French veterans’ affairs minister, with a guard of honour wearing Napoleonic uniform.

The ceremony marked the end of a process that began in May 2019 with the search for Gudin’s remains. It was led by French historian and archaeologist Pierre Malinowski with support from the Kremlin.

The search focused on witness accounts, including that of Louis-Nicolas Davout, another French general of the era, who organised Gudin’s funeral and burial.

‘It is a historic moment – not only for me, but for I think our two countries,’ said Malinowski at the time of Gudin’s discovery.

‘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 we have found.’

Earlier this year, the bodies of 120 French and Russian soldiers, three women, and three teenage boys – all of whom died during the French withdrawal from Moscow – were buried in a ceremony in Western Russia.

The three women are thought to have provided food and first aid to the troops, while the boys served as drummers.