Bonaparte's boys ride again in Lithuania

  • 2002-07-04
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
Military re-enactments are about more than just clownish men in uniforms firing muskets, as Rokas M. Tracevskis reports.

Some men never stop being childish, and maybe this is no bad thing. Frequent re-enactments of Napoleonic battles staged by overgrown Lithuanian schoolboys are becoming so popular that they may be more popular than soccer soon.

The main driving force behind the mock military maneuvers is the Kaunas War History Club. Each year, it selects several battles fought by the famous Frenchmen, such as Leipzig or Waterloo, and sends the troops out to re-create them as realistically as possible.

"It is not propaganda for war. It is just demonstration of history. We study a lot of historical documents to find material about the uniforms and flags of that time," said Pociunas.

The most recent re-enactment was called "Kaunas 1812." It attempted to relive a march along the Nemunas River, which flows through Lithuania's second largest city, by Napoleon's soldiers on their way to Moscow in 1812.

Even if there was no red blood staining the water, there was no shortage of other colors. The event started with a march by participants in historical uniforms along Laisves Avenue, the main street of Kaunas. City residents enthusiastically cheered the parade as it went by.

The highlight was the crossing of the Nemunas over a pontoon bridge by hundreds of men in French, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian uniforms of the period, many carrying muskets and rifles. Since behind every brave man there is a great woman, these troops were accompanied by many girls in pretty costumes.

Then came the "battle" itself, involving over 550 mounted troops and many more infantry. Canons fired as the opposing sides clashed on an island in the river. The heavy tramping sound of hundreds of foot soldiers mingled with the rhythmical beating of drums and the echoing cries of "Vive l'Empereur!" The French infantry charged down into the valley in columns, followed by the Napoleonic Polish cavalry. Lithua-nian soldiers of the French army started a deadly rain of cannon fire.

As if to emphasize that this was a battle between East and West, the role of the French troops was played by members of history clubs from Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. The Russian side was staffed by volunteers from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

However, history is rarely simple, and Pociunas said that in reality Lithuanians fought on both sides in 1812. After the partition of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth in 1795, part of the Lithuanian lands went to Russia.

He said that about 12,000 Lithuanians were taken by force into the Russian army. On the other hand, the same number of Lithuanians crossed the Nemunas River to join Napoleon's army as volunteers. These men hoped the French would help Lithuania regain its independence.

"Napoleon's initial plan was to take control of the former territory of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, which meant stopping after taking the old Lithuanian town of Smolensk," said Pociunas. " It was only during the campaign that he changed his mind and took Moscow."

He added that the Lithuanians kept a great deal of their separate identity while fighting for Napoleon. They wore the uniforms of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, and there were even complete Lithuanian battalions commanded by their own generals.

During the re-enactment battle, Napoleon's Lithuanian troops carried a flag emblazoned with the state emblem of Lithuania, the mounted knight, which also bore the inscription, "Magnus Dux Lituanus" ("Lithuanian Grand Duchy" in Latin).

In keeping with the historical reality of the beginning of the 1812 campaign, the mock battle was won by the French side. Historians say that the support of the local Lithuanian population was essential to their early success.

In an ironic twist, the "Napoleon" of the re-creation was played by an ethnic Russian, history professor Oleg Sokolov. However, he has the right credentials for the job, having studied in France and speaking the French language perfectly. And this year he played Napoleon in three re-created battles in Spain. After the battle, Sokolov seemed to find it difficult to step out of his role.

"My troops are in a friendly country. The Lithuanian people meet us as liberators," he said, adding, "Tegyvuoja Lietuva!" ("Long live Lithuania!" in Lithuanian).

But later he started to sound more like a professional historian. He said that his many studies of documents from the Napoleonic period showed that Napoleon wanted an alliance with Russia. But the Russians made plans to attack him, so the French emperor decided to get in a pre-emptive blow.

Interestingly, the re-enactment was partly financed by the Lithuanian Defense Ministry, which takes a keen interest in the proceedings.

"The impression is great. However, I would like to watch similar battles from other epochs ? for example, the 14th century Lithuanian battles against the Crusaders. The Salaspils (or Kircholm in German) battle of September 27, 1605, when Lithua-nia beat Sweden, would be interesting too. It is just an idea," said Jonas Gecas, Lithuanian defense deputy minister.

Perhaps he thinks there may be some useful lessons in these ancient victories if Lithuania goes to war again - for real.