The Illustrious Dead – the little things can kill you

Take an army – a “Grande Armee” – of 600,000 men, battle hardened, used to winning, led by experienced and brilliant military geniuses and invade a country in turmoil with inferior military assets.  Isn’t the outcome a foregone conclusion?  I found out by reading Stephan Taltry’s “The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Greatest Army”. 

Granted, I was aware of the outcome before I read the book, but the details were new to me.  Just knowing the size and experience of the force made me wonder how Napoleon’s army of 600,000 could possibly lose.  In fact, the army scored victories in its campaign to occupy Moscow in 1812. Despite the fact that the Russians were out-generaled and were operating in crisis mode, they fought gallantly and shed a lot of blood on both sides.  They also had home-field advantage.  Still, in the early going, you get the sense that Napoleon’s army was the irresistible force.  And if humans were the only opponent on the battlefield, it was.

The title of this fine book tells the story.  The most deadly enemy was the one Napoleon couldn’t see.  The root cause of the problem really was one of basic hygiene.  Bathing daily and keeping the men in clean uniforms and underwear just wasn’t part of the battle plan.  So, you get lice, and with lice, you can get typhus which they spread through their feces.  An invading army was the ideal host for typhus-laden lice.  These little parasites are particular; they prefer warm bodies to cold ones.  So the soldiers got sick, suffered horribly, and then died.  The lice would leave a cold, dead body to find a warm one, so the disease passed quickly through the army that existed in such close quarters.  The disease exacted a gruesome toll with Napoleon losing as many as 3,000 soldiers a day when the epidemic really hit its stride.

The irony is that Napoleon did succeed in occupying Moscow, but with his rapidly depleting forces, he was forced to retreat.  Napoleon’s eventual defeat is considered one of the greatest military reversals of fortune in history.

What is there for us in this compelling story?  Few organizations are completely healthy.  As Napoleon learned, some maladies are far deadlier than others.  What organizational illnesses stalk your organization?  Are there morale, attitude, culture or ethics issues that taken to the extreme could wreck you?  We are foolish if we don’t give full consideration to at least two things:

  • Have we created an environment that is ideal for incubating a hidden enemy?  How might we organize to better weather the inevitable attacks from hidden enemies that invade the places we work?  For example, could we inoculate our organizations with better leadership?
  • What ailments already plague our organizations?  When was the last time you got an organizational “physical”?  It’s no good to allow Napoleonic arrogance to let you believe you can’t be defeated.  Most organizations are prepared for the obvious and known enemies.  But have you objectively studied and sought to learn what’s really going on inside the company?

It’s too late to consider these matters when you’re retreating from Moscow in the dead of winter.


About Jerry Rackley

An avid reader, mostly non-fiction, I read great books and think how the lessons of history have contemporary application. Most of these thoughts are work related, but sometimes about faith or family. This blog is my first attempt to allow some of these thoughts to escape the rather thick skull in which they were born.
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9 Responses to The Illustrious Dead – the little things can kill you

  1. Jerry, I love this post! I look forward to following your blog.

  2. Laura E says:

    Loved it. Didn’t know about Napoleon. Looking forward to your future bligs

  3. Mike Lyles says:

    Great post Jerry, I’m looking forward to more. Makes me glad I wasn’t successful in that little “three wheeler” incident back in May of ’84!!!

  4. Elise says:

    Awesome blog!

  5. Kenny Williams says:

    Erica showed me your blog and it looks like it will be great! As a marketing graduate and a new manager, I think a lot of your thoughts will interest me.

    I can already relate to this one. Even though I’ve been at my current job for only 6 months, I already think it will be hard to step back and look at the big picture to diagnose the unseen “lice problems” in my organization! I’ll sure give it a try.

  6. Ruthie says:

    What an insightful commentary Jerry! It’s really thought provoking – not only from the historical and unfortunate standpoint, but also, from the corporate/business leadership angle! I think it’s a brave step to put your thoughts out there for all to comment on and you’ve done it wonderfully.
    It does make one ask several questions… even as an interviewee wouldn’t it be delightfully challenging to put to your potential employer on the hot seat to find out how the leadership is structured? Not using “lice” as an example but you get the idea!
    I think one of the lessons this story offers up, is that even though we as followers perceive our leaders as strong – such men and women leaders are few and far between and often make history for their mistakes as well as their achievements. So, how can we as employees NOT become the next “cold, dead body”, and also remain “warm” and viable while being aware of the hidden enemies?
    Lots to think about!

  7. Jace says:

    Jerry, just another example of your business acumen. Looking forward to following the blog!

  8. Tanner says:

    Thanks for the informative and interesting read. Your advice is always extremely helpful and appreciated. I look forward to future posts.

  9. Jody Burns says:

    I’m glad I came back to read the ending. Your points are well-made and warrant attention, not only in most of the schools in which I work but also in my own company.

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