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.