Your lousy First World War ancestors


17 September 2017
blog1-87417.jpg Australians being ‘de-loused’
The health and hygiene conditions endured by our Great War ancestors serving out in the Middle East may have differed from those on the Western Front, but could be just as challenging, writes Stuart Hadaway.

The health and hygiene conditions endured by our Great War ancestors serving out in the Middle East may have differed from those on the Western Front, but could be just as challenging, writes Stuart Hadaway.

We’re used to the idea of our relatives suffering in the mud and squalor of the trenches of the Western Front, but have you ever spared a thought for the just as unsavoury conditions your relatives who served on the Middle East fronts faced?

“I cannot describe to an ordinary clean person the most revolting sensation that a fellow undergoes when first he discovers that he has become the prey of body-lice. I think I was more inclined to be sick at their first appearance than at anything I saw or smelt during the whole War. After a time one got quite used to the little pests, and entered into the sport of the daily ‘louse’ with glee.” (Sgt S. Hatton, ‘Yarn of a Yeoman’)

In the desert, water was at a premium.  The official ration for one man for one day was 1 gallon/4.5 litres.  If it was met, the bulk of this – 5 pints - went to the cookhouse for cooking and brewing tea.  Just 2 pints were allowed for drinking, a torment when living in the desert.

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Lieutenant James Mackie of the 2/4th Somerset Light Infantry had served in India before his battalion was posted to Palestine, and so was no stranger to hot climates, but even so he found that:

“The great difficulty up here is to get water.  It all has to be brought up on camels & all ranks are allowed one gallon per day for all purposes.  This has to do everything – washing drinking – cooking etc.  We don’t waste very much I can assure.  We use about a pint every morning to wash, shave & clean our teeth in & then this water is used by our batmen to wash socks etc in before it is thrown away.  We can’t afford water to wash our plates in but sand makes a very good substitute & you can get them just as clean by rubbing them with sand as by washing them in water.  As a matter of fact they don’t want much cleaning for we clean them fairly well with bread before we finish our meals for even a drop of gravy is too valuable to waste.”  (Lt. J. Mackire, ‘Answering the call’)

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This left only one pint for hygiene, and it is safe to assume that most men would surreptitiously drink as much of that as possible!  In some areas of the Sinai Desert a brackish, undrinkable water could be found a few feet beneath the sand and used for bathing, while in Palestine equally undrinkable water could have been found in standing pools or the marshes what covered much of the coastal plain over the winter and spring, but this could never be assured.

Health hazards of the desert

Unwashed uniforms became a health hazard, as sweat and sand were ground into already rough material and dried out to the texture of sandpaper.  Cuffs, collars and other friction points would soon have the skin rubbed off and sores were so common that even when they became septic men were seldom evacuated for medical treatment – there would simply have been no army left.

Lice of course flourished, and there was little that could be done.  Periodically, units would be taken to special stations to have their uniforms steamed, which was supposed to kill both the lice and their eggs.  In between times, soldiers could find an ant’s nest and, after giving it a good kick to stir up the occupants, lay their clothing over it.  The angry ants would swarm over the cloth and eat any little visitors they found.  The problem then would be getting rid of the ants, although some vigorous shaking should have done the trick.

Often, lice-control came down to the daily ‘louse’, referred to above by Sergeant Hatton.  Seams would be carefully checked, and lice or eggs either popped with thumbnails, or tossed onto a tin lid suspended over a candle – the burst lice provided grease that could be used to polish boots and other leatherwork.  This was also a social occasion, as of course it had been for centuries in civilian life.  A colloquial name for lice since the early 1800s at least was ‘chats’, and sitting around together ‘chatting’ was a chance to catch up with friends and family – bear that in mind next time you’re having a good chat over a pint or a coffee!

Stuart Hadaway is the author of several books on the First World War in the Middle East, published by The History Press and OGB Publishing.  His most recent book, ‘Tracing Your Great War Ancestors:  Egypt and Palestine’, has just been published by Pen & Sword Family History.  He also runs the ‘Egyptian Expeditionary Force in WW1’ Facebook page.

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