‘The general health of the troops on war service’ is ‘actually better at this moment than it is at home’, the Scotsman announced in March 1915. ‘Modern Medical Science. Mitigating Disease in warfare’ appeared as the celebratory heading of a further article the following month. Even in July 1915, the same tone of congratulation was apparent; if some 6500 British soldiers had, by that point, been killed on Turkish soil alone, nevertheless, as readers were informed, ‘not even a microscopical portion of the fatalities is traceable to any weakness in the condition of our men’. ‘Our army’s extraordinary good health’ and ‘wondrous immunity from disease’ were soundly commended. ‘Never have soldiers entered upon a campaign in better physical fettle’, the Scotsman proclaimed. In contrast to the Boer War, when typhoid had ‘killed a far greater number of our men than did the enemy’, here, too, the conditions of an eminently modern war had come to prevail:
it is safe to say that had a war of the magnitude of the present struggle, and conducted like it under siege conditions, entailing great hardships, prolonged exposure to the most inclement weather, and the billeting of large numbers of men in insanitary quarters for many months together, been undertaken by the British nation a few years ago, it would have been accompanied by an outbreak of disease which would have decimated our forces
By no means restricted to the Scotsman, articles of this kind appear across the spring and summer of 1915 in a wide-ranging and robust discourse of health.
For modern readers, this evocation of good fortune amidst the realities (and casualties) of WWI can appear somewhat anomalous. It was resonant, too, of a certain proleptic irony. Headlines in August 1915, for example, foreground another new locution – and a previously unknown condition in which ‘physical fettle’ was noticeably lacking while the ‘wondrous immunity from disease’ had apparently disappeared. ‘Mysterious Disease like Influenza’, the Daily Express instead announced on 18th August, describing a rather different facet of life at the front. This was trench fever, an illness which, as its name confirmed, would come to be seen as yet another distinctive aspect of trench warfare. Continue reading