“Trench fever”: health, sickness, and the art of having a lousy war

sick bay
‘The Sick Bay’. Copyright- Imperial War Musueum. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/16862

‘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

“If the caps fits…”. From hats to helmets in Autumn 1915.

if the cap fits
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5156); http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/28446

‘If the Cap Fits You‘ appeared as the text of a poster issued by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. Like many advertisements both then and now, it played with a carefully calibrated set of meanings. On one level, the familiar idiom of ‘if the cap fits, wear it’ raises questions of identity and individual affirmation. On another, this idiom was targeted via a specific type of cap and the diction of direct address. As the image confirms, the metaphorical ‘cap’ is now to be seen in terms of the khaki service cap, while the obligation to ‘wear it’ is re-interpreted via the action of ‘joining- up’, and the identity politics of active service.

In terms of language, this can, in fact, raise other interesting issues. In 1914-15, the cap, as here, formed the prototypical image of the British soldier, functioning not only as an item of uniform but able to emblematise wider issues of national and ideological identity. Helmets, in contrast, operated in a similar way for the enemy.  While helmet in the sense ‘a defensive cover for the head’, which is either made with, or strengthened with, metal,  had long existed in English, usage from early in the war confirms a careful divide in this respect, As in the extract below (taken from the Scotsman in September 1914), helmet operates as a form of semantic shorthand or ethnonym (‘a proper name by which a people or ethnic group is known’). In what becomes a pervasive pattern of writing the enemy, helmet connotes not merely an item of clothing, but the enemy per se.

German troops have apparently been interspersed with the Austrian soldiers in the entrenchments for the purpose of raising the moral of the latter. What this moral is worth is apparent from a report received from a correspondent on the frontier, stating that after the Russian attacks on the “bluecloaks” – namely, the Austrians – took to flight, while the “helmets” i.e., the Prussians, were prepared to die to the last man, and perished accordingly.

The German helmet, referring to the spiked leather and metal pickelhaube was to be a distinct, and distinctive, marker. In other words, To appropriate the  diction of the recruiting poster, in this light, If the cap fits, one is British. if the helmet fits, one is not.

This does not, of course, mean that helmets were not used at all by the British troops — but rather that, until the autumn of 1915, core meanings and contexts of use were somewhat different. A demand for helmets was, for example, common from the early weeks of war. “You ask me if I want anything’, states a letter in the archive (reprinted in the Scotsman in December 1914). As the writer elaborated, the answer was a definite ‘Yes’: Continue reading