“Dirt, disease and diet — that triumvirate proved far more lethal than bullets and bayonets in 18th and 19th century warfare.”
HISTORICAL MILITARY FICTION means excitement, adventure, and derring-do; brave men testing their martial prowess under great pressure and facing long odds; warriors showing their best when things are at their worst. While such tales are entertaining, even inspiring, the guts and glory approach often blinds writers to the far more subtle contest waged before soldiers even set foot upon the battlefield. That was the struggle against dirt, disease and diet. That triumvirate proved far more lethal than bullets and bayonets in 18th and 19th century warfare. It was not until the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 that the majority of men that died on campaign were killed from injuries incident to battle.
Life (and Death) in Camp
The general standard of hygiene in most military encampments of the 18th and 19th centuries was abominably low. Dirt and filth lurked everywhere. Meat might lay exposed to sun and cloaked with flies for hours before being cooked. Garbage was often not buried but piled high, choking the space between tents. Latrines designed to service the needs of hundreds of men were usually remarkably small — typically 12 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 8 feet deep. They filled quickly and their contents often overflowed and seeped into the surrounding water table. Communal toilets were supposed to be dug at least 150 paces from the regimental assembly line and at least 100 paces away from the camp kitchens, but such regulations were often ignored.
Soldiers seldom bathed. Their bodies were often layered with dust and grime and their hair hung lank and greasy. The lower classes who furnished the bulk of armies believed that the total immersion of the body in water for purposes of cleanliness somehow weakened a person’s constitution; those special occasions were few and far between. The middle and upper classes who furnished the bulk of officers were far more amenable to full and frequent bathing. Still it took a honey tongued officer to persuade his men to take a group bath when a convenient river or stream presented itself.
Lice: The Solder’s Constant Companion
Muskets might be burnished bright, straps pipe-clayed gleaming white, and boots smartly blacked but a private soldier’s uniform was often dirty and lice infested. Uniform replacements were issued infrequently, at uncertain intervals, so coats and pants were often patched and worn long after they should have been discarded. Lice bred freely and every morning soldiers gathered in groups to rid each other of the pests. Yet eggs hidden in seams hatched and by the end of the day the problem was back. Holding their clothes over campfires forced legions of the vile creatures to leap into the flames, exploding like kernels of popcorn, but often left the already threadbare clothing badly singed.
The only truly effective remedy was boiling the uniforms in heavily salted water. This wiped out the lice but was very hard on already tattered uniforms and so was not done nearly often enough.
Lice carried typhus, a deadly disease, but far from the only one which plagued soldiers. Armies were cities in themselves, far larger than most, but without any built in municipal safeguards for health. Thus militaries served as force multipliers for disease. Dysentery and typhoid were common killers, usually arising from drinking polluted water; often caused when fecal matter from the latrines penetrated hastily dug regimental wells or seeped into a local stream used for drinking water. Flies who had been feeding on dead men and horses bore all manner of diseases; in low lying swampy areas, clouds of mosquitoes carried malaria. Prolonged diarrhea, caused by poor food and bad water, was a surprisingly common killer, doing its deadly work through simple dehydration.
So called childhood diseases, measles and chicken pox, proved fatal to many. Generally, men from cities and towns were far more resistant to them than men who came from farms and rural areas.
Disease carried out its own seasoning process; it was truly survival of the fittest. If a new recruit could make it through his first six months in the ranks, his chances of survival in the months and years ahead improved greatly.
But even seasoned recruits were often plagued with non-fatal illnesses. In Nature’s Civil War; Common Soldiers and the Environment, Professor Katheryn Shivley Meier estimates that at any given time, 20-30 percent of the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac during the Seven Day’s Battles were on the sick list. Typical maladies were fever, ague, and dyspepsia. This correlates well with the Duke of Wellington’s observation that usually thirty percent of his Peninsular army was on the sick list. It should also be remembered that many soldiers who were ill declined to allow themselves to be placed on the sick list. That usually had to do with both personal fortitude and a fear of army physicians, known around the bivouac fires as “saw bones.”
A great distinction must therefore be made between an army’s official size and the number of men actually fit enough for combat. The later was always significantly less than the former.
Poor diet weakened soldier’s resistance to disease. Not only was the food often rancid, rotten, or close to ruination, but it was often delivered at only uncertain intervals. Even in such relatively well supplied armies as Wellington’s and the Army of the Potomac, food supplies were often interrupted and soldiers frequently went hungry.
During the retreat from Burgos in 1813, supply trains couldn’t reach Wellington’s army so his men were reduced to eating acorns stolen from surrounding fields. During the fast moving marches of the Gettysburg Campaign, Union troops frequently outpaced their lumbering supply trains.
Prolonged hunger burst even the most draconian bonds of discipline. Dr. Edward Coss in his book, All for the King’s Shilling, avers that even when supplies arrived regularly, Wellington’s men were simply not receiving enough calories to sustain fifteen miles a day of hard marching. He estimates the average British soldier in Spain consumed roughly 2,500 calories per day. That compares poorly with the 5,000 per day Royal Navy sailors got and the 6,000 enjoyed by Roman Legionnaires. Even threats of heavy flogging or death failed to deter British soldiers from the commands of their empty stomachs.
Even when food was available, it was often of poor quality and deficient in the vitamins and minerals modern medicine deems important to good health. Fruits and vegetables were always in short supply. Scurvy, a disease that caused debility, depression and eventually death, was caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. Its solution, anti scorbutics delivered via lemons and limes had been well known since the late 18th century. Yet because of supply problems, scurvy continued to plague armies right up until the end of the American Civil War.
Deficiencies of niacin caused outbreaks of Pellagra, resulting in severe digestion problems and difficulties in fully metabolizing foods. Men afflicted with this often had pallid complexions, moved listlessly, and suffered mood swings. The problem was easily cured with fortified cereal products but the bread used by armies of the time was often made of the cheapest flour that had been stripped of much of its nutritional value.
Poor food and unvaried diet were also responsible for outbreaks of diarrhea’s opposite number; constipation. It did not result in death but often contributed to poor performance and the development of painful hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids were a particular problem for cavalry, long hours in the saddle resulting in excruciating pain.
A very bad case of hemorrhoids afflicted Napoleon during the Battle of Waterloo. He was certainly not at his best during that battle and his painful piles may have affected his judgment. Even the best commanders are prisoners of their bodies.
It is certainly more fun to read about heroic soldiers performing brave deeds at the peak of their game than it is to endure a tale of starving, pain-ridden, diseased foot sloggers barely stumbling through a battle. Historical fiction is meant to furnish readers a good time and entertain with grand possibilities; what could, should, or might have been.
Still, I think the best historical fiction is built a solid basis of well researched reality. That reality should include the understanding that the greatest struggles of 18th and 19th century soldiers were not against enemy armies, but against nature and the environment. The great majority of soldiers fought their most lethal battles well away from any so called fields of glory and died long before bullets flew or cannons thundered. Those deaths were merely sad, not heroic. Expiring from measles could in no way compare to an inspirational extinction leading a column of men storming a fortress, but the man was just as dead.
John Danielski is the creator of the Captain Tom Pennywhistle trilogy, a series of historical novels set during the Napoleonic Period. These include: Active’s Measure, The King’s Scarlet and the forthcoming Blue Water, Scarlet Tide. Danielski has worked as a living history interpreter at Fort Snelling, a journalist and has taught history at both the secondary and university levels.