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#1 PJA

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 07:59 AM

Five and a half million - or thereabouts - British and Empire troops served on the Western Front at one time or another in the Great War.

Only a fraction of one per cent of them died from disease whilst deployed in France and Flanders.

Given the squalor of trench warfare, and, more especially, the onset of the great 'flu pandemic, the mortality from diseases was astonishingly low.

I think that this aspect of the British army's achievement merits more comment than it gets.

I remember reading how dismayed some British soldiers were when they encountered the filthy conditions in trenches that they took over from the French.


As for the French, they were quick to sneer at the values of the British armies. Look at this comment made by a French soldier of the 37th division when the British front was broken in Picardy in March 1918 :

" Where is their fabled cleanliness, their English hygiene ? And their decency ? And their phlegm ? And their guts ?"

This is from Ian Summer's new book about the French Army on the Western front 1914-1918, THEY SHALL NOT PASS, pages 187-8.

How significant that the first aspect this disgruntled poilus alluded to was the "fabled" standard of cleaniness.

What was the provenance of this ? Was it "societal" - a feature of a relatively large urban population, where people learn to accept a compelled standard of hygiene ? Or was it a reaction to the experience of South Africa fifteen years earlier ?

Phil (PJA)

#2 bob lembke

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 10:38 PM

Phil;

You have opened the door on a range of fascinating topics.

WW I was probably the first major war where more soldiers died from war wounds than disease. The British Army of 1914 was an extremely (and literally) professional army. Although the British Army lost a great deal of its cadre (officers and NCOs) in the opening fighting, I assume that less of its medical cadre was lost. Good hygiene was and is the mark of a professional army. The medical services of the German Army was also at a very high standard. They had a particular burden, as the state of hygiene on the Eastern Front was awful. I have letters from my grand-father, an officer on the Eastern Front in 1915, and he found the conditions and filth astonishing. He himself contracted malaria on the Eastern Front in late 1915, and it broke his health.

However, I will openly state that in many respects the medical services of the French Army was awful. I have some statistics on that, and a number of anecdotal points on that as well. I will also argue that in many cases the hygienic situation of the French civilian population at that time was often bad.

The one hard statistic that I can relate, although I do not have the numbers at my fingertips, is that the death rate in the French Army from gangrene was about three times as high as among the other major combatants, such as the Brits and the Germans. The death rate from gangrene is a good marker for the overall quality of medical care in an army during wartime.

I have a very interesting book by an upper-class young American who was a student in Paris in 1914. When the war came he worked as an unpaid volunteer for the US Embassy, which had vastly expanded responsibilities when the war started, partially due to taking on representing Germany's interests in France. This young man was extremely Francophile, but he had some shocking things to say about French medical services. He toured France several times as part of US Embassy inspection missions. He was in the extreme west of France, and was in a hosptial full of evacuated wounded, and examining the bandaging on men wounded in combat, and their wound tags, he was amazed to find soldiers who had been wounded five weeks before, and their wounds still sported their field dressings, put on by the wounded soldiers' comrades on the battlefield. In five weeks of medical care no one had cleaned the wound and changed the dressing! He was astonished.

I have a story from my father directly related to his care and the care of a captured French soldier in the next bed (my father spoke very good French), the latter in relation to the relative care he received from the French medical services and the German services; the former provided no evacuation from the front line, or treatment, despite only a foot wound, until he was dying from gas gangrene; the Germans rescued him from no-man's-land, and he was provided with a series of major operations in a German military hospital, and he eventually survived, after multiple amputations.

French medical services were also awful in Paris during the siege during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71; there was an American Hospital in Paris, and their survival rate was miles ahead of the French hospitals, partially due to very primitive French medical beliefs, such as fear of "night air".

Bob Lembke

#3 jhill

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 02:08 AM

I would not get hot and bothered with this. I have read many accounts purporting to describe how hopeless were the other fellows' personal habits. I mostly ascribe these stories to our penchant for ethnic and national stereotyping. As another example, I have read many accounts in Canadian War Diaries regarding unit moves, where a typical item might read: On such-and-such-date we relieved such-and-such-Imperial(i.e. British)-unit, who had left their billets in a deplorably filthy state.

Even today I believe all soldiers are inculcated with a belief in their own superiority over other "lesser" groups. This was even more the case during the Great War period. Besides, we have unfortunately never been able to pass up an opportunity to rubbish the French!

Or so it seems to me.

#4 PJA

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 07:23 AM

Perhaps the high mortality among the French soldiers might be attributable to the terrible battlefield defeats they suffered in the first weeks of warfare. An inordinately high proportion of their casuaties were sustained during that period, and the conditions during the retreats - and, in some caes, routs - were bound to result in the deterioration of hygiene. Maybe this rather distorted the overall record.
Or am I "trying to find excuses" ?

The Italians were notorious in this regard, too, if the anecdotes I've read are to be believed.

It's tempting to detect a theme of Anglo- Teutonic cleaniness versus Latin squalor in accounts that I've read, but I'm a little diffident about expounding here !

Editing here : We must countenance the fact that many more American soldiers died from disease than did their British counterparts in 1918. This, of course, is atributable to the impact of the great 'flu, which hit the Americans particularly hard. But I'm careful to ensure that I am not including the great number of American soldiers who died on home soil in this reckoning. Perhaps they brought the virus with them into France, and suffered accordingly. All the same, it's difficult to escape the impression that, for whatever reasons, the armies of the British Empire were notably good at maitaining standards of cleaniness that saved tens of thousands of their soldiers' lives.

Phil (PJA)

#5 bob lembke

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 02:14 PM

James Hill has a good point, the cultural/nationalistic biases. However, I still maintain that one can draw qualitative public and military health differences between combatant nations. The French military health situation was so bad that sometimes French soldiers on leave encountered sole French military doctors and beat them to death on the street, certainly an act of over-reaction.

I have to rush out to a brunch, but I can elaborate on this later. The statistic that I ran across, the vast disparity in deaths from gangrene, is a good marker.

In further support of James, it is human nature to consider the personal habits of "others" as lesser. But it is also true that in French agricultural communities farming families amassed great dung-heaps for agricultural purposes. Have read commentary on this from a Brit MO. Also, my impression from considerable reading is that the personal hygiene practices of French agricultural civilians were sometimes rather "casual" and surprising to, for example, Yank or Brit observers.

Got to run. We are treading onto non-PC terrain here.

Bob

#6 PJA

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 06:16 PM

We are treading onto non-PC terrain here.

Bob


One has to be very careful where one treads in a French street !

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#7 truthergw

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 07:35 PM

The British experiences in the Crimean War followed by the disastrous losses of Boer women and children in the concentration camps made a very deep impact. It was a national shame. It was echoed by the squalor of mid to late Victorian slum dwellings and the herculean efforts to clean up living accomodation and of course, drinking water. It would not be hard to convince British troops that hygiene was critical to their own well being. There was a strong chauvinistic element to the idea that British hygiene was higher than French. I can remember, as a school boy in post WW2, being regaled with tales of holes in the floor for toilets in the best Parisian restaurants, etc. The fact that most officers above subaltern rank had served in Africa or India would also have reinforced the importance of hygiene. Most British officers would have observed the deadly result of an outbreak of cholera in an army camp. Britain was also much more industrialised than France. A majority of the French would have had a rural background. In Britain as well, farm workers were brought up using dry toilet to an astonishingly late date. However, a lot of New Army recruits would have been brought up in dwellings with WCs. I believe the British did have stricter standards but these were imposed from above as well as being innate. Vide, the poem about Shute.

#8 PJA

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 09:54 PM

You would have thought, wouldn't you, that the French had plenty of colonial experience to draw on too ? Algeria, Indo - China, Senegal and elsewhere had provided the French military with experience. Even in the Crimea, sixty years earlier, they had boasted a system of logistics and evacuation that had put the British to shame. And in the Great War itself, confronted with a manpower problem after their huge casualties of 1914-15, the need for hygiene to keep front line strength intact was surely paramount. The Somme battles of 1916 demonstrated that the French army was using effective tactics that husbanded manpower ; the benefit was bound to be compromised if poor hygiene practice depleted strength .

Perhaps this is a case of unfair caricature : a proper statistical analysis is required.

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#9 bill24chev

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Posted 06 May 2012 - 06:21 PM

Perhaps this is a case of unfair caricature : a proper statistical analysis is required.

Phil (PJA)


Within the British armed forces the the RN/RM & later the RAF know the British soldier not as Tommy but Pongo

#10 Firemagi

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Posted 07 May 2012 - 12:22 AM

Within the British armed forces the the RN/RM & later the RAF know the British soldier not as Tommy but Pongo


'Wherever the army goes, the pong goes' to give its roots. Being ex-mob myself, there is a lot of emphasis from day one given to personal hygiene, whether you field deploy or not. Standards really, personal and professional.

#11 PJA

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Posted 07 May 2012 - 09:41 AM

'Wherever the army goes, the pong goes' to give its roots.


Thanks for explaining the provenance. I had always assumed that by calling soldiers "pongos", sailors and airmen were implying that they were lower down on the evolutionary scale. Pongo is the prefix for the zoological word for Orang - Utan, pongo pygmaeus.

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#12 PJA

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Posted 07 May 2012 - 10:38 AM

WW I was probably the first major war where more soldiers died from war wounds than disease.


Eighty eight per cent of all British army fatalites ( on all fronts) were killed in action or died from wounds. The figure for the French was about the same.

But in France and Flanders, more than ninety five per cent of British deaths were from enemy action, and of the remainder ( about 32,000), a significant proportion died from accidental injury.

Surely, then, a large part of the British disease mortality occurred on home soil. I have read that the presence of large numbers of seriously ill men in hospitals was more damaging to morale than that of the wounded : maybe evacuation of very ill men to the UK helped diminish the number of disease deaths on the Western Front.

This needs to be borne in mind. Perhaps we're being very unfair if we assume that French disease mortality necessarily implied that French people were plain "dirty".

The large death rate from gangrene in the French armies might be attributed in large part to certain battles which made recovery and evacuation difficult and increased mortality....the Battles of the Frontiers, especially, and Verdun. There was an inexcusable break down of the medical services in the Nivelle Offensive, which cost several thousand lives.

I wonder if the impact of Methodism had much impact on the hygiene standards of labouring people in Britain : you know, "Cleaniness is next to Godliness" and that kind of thing....

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#13 PJA

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Posted 08 May 2012 - 09:19 AM

A little more on what might have been the derivation of the word "Pongo" as applied to soldiers .......

Andrew Battel was an English sailor who explored parts of Equatorial Africa at the beginning of the seventeenth century. His adventures were chronicled in a book written by Purchas in 1625. Here he describes a monster ape known as "Pongo" by the natives.
We must assume that he refers to the gorilla:

This pongo is in all proportions like a man.....He differeth from man but in his legs, for they have no calfe.....They sleepe in the trees, and build shelter for the raine.....They cannot speak, and have no understanding more than a beast.....These Pongos are never caught alive, because they are so strong ten men cannot hold one of them.....

Now I think that this, emanating from a sailor, might well have entered into naval folklore and become a term used by members of the Senior Service to describe what they saw to be a lower form of life.

The expression that "where the infantymen go, there the Pong - goes", might be an elaboration and a pun on the original concept.

Phil (PJA)

#14 mebu

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Posted 09 May 2012 - 12:43 PM

Before we get too self-congratulatory about British hygiene, here's a comment after inspecting dugouts at Spoilbank and Larch Wood by Australian ADMS on taking over sector of 37th Division, January 1918, :

“when taken over were found to be in a very bad state. This also applies to most of the stations taken over by this Division in this area. Chief points noticed were dirty drinking water storage tanks, prevalence of lice, rats, filth, absence of refuse bins, refuse pits, absence of urinals, anti fly-proof latrines. Collections of old tins and filth strewn in every direction”.

Peter

#15 GRUMPY

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Posted 10 May 2012 - 03:12 PM

At the private soldier level, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of poor standards of French hygiene noted on taking over trenches and billets, and of squalid farm yards. Frank Richards for one was appalled, and he spent his formative years in a Victorian Poor School.

Never mind political correctness, the Tommy had, or was forced to have, very high standards compared with many continentals.

Another index of hygiene and the care of soldiers was incidence of trench foot: the elite units strove night and day to avoid it, usually successfully: foot inspection, clean dry socks, whale oil, cooks' dripping, gumboots, waders, all pressed into service. An officer was taught that his first care was for his men, and many obeyed that tenet.

On the subject of Pongo.

There is a super apochryphal tale that the army complained to the navy about the use of the term, and the navy are said to have issued a signal:

"PONGOS. Following representations, in future all pongos will be referred to as soldiers".

#16 PJA

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Posted 10 May 2012 - 04:29 PM

This week end, I shall be visiting a dear old friend, now in his nineties, who resides in a care home with his wife.

He is a retired Squadron Leader, and he refers to the "Pongos" quite a lot.

I'll be sure to ask him if he knows about the derivation.

Phil (PJA)

#17 wintgens

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Posted 18 October 2012 - 04:11 PM

hello,

replying a bit late to this topic, but I have just started reading about the French side of the Great War, which I will be studying from now on.

I have just read Horne's exellent book and I am reading " a French soldiers War Diary" and I am of the opinion that if the French soldier lacked hygene one wondered if the poor soul had any choice?!, the truly appaulling way in which he was treated by those above him beggars belief even for the times, allowing for the rural background of the French soldier, this military man was probably the worst treated of any surely?.

#18 Kath

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Posted 18 October 2012 - 07:06 PM

In case this is of interest, as the medical services of the German Army has been referred to:

http://ethos.bl.uk/O...bl.ethos.484158

Kath.

#19 PJA

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Posted 19 October 2012 - 02:45 PM

hello,

replying a bit late to this topic, but I have just started reading about the French side of the Great War, which I will be studying from now on.

I have just read Horne's exellent book and I am reading " a French soldiers War Diary" and I am of the opinion that if the French soldier lacked hygene one wondered if the poor soul had any choice?!, the truly appaulling way in which he was treated by those above him beggars belief even for the times, allowing for the rural background of the French soldier, this military man was probably the worst treated of any surely?.



Suggest a quick look at the Italian experience. Dreadful !

Phil (PJA)