James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Dysentery, Rommel and the making of the Empire

Over the centuries diarrhoea has had a profound influence on the fortunes of our great nation. The battle of El Alamein is rightly perceived as being the turning point of the war and the first signal that the formidable German war machine was not, after all, invincible. Credit for the victory is usually attributed to the combination of Montgomery’s military genius and the fighting spirit of the Eighth Army, but Rommel took a different view. He blamed his defeat on diarrhoea.

He himself had been struck down by amoebic dysentery and was still convalescing in hospital when the battle began. He promptly resumed command but, weakened by his illness, he lacked the stamina to face the physical and mental demands of resisting the Allied onslaught. Nor was he the only one, as I recently discovered in a fascinating article, “The Hygienic Aspects of the El Alamein Victory”, written in its aftermath by a senior medic, Dr H.S. Gear. The area to which the Eighth Army had been forced to retreat had apparently become “badly fouled”, due to a “slackening of personal standards of hygiene”. Flies were a serious plague, and the newly arrived reinforcement troops were particularly vulnerable to “gippy tummy” and sandfly fever.

”This vast problem of hygiene was methodically tackled from the halt at El Alamein until the advance at the end of October 1942,” writes Dr Gear. The fly nuisance, “with its dangers of spreading disease”, was dealt with by specially formed units. The systematic incineration of refuse was instituted and petrol-tin latrines were introduced, whose “daily burning reduced the dejecta to an innocuous dried mass”.

Not surprisingly, this hygienic blitzkrieg markedly improved both the morale and the general health of the British troops.

Similar measures, however, were not instituted by the enemy and, as the Eighth Army advanced, they found the lines and camps they captured “in an indescribably filthy condition… revolting in the amount of human faeces and camp debris lying everywhere”. And, says Dr Gear, “the enemy paid for his contempt of hygiene” with a phenomenally high instance of diarrhoeal disease, which affected more than half their troops. “Their poor physical condition played a major part in the Allied victory.”

So Rommel’s attribution of his defeat to diarrhoea rather than the military skill and courage of his Eighth Army may appear to smack of sour grapes, but he certainly had a point.

Whatever the precise contribution may have been of diarrhoea to this turning point in the war, it played an even more substantial role in the founding of the British Empire.

The major constraint on military conquests up until the 18th century had always been the apparently intractable problem that the troops of even the best equipped and most formidable of armies were much more likely to be decimated by disease – particularly diarrhoeal dysentery – than by injuries inflicted by the enemy. This high mortality was compounded by the mis-attribution of the diarrhoea to “foul air” – and by its treatment with a lethal combination of emtics, bleeding and purging with rhubarb.

The situation was transformed by a series of measures introduced by a Scotsman, Sir John Pringle (1707-1782), “the father of military hygiene”. “Pringle’s methods were to stop indiscriminate fouling of the ground by troops, to cover latrines daily with earth, and move camp when outbreaks of dysentery occurred,” writes the physician and medical historian Dr G.C. Cook in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine earlier this year. Similarly, the Navy benefited from reforms instigated by another Scotsman, James Lind, leading to improvements “in the hygiene and ventilation of living quarters on board ship, regular provision of clean clothing and a more rational diet”.

Britain thus acquired the unique capability of being able to transport large numbers of troops over enormous distances by sea, who, upon their arrival, were fit enough to defeat the local inhabitants. And that is why in my childhood so much of the map in the schoolroom was coloured red. Fascinating or what?

It is curious also to reflect that the real credit for the founding of the British Empire belongs to Scotland for producing men of the competence and calibre of Pringle and Lind (and thousands of others besides). Their fellow countrymen in the present Government, by contrast, have given us the Dome and a dysfunctional railway system (not that the previous Government would do any better and, anyhow, it was their fault in the first place). O tempora! O mores!

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd