Category Archives: First World War
Endless itching: how Anzacs treated lice in the trenches with poetry and their own brand of medicine
Georgia McWhinney, Macquarie UniversityWe think we know a lot about Australian and New Zealand soldiers’ health in the first world war. Many books, novels and television programs speak of wounds and war doctors, documenting the work of both Anzac nations’ medical corps.
Often these histories begin with front-line doctors — known as regimental medical officers — who first reached wounded men in the field. The same histories often end in the hospital or at home.
Yet, much of first world war medicine began and ended with the soldiers themselves. Australian and New Zealand soldiers (alongside their British and Canadian counterparts) cared for their own health in the trenches of the Western Front and along the cliffs of Gallipoli.
This “vernacular” medicine spread from solider to soldier by word of mouth, which they then recorded in diaries and letters home. It spread through written texts, such as trench newspapers and magazines, and through constant experimentation.
Soldiers presented a unique understanding of their experiences of illness, developed their own health practices, and formed their own medical networks. This formed a unique type of medical system.
What was this type of medicine like?
The men’s understandings of the effect of lice on the body often contrasted to that of medical professionals.
Soldiers described lice as a daily nuisance rather than vectors of disease. The men sitting in the trenches were preoccupied with addressing the immediate and constant discomfort caused by lice, whereas medical researchers and doctors were more concerned with losing manpower from lice-borne disease.
Many men focused on the endless itching, which some said drove them almost mad.
Corporal George Bollinger, a New Zealand bank clerk from Hastings, said: “the frightful pest ‘lice’ is our chief worry now”.
Australian Private Arthur Giles shuddered when he wrote home about the lice, noting it: “makes me scratch to think of them”.
Soldiers’ reactions to lice, as a shared community, inspired them to experiment and share practical ideas of how to manage their itchy burdens. This included developing their own method of bathing.
When New Zealand Corporal Charles Saunders descended the cliffs to the beaches around Anzac Cove, he would “dive down and nudge a handful of sand from the bottom and rub it over [his] skin”, letting “the saltwater dry on one in the sun”. He also rubbed the sand across his uniform hoping to kill some of the lice eggs in the seams of his shirt and pants.
In some locations, fresh water was scarce and reserved for drinking. Without access to water, soldiers’ extermination methods became more offbeat, creative and original.
Men sourced lice-exterminating powders, such as Keating’s and Harrison’s, from patent providers — retail pharmaceutical sellers in the UK or back home in Australia and New Zealand — and rubbed various oils over their bodies.
Yet, one of the most popular extermination methods was “chatting” — popping the louse between the thumbnails.
An Australian bootmaker, Lieutenant Allan McMaster, told his family in Newcastle it was “amusing indeed to see all the boys at the first minute they have to spare, to strip off altogether and have what we call a chating [sic] parade”.
Corporal Bert Jackson, an orchardist from Upper Hawthorn in Melbourne, took his “shirt off and had a hunt, and then put it on inside out”. He said that if he “missed any, the beggars will have a job to get to the skin again”.
Soldiers shared their knowledge
These soldiers shared their practices via their own medical networks, such as trench newspapers.
For instance, soldiers wrote humorous poems that also educated their fellow men. Australian Lance Corporal TA Saxon joked about lice-exterminating powders in his poem A Dug-Out Lament:
[…] They’re in our tunics, and in our shirts,
They take a power of beating,
So for goodness sake, if you’re sending us cake, Send also a tin of Keating.
One image from the trench newspaper “Aussie: the Australian soldiers’ magazine” came with the caption “Chatting by the Wayside” that drew on the well-trod joke about the double meaning of the word chatting.
What can we learn?
Reflecting on these often-overlooked aspects of the past helps us rethink medicine today.
For marginal groups in particular, access to professional health care can, and has often been, an expensive, alienating, or culturally foreign and abrasive task. So even in today’s globalised world, networks of non-professional medicine are as active as ever.
With many people isolated and at the mercy of much conflicting information, informal medical networks (often found on social media) present an opportunity to allay fears and swap information in a similar manner to how Anzac soldiers communicated via trench newspapers.
Perhaps some forms of vernacular medicine are occurring right under our noses.
Fiona McLeod, The University of Queensland and Martin Crotty, The University of QueenslandThe revival of interest in Anzac since the 1980s has depended in part on the repositioning of soldiers as victims. We rarely celebrate their martial virtues, and instead note their resilience, fortitude and suffering.
This shift in emphasis opens up more promising space for the inclusion of women. Nurses were not warriors – they were caregivers. But they too suffered trauma as a result of their service.
In what must be regarded as something of a miracle, no Australian nurses were killed. But like the men they devoted themselves to, they were worn down and in some cases shattered by the horrors they witnessed.
From 1916, Australian nurses served in Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS), almost on the front line, often under fire and always under immense pressure. This was the most dangerous and intense working environment in which they could serve. It was far removed from the hospital ship environment at Gallipoli, or the hospitals further from the lines, where there was at least the prospect of regular respite.
The CCS was a 1915 innovation designed to provide treatment to men as soon as possible after they were injured. They operated close to the front lines, and so took nurses into the danger zone. CCS nurses were assailed by the realities of trench warfare and the demands of treating damaged men. Soldiers came to the CCS within hours of wounding, bloody and dying, needing urgent surgery for their shattered limbs and mangled bodies, or blistered and blinded from gas attacks.
The sight of the battle front was terrifying and compelling — Sister Elsie Tranter, for one, was captivated. She wrote in her diary that on her first night at a CCS near Grevillers, in March 1918 she:
[…] had the flaps on the tent fastened back and spent most of the night watching the flashes in the sky from the guns […] everything seemed so surreal.
[…] a continuous rumble and roar, as of an immense factory of vibrating machinery filled the night. The pulsing sounds and vibration worked into our bodies and brains; the screech of the big shells, and the awful crash when they burst at no great distance, kept our nerves on edge.
Shrapnel falling to the ground, the thrilling sight of aerial dog fights, damp and dirty dugouts, sandbagged tents, constant artillery fire, the smell of gas, the tremble of the earth — this was the landscape of the CCS.
Sister Connie Keys did not expect they would come through safely, and later confided to her mother that now “I’m only afraid of being afraid”. She had experienced terror beyond measure.
CCSs struggled to cope at the height of battle, and staff worked extremely long hours to deal with the flood of casualties. One of them, 2nd Australian CCS, had a nursing staff of 20 and put through 2,800 patients in the first 18 hours of the “Messines push”.
May Tilton recalled in her memoir that she often “went on duty at 8pm, worked continuously during a ‘stunt’[a minor military operation], until the following midday, with ten minutes for supper at midnight, and half an hour for breakfast at 8am”.
The experience of nurses attests to the aphorism of war as long periods of boredom interspersed with brief periods of terror.
Static attrition warfare, conducted through artillery bombardment, gassing and close fighting, produced fighting conditions and wounds that appalled both the victims and those who cared for them.
The resuscitation wards were the greatest test for nurses. Tilton recalled that:
[…] only the worst cases could we possibly hope to attend to. The work in the resuscitation ward was indescribable. The butchery of these precious lives […] To watch them dying was ghastly.
The night sister confessed
I cannot speak of it […] I want to scream and scream.
Nurses were brought to despair – not because they were unable to save lives, for nurses were accustomed to death, but because they were unable to care for patients as they would have done “at home”. They had been trained to fashion order out of chaos, to bring a patient through the days and nights of a health crisis with patience, gentleness and watchful vigilance, and in some cases to ease their path to a painless and tranquil death.
But in war, they wrestled with the irresolvable conflict between duty and fear, and between their compassion and the realities of conflict. Death on the Western Front was ugly, chaotic and painful, so much so that some “ministering angels” came to doubt their Christian faith. “I can’t believe there is a God,” wrote Sister Alice Ross King after the Ypres Offensive, “it is too awful for words”.
Nurses, like soldiers, knew when they were at breaking point, and feared being unable to fulfil their duties. Tilton confessed:
[…] the privacy of our tents was a welcome relief for the weakness we dared not show before our brave, suffering boys.
Even the Armistice, when it eventually came on November 11 1918, brought little comfort. Anne Donnell became terribly depressed and, like many, found joy impossible when she contemplated the sadness of empty homes and hearts.
Nurses carried the burden of putting back together the victims of conflict, yet struggled to maintain their own physical and mental health. For many, their return to Australia was marred by ill-health, and what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
But they also displayed courage and resilience. The experiences of Australian Army nurses on the Western Front can be a starting point, reaching through all Australia’s wars, for discussion of the response to extreme physical and psychological stress borne by those who treat the casualties of war. They too were war’s victims.
Historians have long been engaged in a fractious, sometimes spiteful, debate about the legacies of the first world war. This is especially so because the politics of the war continue to resonate in our own discussions of national identity and purpose.
We debate the extent to which the Anzac tradition reflects our understanding of what makes a good Australian, and how important our cultural affinities are with Britain. Did the war curtail a progressive spirit, and entrench political conservatism, or did it encourage a new confidence in ourselves?
These evaluations were already present the moment the war ended in November 1918. Australians had endured a terrible trauma. Sixty thousand of them were dead from a population of not quite 5 million. Another 150,000 returned sick or wounded, physically and mentally.
Those at home were quick to draw attention to their own sufferings, too. They had known the war not only in its military dimensions, but as an ordeal of waiting and worrying, of constantly fearing the worst. The Victorian parliamentarian John Percy Jones simply declared the war
has kept me in a condition of mental agony. I am hardly able to realise even yet that the fearful times through which we have been passing are now over.
What, then, should we make of that sacrifice? Some called the nation to unity around the experience of the war, and in doing so elevated the Anzacs to the peak of Australian virtue.
In the federal parliament, Senator Edward Millen declared:
this war, amongst other things, has made Australia a nation in a sense that it was not before. It has given us a new conception of national life.
A divided nation
But it was also clear the war had driven apart Australians in the demands it made on the people. Calls to unity faltered, as intense debates over recruiting for the army crystallised in two failed attempts to endorse compulsory military service by plebiscite.
The conscription campaigns divided Australians bitterly. Those who voted against the principle found their loyalty to nation and empire questioned. Those in favour faced accusations they betrayed Australia’s future by sending its young men to die.
Australians voted against conscription in October 1916 and again in December 1917, but the effect was still to polarise Australian politics and society. The Labor Party split over the issue. Prime Minister Billy Hughes walked out and formed government with his erstwhile opponents.
The party’s now unequivocal anti-conscription sentiments found it tarred with the brush of disloyalty and ensured a conservative ascendancy in federal politics until 1929.
Even in private life, those political divisions were deep and abiding. One woman wrote to her soldier husband at the front that she had broken off friendships over the issue:
they don’t come here now since conscription I told them what I thought of them.
Returned soldiers as ‘most deserving’
It is small wonder that those on the political left – many historians included – should feel uncomfortable about the effects of the first world war on Australian society and culture.
The tendency of the war had been to draw Australia more closely into the British Empire’s embrace. The German threat provoked deep expressions of cultural unity with Britain from Australians, and further encouraged them to see their future security in terms of even closer defence and economic ties with the empire.
The Anzac tradition itself embodied those difficult politics, as it promoted the Empire-loyal “digger” as the embodiment of the Australian national character.
In Anzac’s rhetoric, Australian soldiers had proved themselves the exemplars of a series of desirable qualities such as courage, initiative, and loyalty to mates. But they had not so much achieved independence for Australia as raised Australia to equality within a British brotherhood.
For those on the political left, the veneration of the digger displaced all other potential contributions to the making of Australian nationhood, including the contributions of women, pacifists and political radicals.
It reorganised hierarchies of citizenship, so returned soldiers assumed the position of the most deserving, whether in terms of government largesse or in cultural terms as the embodiment of national character.
But conservative historians have naturally been much more comfortable with that interpretation of the war’s effects than their counterparts.
It speaks to a sense that Australians held close to their British descent and traditions, while also recognising the economic and security value of continued close ties. And it gave Australians a figure whose characteristics were not only to be admired, but emulated in civic life and subsequent conflicts.
A century on from the national trauma of 1914-18, the politics of that event remain present. The kind of Australia we prefer to see depends on whether we regret or embrace the effects of the first world war on Australian politics and culture.
As we gather again on the anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars”, we might observe that the conclusion of the war only started the long and continuing effort to come to terms with its meaning.