Serbian barrels in WW1 East Africa

Working on the Pike Report (WO 31/141) I came across reference to ‘Serbian barrels’ (para 138) under the topic of disinfection. What are Serbian barrels and what are they doing in East Africa?

Serbian barrels were designed by William Hunter who was working as a doctor in Serbia during World War 1. The barrel, quite a complex but simple system, was used to eradicate lice to control typhus (more incl WW1).

So how did they get to Africa? It would appear that when the Serbian army moved into Greece and joined in supporting France and Britain on the Salonika front that information was transferred. I’m hoping that Dr Aimée Fox-Godden (@DrAEFox will be able to provide a little more detail on who took the idea and first barrels to East Africa.
All this within two years (October 1915 to November 1917).

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Talking unclean

Working through the Pike report (WO 32/141) into the Medical Services in East Africa, I was struck by the number of times Pike commented on a camp being clean or fair but the sanitary conditions being poor. Therefore the camp was unacceptable. Pike appeared to be fixated on ‘latrines’. Not just on their state of cleanliness but he also goes on about how they should be treated. He regularly suggests the appointment of a Medical Officer (Sanitation) and makes the recommendation that the Medical Officers should have the final say over where any army camp is based.
Later on in the report Pike discusses the ‘Collection and disposal of human excreta’. In this section he refers to the different methods employed, often noting that faeces were removed from camps and disposed of on beaches, apparently an improvement from being disposed into the harbour! Of further interest is the adoption of practices from the Germans: water closets and cesspools as well as smoke latrines which were devised in the Cameroons. Quite astoundingly, Pike approves of the use of ant-hills for urinals and is particularly impressed by one which combines being used as a urinal and an incinerator. (I can’t help but wonder what the ants or ant-eaters made of this arrangement.)
It might seem rather odd for a Medical Officer to be so fixated on latrines especially where camps themselves are well run and clean. But the one place all have to visit, and often at night, is the latrine. It is one place where disease spreads and spreads quickly. It was over toilet practices that the concentration camps of the Boer War became notorious. Not taking local habits into account and placing people in close proximity led to the unhygienic practices and spread of disease which led to so many innocent deaths.
I’m sure I’ve commented on it before, so apologies in advance to those who recall so. Corrigan in Mud, Blood and Poppycock deals with this very sensitive issue on the Western Front. I remember reading it over a lunch time sitting on Kilimanjaro thinking ‘what a topic to be digesting at this time’. Corrigan goes into the detail of average bodily output a day, the number of men in a particular area and other necessary bits of information to determine how deep and how far apart from each other long-drops should be placed.
What for most of us is a taboo topic or at least something ‘not mentioned in polite society’, in the military it’s an important consideration in keeping the forces healthy.
Whilst on this topic, one thing I’ve always been baffled by are the comments in diaries or official histories where it’s been recorded that the enemy defecated over houses, and all the contents inside. Given how people react to a slightly untidy public toilet, preferring to find a cleaner spot, organising a group action on the scale often suggested is beyond my imagination. Perhaps one of my military readers could shed some light on this – are you trained to perform on demand to this extent?

Medical discoveries

My most recent trip to South Africa was significantly focused on medical things. Having fallen ill on arrival followed by three days in bed, I eventually visited a doctor as I was due to record an interview on the Versailles talks and SA with Classic FM with no voice. The day of the doctor visit, a colleague had commented that I was no longer sounding like a frog but rather like a bullfrog. Miraculously, having seen the doctor at 4.35pm on Wednesday, I was able to speak, and feel human, by 12.30pm the following day when the recording was scheduled.

Getting into the SANDF archive in its new location in Irene and delving into things medical made me wonder how the chaps out in the bush during WW1 suffering from malaria and pneumonia managed to get themselves to medical support as they did. How medical treatments have developed in so many ways(!), yet remain the same in others. A trip through a game park in Limpopo Province highlighted the use of the Buffalo Thorn for medicinal purposes and cleaning teeth.

On the last day of my last trip to the ‘old’ SANDF Doc Centre, we (myself and an archive colleague) discovered some medical files which apeared untouched since being filed in the 1970s. This trip we worked out how they linked together. I was able to discover some useful material on General Sir Jaap van Deventer for my talk (more in due course) and a young academic can develop some case studies for his MA dissertation on the Cape Corps as a result. This will also help provide supporting evidence and documentation for the GWAA Medical project which is focusing on the Pike Reports (context and composition added since last related post).

For those interested, the type of information contained on the Medical Cards can be seen here. Two records have additional information from the medical reports as an initial example of how the medical boards related for one person. A sample of information contained on the Death Registers for the EANLC (East African Native Labour Corps) recruited in South Africa promises further insights into those who supported the fighting forces. These records as well as the Catalogue listings will continue to be updated as time permits.

Oh for a doctor!

The topic of medicine in the First World War seems to be very popular in 2017, and it just happens to be a theme GWAA is focusing on too, although when a few of us started looking at it, there wasn’t so much happening generally – one of those interesting coincidences.

Something which struck me when reading Gregg Adams’ King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey 1916) was the role of fire and its impact on fighting. He quotes Mzee Ali (Bror McDonnel) in this regard which surprisingly passed me by when I read the book – I was focusing on other themes at the time. What is striking about the role of fire and the description given is that I don’t recall having read about doctors treating burns, or burns being listed on the catalogue of reasons men were evacuated by hospital ship to South Africa between 1916 and 1917 listed in the Appendices to the Pike Report (WO 141/31).

In On Call in Africa (NP Jewell), we read of an ammunition store catching fire but not the bush fires. There is also reference in some sources to Smuts and Lettow-Vorbeck using scorched earth policy as a military tactic but this implies controlled fire and the devastating effect of this in terms of famine and starvation is recorded. But, the fires caused by weapons firing and sudden sparks turning into flames is not a feature in memoirs and diaries. Snakes get more of a mention, as do attacks by bees.

Were many lives lost to these fires? If so, ow were they recorded and where? How did doctors deal with them especially when water was scarce? (Jewell mentions sterilizing hands with iodine as there was no water available). What was the impact of the hot African sun on the untreated burn injuries? (Pike notes that sunstroke/burn was not a major issue for the medical services). Why is there little record of burns in the medical records? I’m not sure we’ll get answers to many of these questions, but as noted by Adams, this was a significant difference of fighting in certain parts of Africa compared with the Western Front.

You can see the transcription of the Pike Report and other relevant medical links on the GWAA Medical Archive.