“Either socialism will defeat the louse, or the louse will defeat socialism*”

8 August 2013 by Annelie Wendeberg, posted in Biological Warfare

(* V.I. Lenin, 1919)

By the time World War I began, humans knew enough of disease to incorporate it in warfare practice. Pasteur and Koch had successfully isolated pathogenic bacteria and the concept of “bad air” causing disease was replaced by the germ theory.

Up until then, disease was causing far more deaths than combat. Yet, the Generals of the Western Front were convinced they could tip the scale - a feat unprecedented in European history - and began a large-scale hygiene experiment.

Between 1914 and 1918, the Eastern Front was ravaged by typhus with a mortality rate of up to 60%. The disease spread into Russia during the years after the war and infected between 20 and 30 million people. An estimated 3 to 10 million of them died.

Soldiers at the Western front, however, remained comparatively healthy.

In 1909, the director of the Bacteriological Laboratory at Rouen, Charles Nicolle, made a breakthrough discovery that later earned him the Nobel Prize in Medicine: He demonstrated the link between lice and typhus. The military quickly devoured the new knowledge: Movements of troops from infected areas to healthy ones were strictly limited. Special Sanitary Units were employed to make sure soldiers knew about the importance of keeping vermin at bay. The British Expeditionary Forces even added two entomologists to each of their Sanitary Units. From then on, soldiers had to cut their hair short, shave their faces, and wash their bodies. Clothes were brushed (catapults vermin) and ironed (toasts vermin) by launderers, who, with mustard gas and chlorine wafting over the battle fields, invented their own arsenal of chemical warfare. As soap and water didn’t do much against the creepy crawlers, volatile solvents were taken instead.

Charles Nicolle (Wikimedia Commons)

De-lousing stations were set up, an uninviting sort of sub-camp, where everyone was to be tortured with scrubbing tools, clippers, disinfectants, and evil-smelling soaps.

Up until then, disease had either been used passively by avoidance and hygiene, or unsystematically by driving the enemy into infected areas or chucking infected corpses or bodily fluids at them.

With progress in microbiological research sky-rocketing, warfare was about to grow a dangerous limb. Fiction writers were already using bacteria as weapons (e.g. A.C. Doyle in “The Dying Detective” and H.G. Wells in “The War of the Worlds”).

When Anton Dilger began growing large amounts of anthrax and glanders germs in the basement of his house in Washington DC, with the White House just around a corner, he marked the beginning of a new era of biological warfare (topic of the next post).

Source: Six-Legged Soldiers


2 Responses to ““Either socialism will defeat the louse, or the louse will defeat socialism*””

  1. rfm Reply | Permalink

    Socialism, even socialized medicine is not enough. Ignorance and apathy continue to support thriving colonies of lice in this part of rural norther British Columbia.

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