While on holiday in the Orkneys recently, I visited the grave of Harry Reid, a private in the Seaforth Highlanders, who died in 1917 at his home at Melsetter on the island of Hoy and is buried on the smaller island of Rousay, next to his mother, who died shortly after his birth. Assuming he had been wounded at Arras or in some contemporary action and brought home to die, I found the weathered stone a poignant sight but thought little more about it until my attention was drawn to the fact that Harry had never served overseas.
This got me wondering and I looked up his name in a list of Orkney’s World War I dead, suspecting what I might find. I was not altogether surprised to learn that 23-year-old Harry had died of measles. It may sound very odd but let us put this death into context. In the early decades of the twentieth century, there were still many remote communities in Britain, and indeed throughout Europe, where a person might live his or her entire life without ever venturing as far as the nearest city. The types of transport with which we have become familiar today, even if they existed, were beyond most people’s reach.
Country folk did not have any great need to travel, particularly if they lived in agricultural communities, because they were self-sufficient to a far greater degree than almost anyone is now. Although there were food shortages during World War I and food rationing was introduced in February 1918, the problem was mostly imported items such as tea and sugar, which might be regarded as luxuries. Rural communities had their own sources of meat, vegetables and dairy products.
Death from infectious diseases has traditionally been a common problem in wartime, but (if you are anything like me) your thoughts will immediately be drawn to Henry V's army dying from dysentery and starvation rather than to the events of the twentieth century. Despite the improvements in medical treatment since the Napoleonic Wars, death from disease still accounted for one third of military deaths in World War I. Among those we can count men like Rupert Brooke, who had foreseen a hero’s death for himself but actually died of an infected mosquito bite before even arriving in a theatre of war.
More tragic, somehow, are those young men who came from places like the Highlands and islands of Scotland, the valleys of North Wales, the west of Ireland, and parts of France, Italy, Russia and even Germany where infections such as measles were almost unknown. "Measles," says an American expert, "was essentially the disease of country boys coming for the first time into a densely crowded environment." Many recruits from the Southern United States, just like Harry Reid, died without ever being shipped overseas to fight the enemy. For some reason, the disease was more likely to hit white US soldiers than their black fellow-countrymen.
Measles was a killer not so much because of the properties of the disease itself as because of the complications that often accompanied it. Harry Reid contracted pneumonia, a common side effect. The crew of an Australian cruiser stationed in the North Sea in 1915 suffered from outbreaks of measles and influenza, which were not easily eradicated in such cramped conditions. Troops of all nationalities in Macedonia, meanwhile, went down with malaria: a French general, when ordered to attack, is reputed to have declined with the explanation "My army is in hospital with malaria".
Typhus, a very serious disease in its own right, broke out among soldiers on the eastern front early in the war, killing large numbers of soldiers and civilians alike. Sexually-transmitted diseases were a different kind of hazard. Robert Graves reports in his memoirs, rather callously, the suffering of strictly-brought-up Welsh soldiers in his battalion who had never been away from home before and realised too late the risk they were taking by visiting brothels.
Siegfried Sassoon, like so many of his fellow-soldiers, went down with trench fever on more than one occasion. This rather mysteriously-named disease was carried by lice and characterised by a fever lasting about a week and accompanied by rashes and general aches and pains. Although it claimed many victims, it was seldom fatal; it was, however, just like measles, the result of large numbers of men in close proximity, enabling the lice to breed and spread. When Isaac Rosenberg wrote his famous poem "Louse Hunting", he described an activity that may sound light-hearted and even playful; in actual fact, these men were doing what they could to preserve their own health in the face of a threat to their well-being that was almost as great as the German guns.