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Remembered Today:

Teutonic hygiene vs. Gallic squalor


phil andrade

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Yesterday there was a very engaging series of lectures held at Oxford on the subject of the archaeology of the Great War, and I was lucky to attend.

There was some harrowing depiction of the recovery of the dead who had lain unrecovered for nearly a hundred years. I have always been intrigued by the question of the German dead - were they, because they were on the losing side, left on the field in greater proportions than their victorious counterparts?

( rather a silly notion, I have to admit...ascribing the word "victorious" to victims, but you know what I mean)

One of the speakers, Jon Price, answered my question about this and used the word "hygienic" several times when he emphasised that the Germans went to great pains to inter their dead - and, indeed, those of their enemies, as we have seen in the Fromelles episode.

Much was written by British soldiers in the Great War about the disgraceful state of the trenches that had formerly been occupied by the French ...almost to the point of caricature.

Do you think that the Germans were more hygienic than the French ? Were they cleaner than the British? Was this apparent in the burial of the dead ? Was this a trait of better organisation and doctrine, or was it a function of the reality that the Germans were determined to remain on the ground that they had conquered, while the Entente armies regarded trenches as a temporary necessity prior to expelling the invaders, and that therefore minimum energy should be expended on maintainenance?

Phil.

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I think that the French armies had a large proportion of peasantry and country people. These sons of the soil may have seen city dwellers ideas of sanitation as being unnecessarilly squeamish. I do not think we should accuse the nation who produced Proust as lacking delicacy.

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Hello Phil

You have a good and relevant point about the Allies regarding their trenches as temporary homes whereas the Germans "dug in for the duration." The Germans generally tended to have more orderly habits: e.g. they sorted their rubbish into types which were buried in separate rubbish pits, so if you ever dig up a WW1 rubbish pit which only contains broken bottles it is almost certainly German. To some extent this reflected what is still seen as a basic German attitude to orderliness.

Both sides tried to give decent burial to their own and enemy dead as far as possible, for psychological reasons as much as anything, although the French were possibly more phlegmatic about this than the British or Germans.

Ron

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I think that the French armies had a large proportion of peasantry and country people. These sons of the soil may have seen city dwellers ideas of sanitation as being unnecessarilly squeamish. I do not think we should accuse the nation who produced Proust as lacking delicacy.

I think these are both false arguments. The German Army was also largely made up of peasantry and country people (one reason why German agricultural production halved during the war). The country that produced Proust also built Versailles which had no sanitary facilities whatsoever and in which exquisitely clad courtiers relieved themselves against the walls and the king received whilst sitting on a commode. If the quality of a county's literature reflected the refinement of that country then Russia in 1914 would have been a model of delicacy.

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I was comparing the French army to the British, which had a large proportion of urban citizenry in their New Armies. Proust was writing at the time of the Great War, he was a contemporary of the men in the trenches. Which Russian novelist of 1914 was noted for his delicacy? There was not much difference between sanitary arrangements at pre revolutionary Versailles and contemporary European courts.

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Accounts from British troops of the often filthy state in which billets formerly occupied by the Germans were found are commonplace.

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GAC - sincere info request here - I would have been unsurprised if your statement had talked of the British and French .. but the Germans? Can you post some of these accounts? It is something that I was really unaware of. Except in the context of the 'pull back' from the Somme and the associated 'scorched earth' of French territory.

If we are talking about that horrible habit of departing troops leaving an 'organic welcome' for their enemy then that is a different matter.

Des

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There were reports of some captured German dugouts being lice ridden (I posted on this in the lice thread) These lice appear to have been a different species from those that plagued the British (size and colour different) and quite voracious. Possibly this is the origin of the dirty dugout reports.

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Accounts from British troops of the often filthy state in which billets formerly occupied by the Germans were found are commonplace.

In his diary, a Manchester Regiment officer complains of new billets (in Egypt) being "disgustingly dirty" and needing several days of cleaning up. They had just been vacated by Lancashire Fusiliers.

John

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GAC - sincere info request here - I would have been unsurprised if your statement had talked of the British and French .. but the Germans? Can you post some of these accounts? It is something that I was really unaware of. Except in the context of the 'pull back' from the Somme and the associated 'scorched earth' of French territory.

If we are talking about that horrible habit of departing troops leaving an 'organic welcome' for their enemy then that is a different matter.

Des

A couple of examples:

From ‘From Mons to Ypres with General French’ , by Frederic Coleman (1917):

The Brigade went to the high ground between the Bourg-Vendresse road and Verneuil. A battery was shelling the Germans from that position, and soon the German guns replied. The 9th Lancers suffered on the ridge, losing Captain Lucas Tooth, a splendid cavalry officer. Before dark we were relieved by the Rifle Brigade, and our troops went into billets at Oeuilly. A chateau there had been left in a filthy state by the Germans, but piles of clean straw in the ransacked drawing-room made a comfortable resting-place.

From diary of Sgt Arthur Castle, 'D' Battery RHA:

Sunday, 20 September 1914:

Moved to Chateau de Lime. Residence of Princess Poniatowski. Horses in grounds, troops in Chateau. myself and 4 others occupied one of her ladyships rooms. Germans had previously occupied chateau and place was upside down. Furniture and bedding clothing etc strewn all over the place.

From The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, describing events in October 1918:

The New Zealand Rifle Brigade, after the successful actions of October 8th and 9th, went into billets at Esnes on the 10th. These were real billets in houses, and this was the first time the whole Brigade had occupied such quarters since the preceding February, when we were in the Staple area for training. For the past three months we had been almost constantly on the move, the "bivvy," the dug-out, and occasionally the dilapidated hut, being the extent of our luxuries in the matter of shelter from the elements. We were now in new country almost entirely undamaged by shell-fire. The villages, though deserted, were intact, and stoves and the heavier articles of furniture, and even the precious feather beds, remained in the houses. To the delight of everyone, vegetables in plenty were found growing in the gardens, and we were thus able to provide a welcome addition to the rations which it had been impossible to augment in any way for six weeks past. That the same quarters had been occupied by the German troops was evident from the filth that abounded.

ciao,

GAC

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There are many accounts of German troops leaving billets in a disgusting state. In 'The War the Infantry Knew' accounts of "Befouled furniture on the lawns, and empty bottles, bore witness to German ways".

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And an account from a medical officer, Captain Robert Dolbey, in his book Sketches of the East Africa Campaign (1918) :

Officers from the Cameroon have confirmed the filthy habits of the Huns and Hunnesses, how they defiled the rooms in the hospital at Duala that they occupied just before they were sent away; how disgusting were their habits in the cabins of the fine Atlantic liner that took them back to Europe. Not that it is their normal custom; it was merely to render the rooms uninhabitable for us who were to follow, and their special way of showing contempt and hatred for their foes. Do you wonder that the stewards and crew of the Union Castle liner struck work rather than convey and look after these beasts on the voyage to Europe? Our French missionary padre tells me that it was just the same in Alsace. The incident at Zabern after the manoeuvres was entirely due to the disgust and indignation of the French people at the defiling of their beds and bedrooms by the German soldiers, who had been billeted upon them.

A final example, an extract from the Official French Report into German Conduct during the Retreat to the Hindenburg Line, by Georges Payelle (President of the Court of Audits)

:

At Sempigny, one of the few places where the houses are still standing, it is possible to form some idea of the scenes of plunder which occurred everywhere. From March 1st, the date on which such of the able-bodied inhabitants as still remained were expelled, until the departure of the invading troops, this unhappy village was incessantly pillaged.

It looks as if a horde of violent maniacs had passed through it, and in truth the Germans displayed a sort of frenzy in destroying everything they could not carry off, shattering beds and wardrobes with pick-axes or mallets, pulverizing crockery and mirrors, breaking up agricultural implements and gardening tools, scattering corn and seed, stealing all the furniture of the High Altar in the Church, defiling drawers and cupboards with filth, and leaving excrements even in the kitchen utensils. Most of these exploits were performed by the 338th Infantry Regiment.

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So not living in squalor but rather despoiling things for the next occupants, better than booby traps I suppose

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Some of these accounts clearly indicate that Centurion, but not all of them. In any case, I doubt if it made much difference to the French civilians upon whom they'd been billeted or the British troops who succeeded them whether the filth was created by Germanic intent or lifestyle - to them it was just evidence of the brutal and filthy Hun. It might also be argued that creating deliberate filth such as excrement in kitchen utensil drawers is actually worse behaviour than an unenlightened dirty lifestyle - if rendering homes useless to the enemy was the reason, then they could have simply been burned (as, indeed, many were). Resorting instead to such organised creation of filth would seem to require a certain mindset in the individuals concerned.

ciao,

GAC

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Some of these accounts clearly indicate that Centurion, but not all of them. In any case, I doubt if it made much difference to the French civilians upon whom they'd been billeted or the British troops who succeeded them whether the filth was created by Germanic intent or lifestyle - to them it was just evidence of the brutal and filthy Hun. It might also be argued that creating deliberate filth such as excrement in kitchen utensil drawers is actually worse behaviour than an unenlightened dirty lifestyle - if rendering homes useless to the enemy was the reason, then they could have simply been burned (as, indeed, many were). Resorting instead to such organised creation of filth would seem to require a certain mindset in the individuals concerned.

ciao,

GAC

Its more than relevant within the context of the question asked in the first post of this thread.

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Nobody suggested it wasn't. But the reasons for living acommodation being left filthy are clearly complex and it is simplistic to expect to find a clear-cut answer to the question of whether the Germans were cleaner than the British (or French). Regional and social origins of the troops in question in any particular instance is one factor which would need to be considered as well as other evidence such as whether filth was created as an act of revenge.

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Nobody suggested it wasn't. But the reasons for living acommodation being left filthy are clearly complex and it is simplistic to expect to find a clear-cut answer to the question of whether the Germans were cleaner than the British (or French). Regional and social origins of the troops in question in any particular instance is one factor which would need to be considered as well as other evidence such as whether filth was created as an act of revenge.

But where is this relevant to "Were Germans more meticulous in burying the dead?" which was the question asked? We're going off at a tangent.

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As you keep citing it, I'd have expected you to have read the whole set of questions in the first post. To assist, I've highlighted in bold the relevant ones to the question of German v. British/French hygiene and cleanliness:

Yesterday there was a very engaging series of lectures held at Oxford on the subject of the archaeology of the Great War, and I was lucky to attend.

There was some harrowing depiction of the recovery of the dead who had lain unrecovered for nearly a hundred years. I have always been intrigued by the question of the German dead - were they, because they were on the losing side, left on the field in greater proportions than their victorious counterparts?

( rather a silly notion, I have to admit...ascribing the word "victorious" to victims, but you know what I mean)

One of the speakers, Jon Price, answered my question about this and used the word "hygienic" several times when he emphasised that the Germans went to great pains to inter their dead - and, indeed, those of their enemies, as we have seen in the Fromelles episode.

Much was written by British soldiers in the Great War about the disgraceful state of the trenches that had formerly been occupied by the French ...almost to the point of caricature.

Do you think that the Germans were more hygienic than the French ? Were they cleaner than the British? Was this apparent in the burial of the dead ? Was this a trait of better organisation and doctrine, or was it a function of the reality that the Germans were determined to remain on the ground that they had conquered, while the Entente armies regarded trenches as a temporary necessity prior to expelling the invaders, and that therefore minimum energy should be expended on maintainenance?

Phil.

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Ding ding! Back to your corners, please, gentlemen. :lol:

I think that troops of any nation in WW1, on vacating any accommodation to which they did not expect to return, would have paid scant regard to cleaning or tidying up. They might give it a token clean-up if they knew that another unit from the same formation was to follow them in. It would also depend on the condition of the accommodation when they themselves took it over.

Leaving dugouts etc dirty and untidy would also help to hide the presence of booby traps. The Germans are often blamed for this habit but I doubt that they were alone in that.

It made sense to keep all accommodation reasonably clean for hygienic reasons. The fact that abandoned billets or dugouts were filthy does not imply they were always like that.

Ron

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The standard French farmhouse of the time was built around a central courtyard which contained a dungheap. This was where dry closets were emptied. That much is well documented. British farmworkers would not have seen that at home. Not even in the Scots ferm toun which was built on the same scheme but lacked the central dung hill. This implies a different attitude to the presence of ordure of any kind. I do not know how German farms were built but as has been said above, there is ample evidence that human excrement and its uses seems to have engaged the German mind more readily than it did the British. One of the critics of All Quiet on the Western Front criticises the latrine scenes and states that the Germans had an unhealthy interest in them. Graves comments on the fact that a British trench contained wounded, gassed and sleeping men and had no sentries posted. He also specifically mentions that it had been used as a latrine. This obviously shocked him. It seems that it would not have shocked French troops.

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To return to the original subject of how the Germans dealt with their own and enemy dead, German divisional medical officers issued detailed instructions regarding the recovery of the dead (precautions, procedures, protective clothing, etc). Where possible, patrols ranged out as far as the enemy wire to recover their own dead (for example, men taken prisoner in trench raids and killed on the way back to the Allied trenches). Equipment was issued to spray potassium permanganate solution on enemy bodies in the near part of no-man's land that could not readily be recovered, and patrols were sent out to roll bodies into any convenient hole and cover them as effectively as possible, or sprinkle loose earth over bodies in places where no holes were available. These measures were primarily motivated by considerations of 'Hygiene' (the word is the same in German), which in the German sense relates to dealing with health hazards to the living. In hot weather, in particular, the Germans' main concern was about swarms of flies carrying infection from the decaying dead to the men in their front lines.

Obviously conditions will have varied at different times and according to local circumstances and opportunities, but in general German treatment of the dead was conditioned by the usual soldiers' respect for their own fallen comrades and concern for the health hazard posed by the unburied dead.

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A strong case could be made that the medical services of the German army were the best of all of the belligerent powers and that their energetic approach to field sanitation accounted for their policies for burial of the dead. Field sanitation teams of the AEF regarded the manure piles belonging to French farmers as being disease hazards and caused them to be removed from American-occupied areas. The farmers on the other hand saw this as being the wholesale destruction of valuable property.

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Any statistical data about loss through sickness might throw light on this. We must be careful, because different criteria were probably used in different armies. My impression is - and I admit it's only an impression - that mortality from disease was significantly lower in the German army than it was in the French.

Phil.

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Thanks to GAC for the various references - as he states himself, a mixture of 'nasty welcome gift' for the incoming enemy but with a fair sprinkling of general lack of hygiene thrown in.

Perhaps the October 1918 reference is evidence of the decline in discipline/unit cohesion in the German army at that period, rather than a fair reflection of their overall hygiene 'policies' throughout the war?

Des

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