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Remembered Today:

Deadly Measles in the 51st Division


GlenBanna
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In this extract from the History of the 51st (Highland) by F.W.Bewsher he describes the mobilisation and their stay in Bedford. What interests me

is the number of deaths and the proportion from those troops originating from the North of Scotland. What do the medical buffs on the forum think?

Could this be put down to a lack of immunity because they were from relatively isolated populations?

"Again, there was a serious outbreak of measles among the men. Everything possible under the circumstances was done by

the Divisional medical officers and local authorities. But people wrote to the papers, with the best intentions, that the men

were being killed almost deliberately, and the result was a good deal of confusion, some useless correspondence, and, again, much valuable

time wasted. However, great credit is due to the Divisional medical officers, their assistants, and the V.A.D. ladies, for grappling

with the epidemic during the bad months of November and December. The disease worked itself out by the end of January,

and by the end of February the Division was practically sound again.It is an interesting fact that the epidemic was far more deadly

in the case of men from the extreme north and the islands. This is shown by the following table, and bears out the opinion of the

medical officers as to the probable incidence of the disease in units from different localities.

Taking the southern boundaries of Banff, Inverness, and Argyll, and including the western islands, Scotland is roughly divided

into two fairly equal areas. Calling the northern area A, and the southern B, we find that

A supplied 5,200 : Cases of Measles, 477 : Deaths, 59.

B supplied 13,000: Cases of Measles 52 : Deaths 6.

The percentage of deaths from measles worked out to 10.8 per cent of the cases, as seven deaths were from scarlet fever and one from diphtheria."

Glen

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Measles in adults is dangerous, it can damage both eyesight and hearing and can kill. (I caught it when 16 and was confined to a darkened room for about a week). It used to be a major killer when brought to populations without immunity by European explorers and settlers, whole populations sometimes being wiped out (in return some explorers brought back syphilis to Europe for the first time). So men from isolated communities with little or no childhood occurrence of measles would be very vulnerable.

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Glen,

It found its way to France.From the 8th Royal Scots War Diary,serving with the 7th Division at the time.

24th February 1915-Arrival of a Draft of about 190 N.C.O'S and Men principally drawn from 8th H.L.I.A portion of the draft amounting to fully 30 men was kept in quarantine at Rouen owing to a case of spotted fever in their number which proved fatal.

George

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Hello Glen

Col Nicholson, who was on the Staff of the Highland Division at Bedford at the time, mentions this tragedy in his book "Between the Lines". It seems quite clear from the book that it was due to the lack of immunity among the Highlanders, most locals having caught it as children and thereby became immune as adults. Apparently it caused great concern among the local population who could do nothing about it except give the men what nursing care they could.

Ron

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I have just transcribed a section of the war diary of 2nd Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders for January 1917 - where there is this entry:

14th – 20th January 1917

Camp 13 Huts

On the 14th last the Battalion marched from ERGNIES to LONGTRE and entrained for MERICOURT arriving there at 4 pm. The Battalion then march to Camp 13 near CHIPILLY and occupied huts there for one night. Owing to an outbreak of measles among the 1st Middlesex regiment however it was found necessary for the Battalion to take over trenches south of POSUCHAVESNES from the French on the 20th inst.

So it would seem that this might have been a recurring problem.

Dave Swarbrick

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Measles could be a major issue in populations without immunity. For example in 1875 the King of Fiji returned from a diplomatic trip, infected with measles. The resulting measles epidemic killed 40,000 out of a population of 150,000.

In WW1 it was a major problem with serious outbreaks amongst soldiers in the UK, France, the USA and the West Indies. In Jamaica the departure of the fourth contingent of troops to travel for Europe in 1916 was seriously delayed with a major out break of measles at Up-Park Camp. It took months to stamp it out. In Jan 1918 there was a serious outbreak amongst American troops near Augusta Georgia resulting in companies being quarantined. The Australians of the 10th Infantry at Larkhill in mid 1916 seem to have suffered badly. The Cheshires in 1916 also seem to have had significant numbers down with measles. Indeed various diary entries would suggest that 1916 was a particularly bad year for it.

It would also appear that in 1916 some form of inoculation was introduced to control the disease but that the side effects of this were in themselves debilitating.

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Glen,

It found its way to France.From the 8th Royal Scots War Diary,serving with the 7th Division at the time.

24th February 1915-Arrival of a Draft of about 190 N.C.O'S and Men principally drawn from 8th H.L.I.A portion of the draft amounting to fully 30 men was kept in quarantine at Rouen owing to a case of spotted fever in their number which proved fatal.

George

George, is there anything else in that diary which says that this was measles? "Spotted Fever" would have been a very unusual term to be used for measles in that period, as far as I know. Doc

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Spotted fever is a rickettsial disease carried by ticks (often dog ticks). In WW1 there appear to have been two varieties - an American Version (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever) and a European variety (Mediterranean Spotted Fever - mainly found in Spain and Portugal). Since the Brazilian, Australian (Flinders Island Spotted Fever) and Israeli Spotted Fever have emerged (although the latter may be a strain of the Portuguese variety) Symptoms like trench fever or typhus - not nice but not contagious once all ticks have been removed. Can cause renal failure. One assumes that the cases reported are Mediterranean Spotted Fever and not Measles

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The rickettsial disease known as Spotted Fever is extremely unlikely to have been the 'spotted fever' described in the account above. This was a sudden outbreak involving a large number of men who have been in close contact for the weeks leading up to disembarkation presumably at or near Rouen. A contagious virus was most likely, with measles being a very likely (but not the only) candidate.

Robert

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The rickettsial disease known as Spotted Fever is extremely unlikely to have been the 'spotted fever' described in the account above. This was a sudden outbreak involving a large number of men who have been in close contact for the weeks leading up to disembarkation presumably at or near Rouen. A contagious virus was most likely, with measles being a very likely (but not the only) candidate.

Robert

That is certainly possible, but the facts would also seem to fit Typhus, which is what I was wondering about. I have seen Typhus described as "spotted fever" during this period, but I have never seen measles so-described. Doc

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In a PM, George has explained more of the background of this particular outbreak. New troops only two days in transit from Scotland to Le Havre. Given that, I think that measles is a more likely diagnosis than my previous guess. That story also tends to rule out any of the other Rickettsial diseases mentioned.

I'm just intrigued, since I have never heard of measles being called "spotted fever" during this period. We live and learn. Fascinating discussion. Doc

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I think Docs original idea may still have legs. It would seem that there was a form of Typhus peculiar to Scotland called spotted fever (and sometimes famine fever). A History of epidemics in Britain, Volume 1 describes an outbreak in the 1620s that spread south across the border and ravaged parts of Northern England for a couple of years.

A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland by Martin Martin 1703 refers to "a spotted fever which is commonly cured by drinking a glass of brandy or aquavitæ liberally when the disease seizes them, and using it till the spots appear outwardly. This fever was brought hither by a stranger from the Island of Mull, who infected these other islands. When the fever is violent the spots appear the second day, but commonly on the fourth day, and then the disease comes to a crisis the seventh day, but if the spots do not appear the fourth day, the disease is reckoned mortal; yet it has not proved so here, though it has carried off several in the other adjacent southern islands."

Interesting cure - It does suggest that the term spotted fever had a distinct Scottish (if not Scotch!) flavour.

Hansard in 1915 however refers to an outbreak of "spotted fever" in a school in Salisbury. Measles was then so prevalent in schools that I wouldn't think any one would bother to ask a parliamentary question about it - again suggesting that it is a separate disease

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Doc and I have been debating the subject behind the scenes.

Anecdotal evidence suggests members of the Draft trained for three months in Scotland,the Draft coming from and training in Lowland Scotland,then spent a couple of days travelling to France.What is unknown is how long the Draft spent in Le Havre/Rouen before joining the Battalion in the Front Line.

So it is impossible to determine whether the Disease was contracted in UK(Measles?) or France(Typhus?).

Another thing to point out is that the War Diarist was quoting from information received either from the Draft or Rouen.Did he hear correctly or write the true information in the Diary?

George

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Doc and I have been debating the subject behind the scenes.

Anecdotal evidence suggests members of the Draft trained for three months in Scotland then spent a couple of days travelling to France.What is unknown is how long the Draft spent in Le Havre/Rouen before joining the Battalion in the Front Line.

So it is impossible to determine whether the Disease was contracted in UK(Measles?) or France(Typhus?).

Another thing to point out is that the War Diarist was quoting from information received either from the Draft or Rouen.Did he hear correctly or write the true information in the Diary?

George

Or Typhus contracted in Scotland?

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I've always found that 'spotted fever' in a WW1 medical context refers to cerebrospinal meningitis, which was one of the more common of the 'likely-to-be-fatal' infectious diseases prevalent among soldiers.

Sue

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It is possible to contract Measles more than once and for the second time to be just as bad if not worse than the first.

Measles then and much later in the 20th century was a major illness to children and adults.

I contracted it aged 3 yrs and it affected my sight, then in my mid 20s when I was lucky to escape with my life.

I have read a fair number of war diaries and measles is one of the diseases which seems to be mentioned as a major problem to the men. In all cases it seems to have been brought over by new drafts of men from the UK.

I would go for it being measles as it would only take one man getting it prior to embarkation, to spread it. Also with the incubation period, it would be possibe for a man (or men) to start the illness in the UK and then spread it among the unit in France.

SM

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This extract seems to back Sue's post

Examination for the Roll of Queen’s Nurses,

June 21st, 1917.

4. What are the chief symptoms of cerebrospinal meningitis (spotted fever) ? How is infection carried in such cases ? What are the chief

points in the nursing treatment of a patient

Glen

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Excellent point, Glen. I had completely overlooked the possibility of meningococcal meningitis. The 'spotted' refers to the tiny bruises that occur under skin, similar to the way that spots are caused in Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever too. Highly likely cause of an outbreak in young men in the pre-antibiotic era. Well done.

Robert

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