Army and Empire: British Soldiers on the American Frontier, 1758-1775

By Michael N. McConnell | Go to book overview
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Physical and Mental Health

Early modern European armies were notoriously unhealthy. During the chronic warfare of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, far more soldiers died of sickness than in battle. Taken together, disease and exposure could cripple an army faster and more completely than a pitched battle.1

Little had changed by the eighteenth century. Dr. John Pringle, senior medical officer for the British army during the War of the Austrian Succession, found that about one in ten soldiers in Flanders were usually sick, suffering colds, respiratory illnesses, typhus, and fevers; at the height of the campaigning season and during the wet winters in the Low Countries, up to a quarter of the army might be sick or hospitalized.2

Explanations for the illness that characterized armies are not hard to find. Crowded conditions in camp and fortress were ideal breeding grounds for a variety of illnesses; typhus was known as “jail fever” and also as “camp fever.” Respiratory diseases flourished in army camps; filth from unwashed bodies, discarded foods, and human and animal wastes supported bacteria and parasites that easily found their way into digestive systems.3

Equally important was the composition of the armies themselves. The coming together of country folk and city-dwellers meant a collision of disease environments, while the presence of children provided a non-immune host for smallpox and other “childhood” diseases. These folks were often poorly housed against the elements; purpose-built barracks were few in Britain and always crowded and poorly maintained. At the same time, soldiers were not issued seasonal clothing: the heavy woolens and linens of the basic uniform served summer and winter, fair weather and foul.4

As European armies and their colonial allies gathered in America, oldworld experiences were repeated in the new. In one notorious example, an Anglo-American expedition raised in 1740 to seize the Spanish American port of Cartagena was virtually destroyed by disease without ever coming to grips with the enemy. By 1742 over three-quarters of the troops, many of them raised in the colonies, had died. Two decades later a much larger


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Army and Empire: British Soldiers on the American Frontier, 1758-1775


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