Norman Gladden, of the 11th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, recalls the ordinary soldiers’ experience in an area behind the British lines near Ypres in 1917.
‘One day we marched to the Brigade Baths which had been set up in a small village a kilometre or so beyond Fletre. As welcome as the bath – at least to those of us who still had money to spend – was the well stocked canteen somewhat incongruously installed under the same roof. There was a small battalion canteen in a shanty at the entrance of our own camp, but it was usually sold out.
‘On another occasion we were ordered to take all blankets and spare clothing to the army fumigator which had been temporarily set up in the village. This was a Heath Robinson kind of contraption, consisting mainly of a large barrel-shaped thing into which steam was pumped under pressure. The object was to kill our resident lice, but the effect, we were soon to be convinced – apart from making everything bedraggled and tarnishing the buttons – was to incubate a new generation of lice from the eggs with which the seams of our clothing were always prolifically sown. Within a matter of hours we became as itchy as ever.
‘On reaching the chugging monster we had to take off our tunic and trousers and to wait around in our greatcoats while the machine did its worst. Dressed thus in our underclothing amidst the inhabited buildings of that little place we felt very much at a disadvantage, pulling our coats around us and watching fearfully lest some of the natives should stroll over to see what was going on.
‘The unavoidable intimacies of army life had apparently not killed the natural modesty in which most of us had been brought up.’
Good story. My dad was telling me about lice too. After the retreat through Albania in December I915, he found himself in a Paris hotel at Gare St. Lazar, a very nice hotel, luxuriously furnished, and he was so ashamed of his lice that he took off all his clothing, put it in his rucksack, tied it securely and slept naked. I think he got them fumigated in Paris and arrived in London clean! From there he volunteered to serve on the Russian front.