Saturday, 7 July 2012

War in the Time of Primitive Hygiene

As observant readers with good memories may recall, we have, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Intellectual Friend, written once or twice about toilets in the Polish city of Toruń. Toruń seems like a very nice place; we wouldn't mind brandishing a pitcher of beer while shouting "Na zdrowie!" and generally making asses of ourselves there one day. You may thus imagine our horror when reading an account of the wars of the Swedish king Charles XII, and learning that the Swedish army more or less levelled this fair city with the ground in 1703!

Charles XII. Very particular about hygiene. Disliked Russians.
 Our source tells us that those marauding Swedes took several thousand prisoners of war (mainly Saxons; the Poles weren't fighting at this point), and made them tear down the city walls and towers. These were then sent to Sweden, where presumably they still stand. The army further got their hands on 140 cannon, 8,000 muskets, and a fat load of cash. To add insult to injury, they took all the church bells and sold them back to the good burghers of Toruń for a fortune.

Toruń: None of the city walls date from before 1703

Before we submit to despair and anguish on behalf of the poor people of Toruń, however, we should consider the Swedish army's hygiene regimen. Each army camp had proper latrine pits at a sanitary distance. Every soldier had to shave at least once a week, and officers had to make sure that everyone combed their hair and washed themselves and their clothes. Nobody was allowed - on pain of harsh punishment - to drink water from any well without first boiling it and adding large quantities of vodka. (This seems like a sensible precaution and one that we intend to implement ourselves.)

Charles XII's army also had highly progressive medical services. The sawbones didn't just hack people's limbs off, but was highly skilled at removing bullets and trepanning, and had a large supply of various medicines, mainly vodka, although a certain amount of opium was also available. "Those who couldn't either live or die I cut," the humane junior officer Robert Petre wrote.

"Harumph," says Hygeia, and goes off in search of her hand sanitizer.

"Your army smells. Please go in that direction."

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