I’m lucky to have escaped alive

Turns out the northern French city of Douai is a deathtrap. Not only did it see a deadly case of the viral MERS last month, but lice-spread typhus apparently swept the region some three hundred years earlier. Or at least according to a 2011 scientific analysis of dental pulp from skeletons dating back to c. 1710. The year 1710, faithful followers of this blog know, happened to coincide with an Allied siege; the French recaptured the town two years later. (It’s not clear from the reporting whose side these skeletons were on.)

Sieges are infamous for the disease they spread, both within and without the town. So it’s not surprising to hear of a typhus outbreak at, or in the wake of, a siege. Typhus, after all, has killed hundreds of thousands in crowded camp conditions over the centuries – prisoners of war and refugees suffering the most. Nor is a lice-hosted bacterium the only threat during a siege: M.P.H.M Dings wrote of an earlier dysentery outbreak in the wake of the siege of Venlo in 1702.  So many ways to die.

From my few weeks of research in Douai’s municipal archives in 1997, I don’t recall much mention of the Grim Reaper carrying off waves of people. These twenty-one young men buried in a mass grave may well have died in the trenches outside the walls. They weren’t alone – eight thousand of their compatriots were injured or killed during the attacks. How many more were carried off by typhus and its deadly cousins? Hard to say, though Douai offers the only concrete estimate of siege losses from disease and sickness I’ve discovered: perhaps another 2,000 casualties. One wonders how many more remains still lie in unmarked graves.

If these were indeed the bodies of besieging soldiers, did typhus spread to the town itself? That probably depended on how much better the sanitation was in the town compared to the trenches, and how successful the besiegers were in denying their troops access to the newly-captured town. But I don’t really know. The one thing I do remember from the local sources is how silent they were on what happened inside the town during the two-month siege. No informative descriptions of what life was like under siege; barely a mention of what the garrison was doing. (I would later learn that most garrison siege journals focused obsessively on the besiegers’ actions.) Sitting among the three-hundred year old manuscripts, I was particularly surprised with how few burghers appear to have been killed, particularly given the heavy Allied artillery barrage. My recollection is that the official town account of the siege only mentioned the death (possibly non-siege related) of a crazy old woman. Presumably the Douaisis weren’t manning the walls as the Lillois had done two years prior.

So, assuming Douai managed to escape the pestilent fate of other besieged towns, how did they manage it? Assuming the “collateral damage” was indeed low, this might perhaps be explained in part by the town’s low population density. The town’s diffuse populace is attested to by a 1698 report intended for the Duke of Burgundy, where the intendant of Flanders described Douai as having the same land area as the much larger metropolis of Lille, with but a quarter of the population – Douai’s pre-siege inhabitants numbering perhaps 13,000. Packed living quarters always seem to increase the communicability of such diseases, whether the vector is air-borne and water-borne pathogens, or lice-borne bacteria. Protozoa, viruses, bacteria and parasites, oh my!

At investment this figure was diminished by the departure of an undetermined number of inhabitants, allowed to evacuate the town before the siege commenced. Among their numbers were a dozen or more English seminarians and faculty from the town’s English Catholic College, creators of the famous well-known Douai Bible. Marlborough offered these expats safe passage, and further promised to safeguard their properties as best he could. Similar promised were withheld, however, from the vast majority of the inhabitants and their possessions. They were forced to remain behind, becoming “useless mouths” that consumed the garrison’s stores. They thus witnessed an early modern siege up close, replete with bursting bombs and red-hot shot raining down from above. Recapturing the town two years later, the French were slightly more discriminatory, bragging about how their gunners targeted the houses of those who had collaborated with the Allied occupiers over the previous two years. Payback’s a bitch.

The townspeople appear to have survived the inferno. Their extra elbow room might well have spared them death by lead and fire, as well as death by bacterium. Not only was Douai’s ratio of people-to-space low, but it was unevenly distributed. As the plan-relief (scale-model) of Douai below indicates, significant parts of the town consisted of gardens and orchards, with red-roofed domiciles hugging the main thoroughfares.

Douai plan-relief c. 1710. The plans were snuck out in a covered wagon during the French garrison's evacuation.

Douai plan-relief c. 1710. The model’s plans were snuck out in a covered wagon during the French garrison’s evacuation. From the ville de Douai website

Civilian casualties might have been further limited by the besieger’s choice of approaches. The Allied siege attacked the western section of the town (bottom right on the plan-relief). Rounds that sailed beyond their targets in the outworks undoubtedly landed in the orchards inside the wall. Such are the vagaries of war.

Douai 1710 siege. NB: the two hornworks were not present at the time of the siege.

Douai 1710 siege. NB: the two hornworks were not present at the time of the siege.

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3 responses to “I’m lucky to have escaped alive”

  1. jegrenier says :

    So I sent this to my daughter who is majoring in biological anthropology and has aspirations to attend medical school, and she asks “Is it weird that my first response is, ‘I want to go to the death trap?'” I reckon not! Thanks for the cool post, and it’s proof positive that history can reach many others.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    OMG: “New Findings Say War of Span. Succession Ended By Typhus Plague!”

    Er, wait, no. “New Findings Say War Ended By One Weird Trick That Military Historians Hate!”

    I blame the Little Ice Age, and await Geoffrey Parker’s conclusion that that the Crisis of the Seventeenth Century lasted until 1710. Or recurred. If he hasn’t already decided that sunspot minimums explain the hunger winter of 1709-10.

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