Fighting in the Age of Scurvy

Or, War before the Time of Cholera.

Having emerged, disease-free, from my gauntlet of Christmas-holiday air travel (1700 miles each way, and that was only halfway across the US), I can now appreciate the publication of this new work even more.

Charters, Erica. Disease, War, and the Imperial State: The Welfare of the British Armed Forces during the Seven Years’ War. Chicago ; London: University Of Chicago Press, 2014.
Abstract: The Seven Years’ War, often called the first global war, spanned North America, the West Indies, Europe, and India.  In these locations diseases such as scurvy, smallpox, and yellow fever killed far more than combat did, stretching the resources of European states. In Disease, War, and the Imperial State, Erica Charters demonstrates how disease played a vital role in shaping strategy and campaigning, British state policy, and imperial relations during the Seven Years’ War. Military medicine was a crucial component of the British war effort; it was central to both eighteenth-century scientific innovation and the moral authority of the British state. Looking beyond the traditional focus of the British state as a fiscal war-making machine, Charters uncovers an imperial state conspicuously attending to the welfare of its armed forces, investing in medical research, and responding to local public opinion.  Charters shows military medicine to be a credible scientific endeavor that was similarly responsive to local conditions and demands. Disease, War, and the Imperial State is an engaging study of early modern warfare and statecraft, one focused on the endless and laborious task of managing manpower in the face of virulent disease in the field, political opposition at home, and the clamor of public opinion in both Britain and its colonies.
 I didn’t realize we were allowed to look beyond the fiscal-military state – good to know.

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14 responses to “Fighting in the Age of Scurvy”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    “I didn’t realize we were allowed to look beyond the fiscal-military state – good to know.”

    Bonaparte learned this twice – once in the Levant and once in Haiti – disease can fell troops faster than you can raise, train, equip, and transport them.

  2. Averrones says :

    BTW, there is a new short book ‘Marlborough’s War Machine 1702-1711’ by James Falkner. I wonder if it worth a look…

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the heads up. I’ll probably pick it up at some point (due diligence and all), but unless he changes course and looks beyond the usual English sources, engages scholarly literature on the topic, and seriously considers the huge issue of coalition fighting (i.e. whose war machine exactly?), I’m not expecting the divide between academic and popular military history to shrink much. (See, for example, a rather ambivalent review of a previous work in War in History vol. 20, no. 4.) And how can one delve into the sources when publishing a new book every year or two?
      While a title and book blurb are not much to go on, it’s not clear what this will add to the lit we already have on the topic: Scouller’s Armies of Queen Anne, Childs’ book on William’s army, Kemp’s Weapons and Equipment of Marlborough’s Wars, and more than one work by Chandler (the blurb sounds a lot like Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, but there are also chapters in Blenheim Preparations), etc. There’s also a fact-filled Leeds PhD dissertation by S.A. Stansfield (Early Modern Systems of Command: Queen Anne’s generality, staff officers and the direction of allied warfare in the Low Countries and Germany, 1702-11) that might be worked into a book somehow.

      • Averrones says :

        Thank you very much. Alas, there is little hope to find these titles with a reasonable price in a shop with international shipping…

      • jostwald says :

        Thanks for the reminder about the riches academics have access to: university libraries with interlibrary loan, the occasion free copy of a book in exchange for reviewing it for a journal, and the psychological concession that you’ll spend a bit of your salary acquiring such hard-to-find works. In my experience, timing was really important too: I was able to acquire much of my backlist in those handful of years when online used books were still available at reasonable prices, often when libraries were selling off their “rarely-used” books – I have more than a few ex-library copies – and when book reviewers sold their review copies on Amazon!
        The difficulty acquiring specialized works is also why more accessible popular history books should disseminate the insights of academic history more broadly.

      • John says :

        And how can one delve into the sources when publishing a new book every year or two?

        Can’t be done. That’s why so much military history has the impact of spitting into a hurricane. Nothing worse imo than the same old stuff from that same old historians in which they daringly go 1/4″ deep and only a mile wide instead of their usual 1/8″ deep and 10 miles wide. Some may call it progress, but I think it’s SSDD.

  3. Erik Lund says :

    On scurvy, a couple things:
    i): Beware beri-beri. Early modern doctors had a pretty weak grasp of nutritional science, and Ye Olde Nationale Refsearch Board took a dim view of human trials, so “scurvy” may sometimes be another deficiency disease, or even food poisoning. Before you go erecting any grand theories, then…
    ii) Scurvy can lead to a permanent depletion of vitamin c reserves in the body. This is presumably a mostly socioeconomic phenomena, but the upshot is that there is a population of “scrofulous” individuals who will get scurvy earlier, and worse, than others. Am I too much of a cynic to suggest that obviously scrofulic individuals, because they command a lower wage –on the expectation that they will come down with the disease at sea– are actually more likely to be hired on as seamen? Or soldiers, also vulnerable to scurvy, for you landlubber types
    iii) Most high casualty overseas expeditions said to have been destroyed by disease are actually giving a global figure for deaths by disease or desertion, at least in my experience. (That’s my weaseling out of the perhaps unsustainable “most.”) Anyway, point is, some attention needs to be paid to the possibility that some of the high disease campaign theatres are also high desertion rate theatres. This goes to the Caribbean in my experience. The point here being that it might have been Yellow Fever that got them –but high Western Hemisphere wages may play a role, too.

    • jostwald says :

      Two miscellaneous details prompted by your comments:
      1) I like to have my students look through the London Gazette mortality tables when discussing quantitative history:
      Mortality bill 1665 - diseases
      Man I hate it when I get rising of the lights! And don’t even get me started about how the medical community has been keeping the cure for death by Distraction from us all these years…
      2) Desertion and disease seem to have a symbiotic relationship, with feedback loops: I recall coming across an account where English soldiers jumped ship (literally) as soon as they found out they were headed to the Caribbean. Contrast that with today, when some US politicians joke that at least the enemy combatants held in Guantanamo can enjoy the tropical climate.

  4. John says :

    Thanks. Can’t wait to read this book. Appreciate you keeping up on this stuff (so I dont have to?). BTW, found where “my guy” got himself a bit of the clap. Treatment seemed to work, and he didn’t infect wife, at least to the extent she was able to give birth to a healthy child. She lived to her 70s, the kid to his 80s. BTW, Bob the Ranger scored VD, smallpox, malaria, diptheria, was shot in the head, hand, and thigh, had a compund fracture that broke the skin on his lower left leg. Hell, I’d be a drunk too. It’s amazing he loves ved into his 60s.

    • John says :

      Auto correct … Lived into his 60s

    • jostwald says :

      In the 16C-17C officers would often provide a litany of the wounds they suffered for the king in their petitions – Michael Wolfe has written about this for Blaise de Monluc. So I wonder if Bob the Ranger included all those social diseases in his? Or maybe they were just occupational hazards; certainly there were plenty of sure-fire cures advertised in the period’s papers.

  5. John says :

    RE point 2 about jumping ship. Loudoun forbade swimming of sides of transports in ’57 as the regulars waited in NY Harbor for ops to Halifax and Louisbourg. One concern was deserters. Another concern was a couple of guys served as meals for the sharks. So, how common are sharks in NY Harbor today? The must have been a boatload more of the critters in the 18th century than today, after generations of commercial fishing and habitat trashing. A friend is trying to talk me into a swim around Manhattan. I’ll stick to the Chicago Big Shoulders in Lake MI, thank you. I don’t open water swim in salt water with things that might want to eat me. Plus, all the garbage and toxic chemicals that are in the East and Hudson River …. Gross!

  6. Jegrenier says :

    For someone who might be interested, Michigan War Studies Review (MiWSR) needs a reviewer for this book. is the place to go. I’d do it, but I just volunteered to review a two-volume 1000(+)-page set on Amherst’s journals. I may rue the day 😱

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