In the year 1817, a Prussian army physician by the name of Krantz published a medical history of the treatment of typhus during the Napoleonic campaign in Russia. It was entitled: Bemerkungen ueber den Gang der Krankheiten welche in der koniglich preussischen Armee vom Ausbruch des Krieges im Jahre 1812 bis zu Ende des Waffenstillstandes (im Aug.) 1813 geherrscht haben, which is translated as “Remarks on the course of the Diseases which have reigned in the Royal Prussian Army from the Beginning of the War in the Year 1812 until the End of the Armistice [in August] 1813.”
According to Krantz, the soldiers of the Grande Armée (Grand Army) had brought more than the destruction of war to the Russian front. Whole families, especially those with whom the French soldiers had dwelled, were stricken down by typhus. The Prussian soldiers of York’s corps supposedly did not know the disease until they followed the French’s retreat. Krantz reports that the Prussian army corps knew rapidly knew typhus. He also records another phenomenon: There was a certain uniformity among the different divisions. “On account of the overflowing of the rivers, the men had to march closely together on the road, at least until they passed the Vistula near Dirschau, Moeve, and Marienwerder. Of the rapid extent of the infection we can form an idea when we learn the following facts: In the first East Prussian regiment of infantry, when it came to the Vistula, there was not a single case of typhus, while after a march of 14 miles on the highway which the French had passed before them, there were 15 to 20 men sick in every company, every tenth or even every seventh man. In those divisions which had been exposed to infection while in former cantonments, the cases were much more numerous, 20 to 30 in every company.” (“The Treatment of Typhus,” Historion.net)
In addition to the typhus outbreak, epidemic ophthalmy spread through some of the divisions. A common “causal nexus” connected the two diseases. However, it was noted that the two ailments never attacked the same individual. It was as if typhus gave the patient an immunity against ophthalmy and vice versa. Ironically, Krantz and the other physicians discovered the diseases were often “cured” by the cold of the march. “We found confirmed, says Krantz, what had been asserted a long time before by experienced physicians, that cold air had the most beneficial effect during the inflammatory stage of contagious typhus.” (“The Treatment of Typhus,” Historion.net)
Those suffering from typhus were dressed in warm clothing to protect them from the cold and placed on a wagon to be covered completely by straw. The wagons followed the retreating troops, but they stopped frequently so the patients could be given a tea of “Infusum Chamomillae, species aromaticarum, etc., with or without wine or spiritus sulphuricus aetherius.” Those suffering from typhus were given several cupfuls of the mixture to warm them. The soldiers’ hands and feet were wrapped in rags to prevent frostbite.
At night, those infected were crowded into makeshift hospitals. Those with typhus were separated from those needing other medical treatments, often being placed in barns or larger homes – all filled to capacity and then some. “All the hospitals between the Vistula and Berlin, constantly overfilled, were thoroughly infected, and thus transformed into regular pest-houses exhaling perdition to everyone who entered, the physicians and attendants included. On the other hand, most of the patients who were treated on the march recovered. Of the 31 cases of typhus of the 2d. battalion of the infantry guards reported from Tilsit to Tuchel, only one died, while the remaining 30 regained their health completely, a statistical result as favorable as has hardly ever happened in the best regulated hospital and which is the more surprising on account of the severe form of the disease at that time.” (“The Treatment of Typhus,” Historion.net)
Krantz goes on to say that of 330 patients in the first East Prussian regiment of infantry, 300 recovered and 30 were sent to hospitals in Elbing, Maerkisch, Friedland, Conitz, and Berlin. None died. What was discovered was the cold prevented the spread of the disease. Keeping the patients in the wagons and moving about the countryside did not permit the disease to brew and develop into a death sentence. For most patients, three days after they had been free from fever for 24 hours they were fit to rejoin their units.
As opposed to the customary treatment of the time, which included the exclusion of fresh air and the hourly administration of medication, those treated on the march experienced a 2-3% mortality rate.
Note: I used this research as part of my Regency era based novel, A Touch of Honor (Book 7 of the Realm Series).
Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.
Your article is very well done, a good read.
Thank you, Gerald.
Another great bit of research. So it was the cold that did the trick.