- Pearce, Robert L., AM RFD OM(Fr) CStJ FRCS FRACS Colonel RAAMC (Rtd), Associate Professor
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Although the naval surgeons knew nothing at the time of the cause of typhus they were able to advocate clean clothes and improvements in ventilation and personal hygiene that almost certainly reduced the spread of infection.
It is difficult to estimate the effect these medical conditions had on a fighting service at any particular time but reasonable to assume that the British sailors at the time of Trafalgar were in a better state of health than their enemy. Blockaded French vessels were not readily tolerated by the ports in which they were holed up. Port communities descended into anarchy with the backlash of the French Revolution against nobility, and most of the French naval officers were of this class.
Hospitals in all seaports were overflowing with malnourished fever patients suffering from typhus, numbers reaching epidemic proportions in 1793 and 1794 with over 126,000 admissions in Brest alone. This port, incidentally, had been a major centre for naval medicine, and during the revolution its ‘ecole de chirurgie’ was closed. When the port of Brest was successfully blockaded for three months by St Vincent’s fleet the English Admiral recorded that his men maintained ‘wonderful health’ due to the regular issue of lemon juice.
Napoleon, who considered the navy as part of his army, is reported to have said, ‘Sailors, you have been neglected up to now; but today you have the greatest support of the Republic. You will be worthy of the army of which you form part.’ Stirring stuff in May 1798, but he had no hesitation in taking men from the ships to serve in the infantry or other land forces. The men he left were undernourished, inexperienced, poorly trained and ill-equipped. There are numerous British accounts that give the impression that sickness was far more prevalent on board the French ships than on those of the Royal Navy.
Yellow fever and malaria
There is every reason to believe that the Spanish navy, which allied itself with France against Britain, was equally disorganised because of the peninsular wars and blockades. When the French Admiral Villeneuve limped into Cadiz after his unsuccessful voyage across the Atlantic, with his own food supplies and water running low, he found the local inhabitants starving. The people of Cadiz had repeatedly fallen victim to epidemics of yellow fever and possibly also malaria and these mosquito borne diseases were endemic in the surrounding marshlands – the main cause for the depleted and unhealthy crews available to the Spanish navy immediately before Trafalgar.
And this was the state of Nelson’s enemy when he allowed them to break out of the port of Cadiz to do battle at Trafalgar in 1805. Thirty three ships of the line were under orders from Napoleon to sail to the Mediterranean at the earliest opportunity, and Nelson’s fleet waited, just beyond the horizon. The British fleet with 17,000 men were outnumbered by almost two to one.
The leaders on both sides admitted to feeling anxious: Nelson is recorded as saying ‘I have thirty six sail of the line looking me in the face. I don’t like to have these things on my mind; and if I see my way through the fiery ordeal, I shall go home and rest for the winter.’ At least he knew that his men were healthy and in good spirits.
Villeneuve, on the other hand, was feeling the strain of relations with his Spanish colleagues and pressures from Paris where Napoleon had ordered that he be replaced – and the French had a sick list of 1700 men. In the battle of Trafalgar a few days later, 21 October 1805, health even more than superior gunnery or seamanship was the decisive factor in Nelson’s victory.
Appointment of medical officers to Royal Navy, merchant navy, whalers etc, their duties and authority on board:
We are all aware of the situation and the facts surrounding the death of Nelson, and the unenviable predicament in which this placed the surgeon William Beattie. This single dramatic episode serves to illustrate the hopelessness of a situation that must have been repeated a hundred times over in every ship that sustained casualties. Not only the extreme limitations of the surgeons of the day in their capabilities with limited training and experience, with poor facilities and few instruments, but the prospect of survival for many of those who sustained serious injury at sea was often considered hopeless. Their very lives often depended on the availability of immediate medical attention to control blood loss, but some possibly survived through lack of surgical interference when such might not have assisted their recovery.