When I was in grade school, girls had "cooties." All the boys knew it, so when a girl got a little too close to us boys, we ran away for safety yelling, "OOOoooh, she has cooties!" Now we didn't have the slightest idea what a cootie was although we believed it referred to some intangible vileness emanating from the revolting opposite sex. We were pretty sure cooties were some kind of bug hosted by female classmates that would instantly turn us into girls, or, even worse, into girl lovers.
Shame on us young boys for ever acting so immature, but most demure girls in those tender years also adhered to the belief that boys also had some awful contagious plague that would surely make them die. It's funny how nature works.
Of course, in just a few years after fearing girl "cooties," we guys were doing everything we could to get close to every pretty girl we saw despite the fact we previously had assumed contact would likely kill us. We totally dropped our cootie fears and realized that holding hands, hugging, and kissing girls were realities we couldn't experience enough. By the seventh grade we didn't care if girls did have cooties, we knew we wanted to get as close to them as possible, and, naturally, that presented an entirely new challenge.
As laughable as cooties and kids are, the "cooties," or lice, suffered by the troops in the First World War were public enemy number one. All armies in the European field had persistent problems with cleanliness in the trench warfare, and that meant lice ran rampant. The most that can be said is that some armies in the Great War were affected by the beasts worse than others.
I recently read about the origin of the word cooties and was directed to a site featuring an article from The Headlong Fury, a novel of World War One, by J. Fred MacDonald. What I read was amazing. I want to share a very condensed version with you today.
(Herbert Corey. “Cooties and Courage.” National Geographic Magazine. June, 1918)
First of all, let me expound upon the etymology of the term itself. According to linguist Eric Partridge, the word cooties was picked up by sailors from the Malayans, who had a similar word meaning "dog lice." A possibly related term is kutu, a Polynesian word meaning "lice of any kind."
But, the earliest recorded uses of the term in English are by British soldiers during World War I. And, of course, the word referred to lice. The American soldiers called the pest "cooties" while French fighters talked of "totos" and the British told of "coddlers."
The men in the trenches knew it was not their fault that they were infested, but the effect of years of civilian training persisted. The physical discomfort inflicted by cooties was matched by the psychological distress of the parasite's host. Lice made the men miserable in body and in mind.
According to MacDonald, "They (troops) still felt, against all reason, that there was something shameful in their state. They tried to assume a joviality they do not feel, and called the things 'pants rabbits' and 'seam squirrels' and spoke of 'reading their shirts.'"
Many men who experienced combat actually admitted to be under fire would be bearable if they could just be clean of cooties.
Braving mud, thirst, hunger, and cold could "be borne with equanimity," but the louse carried that horrible pronouncement of utter degradation. Yet, in the trenches, so many soldiers bravely sustained that terrible debasement, too. It was a testament to human will power.
MacDonald says a surgeon once confessed he had known only one man who cried because of the parasitic plague. The surgeon said, "That man went into No Man's Land on reconnaissance at night in as commonplace fashion as though he were taking the tram for the office of a morning."
"I don't mind the nights on guard in the front trench," many say, "because the nights are cold and 'they' are quiet. But I dread the coming of the day, when I must crawl back into my dugout and try to sleep and know that I shall have to lie awake and feel 'them' crawl. 'They' become a torture."
Practically all of the men in the advance areas were "lousy," according to a document that is accepted as authoritative. It is impossible to tell what proportion of the men in the rear, along the lines of communication, and in depot were infested.
Of course, the trenches posed other serious threats to soldiers' health from various pests. For example, the trench rat habitually grew to be so enormous that a cat was said to have been "an heroic soul to tackle one of them unassisted." The rodents were sometimes referred to as corpse rats. Some sources say they bred rapidly in their millions and swarmed through No-Mans Land gnawing the corpses of fallen soldiers.
Yet, MacDonald says troops disposed of rats fairly effectively and practiced strict rules about not leaving food about that attracted the vermin. Officers could police the trenches into cleanliness and enforce the rules against leaving bits of food about. MacDonald writes, "They (rats) may be dogged and catted and trapped. At the most, the trench rat is little more than an annoyance." Some degenerating soldiers even befriended rats: they captured them and kept them as personal pets.
Then, there were the rat's partner, fleas. And, of course, bubonic and other plagues have been traced to the rat-borne flea.
The soldiers in the trenches also dealt with an odd insect known as the "spring tail" and many sorts of flies. Flies were dangerous because they contaminated the troops' food. And, the men had to content with a biting fly, especially prevalent in regions where there had been long-continued fighting and where the contending forces have not had an opportunity to clean up the battlefields. A variety of blood-poisoning in the war was traced to the bite of this fly.
Yet, lice seemed to take the hardest bite out of the men. One may ask how the affliction of lice took hold so firmly. It was assumed that the louse obtained its foothold in the early days of mobilization, when Apaches from the slums and ruffians from the docks were herded into barracks along with men who had never known what it was to be anything but clean. So the cooties spread and propagated until their wide diffusion.
MacDonald claims, "If every man and every stitch of cloth in every army were to be thoroughly freed from the pest in a day, in a week each man might be infested again. Enough 'cooties' would be left over in unsuspected places to make a fresh start."
Troops found that lice were particularly fond of the seams at the crotch of their trousers and in the back seams of their shirts. Disposal of the louse, tenaciously clinging in the overlooked fold of blankets or under the collar of overcoats, proved impossible. A couple lice could get together and produce "a whole cityful of younglings." The lice accompanied their human hosts twenty-four/seven as they added to the soldiers misery -- their uneasiness in combat and their restlessness during sleepless rests.
During their time in the trenches most of the men are on duty all night long. By day they are required to stay in the dugout, a mere dirt-roofed hole in the ground that may or may not have a board floor on which musty straw was piled. Men slept there and kept out of sight of the enemy and out of danger from his bombs.
MacDonald describes the lice-infested dugout: "It is rarely large enough to accommodate the men, and if it were large enough the chill of a damp hole, into which the sun never shines, forces them to lie spoon fashion, each wrapped in his blanket, each seeking the warmth of the other man to add to his own comfort. It is ideally adapted for the furtherance of all insect plagues. No matter how scrupulously scrubbed a man may be when he enters a dugout, he usually comes out lousy."
The cooties seemed to lack intelligence, however, they were creatures of opportunity and environment. Eggs were hatched after a dormancy away from the human body of forty days, and single insects had lived and flourished on good feeding grounds for thirty days; but the longest period in which any survived separation from its human host was nine days.
"Replacements," men sent to a unit to take the place of a casualties, first went into quarantine where surgeons examined them for contagious diseases and for the dreaded "cooties." If they had lice, they were sent to the guardhouse and kept there, not as a punishment, but to be sure that they did not spread their pests among other men, until they, in turn, could be bathed and newly outfitted. Replacements were essentially “cootie danger sources” that could even make lice warfare worse.
The men in the trenches were almost never given a chance to clean up well enough to kill the lice. Clean water was almost never available. MacDonald says, "They did not even wash their faces. There is no water whatever in the trenches, except when there is too much water, none of which is fit for use. The little that comes to the men in line is carried in at night, in galvanized-iron containers, by the men who have been told off for that duty."
Besides, there were no moments left for bathing, and if there were, a bath in the cold water of the streams of northern France presented slight attractions to the man who had fought so hard. Cold water simply did not kill the lice. A heated bath outdoors (kindling firewood and hot water) was a luxury few could experience.
Often, the men picked lice out of their clothing and killed them by drops from a burning candle.
If the men were fortunate enough to leave their trenches, there were municipal laundries in many villages in which “the women knelt and soused the soiled linen in cold water which trickled into a tub, and then threshed the linen upon rough stones.” The process was repeated until the cloth took on the appearance of whiteness.
But this process did not kill the cooties. The adult cootie is a fairly hardy insect and the eggs are extraordinarily resistant to rough treatment. MacDonald says, “The scientists who inquired into the louse problem among the armies of the Western Front found that clean clothes may be infested from these community wash-houses. The eggs remained upon the rough surfaces of the stones on which the linen was scoured and were taken up by the next armful of wet clothes.”
Cooties can be killed by boiling water, if the water is hot enough and boiled long enough. Yet, the women of France rarely used hot water for the washing of clothes.
One controversial cure seemed effective to many of the men although many doctors doubted it. If a billet happened to have plenty of gasoline, a hospital man might manage to commandeer a quantity. Then, the men stripped and their clothes were literally soaked with gasoline. The hospital orderlies armed themselves with swabs tied to the ends of sticks. They dipped the swabs in open cans of gasoline. Then they swabbed the men as they took “an artistic satisfaction in the swabbing, so that not a single nesting place in which eggs might be hidden was overlooked.”
During the formative period of the American army in France the men were able to keep fairly clean—only fairly—but with the opening of the year's activity they were set upon the same footing as their allies – valiantly fighting hordes of cooties.
In the early months of the war, Americans used the French baths and English delousing machines. NCI powder, supplied to all the armies, freed men from the cooties if they have some little chance to keep clean while they are using it. One application was considered good for five days. It was made up of naphthalene, 96 per cent; creosote, 2 per cent; and iodoform, 2 per cent. An objection to NCI was that it caused severe smarting if used in large quantities; but the men seemed not to object.
During the war, clean underwear was furnished to the U.S. soldiers at every opportunity, and they are given every possible insecticidal device, from the "cootie bags" of the French to the "navvy's butter" of the British. It is not too much to say that no army is cleaner than the American.
MacDonald remembers how amazed he was at the men's general acceptance of cooties: “One man told me as he left the trenches after a two weeks' stay, that he had 'little cooties' feeding on the 'big cooties' then, and another said he didn't mind the hikes, because 'all I had to do was to sort of shoo my clothing along.' They never whined. They said they had 'cootied" or they have not and do not add a comment.”
The soldiers had to laugh at their utter discomfort in order to survive. There was even a record accounting. The winner? “One shirt was found to contain 10,428 lice, and more than 10,000 eggs were found under the microscope. This probably established the world's highest record of all time, although nurses who served through the typhus epidemic in Serbia in 1915 told MacDonald that they had seen gray patches the size of one's two hands upon the bodies of men brought into the hospital. The pests were so thick in these patches that from a little distance they presented the appearance of a felted cloth.
A "Cootie" Footnote
The United States Government asked sixty-six young American soldiers to be subjects of research to discover whether lice caused the dreaded disease of trench fever. The men subjected themselves to perhaps a year of illness, of voluntary imprisonment in a hospital ward, of removal from all the activities and the excitement of the soldier's life in a foreign land, and from the companionship of comrades in arms. They were, necessarily, men in perfect health, many of them wholly unaccustomed to, and therefore dreading, the strangeness of hospital wards, of surgeons of medicines, of blood injections, etc. These hospital heroes “convicted the cooties.”
Lice from trench-fever cases were allowed to bite 22 men. Twelve of these later developed the disease, while four men bitten by lice from healthy men remained free from the disease. Eight other volunteers, living under exactly the same conditions, in the same wards, but kept free from lice, did not develop trench fever. After blood inoculation the disease developed in from 5 to 20 days. After being bitten by infected lice the fever required from 15 to 35 days to develop.
With such data in their possession, the medical departments of the Allies took up the problem of the cootie in its bearing upon the supreme question of winning the war. Until then, the vermin had been considered only in the light of bodily annoyances to the troops, in some cases having a certain effect on their morale.
Then, however, the battle was on in earnest to rid the men of the disease-bearers, for MacDonald reports “when a man fell victim to trench fever he was, in the average case, unfit as a fighter for six months.” It was unfortunate that effective antibiotics were not developed until after the war.
A little cootie trivia? One famous British author, John Reginald Reuel Tolkien, of Lord of the Rings fame served as a signals officer with the Lancashire Fusiliers during World War 1. He succumbed to trench fever on 27 October 1916 and was evacuated to the UK on 8 November 1916. Tolkien was never fit for active service again (he also suffered with trench foot) and spent the rest of the war either convalescing or on garrison duties.
A chaplain to the Lancashire Fusiliers, Reverend Mervyn S Myers, recalled an incident when he, Tolkien and another officer tried to get some sleep but were beset by lice.
“We no sooner lay down than hordes of lice got up. So we went round to the Medical Officer, who was also in the dugout with his medical equipment, and he gave us some ointment which he assured us would keep the little brutes away. We anointed ourselves all over with the stuff ... instead of discouraging them it seemed to act as a sort of hors d'oeuvre and the little beggars went at their feast with renewed vigour.”
So, the next time you hear a boy exclaim "Girls have cooties!" you will probably laugh, but the reality of actually "having" them was certainly no joke to those in the trenches of the Great War. The little buggers were a pest that caused constant discomfort and even serious disease.