Graphic colouring by Mark Dunn

 Health Hazards to RE Survey Personnel
Stationed in India 1945 - 1947

By Former Sergeant Donald C. Thyer
14786710 Royal Engineers Survey

From 1780 when the first "Royal" regiments were posted to India until 1947 when the last units of the British army were withdrawn from the Indian sub-continent, military service throughout the country was not without its health hazards. The extent to which servicemen were exposed to problems affecting their health and well being in those early days is best described by the experience of the 72nd. Highlanders who were posted to Madras in 1781. When they arrived in Madras they numbered 500 men fit for service. A roll call of men fit for service three weeks after their arrival numbered 50. Probably those British troops with the longest length of service in India were the ones most likely to have built up a measure of immunity to the tropical diseases and medical afflictions that existed there. Prior to the establishment by Royal Warrant of the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) in 1898 medical services available to regiments and army corps were provided by a medical officer (Surgeon), a warrant officer (assistant surgeon) and a medical assistant. When as a result of military action battle casualties occurred the members of the regimental band took on the secondary role as stretcher-bearers. Prior to the 1900’s a major source of sickness affecting British troops stationed in India was an outbreak of cholera. Without an effective method of treating the disease, the military decided the best way to safeguard the health of the troops where the outbreak had occurred was to move them away as quickly as possible from the affected location. Old soldiers writing about those times recall being ordered to report on parade at a moment’s notice in full kit and then being marched away from the affected location until nightfall. The next day and the seceding ones they continued on the march until such time as they reached a location that was free of cholera. Only when their original station had been declared free of cholera were they allowed to return to it.

To provide British troops stationed in India with a measure of protection from the debilitating and sometimes deadly effects of tropical diseases etc. they were inoculated on a regular basis with the appropriate vaccines. The shots I received during a two- year period 1945-47 are probably typical of the ones administered to British troops by the RAMC.

 ½ cc Tab India 26/10/45  Cholera ½ cc 25/1/46

 Cholera 1cc 1/2/46   Plague 1cc 3/5/46

 Plague 2cc 16/6/46   TAB 11/1/47

 T.T. 7/8/47    Cholera 21/8/47

 Smallpox Vaccination: 6/12/45 and 18/1/47

The Royal Army Dental Corps were also stationed in India to provide dental facilities to the troops stationed there. My own experience of their service was unfortunately fraught with an unusual experience whilst sitting in the dentists chair. After inspecting my teeth the officer dentist informed me that I had a cavity in a tooth which needed repair. He then picked up and switched on the drill and proceeded to touch the tooth in question at which point I received a considerable electric shock! “Ah” he said “Just as I thought – we have an electrical short circuit in the drill – you will have to come back on another day when the drill has been repaired”. Needless to say I beat a hasty retreat from his office.

During the last three years of their peacetime service in India from 1945 - 1947, regardless of the region in which they served RE Survey personnel were likewise exposed to a variety of health hazards. In a country where amoebic dysentery, malaria, dhobi rash, typhoid fever, prickly heat, impetigo, small pox, hepatitis A and B, cholera, VD, bubonic plague, rabies, heat exhaustion and diarrhoea were commonplace, the health rules and regulations issued to BOR's were of necessity quite strict. Although the health of RE Survey personnel serving in India during that period was generally speaking of a high order it was not without its pitfalls. In writing this article I do not profess to have any expertise relating to medical matters. However, the comments are those of an BOR. with first hand experience of having been subjected to diarrhoea, dhobi rash, prickly heat and a five day stay in a British military located in Dehra Dun with a suspected case of cholera!

Probably the most singular ailment that affected BOR's more so than any other medical problem was diarrhoea. The sources of this particular ailment is generally caused by inadvertently ingesting water contaminated by amoeba, bacteria, parasites and insect larvae present in both drinking water and public swimming pools. It was not unusual for BOR's within a week or so of arrival in India to be stricken with this particular ailment. The military procedure followed when this situation occurred was to attend morning sick parade at the earliest opportunity. The medical officer would invariably prescribe the standard treatment to help overcome the problem - light duties for several days and a regimen of sulphaguanidine tablets. These tablets were packaged in long strips of cellophane and were self-administered.  Generally speaking; within a period of three or four days, the medication when taken daily in combination with a liberal intake of safe fluids was sufficient to overcome the problem.  Most medical officers were quite generous in providing a copious supply of these tablets.  Those tablets remaining unused when the treatment program was completed were generally stored safely away for self-administered use at the slightest reoccurrence of the ailment. Most RE Survey personnel retained their own private supply of these tablets for the balance of their service in India.
Strange as it may seem the RE Survey in India did not provide a service for ensuring a supply of clean clothing and uniforms to its military personnel. In these rather bizarre circumstances, BOR's turned to the Indian dhobi wallah who for a nominal rupee or two was quite prepared to provide a daily laundry service.  Clothes and uniforms laundered by the dhobi wallah were returned clean and neatly pressed however there was no guarantee that the water used to launder them had been obtained from a pure source of supply. If perchance the water used had been contaminated by the ringworm parasite it was invariably transmitted to the unfortunate BOR. The ointment prescribed by the local medical officer to combat this ailment, called dhobi rash by BOR's, was generally ineffective.  BOR's were therefore left to their own devices to find a suitable medication to rid themselves of this annoying affliction. It became general knowledge amongst BOR's that an ointment called Nixoderm which could be purchased from the local chemist would eradicate the infection when the medication was liberally applied to the affected rash over a period of several days.
Military standing orders annually proclaimed the onset of the malarial season and the mandatory use of mosquito nets. Four bamboo poles were attached to the legs of ones charpoy (a fibre strung wooden bed) and a mosquito net was strung between the poles. At night-time the net was tucked under the edge of the bedding thereby providing an effective seal from the predatory mosquitoes and their incessant buzzing.

During the summer months when the temperature on occasion soared to over 100 degrees F., it was not uncommon for some BOR's to succumb to heat exhaustion. When this situation occurred during service on the NW Frontier the patient was immediately transported to a window less building lined on the inside with blocks of ice. The frigid temperature inside the building usually had the desired effect of lowering the patients’ temperature to more normal levels. This somewhat drastic treatment when coupled with the patient being administered large amounts of fluids to overcome the dehydration associated with heat exhaustion was sufficient to restore the patient to a more or less state of well-being.

Prickly heat was another ailment BOR's had to contend with during their service in India. During the hot weather season, loss of body salt occurred as the result of excessive perspiration. Salt tablets were therefore taken to overcome this situation. Unfortunately however, this salt replacement therapy tended to clog the skin perspiration pores resulting in a most uncomfortable itchy red rash appearing on the skin. This skin condition was likely to persist until such time as the person affected was able to return to a more amicable and temperate climate.

Citrus fruits, apples and plantains were readily available throughout India. Street vendors squatting on their haunches in typically Indian fashion set up shop in convenient locations along the roadside and displayed their wares in wickerwork baskets.  BOR's were admonished by military health authorities to refrain from purchasing fruit in this fashion particularly so if the skin of the fruit was broken or blemished in any way. Fruit vendors however were allowed to sell their produce within a military compound provided they were able to arrange a means whereby the fruit could be disinfected. A large container of fluid called Pinkie, a solution of permanganate of potash crystals dissolved in water was provided for this purpose. Fruit purchased from the vendors was dropped into this Pinkie solution, swirled around to hopefully rid the fruit of any infectious parasites.

One of the health hazards, which were of great concern to British military health services, was amoebic dysentery. All military personnel regardless of whether they held commissioned or non-commissioned rank were repatriated to the U.K. with a medical classification " unfit for military service in a tropical climate" if they had become infected with this particular ailment on three separate occasions.
Stray dogs are commonplace throughout India. No attempt was made by the authorities to spay or neuter them. They wander around Indian bazaars rooting through the garbage for any discarded scraps of food. Some become infected with rabies and at a RE Survey unit stationed on the NW Frontier it was discovered that the co.’s pet dog was rabid and of necessity it was immediately put down. As a result of this incident and as a precautionary measure all members of the unit were subjected to a series of anti-rabies vaccine shots.

In a somewhat similar situation when an outbreak of bubonic plague occurred among the Indian civilian population in the northern city of Dehra Dun, all military personnel stationed there were immediately inoculated with the appropriate vaccine. As a result of this prompt action by the RAMC. none of the RE Survey personnel stationed there became infected.

There were times when B.O.R's came up against some bizarre situations - a case in point were the wickerwork basket chairs located in the Bombay YMCA hostel. A day or so after a visit to Bombay some BO's noticed the underside of their forearms were covered with small red itchy spots. Upon closer inspection they appeared to be insect bites which had been inflicted from an unknown source. The victims were at a loss to ascertain at what location in Bombay this could have happened.  However, when enquiries were made with other BOR's they were quickly put into the picture by those in the know who had experienced the same problem after a visit to the YMCA It would appear the wickerwork basket chairs played host to minute wood boring insects. These insects came out of the woodwork and took undetectable bites out of the bare forearms placed on the armrests of those particular chairs. It was literally a case of "once bitten - twice shy" on all future visits to the YMCA, sleeves were always rolled down when relaxing in those particular chairs.

Venereal decease the scourge of mankind for thousands of years is no stranger to India. During the 1800’s and continuing into the early 1900’s Indian brothels located near British military establishments were only allowed to operate there under the direct supervision of medical personnel appointed by the Commanding Officer of the regiment or corps. The reasoning during those times by the military authorities was predicated on the basis of that old English saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. The inmates of these establishments were subject to regular medical inspections to ensure that they were free of VD and that the sanitary conditions within the establishment met with stringent military health standards. It represented a practical solution to a problem that had existed with regard to Indian military manpower requirements since day one. However, Christian missionaries in India and social activists in the UK petitioned the UK government to discontinue this military practice with the result that brothels supervised by the military authorities were closed down. Needless to say the troops switched their patronage to the unsupervised establishments with unfavourable medical consequences. In order to place the foregoing information in perspective it should be noted that those conditions existed in India in an age when it was estimated that 50,000 prostitutes plied their trade in the backwater streets and alleyways of London the capital city of the British Empire. For very obvious reasons the brothels located in the Red Light districts of Indian cities were strictly out of bounds to all military personnel. Tonga wallahs, always on the lookout for a fare would accost BOR’s and cheerfully offer their services "You want biwi sahib - I take you there, two rupees". In Dehra Dun, the local establishment of ill repute was located in a neat bungalow fifty yards down the road from the entrance to the Survey of India compound. The readily available services offered in these establishments were certainly a sore temptation to some military personnel. The aftermath of these encounters was likely admission to a British military hospital for remedial treatment of a VD infection. The patient on release from hospital was hopefully a wiser individual having learned the hard way of succumbing to the wiles of an infected prostitute.

To end this subject matter on a more amusing note there is a story frequently told by RE Survey veterans who served in the campaign when the Japanese attacked Burma and India during World War two. It would appear the RE Survey expropriated a suitable sized building located in Calcutta to install the printing and ancillary equipment to produce the maps in logistical support of the army during the Burma campaign. When the RE Survey personnel took over the vacant building they were unaware who had previously occupied it.  The co.’s office was conveniently located just inside the entrance to the building and he was at a loss to explain when over the first few days of occupancy a succession of assorted military personnel came knocking at the door only to beat a hasty retreat when they discovered who now occupied the building. In a very short space of time the RE Survey personnel discovered who had been the former occupants of the building. Those military personnel who had come "knocking on the door" on their previous visits had always been greeted and made welcome by the Indian Madame who as the proprietress ran one of the better class brothels in town. Just how much credence one can place in this story after a lapse of over fifty years is beyond the scope of the author?

It is a tribute to their professionalism and tenacity that the logistical support provided by the RE Survey and likewise various other army corps to the British and Indian armies was carried out regardless of the malarial mosquitoes, oppressive climate, incessant flies and last but not the least the torrential rains of the annual monsoon.

Former Sergeant Donald  C. Thyer
14786710   Royal Engineers Survey
December  2005
Cambridge  Ontario  Canada

Contact Don

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