Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Great Fly-Killing Competition: Sudan 1941

A recent edited volume of primary documents, Combat Stress in the 20th Century is an excellent addition to the literature on psychiatry at war.  Editors Terry Copp and Mark Humphries have selected a broad range of articles from medical journals, archived reports, and accounts by medical officers and laymen alike which show the development (or some would say lack thereof) of military thought on mental breakdown and treatment in the commonwealth armies.

For those of more eccentric historical taste (you've come to the right place!), there are plenty of accounts of the more extreme sides of the subject, including electroshock therapy, barbituate sedation, or insulin shock therapy.  On the scale of strange, however, it is hard to top the account of FM Richardson's competitive health preservation.  It seems that to remove the risk of malaria and the sheer annoyance of the omnipresent fly, all Second World War British officers needed to do was start counting:


In a camp in Sudan where fly infestation was very bad and made life intolerable despite intensification of all the usual measures and the efforts of a strong daily fly-swatting patrol almost unbelievable results were achieved in little over a month by a fly-killing competition.  The unit was divided by tents and other convenient groups into teams of ten to twelve men and a running total of the number of flies killed by each team was published weekly.  A standard tin of which the fly content was known was kept by the G.M. Havildar to whom the teams brought their daily bag to be counted, recorded and burned.  The results soon became apparent and it was not long before the 100,000 mark was passed.  The I.H.C. sepoy would do a lot for a few rupees and a good curry bat, and enthusiasm soon rose so high that the best hunting grounds had to be allotted on an official programme like the blocks in a shooting jungle.  Finally the few remaining flies were being stalked by the more resolute competitors and one could see none where recently they had been swarming.
Allied Advances in the East African Campaign. Image by historicair
 This may all sound rather ridiculous but I was later discussing it with a man who had lived in Rumania, where, he said, flies had been innumerable.  A similar competition on a village basis for big money prizes was organized by the Government, and the results, he assured me, were so remarkable that flies virtually disappeared from the country and the disposal of the rubbish which the flies would have eaten became quite a problem.  I accept no responsibility for this statement which may have been merely a dramatic way of emphasizing the success of the scheme, but it is a stimulating thought for medical entomologists.  (FM Richardson, "Competitive Health Preservation in the Army", text of a presentation at the USAREUR and Seventh Army Medical Surgical Conference at Garmisch, Germany, 18 May 1981.)
In civilian life, cold hard cash was necessary to promote fly-killing! 
 Mansfield Advertiser, Mansfield, Penn., June 24, 1914
via State Library of Pennsylvania via
 Questionable Advice and Advertisements
Richardson is best known for his work Fighting Spirit which is a socio-psychological look at men in combat.  He suggested applying the  health competition to battle exhaustion cases.  This seems like a questionable cure for the malady.  If soldiers took the competition seriously, and paid attention to the publicized battle exhaustion rates of various competing units and formations, they would condemn those with symptoms of breakdown.  Hence, it is more likely that those suffering from combat stress would be under even more pressure from their peers, complicating their malady further.  In consideration of how important acceptance by the group is to soldiers, letting their unit down further in the competition may have increased their shame, reducing the already low chances of rehabilitation and return to unit.

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