Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

 

The Guadiana Fever Epidemic

By Andrew Bamford

The latter half of the year 1809 was marked with some of the heaviest losses, proportional to strength, sustained by the British forces serving in the Peninsular War. An army already weakened by the rigours of marching during the Oporto campaign was compelled through political necessity and logistical mismanagement to face much of the Talavera campaign on reduced rations, wearing the men down further and increasing the numbers of sick, whilst the fighting around Talavera itself produced 5,125 British casualties for 20,641 engaged, making the battle one of the bloodiest actions fought by the British during the war.[1] Whilst the arrival first of Robert Craufurd’s Light Brigade, and then of additional reinforcements as the army fell back to positions on the Guadiana river in the vicinity of Badajos, did much to restore overall numbers the health and efficiency of the troops remained a concern, and it became necessary for some of the worst-affected units to be detached from the army. As well as losing the two Battalions of Detachments, long under orders for home, and the 23rd Light Dragoons, wrecked by their headlong charge at Talavera, it became imperative to send the 2/83rd and 2/87th down to Lisbon if these units, the latter in particular, were ever to recover their former effectiveness.[2]

The sufferings of a few unlucky battalions were, however, soon to be surpassed by what was, in comparative terms at least, the worst period of illness to hit the army during the entire war. In terms of numbers, the 1,186 deaths in November 1809 were comparable to the casualties at Albuera or the storm of Badajos, and second only to the epidemic of winter 1812-1813 that ravaged the 1st Footguards in terms of absolute deaths through sickness. In terms of the percentage of the total strength dying, however, the Guadiana epidemic at its highest was worse than any of these; furthermore, it went on over a period of four months, during which the death rate, though peaking in November, remained continually in excess of five hundred men per month.[3] This, of course, does not take into account the number of men either temporarily or permanently weakened by the illness, whose numbers were such that some battalions were returning over half their strength as sick.[4] Throughout this time, however, it remained politically imperative that Wellington’s forces remain on Spanish soil, until finally the renewed defeats of their Spanish allies, and their own commander’s plans for the defence of Portugal , forced their departure. The army as a whole not unnaturally welcomed the move to more salubrious cantonments, but it was clear that the political demands that had forced Wellington to delay it, and keep his army in such an unhealthy region for so long, had been met at a very heavy price.

What makes understanding the epidemic harder is the arbitrary way in which units suffered. As one might expect, those battalions that had undergone the rigours of the Talavera campaign generally returned higher numbers of sick, although of course a proportion of combat casualties must here be factored in, but equally the 2/39th, 2/42nd, and 1/43rd newly out from home all fell heavily sick, whilst the 5/60th got away largely unscathed despite considerable arduous prior service. Nor are there any obvious trends with regards to particular brigades or divisions suffering heavily, beyond the fact that the cavalry consistently returns a far lower number of sick throughout the period in question. The higher sickness rates for the First Division may largely be attributed to its particularly heavy losses at Talavera, there being no attempt to distinguish between wounded and sick in the figures available. This apparently random nature does, however, match the model we have for the later, better documented, epidemic of 1813, which saw huge differences even within companies of affected battalions, and would suggest that this epidemic too was a typhoid fever, though the marshy Guadiana was also notoriously malarial.[5] The only thing that is readily apparent is that it was very specifically the locality around the Guadiana that was particularly fever-ridden: Battalions leaving the field army, such as the 2/83rd and 2/87th, show a marked improvement in their numbers of sick once back in Portugal, as do the death rates for the army as a whole following its departure in December, which seems to have been what ended the epidemic.[6] 

Even before the epidemic hit his army, Wellington already had a considerable problem by virtue of the number of battlefield casualties requiring hospitalisation. This did have the advantage, however, of ensuring that when sickness broke out steps had already been taken to organise hospitals, notably that set up at the Portuguese fortress of Elvas. Command of the sick was given to Lt. Colonel Henry Mackinnon of the 2nd (Coldstream) Footguards, then serving on the staff, who oversaw the evacuation of the wounded back to Portugal and henceforth took command at Elvas, working alongside Dr. Franck, the Inspector-General of Hospitals.[7] Unfortunately, this period is marked by a gap in Mackinnon’s otherwise useful diary, which, being first published almost immediately after his death at Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812, is almost uniquely free of the post-war revisions that mar many other such journals.[8] The very fact that Mackinnon could not find time to maintain a diary is itself testimony to the amount of work entailed, and he seems to have done it well enough to be rewarded with an appointment as a brigadier in the Third Division, but the numbers of wounded and then sick swamped the system, and there was little Mackinnon could do so far as the actual medical care was concerned.[9] Provision in this regard was sadly lacking at this stage in the war, and though the Elvas hospital was organised with a main section in a convent and a convalescent hospital in one of the barracks, overcrowding and lack of equipment and trained personnel ensured that conditions were hellish and recovery rates low. John Spencer Cooper of the 2/7th (Royal Fusiliers) recorded that there was,

[N]o ventilation, twenty men sick in the room, of whom about eighteen died. In this place there were [sic] one door, and one chimney, but no windows. Relapse again; deaf as a post; shirt unchanged and sticking to my sore back; ears running stinking matter; a man lying close on my right hand with both his legs mortified nearly to the knees, and dying. A little sympathy would have soothed, but sympathy there was none.[10]

Accordingly, some of those who had the choice preferred to remain with their regiments, one such being Lt. George Simmons of the 1/95th, who, despite three recurring bouts of fever, which he attributed to over-exertion in the heat, was, “allowed to proceed, by my own wish, with my regiment”.[11] No matter how well organised, military hospitals were places to be avoided if at all possible, but for the rank and file the opportunities for private convalescence available to an officer like Simmons did not exist. In November, there were 5,740 rank and file from the infantry sick in hospital, as opposed to 2,268 remaining with their battalions, but conditions for the latter can hardly have been improved by the fact that many battalion surgeons were taken from their units to make up deficiencies in personal at the base hospital.[12] Whilst the problems were evident, McGrigor’s eventual reforms of the medical services were still several years away and little could be done with the men and materiel available at the time, beyond the paltry measures noted.

Also of long term importance, the more so since the following year would see Wellington gain even more sickly regiments in the shape of the first of the survivors of the Walcheren Expedition, was the amount of time it took those who did recover from their illness to rejoin their regiments. For although the move away from the Guadiana was marked by an appreciable decline in death rates, it would take far longer for the men on the sick lists to return to their units, as is demonstrated by the lack of correlation between sickness and death rates during the epidemic, and this would remain a cause of ongoing concern throughout the war. Even after medical reforms were implemented losses through sickness would remain a concern, but never again would such a sustained epidemic wrack the army, in part through swift quarantining as applied to the 1st Footguards in 1813, and this at least would suggest that something of value had been learnt from the deadly winter of 1809-1810.


Appendix  – Sickness Figures, October 1809-January 1810

 

October 25th 1809

  November 25th 1809

  December 25th 1809

 January 25th 1810

Total

Deaths

 

% Sick

Deaths

% Sick

Deaths

% Sick

Deaths

% Sick

Deaths

Cavalry Division

                 

3rd Dragoon Guards

16.19

28

25.04

38

25.56

19

20.77

16

101

1st Dragoons

9.21

1

10.25

3

5.48

4

5.34

2

10

4th Dragoons

18.03

12

18.01

31

16.42

23

16.81

16

82

14th Light Dragoons

11.06

28

21.48

20

14.08

19

14.09

11

78

16th Light Dragoons

13.72

8

11.6

12

9.9

18

11.42

3

41

1st KGL Hussars

14.56

6

14.93

3

12.55

5

14.1

2

16

Totals

15.46

83

16.93

107

13.89

88

13.61

50

328

                   

First Division

                 

1/2nd Footguards

36.84

61

36.94

84

40.39

40

37.41

35

220

1/3rd Footguards

35.01

60

33.8

67

35.63

26

27.81

37

190

2/24th Foot

46.97

88

55.39

44

60.93

33

62.78

24

189

2/42nd Highlanders

28.14

10

33.49

37

40.3

26

47.78

20

93

1/61st Foot

40.8

51

47.57

27

46.86

24

32.57

12

114

1st KGL Line Bn.

39.07

7

37.08

22

38.96

9

38.45

7

45

2nd KGL Line Bn.

34.5

14

37.35

15

36.89

11

37.5

2

42

5th KGL Line Bn.

36.83

14

18.77

44

36.48

8

36.18

4

70

7th KGL Line Bn.

38.54

15

34.49

13

38.06

4

38.8

12

44

KGL Light Cos.

34.59

2

41.73

3

38.71

2

41.46

0

7

Totals

37.37

322

37.41

356

41.32

183

39.22

153

1014

                   

Second Division

                 

1/3rd Foot

25.55

20

23.49

48

25.96

19

21.83

16

103

2/28th Foot

21.98

10

22.79

23

30.52

25

27.57

24

82

29th Foot

36.74

22

43.31

43

47.13

36

40.12

33

134

2/31st Foot

57.51

38

59.94

93

55.95

28

41.37

17

176

2/34th Foot

20.78

13

27.31

53

28.34

50

26.17

50

166

2/39th Foot

28.28

12

29.97

34

42.6

28

31.43

11

85

1/48th Foot

29.83

23

34.34

43

43.5

54

40.08

18

138

2/48th Foot

26.37

35

28.37

37

31.27

17

24.71

23

112

1/57th Foot

17.28

3

16.6

19

18.21

28

14.75

10

60

2/66th Foot

25.16

27

30.41

27

34.14

30

29.36

18

102

Totals

28.68

203

30.97

420

35

315

29.28

220

1158

                   

Third Division

                 

1/43rd Light Inf.

16.9

39

19.77

36

17.68

27

17.47

19

121

1/45th Foot

29.04

29

28.78

49

27.68

17

30.96

15

110

1/52nd Light Inf.

12.81

17

10.84

14

11.98

10

12.21

4

45

5/60th Rifles

14.29

6

13.28

7

13.92

6

10.71

1

20

1/88th Foot

34.08

37

30.08

23

37.61

13

38.05

22

95

1/95th Rifles

14.61

24

16.43

23

15.04

20

15.31

18

85

Totals

19.73

152

19.91

152

20.7

93

20.97

79

476

 

October 25th 1809

 November 25th 1809

 December 25th 1809

 January 25th 1810

Total

Deaths

 

% Sick

Deaths

% Sick

Deaths

% Sick

Deaths

% Sick

Deaths

Fourth Division

                 

2/7th Fusiliers

33.43

24

33.29

51

35.63

35

35.87

24

134

1/11th Foot

18.31

11

14.03

19

12.7

20

17.76

9

59

3/27th Foot

26.05

9

21.01

28

17.3

18

13.54

17

72

1/40th Foot

17.15

12

19.34

22

18.37

10

21.3

9

53

2/53rd Foot

31.76

29

31.18

24

26.55

20

37.02

10

83

97th Foot

36.25

11

32.85

12

33.61

9

36.82

8

40

Totals

28.06

96

32.85

156

22.62

112

25.15

77

441

                   

Troops in Portugal

                 

2/5th Foot

17.12

9

16.81

5

16.3

8

21.06

7

29

2/58th Foot

19.61

4

24.74

10

23.25

28

32.5

5

47

2/83rd Foot

40.35

65

38.33

46

31.98

20

26.85

36

167

2/87th Foot

42.31

45

38.73

17

32.66

53

28.61

23

138

Totals

30.58

123

29.84

78

26.05

109

26.94

71

381

                   

Grand Totals

27.27

979

27.65

1269

28.71

900

27.28

650

3798

                   

Comments on Table : Data is from Monthly Returns in WO17/2464, 2465. No attempt has been made to break down the figures by brigade, since there were ongoing changes in the brigade-level order of battle during the period. Lightburne’s Brigade, the 2/5th and 2/58th, was technically part of the Fourth Division but was still in Portugal and had not yet joined its parent formation: it is therefore counted separately. The 5/60th is listed with the Third Division, where its headquarters were, though some companies were detached to other formations. The 1st Dragoons did not join the Cavalry Division until November, coming down from Lisbon. No data is given for the 23rd Light Dragoons, which left in October: for what it is worth, in that month the regiment had four deaths, and 46 sick out of a strength of 506 (9.09%) although the strength figure includes 124 “missing” after Talavera. To aid comparison, figures for the artillery and train, available only as army totals, have been omitted. The names of units present at Talavera, the figures for which may therefore be assumed to also contain combat casualties, are given in italics.

 

Notes:

[1] Figures (rank and file only) from tables in Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsular War (Seven Vols. Oxford, 1902-1930), Vol.II, pp.645-646, 649-651.

[2] See General Order of September 24th 1809, in Colonel Gurwood (ed.), The Dispatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, During his Various Campaigns in India , Denmark , Portugal , Spain , The Low Countries, and France (Eight Vols. London, 1844), Vol.III, p.519.

[3] See comparative figures from casualty abstracts by month and by theatre in WO17/2814. See also letter by Lt. and Captain Charles Gordon, 3rd Footguards, to Aberdeen, dated Badajos, 16th November 1809, in Rory Muir (ed.) At Wellington’s Right Hand. The Letters of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon 1808-1815 ( London, 2003), pp.68-69, noting 300 deaths per week.

[4] Monthly returns October 1809 to January 1810, in WO17/2464, 2465.

[5] Dr. Martin Howard, Wellington’s Doctors. The British Army Medical Services in the Napoleonic Wars (Staplehurst, 2002), pp.166-170. The season makes malaria an unlikely contender, however.

[6] For breakdown of sickness and death figures by unit and by division, see Appendix.

[7] “The A.G. to Lieut. Col. Mackinnon”, dated 2nd August 1809, in Gurwood (ed.), Dispatches, Vol.III, p.388 for the initial appointment, and ibid., pp.392, 408, 456, 479, for further orders and correspondence, mostly concerned with expediting the return of convalescents to their units.

[8] Major General Henry Mackinnon, “A Journal of the Campaign in Portugal and Spain from the Year 1809 to 1812”, reprinted in Two Peninsular War Journals ( Cambridge, 1999).

[9] Mackinnon, “Campaign in Portugal and Spain ”, pp.40-42. He was appointed to Donkin’s old brigade as of November 29th.

[10] John Spencer Cooper, Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns in Portugal , Spain , France and America During the Years 1809-1815 (Staplehurst 1996).

[11] Major George Simmons, A British Rifle Man. Journals and Correspondence during the Peninsular War and the Campaign of Waterloo ( London, 1899). pp.35-40, quoting Journal entry of December 11th.

[12] Calculated from Monthly Return in WO17/2464. On the shortage of medical personal, see “The A.G. to Thos. Keate, Esq. Surg. Gen., London”, 9th September, in Gurwood (ed.), Dispatches, Vol.III, p.489.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2001

 

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