I know that, when soldiers are on the march or in the midst of battle, they don't really get the chance to do wash. But surely after a while you'd get royally stinky and uncomfortable, so what do you do? Do you try to clean yourself somehow or do you just stay stinky and live with it? And are bathing conditions for soldiers better now than they used to be? I'm guessing from the pictures I've seen of soldiers in Afghanistan, it is easier to get a bath in today's US Army than it once was. But I'm still curious.
This question got me reading various narratives from soldiers who lived and fought through all sorts of wars. I could summarize what I found and just give you the facts, ma'am, but what turned out to be the most interesting part of researching this question was reading various people's accounts of their situation. So I'll give you both -- the highlights and the commentary.
US WWII soldiers bathing in the Mediterranean. This fairly chaotic scene is probably about what bathing facilities amounted to for most soldiers throughout the centuries.
(Photo from Moments with Clyde)
By the way, if you want to see lots of pictures of naked men, type "soldiers bathing" or "soldiers showering" into a Google search. Ai yi. I tried to keep the nudity at reasonable levels here. Naked is, after all, how people take showers and baths. But I didn't want to overwhelm you with a lot of bare bottoms either.
First of all, bathing is pretty important to the health of an army.
- One example of how illness can debilitate an army is that when Rommel was in the midst of his campaign at El Alamein in North Africa during World War II, he was seriously hamstrung because, not only were his troops slowly starving for supplies, but also none of his best generals were available. They'd all been evacuated due to illness of the dysentery kind. Rommel wound up losing that battle, and that loss in turn led to the German surrender in North Africa.
- Keeping yourself and your clothes clean can also help keep away the lice, which were pretty common among soldiers for centuries, but super-annoying nonetheless.
- Lots of time and energy was spent on trying to "delouse" the troops because lice could also be disease-carriers, turning an annoyance into a potential troop-decimator.
But while you're in the field, either marching or fighting, you don't really get a chance to bathe. So soldiers have been encouraged, in various ways throughout the years, to keep themselves as clean as possible on the fly.
- Here are instructions from the US Calvary Association in 1914 about how to bathe in the field:
Besides bathing the feet the men should bathe their whole bodies frequently. Anyone familiar with our "regulars" on the march and who has seen them break for the water to bathe as soon as possible after a day's march knows that it requires no order to get this done. But sometimes we must camp where there is no water available for bathing. Men should at least wash the crotch with a wet towel, especially if there is a tendency to chafe. Talcum powder should be used in such cases.
- Now here are instructions from 2011 to soldiers in the US Army deployed in cold, mountainous regions. Not that much different. Sucks that they can't even use alcohol wipes.
Soldiers should wash their entire body weekly (at a minimum). If bathing facilities are not available, Soldiers can wash with two canteen cups of water, using half for soap and washing and half for rinsing. Soldiers should clean feet, crotch, and armpits daily. They should also clean their teeth daily.
It is important that Soldiers do not use alcohol-based wipes (commonly known as baby wipes) in the field. These wipes contain alcohol that conforms to the same temperature as the ambient air. If Soldiers use these products in an environment where the temperature is below freezing, then they risk contact frostbite, especially if the temperature is below 0 °F.
It's hard to tell but it looks like this soldier is shaving using snow he's melted in his helmet.
(Photo from militaryphotos.net)
One of the reasons it can be difficult to bathe while in the field is because water may not be available.
- Apparently, the British during World War I were known for their attention to providing clean water to their troops. Also note the technique by which soldiers washed themselves, given the limited water supply.
The water supply of Northern France was dangerous and scanty. A corps of chemists and inspectors established the status of all wells and sources of supply before troops could use the water. Carts provided for hauling water were handled by men trained for the work and all water hauled received a proper sterilizing treatment usually with chloride of lime. Bathing, washing and delousing facilities commensurate with the fuel and water supply were diligently and ingeniously operated.
Cases were observed where water supply was so short that it was necessary to save waste water, treat it chemically, settle it, and use it over again. It took some time for our troops to adjust themselves to these conditions, but eventually, when the necessity arose, a man could wash face and hands, shave and rinse his tooth brush in a half canteen cup of water.
Canadian soldiers shaving at a WWI training camp in Valcartier, Québec, 1914.
(Photo from the National Film Board of Canada)
Just because soldiers can't bathe doesn't mean they don't want to. In fact, account after account describes how soldiers take any chance they can get to bathe, and they relish it.
- One Infantryman who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December and January 1944 was transported with his company to the rear of the lines for showers, food, and rest. On the way, his truck hit a mine and he was blown up to the roof of truck and fell back to the truck bed flat on his back. Because it was January and so cold, he had on six layers of clothing. Beneath the enormous hole in his overcoat and subsequently smaller holes in each layer was just a small trickle of blood on his back. He was asked if he wanted to go to an aid station, but he said no, he wanted a shower. He had to go to the back of the line, and he didn't get to the showers in time. He didn't get another shower until the end of the war.
If an army camps near a body of water, chances are, the soldiers will make a beeline for it as a place where they can wash.
- During the Civil War, the Massachusetts volunteer infantry camped along the James River. Officers reported that "several hundreds" of enlisted men were bathing in the river "at all hours of the day and in large numbers. So many of them were bathing all the time that the order was given that the enlisted men were not allowed to bathe during daylight.
- Even after this order was given, two officers sneaked off to wash in the river. But the place where the went happened to be in front of the cottage where the General had made his quarters. He waited until they had stripped and then he had the Sergeant of the Guard arrest them and bring them naked to his quarters. By this time, other soldiers had found out what was happening, so several of them watched, laughing, as the two young officers were brought naked to the General. He told them, "If you choose to bathe naked and expect to be recognized as officers, pray have your shoulder-straps buttoned on to you. Go to your quarters."
Union soldiers bathing in the North Anna River near the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, May 1864.
(Photo from the Library of Congress. Brenda Hamilton on Flickr claims that this image is copyright-protected, but it's in the public domain.)
- At the end of World War II, in May 1945, one infantryman remembers this bathing experience that occurred after the Germans had surrendered a few days earlier:
- Mac McAuliffe recalls that on or about May 8 or 9 Company M, 347th Infantry,which was located near Jägersgrün and Tannenbergsthal, also had pitched their tents on a hillside nearby. Mac remembers that he and several other members of Company M decided to go for a swim in a pond on the other side of the hill. Arriving at the pond, they were surprised to hear a number of German soldiers signing "Lillie Marlene"--that great song of the war equally loved by American as well as German soldiers--while bathing and washing up on other side of the pond. Mac stated "I cut the legs off my 'long johns' that I was still wearing and used my 'johns' for trunks. We then dove into the pond and thrashed about reveling in the warmth of the spring day. The German soldiers, who were bathing approximately 20 yards away on the other side of the pond, paid no attention to us and WE paid no attention to them ... the weather was great. The water was fine and refreshing and, best of all, the war was over ... for both the Germans and ourselves ...
German soldiers bathing themselves and their horses in a lake during WWII.
(Photo from Miss Magnolia Thunderpussy)
- In fact, sometimes the officers counted on a nearby body of water to be the primary bathing source for their troops. For the British during World War I in Brest,
Facilities for bathing and washing clothes were absolutely lacking, and such results as were accomplished in this area developed from the use of streams. Units not engaged in freight handling were taking practice marches, bathing and washing clothes in way-side streams.
- A similar situation was also the case during the Spanish American War at Fort Macon, North Carolina:
The regiment remained at Fort Macon from July 19 to September 14, where it was well drilled and disciplined. The sanitary conditions of the camp was most excellent, there rarely being a case of sickness among the men. The bathing facilities could not be surpassed. The camp was within two hundred yards of a fine beach.
WWII US soldiers bathing in the Pacific Ocean during a break in the fighting on Saipan, Japan.
(Photo by Peter Stackpole, originally printed in Life magazine. Art print available for $49.99 from art.com)
But for the most part, soldiers have to wait until they're away from the front lines to bathe.
- During World War II in the Pacific, the rifle companies followed this practice of trading "on" and "off" time:
Two rifle companies fight and advance for 48 hours, then the two rear companies move forward to relieve them in place. The two fatigued companies move to the rear to eat hot chow, "use" toilet paper, receive medical care for minor injuries, hopefully get a few beers, then sleep. The next day its more hot chow, weapons cleaning, bathing and more sleep.
- Here is one Infantryman's recollection of his regiment's arrival at Guadalcanal.
One of the first things we were able to do when we landed on the Canal was to take a bath in Lunga River to wash off the salt water... (Our baths aboard ship were with salt water as the ship could not carry enough fresh water for bathing purposes.) While the men of Co. F, 2nd Bn., 35th Inf. were taking their baths, a Photographer from Life Magazine took their pictures it appeared in a copy of Life the 1st or 2nd week of Feb. on their cover. We were then deployed to Bloody Ridge until the rest of the Div. arrived in late Dec. 1942.
- I tried to find the photos he mentions, but apparently Life doesn't have that issue up on their website. But I did find a few others from Guadalcanal in 1942, including this one:
Original caption: Exhausted US Marines sprawl all over beaches waiting for the landing craft which will take them off the island following four months of fighting the Japanese.
(Photo from Life magazine)
- Over in Europe, another infantryman remembers the few days' rest that his division got during the Battle of the Bulge. This was the end of January, so it had been nearly two months since he'd last had chance to bathe:
While the generals regrouped the divisions and planned the next operations, the combat troops rested and cleaned their equipment. There was also an opportunity to clean ourselves, and I was able to take a hot bath, my first since early December.
- Another Infantryman who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, this time from the 345th Regiment, remembers the days after fighting in the Saar River basin in December 1944:
The 345th Regiment lost more men in the Saar in ten days, then three-plus weeks in the "Battle of the Bulge."
[When we were pulled out,] We climbed onto big flatbed stake-bodied trucks. You had to sit or lie down and cover up with a blanket. As a result of stress and lack of sanitation, everyone had diarrhea. Every time the trucks stopped, we bolted to the side of the road, pants down. After a long, cold, miserable ride, we arrived on the outskirts of Rheims. The 87th Division was SHAEF Reserve, the only organized force between the German advance and Paris. We had showers, a change of clothing, and were issued worn galoshes. We thought the men encountered at the showers were part of elite troops. They were Quartermaster personnel wearing new shoe pacs.
- Again, from World War II, another Infantryman fighting in the Po valley in Italy remembers a four-day rest period in October 1944. His division was moved to "assembly areas" near a small town called Vergiano.
Our soldiers spent their time wisely. They took hot showers at the 34th Division Bathing Unit and Clothing exchange, donned fresh underclothes and uniforms, secured badly needed haircuts, cleaned their equipment, caught up on their correspondence to loved ones at home, ate hot food regularly, refreshed their minds by reading, enjoyed motion pictures and band concerts, and embraced every opportunity to rest and relax in anticipation of their imminent return to combat.
Makeshift showers for Japanese soldiers in the South Pacific during WWII.
(Photo from WWII: Through the Letters of My Ojichan)
But sometimes even the facilities behind the lines are sub-optimal.
- During the Spanish-American War in the 1890s, the US military did a kind of survey of its troops to see what their hygiene practices were like. They noted that in the Fourth New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, they were sometimes bathing in the ocean, sometimes bathing in the mess hall:
During the warm season the men were required to bathe between 3 and 4 pm in the ocean. After it got too cold for ocean bathing a large mess hall was set up with bath tubs in one end thereof, and all of the men returning from guard duty were required to bathe under the direct supervision of an officer.
- The fact that they used the same building for eating as well as bathing probably accounts for the spread of disease, specifically, typhoid fever.
- But using the mess hall for bathing wasn't that uncommon in those times. In 1868 at Fort Wallace, Kansas, where the soldiers pretty much built the thing from the ground up at the direction of their officers, they had a similar arrangement:
The soldiers at the fort suffered additional discomforts because few of the company barracks had washrooms and the facilities for bathing were inadequate. On the northeast end of the building used as a [combined] mess, kitchen, and quarters for the laundresses was a washroom for the enlisted men. Here, the roof leaked, the sewer was plugged, and no wash tubs or heating facilities existed. In the winter the washing of hands and faces was difficult, and bathing was entirely out of the question. Thus, due to lack of proper facilities, the cold weather produced negligence in the personal habits of the men. In fact, personal cleanliness became so lax the post surgeon complained to the commanding officer who in turn ordered all sergeants to superintend a weekly scrubbing of each soldier.
- By World War II, behind-the-lines facilities for bathing and washing had improved, but there was still a catch-as-catch-can approach:
The quartermaster bath and laundry units that were assigned to support the 80th would set up operations somewhere in our area. A few men at a time would be trucked to the bath and laundry point. There, each soldier would turn in the clothing he was wearing, keeping only his weapons, helmet, boots, and personal belongings. After a hot shower he would be issued clean clothing. His dirty uniform would then be laundered and reissued to someone else. Often the fit of the "new" uniforms was somewhat bizarre, particularly if a soldier was unusually big or small, but we made the best of such things by swapping clothing with one another. It was such a pleasure to get a hot shower and have clean clothing that no one complained.
Original caption: An Afghan national police officer showers and washes his uniform at the same time at a police substation in Kandahar. May 26 2010
(Photo from the Los Angeles Times)
Today, US troops in Afghanistan still need to go behind the lines to get their showers. But the facilities behind the lines are practically plush by comparison:
[near Kabul is] a forward operating base equipped with a large, clean dining facility offering very good quality and selection; permanent barracks with round-the-clock hot showers; and a recreation area with daily access to phone and Internet.
The interior of a Containerized Housing Unit (CHU) which is where many US soldiers lived while in Iraq. Each CHU has a door, window, top vent, power cabling, and air conditioner for summer heat. Each living space in a CHU has a bed, end table, and wall locker. Sometimes soldiers get refrigerators and TVs. Some have a shower and toilet between the rooms.
(Photo from Army Mom Strong)
Complicating the shower situation today is the fact that some of the soldiers and officers are women.
- The fact that women and men require different bathing facilities has posed some new problems for the military. Here is how one Company in Afghanistan dealt with the situation:
an Army regulation states that female soldiers must be provided with showers every few days. That was a problem during Charlie Company’s first few months in Afghanistan, because the spartan outpost lacked running water. Male soldiers often went weeks without bathing, but company leaders had to ensure that [female Pfcs] Conger and Redinbaugh made it back to a bigger base so they could wash up. The women usually could find seats on supply convoys already headed to the bigger base. But the company occasionally had to send four-truck convoys out on the rough drive because Minard had to comply with the hygiene rule for the women. The drive takes up to an hour, and each trip carries the risk of a truck being blown up. “So rules like that really would have to change,” Minard said.
Temporary shower and shaving set-up not in Afghanistan but here in the United States. This is in North Dakota during the flooding of the Sheyenne River. The temporary shower and shave unit set by the National Guard was connected to a septic tank system.
(Photo by Sgt. First Class David Dobbs, North Dakota National Guard, on dvidshub)
Regardless of what war you're fighting in or whether you're male or female, it's simply a reality of being a soldier that you might not get to bathe until after the war.
- Here's what one soldier recalls about his long-awaited shower in France, just after World War I had ended:
On the afternoon of November 11th, the 308th [infantry] celebrated the occasion with suitable solemnity. It took its first real bath since the beginning of the Argonne. True, only one minute was allowed under the steaming showers, scarcely time to wash off the soap beneath a tantalizing trickle, and then the cry of "Into the drying room with you! Make way for the next lot!" Scarcely a wash. Certainly only the hyperbole of enthusiastic exaggeration could call it a bath. Still what little water there was certainly possessed the blessed qualities of warmth and wetness--and the War was over!
Bradley W. Hudson, Field sanitation teams, preventive medicine measures key during deployments, Infantry Magazine, Nov-Dec 2008
History Learning Site, The Battle of El Alamein
John Frank Morrison, US Cavalry Association, Training Infantry, 1914, page 107
J.F. Oakleaf, Notes on the Operations of the 108th Infantry Overseas, April 13, 1921
William H. Osborne, The History of the Twenty-Ninth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Late War of the Rebellion, 1877, page 85
Tom Stafford, 87th Infantry Division Legacy Association, The Mass Surrender of German Troops to the 347th Infantry Regiment on May 6, 1945
Spanish-American War Centennial Website, William R. Navey, A Brief History of the 3rd North Carolina Volunteer Infantry
G2mil, The Infantry Square
35th Infantry Regiment Association, Frank L. Marks, "Getting Ready, Destination Unknown," Cacti Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 1942
Turner Publishing Company, Battle of the Bulge, 1995, page 80
87th Infantry Division Legacy Association, Richard C. Manchester, K Company, 345th Regiment, Communications Section, WWII Memoirs - Part 2
34th Infantry Division Association, History 133rd Infantry 34th Infantry Division from 1 October 1944 to 31 October 1944, inclusive
US Army Surgeon General's Office, Report on the origin and spread of typhoid fever in U.S. military camps during the Spanish War of 1898, volume 1, 1904, page 434
Santa Fe Trail Research Site, Fort Wallace, Kansas, 1865-1882
Mark Larson, Lattes and Hot Showers in Afghanistan, The New York Times, July 15, 2010
Tony Leys, Female soldiers say they're up for battle, ArmyTimes, April 24, 2011
L. Wardlaw Miles, History of the 308th Infantry, Chapter 9 Last Days in France