The Old and the Bold

Bermondsey Military Hospital

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As with all white units sent to serve in East Africa during the Great War the men of the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers suffered severely throughout the campaign from diseases such as malaria, blackwater fever, dysentery and trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness) amongst others.  The susceptibility to these diseases led to a drastic reduction in the battalion’s fighting strength throughout its time in theatre as the men were hospitalised on a regular basis and very few men made it through the entire campaign free from disease.  Indeed ‘sickness’, a catch all term used by the military to differentiate disease and other illness from wounds, was the major contributor to discharges from the army amongst the men of the 25th Royal Fusiliers.


From Harry Gregory Collection, Image Courtesy of John Harrison


Image Courtesy of Chris Balm

After the action at Nyangao (Mahiwa) on the 18th October 1917, when the 120 or so troops that the battalion could muster had been badly mauled by the opposing German forces and the battalion could no longer be considered an effective fighting unit, the decision was made to return the 25th Royal Fusiliers back to England.  On the 4th January 1918, having left Durban on the 27th December 1917, 10 officers and 225 non-commissioned officers and men of the 25th Royal Fusiliers left Cape Town aboard the R.M.S. “Durham Castle” bound for England and the port of Devonport where, after a three and a half week voyage, the men were disembarked on 30th January 1918.

The majority of battalion members had, at some point, contracted malaria whilst in East Africa and often suffered several repeat attacks requiring hospitalisation whilst there.  The illness obviously didn’t just stop once East Africa was left behind and after arrival back in England the men were still the subject of frequent malarial attacks.  Indeed, attacks were so frequent that by April 1918 223 N.C.O.’s and men of the battalion who had returned from East Africa were patients on the wards of Bermondsey Military Hospital.

Bermondsey Institution on Ladywell Road in Lewisham had been taken over by the military early in the war and had become Bermondsey Military Hospital. The hospital boasted 796 beds, of which 103 were for tuberculosis patients, 25 for isolation and 6 for dysentery cases.

In accordance with orders received through the Officer Commanding 4th London General Hospital, Captain W. A. Murray, Royal Army Medical Corps, the officer in charge of that hospital’s Malaria Department, was to supervise these 223 N.C.O.’s and men as they underwent different prophylactic treatments and observe the results.

Accordingly the men were divided into four detachments, based purely on the wards into which they had originally been placed, and each detachment would be placed on a different prophylactic treatment.  Mr Row, a protozoologist at 4th London General Hospital’s Malaria Department, examined the blood of each man prior to the treatment and recorded that 137 of the men tested positive for the malaria parasite, the remainder all showed evidence of active malaria either by recent attacks, an enlarged spleen or other similar evidence.

The four treatments adopted were:

A: 7½ grains of quinine sulphate in solution, orally three times daily on alternate days.

B: 10 grains of quinine sulphate in solution, orally once daily, every morning.

C: 5 grains of quinine sulphate in solution, orally three times a day for six days and one days’ rest, followed by the same dose for five days and two days’ rest, then again for four days and three days’ rest and finally for three days and four days’ rest.  The last seven days treatment being continued until the end of the test period.

D: 5 grains of quinine sulphate in solution, orally three times a day for three days a week (Saturday, Sunday and Monday).

If any man relapsed during the test period he was to be treated with 10 grains of quinine sulphate in solution, orally three times a day until the man’s temperature had returned to normal for a period of 48 hours.  With his temperature thus returned the man would resume the malarial treatment originally prescribed.

Treatment commenced on the 17th April 1918 with the 223 men split between the four wards, 45 men were located on both Wards A and B, 67 men were on Ward C with 66 men on Ward D with the treatment continuing until the 27th May 1918 when, for administrative reasons, the tests had to stop.  At the conclusion of the tests the results were analysed and collated, Ward B had seen 5 men (11.1%) relapse, Ward C 12 men (17.9%) and Ward D 10 men (15.1%) with the treatment administered to those on Ward A being the most successful where just 2 of the 45 men (4.4%) had relapsed.

Presumably the administrative reasons for the tests ending were that the men were either regaining fitness and being graded medically for discharge back to the battalion or were deemed to be no longer fit for service and so would be discharged from the army although another factor for the tests coming to an earlier than expected conclusion may have been that the battalion was shortly to be disbanded.


London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: Ref. GB 0809 Ross-149-12

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: Ref. GB 0809 Ross-149-13

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