20 June 2017
Bathhouses On The Western Front Part I

Australian soldiers outside a bath house near Ypres on November 1, 1917. Regular attendance at bath houses was compulsory for all troops on the Western Front.
© IWM (E (AUS) 1067)

 

Amidst the mud and misery of the frontline, a trip out of the line sometimes meant a bath and welcome change of uniform and underwear for the troops. But the process wasn’t quite as refreshing as it may sound. John Becker of the 75th (Mississauga) Battalion recounts his visit to the baths in the area of Gouy-Servins, France in June 1917:

“This particular bathhouse was a rough board building with a boiler fired by wood alongside. Inside we took off our clothes and threw underwear and socks in a heap at one end. The underwear was immediately grabbed by fatigue men before it walked off under its own power [infested by lice]. We passed into another room and under long pipes shooting streams of warm water. A sergeant-major called “Soap On.” We soaped for three minutes. “Soap Off” – we had to immediately rinse ourselves as in another minute the water was shut off. We passed on to the other end, wiped our louse bitten hides, got clean towels, fumigated underwear, and resumed our clothes. The underwear was whatever we were handed. Some of it had been used for a long time… It was supposed to be free from livestock [lice], but this didn’t take into account the babies that had laid their eggs in the seams of my trousers and tunic, and an hour later I was providing a dinner for those eggs and all their brothers and sisters.” (Becker, Silhouettes of the Great War, 84).