During military campaigns in the 19th century many soldiers died of diseases. Why did the military leaders not seem to pay as much attention to the importance of supply to the army? Let me give some examples

1) In 1802 France sent soldiers to crush the rebels on Haiti. But the campaign failed because almost all of the soldiers died of disease.

2) British invasions of the River Plate (Spanish Argentina) in 1806. The invasion failed because of disease.

3) Finally the French Egypt Campaign 1798-1801 many French soldiers died of plague but why did many of the locals and the Ottoman soldiers not die? And why didn't the French take the measures that the others did to prevent plague?

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    Your claim is unsupported by your "examples". Just because some campaigns were derailed by sicknesses, doesn't mean commanders in general ignored the threat of diseases.
    – Semaphore
    May 3 '16 at 11:18
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    The French reinforcement of Haiti was absolutely done with awareness of and respect for the impact of disease. On the other hand, Napoleon was also distracted by other demands for troops. I don't understand how example #3 relates to your thesis?
    – MCW
    May 3 '16 at 11:23
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    Perhaps you could expand your examples to show how you believe that the commanders in each case did not respect the possibility of disease.
    – Steve Bird
    May 3 '16 at 12:27
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    Disease in Haiti struck seasonally. The French intention was to get in, put down the rebellion, and then get out before disease had a chance to take hold. It was probably a misguided idea, but it wasn't one that ignored disease. May 4 '16 at 2:41
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    The core problem with this question is that it assumes an answer in the framing of the question. This is similar to "when did you stop beating your wife?" If you remove "why" from the front of the question, you get a question without an assumption and thus a cleaner and more direct inquiry. (The detail in the text of your question amplifies the core problem). Down voted due to being a badly, even fallaciously, constructed inquiry. May 4 '16 at 20:32

Probably chiefly because they didn't really know what was causing it.

The germ theory is actually fairly new, and even into the 20th century was quite controversial in non-scientific circles. It wasn't until public health officials working in the US Panama Canal construction zone managed to nearly eradicate the yellow fever that pretty much ruined previous efforts that public officials were convinced.

Prior to that, most people subscribed to the miasma theory. Under this concept, diseases were caused by "bad air", and best way to prevent disease was thought to be to keep things as clean as possible. Sometimes that meant using lots of water, which left lots of puddles for mosquitos to breed in...

  • 3
    Germ theory and mosquitos as a disease vector were completely different developments. Furthermore, this response has limited citations and does not directly answer the question. May 3 '16 at 18:43
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    @StuartAllan - Different, but related. The Mosquito theory is a subset of germ theory. If you were still a believer in Miasma theory, from your perspective both were part of the same wrong thing. I'd suggest reading David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas, which has a very nice chapter or two about this oddly anachronistic miasma attitude public officials and engineers clung to at the time. (Although you'll need to skip through a lot of tedious stuff about the French failures beforehand).
    – T.E.D.
    May 3 '16 at 18:56

Most military commanders knew about diseases and did what they could do, or what they thought was right to do to prevent them. The large numbers of victims were due to insufficient knowledge available at that time. For example British admirals perfectly new about scurvy and about tropical diseases they encountered in the Caribbean and elsewhere. They were intensively looking for methods of prevention of scurvy, and tried various things. They tried everything, like sauerkraut etc., until they found that lemon juice helps and since the beginning of 19th century started to distribute it regularly to all hands. They knew that camping near a swamp is unhealthy and there is a rick of malaria. They did what they could to restrict or prevent the exposure of their people. But insufficient knowledge frequently led to large losses.

By the way the fact that the sailors rations included enormous amount of alcoholic beverages (by modern standards) is explained by the impossibility to preserve fresh water for long time. Roman army used vinegar instead.

  • A good discussion of scurvy in the British Navy. May 3 '16 at 20:41
  • A description scurvy, with a historical timeline. In Anson's fleet, 1740-1744, of 2,000 sailors, 1,400 died, mostly of scurvy; only four died in battle. May 3 '16 at 20:51
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    ...and of course the British epithet of "Limey" goes back to a period during the 19th century where their navy was using limes for this purpose. They turned out to be much less effective than the lemons. Again, this goes to the fact that they didn't really know what about the lemons was fixing the problem until quite recently.
    – T.E.D.
    May 3 '16 at 21:24

One reason is that leaders didn't know about particular diseases in relatively remote areas or how to fight/treat them.

In the examples you cited, European soldiers died of yellow fever in Haiti, and plague in Egypt. Those were tropical diseases that European commanders knew little about. In such cases, locals or "natives" had the advantage over them.

By the late 18th century, European commanders knew something about "nothern" diseases such as infections or scurvy, that could be controlled by sanitation in one instance, or citrus fruits in the other case. But Europeans would have problems in places like Latin America and Africa, where they did not know about, or at least fully understand, diseases peculiar to those climates.

  • Europeans had been in Haiti a century by the time the revolution came. They were well acquainted with disease there, if not its causes. See montana.edu/historybug/napoleon/yellow-fever-haiti.html. May 31 '16 at 19:41
  • @StevenBurnap: "Well acquainted" with a disease "without knowing its cause" would not generally lead to taking adequate countermeasurs.
    – Tom Au
    May 31 '16 at 22:02
  • Well, I don't think knowing the cause is strictly relevant to the question. Europeans did know some things, and did try to take countermeasures. (I.e. avoiding the "disease season".) Somewhat ineffectual yes, but not "overlooking" the issue. In the case of Haiti, it was because Leclerc wasn't able to pull of the quick campaign to put the revolt down that was the original plan. May 31 '16 at 23:16

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