The Meaning of Life…

On Sunday I spent half-an-hour fifteen feet up a tree.

 Now – I don’t habitually climb trees. In fact it’s probably…let’s just say a few years since I felt the urge. But I needed to retrieve a showjump wing, filler and half-a-dozen stakes that had been misappropriated by some kids and taken half a mile away from our Riding Club’s field – to build a tree-house(!).

 ‘We were all kids once…’ a spectator reminded me. Yes, I said, but we didn’t nick perfectly good stuff belonging to other people.

 Anyway, I digress. Not being a great fan of heights, the thoughts occurred that I might fall out of said tree, and what the consequences would be of such an accident. Because I’m not that old, but in the 1800’s would have been, well…a senior citizen, I suppose.

 You can find plenty of scare-stories regarding lifespan in the 19th century if you trawl the internet. Average Life Expectancy is the favourite measure and is often given in the early part of that century, as between 25 and 32 years. If that doesn’t frighten, you nothing much will. But as with many ‘historical facts’, it’s an exaggerated over-simplification.

 Disease was the main killer. Medical science was in its infancy. Bacteria and viruses were unknown, though it began to be appreciated that cleanliness could improve rates of recovery from certain illness. Much of this knowledge was gleaned both on the battlefield and, more importantly, away from it, because far more soldiers and sailors died from disease than were killed in action. At one point during the Peninsular War, it was reckoned that 40% of the Duke of Wellington’s force was unfit for duty through disease. When you command only a small army, 20,000 men on the sick list must have been something of a worry.

 Fortunately for the British, the French suffered similar problems, despite counting amongst their number the most celebrated physician of the age – Dominique Larrey. It was Larrey who invented the ‘Flying Ambulance’ (speedy, not airborne) for casualty evacuation, and pioneered triage. He saw that amputations carried out within the first four hours of serious injury had the highest chance of success, and encouraged the positioning of surgeon teams just to the rear of front-line troops, rather than several miles behind the lines as had been normal practice. Larrey’s standing was such that at Waterloo, Wellington happened to spot him on the battlefield, and recognising him immediately, ordered the artillery battery firing in his direction to stop.

 But back to mortality. Lifespan figures are skewed by the infant mortality rate, which, at the time, was pretty horrendous: one death from every three births up to the age of 2 years. And this only dropped slightly up to age 9. Of course the fact is that survivors often lived into their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It was a tremendous help to be wealthy because poor housing, meagre nutrition and a complete lack of even the most basic medical care all contributed to early death.

 So did falling out of trees. But despite a large agricultural population, this type of death never reached epidemic proportions.

 Similarly in the cavalry, most horse deaths resulted from management issues rather than battlefield injury. Starvation was most common, followed once again by our old enemy – disease. And on campaign, certain injuries which were treatable under normal circumstances, such as sprains which rendered the horse lame, resulted in destruction of the animal so it would not fall into the hands of the enemy when it could not keep up with the rest of the army. Eventually, the difficulty of procuring fresh mounts forced the army to set up ‘sick horse’ depots where injuries could be treated and the horse hopefully returned to service. It’s a shame the animals never had their own ‘Larrey’, but if there was a veterinary surgeon with the Peninsular army who thought along the same lines as the Frenchman, I’ve not come across him.

 The picture? Actually, I couldn’t find a picture of a suitably dead Peninsula veteran, so it’s a dead horse.

 Well – he’s not really dead. Just dead-oh. But when you walk up to him in the field and he’s lying there, legs outstretched and eyes closed with no sign of breathing, it gives you a start, I can tell you!

 ‘Fred, wake up you lazy s*d!’

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~ by cavalrytales on July 21, 2010.

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