Picture Postcards from the Great War

"Chatting" or Lice Infestation Postcards

 Tony Allen

During the Great War, an advertisement appeared with the text "BE IN THE FASHION. Why have Cats, Dogs, Canaries etc… LICE, Every Conceivable Shade Supplied... most clinging, and will Iive anywhere. Once you have them you will never be without.” A joke perhaps, but it was no laughing matter for the troops in the trenches who had to live with them.

Body lice were commonly known to the British soldier as Chatts, which may have been derived from Chattel - "Something personal, carried around".  Lice were a constant companion on almost every man who served in the trenches during the Great War.  

Neither side was immune from them. Eric Partridge, a British infantryman and a famous academic said, ”Chatts were not fleas or bugs; they did not jump but crept.” Usually they were pale fawn in coIour and would leave red blotchy marks where they had bitten  -  but it was the itching, caused by their crawling, which drove men mad.

Donald Magills postcard on ww1 lice
This card was Donald McGill's contribution on the scourge of trench lice. It was published by Inter-Art in its Comique series and was number 2131
ww1 comic postcard on trench lice
"LATEST NEWS FROM THE FRONT." The artist did not sign this card. It was released by The Regent Publishing Company and was number 2261.

Once the Chatts had found a ‘host’, they rapidly increased. A French soldier wrote, "The lice feared solitude and had a profound sense of family…lice have a very warm, very soft bedroom, where the table is always laid. There, in their numerous moments of leisure, they followed the counsels of their creator: they multiplied. "

Partridge said that one way of getting rid of the parasites was by "searching uniforms and underwear, especially along the seams, and treatment meant cracking the lice between the thumb-nails. They squelched blood, not their own!" The only real effective remedy after living in the same clothes days on end, however, was a bath and a change of clothes at a Delousing Station, but opportunities to do this did not happen very frequently. So Chatting became a normal routine during quite and rest periods in the line. When the weather was good ”groups of men could be seen with their shirts or trousers or tunics laid over their knees,” said Partridge, “cracking lice and jokes together”

Lice infestation caused not only frenzied scratching, but also a disease called “trench fever.” It started with shooting pains in the legs, followed by a high fever, It was not fatal, but a course of treatment meant between six to 12 weeks of duty. In 1917, trench fever accounted for 15% of sickness cases in the British Army.

The problem of lice infection became so acute that at one stage in the conflict, a War Office boffin suggested spraying the troops’ underwear with a chemical, which would kill any tiny creatures that it came into contact with. It was sprayed on the underwear of a party of kilted volunteers, whom were then deliberately infected with lice. The volunteers were then sent on daytime marches. Later the officer in charge said, ”After a mile or two some of the men began to complain of an itching of the skin…often I had to permit the more frenzied to remove their underclothes and march carrying these in their hands…Apart from their marches they lived a carefree life…They all put on weight, their physiques and appetites improved; the same applied unfortunately to the lice”.
ww1 postcard getting rid of lice

The card on the left was released by the THE REGENT PUBLISHING Co., Ltd., London and was number 3161. At the bottom of the card  is printed "Designed in a Dug-Out in Flanders" The artist initialed the picture ''V.W.S'. The card on the right was released by the 'Inter-Art Company' and was number 2032 in its "COMIQUE" Series. Again, it was signed by 'V.W.S' but this card was "Designed in a Dug-Out in France." The card in the centre was released by THE REGENT PUBLISHING Co. Ltd., and the ever popular Reg Maurice was the artist. A message on the reverse reads, "I am having a lovely time and sometimes it is lively to."

small louse
another small louse
Numerous stories and jokes about trench-lice circulated amongst the men at the front. The soldier poet, Robert Graves, remembered one session when a Private Bumford came up to him and asked: “We were just having an argument as to whether its best to kill the old ones or the young ones, Sir. Morgan here says that if you kill the old ones, the young ones die of grief; but Parry here, Sir, says that the young ones are easier to kill and you can catch the old ones when they go to the funeral…You’ve been to college, Sir, haven’t you?”
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