On page 4 of the Wingham Times a short article relates:
“Nearly all medical men in the West Indies advise wearing of thin woolen and not cotton underwear. Many persons wear “cholera belts” of flannel.”
This garment was considered important enough that Sir Adam Beck’s wife, Lady Beck, contributed enough of these belts to outfit half of the Battalion.
This curious reference touches on common beliefs that are debunked by science and speaks also to the relative progress of knowledge regarding the medical sciences since the start of the 20th Century. Two World Wars and other events sped along the knowledge of medicine and other fields and a reader from today would wonder at such a reference about cholera belts. Yet, in 1914, concerns about the health of the soldiers that were going to join and fight for the Empire was of concern and many news articles reference the acquisition, creation, and donation of cholera belts.
From where did such a garment come from? Obviously, such a garment would not find credence today but much theory, conjecture, and effort was placed by some societies to find preventatives to cholera and this history speaks to the ideas of “putrid and dangerous vapours” or gases that carried disease. Even the change of temperature from the early morning to daytime in the tropics was considered a possible cause of cholera. Even after the recognition by scientists after John Snow’s discovery that cholera was water-borne in 1854 “common sense” for a part of society still believed that a garment, such as the cholera belt, would act as a preventative.
“Lady Beck is donating 500 cholera belts to the 18th Battalion of the second contingent, in training at London, and the rest of the men will be provided for in the same respect by the local Red Cross Society.”
Different designs and constructions abounded and even the type of material of the belt’s construction mattered with flannel being the preferred cloth and red the preferred colour. The belts offered to the soldiers of the 18th Battalion by Lady Beck are of an unknown type and construction, but her donation of 500 belts to the Battalion was appreciated, though, from a scientific perspective, totally useless. At the same time, it should be remembered that her contributions and that of the Canadian Red Cross where, overall, relevant and useful to the soldiers who received them.
But the cholera belts, of themselves, eventually where seen as useless and in one history of the medical practices in the First World War related: “there was an unanimity of opinion that body bands did not contribute either to comfort, warmth, or health, and soldiers themselves disliked wearing these bands as they harboured vermin. Ultimately…their issue ceased.”[i]
The men of the 18th Battalion received these belts before they left for England and the Continent and it would be fascinating to know if the wearing of these belts was practices, and if so, for how long? They represent part of the efforts of the Red Cross and Canadian society to supply the necessary comforts of the soldiers and offer a glimpse into the medical concerns of society and the tools they thought would mitigate the threat of a disease, cholera.