My doctoral dissertation, On the Home Front: Food, Medicine, and Diseases in World War I Egypt is a social history of the Egyptian civilian home front that focuses on issues relating to hunger and illness.
Between 1914 and 1918, there were over four times as many deaths in Egypt from infectious diseases as there were from military actions. The war years are an anomaly in the otherwise stable mortality rates from disease between 1910 and 1925.
The situation was exacerbated by shortages in food, high inflation in the cost of basic staples, and the effects of recruitment of civilian labor for the war effort, which included a decline in the number of laborers available for agricultural work and a breakdown in the transportation systems needed to bring food from farm to market.
I argue that the cumulative effects of these health crises should be considered among the triggering factors for the uprising of 1919, especially in rural areas and among the urban poor.
I presented a truncated version of some of my initial findings at Pembroke College, Oxford, in February, 2018. My remarks can be read here.
On November 5, 1914, John Maxwell, commander of British forces in Egypt, announced that Britain had formally declared war on the Ottoman Empire. In reassuring the people of Egypt that the war was, in his words, a wholly British initiative, he declared that the war would not affect the Egyptian population.
“Great Britain takes upon herself the solemn burden of the present war without calling upon the Egyptian people for aid.”
Gen. John Grenfeld Maxwell, November 5, 1914
In the spring of 1919, six months following the formal surrender of the Ottoman Empire and the supposed cessation of hostilities, a massive uprising broke out in Egypt. Having been charged with heading a commission to investigate the reasons for the uprising, Lord Milner commented in his report that there were
“unfortunate incidences [during the period of the war which] shook for a time their [Egyptians’] confidence in our justice and good will, and were pre-disposing causes of the savage outbreak of anti-British feeling in the spring of 1919.”
My dissertation focuses on the intervening years. As a report issued by the Ministry of the Interior in 1919 observed, during the war nearly every aspect of public life in Egypt became regulated by the military administration.
Despite Egypt’s importance to Britain’s war effort, and the undeniable—if frequently unstated—fact that Egypt was a country at war between December 1914 and the surrender of the Ottoman Empire in October 1918, there are few histories—and virtually no social histories—that examine life in wartime Egypt.
The Epidemiological Landscape
Serious outbreaks of disease, both epidemic and epizootic, spread throughout Egypt during the war and had deleterious effects on the local population, most notably in the densely populated Nile Delta. The most serious outbreak occurred during a six-week period between October and December 1918, when 139,000 Egyptians perished in the worldwide pandemic of influenza commonly known as the “Spanish flu,” which was all but ignored in the press, still under wartime censorship.
I have undertaken a mapping project to show the villages quarantined due to outbreaks of typhus, smallpox, and bubonic plague during the war, using data compiled from the official Egyptian government journal al-Waqᵓiᶜ al-Maṣriyya.
By cross-referencing the outbreak data with the Egyptian Census of 1917, I use demographic data to show that the use of quarantines as a method of controlling the spread of disease – which had already been tried and recognized as ineffective as early as 1883 – was primarily used in towns and villages that were small (under 2,000 residents), poor, rural, mostly illiterate, and, therefore, considered not critical to the war effort; while direct medical intervention by trained personnel to treat the sick was a measure reserved for larger cities and towns that lay along key supply lines.
I have also discovered a two-year epizootic of cattle plague in numerous provinces that, along with the locust infestation of 1915 and repeated crop blights, which is almost certainly a key cause of the scarcity of basic commodities such as milk, meat, eggs, wheat, and cheese, as well as the meteoric rise in their cost over the course of the war.
Through the Egyptian press, I have documented numerous public protests over the soaring prices and the government’s insistence on continuing to export basic commodities for profit even as the nation’s population went without.
Urban crises in medical and social health
I also examine the regulation of social and moral health in Egypt, which was also under the responsibilities handed to the Department of Health. This was most widely enforced through the regulation of drinking establishments and prostitution in Egypt’s cities.
During the period of the British occupation, prostitution was legalized and well regulated by the Department of Public Health. Due to the influx of British troops during the war, the number of licensed prostitutes soared and special measures were taken to discover and treat both licensed and unlicensed prostitutes and, by late 1915, specific areas had been set off where licensed prostitutes could operate.
With one major exception (Cairo, which I discuss in a separate section), these red-light districts were all located in Egyptian quarters of major cities, away from neighborhoods where European administrators of the government and military were likely to live and to encounter them on a regular basis. In addition, this relocation made it more difficult for foreign troops to solicit the services of prostitutes and, when venereal disease infection rates became high among troops, to cordon off the red-light districts entirely for a period of time.
In fact, both of these perceived advantages were fallacies; as demonstrated by the establishment of so-called “secret houses” in residential neighborhoods, where poor women would engage in part time sex work, often in secret, to bring in a small pittance to support their families amidst the mass unemployment prevalent during the war.
These “secret brothels,” their operators and employees (of both sexes), and their clientele (both native and European) circumvented government and military regulations, and confounded civil, military, and religious leaders, driven by a desire for profit, but most of all out of desperation.
What factors led this parallel and well developed system of “secret” prostitution to arise? What were the implications of relegating legalized brothels and licensed sex workers (and their medical treatment) into native Egyptian quarters during the war? How did the inhabitants of these quarters feel about the presence of brothels and sex workers in the neighborhoods where they lived and worked?
In both colonial and press documentation, I have found that Egyptians used legal means to do so when and where possible – I examine here the complaints and methods of protest. And what were the tensions with colonial and military administrators that resulted?
As historian Khaled Fahmy has shown in his work, most of the Egyptian population perceived the existence of the Egyptian nation as a negative force since the rise to power of Muhammad Ali Pasha in the early 19th century. For the poor and rural, the state bore associations with physical violence via tax collection and mandatory conscription into forced labor corvées and the armed forces (both of which made reappearances during World War I).
Like other historians, I find it highly unlikely that rural workers from the fields who had spent the previous five years starving and dying of disease as the bulk of rations and health care were given to the troops and government officials would have suddenly rallied around the nationalist cause.
As Fahmy and others have argued, it seems more likely that years of rampant unemployment, the surge in the price of commodities, housing shortages, and the establishment of the Egyptian Labor Corps instead served as triggers for rural participation in the rioting. I argue that the pressures of years of disease and starvation should be considered among them.
Far from being a moment enshrined in nationalist history, the strikes and riots were a chance to vent simmering anger and resentment that had been building for the duration of the war.