We don’t often picture burly soldiers crouching over with painful diarrhea, but the reality is that a massive number of them are—both right now and for centuries past. It was only in World War I that battlefield deaths exceeded those caused by disease, and far more of those than you might think are from diarrhea. Even today, Navy SEALS have attested that diarrhea is a common and serious hazard.
If this surprises you, try thinking of soldiers as travelers, and thinking of travelers as people who are suddenly exposed to new bacteria and pathogens they’re unfamiliar with. Soldiers get the runs for mostly the same reasons that other globetrotters do, just at higher rates since they tend to be visiting places with poor sanitary infrastructure.
This holds as true today as it was in World War II (albeit with better drugs in 2019)—and the Nazis were no exception.
Dysentery was a major inconvenience at best and a killer at worst, especially in North Africa, except for the local Bedouin fighters who never seemed to be ill for long. Their secret? Camel poop.
By Sara Chodosh