Maritime Medicine and the Battle of Gravelines, 8 August 1588

This week marks the Battle of Gravelines, in which English naval forces defeated the Spanish Armada and saved Protestant England from invasion by the forces of the Catholic King of Spain.

For about 15 years, from 1572, English privateers, with quiet support from Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, had been harassing and capturing Spanish merchantmen and gold fleets, and raiding Spanish ports, especially in South America and the Spanish Indies. Irate at these depredations, Philip II who viewed himself as the protector of Catholicism, was eager to invade England, depose the Protestant Queen and punish the English people. For this purpose, he created the largest invasion fleet heretofore seen.

Faced with this threat, the English reinforced the Queen’s rather minimal fleet of 25 ships with armed merchantmen. Having learned lessons from their commerce-raiding days, the English admirals had developed a stand-off strategy—using long-range gunnery to maim the enemy’s men and damage or destroy his ships. The Spanish stuck with the “grapple, board and hand-to-hand” combat that they had used so successfully in another epochal sea battle, at Lepanto, against a massed Muslim fleet, just 17 years earlier.

As the Spanish fleet entered the English Channel, Elizabeth’s Admirals kept their distance, using their long range guns to harass and damage the enemy. It was when the Spaniards anchored at Calais to add about 6000 soldiers to the invasion army of 17,000 already embarked, that disease really became the silent enemy of both fleets. July and August were the warmest months of the year. Both fleets brought food in from far and wide, and except for salting, food preservation was unknown. Spoiled food and contaminated water led to a widespread and devastating epidemic of enteric illness. The desperation of the English commander, Lord Howard of Effingham, can be felt in his 13 July 1588 message to the Queen’s Principle Secretary, Lord Walsingham: “God of his mercy keep us from the sickness, for we fear that more than any hurt that the Spaniards will do… I would her Majesty did know of the care and pains that is taken here of all men for her service. We must now man ourselves again, for we have cast many overboard, and a number in great extremity which we discharged. I [have] sent with all expedition a prest for more men.”

Lacking today’s knowledge of disease cause and of sanitation, the surgeons and physicians of the day were powerless to fight the epidemic. Both British and Spanish fleets suffered catastrophic losses of manpower—the English losing more than 20% to disease in the month before battle was joined. In fact, it was on the urging of his admirals—who counseled early battle before disease rendered the fleet impotent–that Lord Effingham launched fireships into the Spanish fleet lying at Calais. The Spaniards were thereby forced–unprepared for battle–from their anchorage in the middle of the night. In the resulting melee, superior English long-range gunnery and shiphandling carried the day, and after the battle, weather, sickness and poor Spanish seamanship finished the job. Only about half of Philip’s Armada, and less than half the men he’d sent out, ultimately returned to Spain.

Historians don’t often detail the critical impact of sickness in war, but as Sir William Osler wrote in 1915 “Pestilence has always dogged the footsteps of war, and the saying is true–‘Disease, not battle, digs the [sailor’s] grave…’ The fates of campaigns have been decided by mosquitoes and flies.” Today we take for granted that we will provide our sailors with wholesome food, sanitary food preparation and healthful living conditions. But these were, in reality, late nineteenth and early twentieth century innovations, brought about, often over the objections of military leadership, by medical officers applying the advancing sciences of bacteriology, epidemiology and public health.

My sources for this article are Volume I of the magisterial “Medicine and the Navy–1200-1900”, begun in 1957 (Vols 1 & 2) by Surgeon Commander John J Keevil, RN, and completed–after Commander Keevil’s untimely death–in 1963 (Vols 3 & 4) by Professor Christopher Lloyd and Surgeon Captain Jack L S Coulter, RN; “Sea Power–A Naval History” edited by E B Potter; and Sir William Osler’s essay / speech “Science and War”, 1915.

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