Desert weariness: learning to live in North Africa

All the soldiers had really come to the desert to kill each other, but they spent most of their time learning to live there, in what the Eighth Army called ‘up the blue’.

In the summer, which lasted from May until October, daytime temperatures ranged from 20-60C. It was often 40C in the shade. In other seasons, it soon got very cold after the sun set. It was desperately dark and very easy to get lost during moonless nights.

Sand and grit got into everything. Dust storms would leave men with red-rimmed eyes and brown knees.

There was precious little water- meaning that the foul, chlorinated liquid was drunk sparingly and used even less for washing. The tinned food rations were unpalatable and were the same, day after day.

The desert was filled with millions and millions of flies. The came in vast swarms, like a punishment from God. They settled on the faces, clinging around the eyes and mouth. Food had to be consumed under cover and tea drunk with a protective hand over the cup in between sips. Together with the action of the sand, they turned even the smallest lesion into a ‘desert sore’ which would not heal.

But, after awhile, getting used to everything was the greatest problem. In the featureless landscape, some found the monotony, what one man has called ‘the unbroken succession of empty, ugly and insipid days’, the hardest thing to bear and resulted in a form of depression known as ‘desert weariness’. The desert induced a mental torpor which if unchecked became total apathy and morale and fighting efficiency declined. (Bungay 74).

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