Repository: Museo Arqueológico Regional de la Comunidad de Madrid, Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Fond or Collection
Alfredo González-Ruibal, International Brigades Archaeology Project (IBAP), 2014
Repository and Location
Museo Arqueológico de Zaragoza, Zaragoza (Spain)
Date Created: 1937 to 1938
Extent: 1 item
Geographic Region: Mediana de Aragón, Spain
This kit for personal hygiene, consisting of a comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, was found in a Republican shelter—what the soldiers called chabola, “shack”— in Mediana de Aragón (Zaragoza). Personal cleanliness was one of the great obsessions of frontline soldiers. It was very difficult to remain clean in the trenches: it was impossible to take a shower, clean water was almost always scarce, and there was no adequate place for washing. The lack of hygiene was an added punishment to life in the trenches: to the terrible bodily smell we have to add the constant biting of fleas and lice, which were a nightmare for the soldiers. There is no veteran’s testimony that does not mention parasites, which were both cumbersome and a source of disease, like typhus and scabies. Soldiers on both sides took every step to keep clean and these efforts can be seen in the trenches, where we often find bottles of cologne, combs, toothbrushes, shaving basins, mirrors and lice combs. Alvah Bessie, an American member of the International Brigades, talks about the young Republican recruits, always equipped with “smelly soap”, talcum powder and “the unavoidable bottles of cologne, without which the Spanish soldier, even in the frontline, feels incapable of facing the enemy”. The obsession with cleanliness was not only a matter of hygiene and health, it was also a matter of psychological integrity. Cleanliness and the care of the body are crucial in the maintenance of the self, the more so in extreme situations, such as war or a concentration camp.
In the case of Mediana de Aragón where the toilet objects were found, the fortifications were in an inhospitable area that was extremely dry and far from inhabited places. Living in caves hewn out of the gypsum cliffs, soldiers spent the day covered in dust. The chances of cleaning in this region without rivers or springs were very limited. In addition to the objects shown in the photograph, shards of a mirror and a shaving basin were also found. The structure where they appeared, which was the largest in the sector, probably belonged to officers or non-commissioned officers. As the World Wars did elsewhere, the Civil War did much to popularize hygienic practices among the lower classes.