Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Famine and illness in War and Peace

The Pavlograd regiment had lost only two men wounded in action, but famine and sickness had reduced their numbers by almost half. In the hospitals death was so certain that soldiers suffering from fever, or the swelling caused by bad food, preferred to remain on duty, dragging their feeble legs to the front, rather than go to the hospitals. With the coming of spring the soldiers found a plant just showing above ground that looked like asparagus, which for some reason they called “Molly’s sweet-wort,” and they wandered about the fields and meadows hunting for this “Molly’s sweet-wort” (which was very bitter), digging it up with their sabres and eating it, in spite of every injunction not to touch this noxious root. That spring a new disease broke out among the men, a swelling of the arms, legs, and face, which the doctors attributed to this plant. But, orders notwithstanding, the soldiers fed chiefly on “Molly’s sweet-wort,” because this was the second week of eking out the last of the biscuits—half- pound reactions being doled out to each man—and the last consignments of potatoes were frozen and sprouting.

The horses, too, had subsided for a fortnight on straw from the thatched roofs; they had become shockingly thin, and their winter coats still hung about them in tufts.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace


French retreat from Russia in 1812. Painting by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov, 1874. Saratov State University. Via Wikimedia. No known restrictions on publication.



Fall 2022 |  Sections  |  Literary Vignettes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.