Back in billets the very first thing that comes off is the big clean-up. Uniforms are brushed up, and equipment put in order. Then comes the bath, the most thorough possible under the conditions. After that comes the “cootie carnival”, better known as the “shirt hunt.” The cootie is the soldier’s worst enemy. He’s worse than the Hun. You can’t get rid of him wherever you are, in the trenches or in billets, and he sticks closer than a brother. The cootie is a good deal of an acrobat. His policy of attack is to hang on to the shirt and to nibble at the occupant. Pull off the shirt and he comes with it. Hence the shirt hunt. Tommy gets out in the open somewhere so as not to shed his little companions indoors—there’s always enough there anyhow—and he peels. Then he systematically runs down each seam—the cootie’s favorite hiding place—catches the game, and ends his career by cracking him between the thumb nails.
For some obscure psychological reason, Tommy seems to like company on one of these hunts. Perhaps it is because misery loves company, or it may be that he likes to compare notes on the catch. Anyhow, it is a common thing to see from a dozen to twenty soldiers with their shirts off, hunting cooties.
“Hi sye, ’Arry,” you’ll hear some one sing out. “Look ’ere. Strike me bloomin’ well pink but this one ’ere’s got a black stripe along ’is back.”
Or, “If this don’t look like the one I showed ye ’fore we went into the blinkin’ line. ’Ow’d ’e git loose?”
And then, as likely as not, a little farther away, behind the officers’ quarters, you’ll hear one say:
“I say, old chap, it’s deucedly peculiar I should have so many of the beastly things after putting on the Harrisons mothaw sent in the lawst parcel.”
The cootie isn’t at all fastidious. He will bite the British aristocrat as soon as anybody else. He finds his way into all branches of the service, and I have even seen a dignified colonel wiggle his shoulders anxiously.
Some of the cootie stories have become classical, like this one which was told from the North Sea to the Swiss border. It might have happened at that.
A soldier was going over the top when one of his cootie friends bit him on the calf. The soldier reached down and captured the biter. Just as he stooped, a shell whizzed over where his head would have been if he had not gone after the cootie. Holding the captive between thumb and finger, he said:
“Old feller, I cawn’t give yer the Victoria Cross—but I can put yer back.”
And he did.
The worst thing about the cootie is that there is no remedy for him. The shirt hunt is the only effective way for the soldier to get rid of his bosom friends. The various dopes and patent preparations guaranteed as “good for cooties” are just that. They give ’em an appetite.