In reading about the horrific Battle of Passchendaele during World War One, I came across an anecdotal account of a British officer sheltering in a shell hole in a rain storm. The narrator claims that this officer had no wounds, and had fallen asleep on the wall of the crater while the muddy water it contained was only a foot deep. The next morning, when the narrator awoke, the officer was still not physically wounded, but the muddy liquid had risen considerably overnight, covering the officer's face and drowning him in his sleep.

I have a hard time believing that an uninjured, healthy person with no neurological or physiological problems would be able to sleep through something like this. I'm sure many of you have experienced the acute physical discomfort and emotionally jarring panic of unintentionally inhaling water - failing to notice the sensations would be virtually impossible. If healthy people could sleep through drowning, the form of torture known as "waterboarding" would presumably be unremarkable rather than horrific.

And I know from experience that if you cover your big brother's mouth and nose while he's asleep, he wakes up very quickly (and punches you repeatedly).

Is the idea of a healthy person with no relevant medical issues sleeping through their own drowning plausible? Wouldn't your brain react in such a way as to wake you up so you could save yourself?

1 Answer 1


No, that's not even a little bit plausible unless something else caused seizures or altered mental status that would deaden the normal airway protection reflexes. As you observed, inhaling water would cause an immediate and violent reaction even in someone who's sound asleep.

For example, intoxicants, unrecognized injury, or hypothermia could explain it. In the story you mentioned, hypothermia would get my vote. Falling asleep with your body partially submerged in cold water could do that, and a soldier exhausted from days without sleep might be a ready victim.


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