Trench warfare, but not as we know it…

War may come and go, but its aftermath can linger for a lifetime – or more, to judge by a recent newspaper article.

According to reports, a fungus that was found growing in the grounds of the former Craiglockhart War Hospital (which is now part of Edinburgh Napier University, in Scotland) is thought to have been brought there on the boots of First World War soldiers, who were being treated for shell shock.

Ecologist Abbie Patterson found the fungus, Clavulinopsis cinereoide (which is common in mainland Europe but rare to that part of Britain), on a lawn at the university while carrying out a biodiversity audit of the campus. When looking at old photographs taken during World War One, he noticed that soldiers and nurses were standing in the exact spot where the fungus was found.

That little nugget of information got me thinking of what other ‘souvenirs’ World War 1 soldiers might have brought back from the trenches. The list makes for quite depressing reading…

A flooded trench during World War One

A flooded trench during World War One

One of the most common and debilitating conditions suffered by soldiers was that of ‘Trench Foot’. Due to poorly constructed trench systems (particularly in the early phase of the war), British troops were required to spend long hours in the cold with their feet submerged in mud and water.

Such conditions led to soldiers’ feet becoming waterlogged. Circulation was restricted and feet became extremely painful, causing them to swell and blister. Nerves were damaged and numbness set in. Over time, skin became infected with fungus. If the feet were not dried and circulation re-established, gangrene would set in.

On the Western Front alone in the first winter of 1914/15 over 20,000 men suffered from the condition.

feet inspectionMeasures were taken to halt the occurrence – feet were regularly inspected (see picture) and fresh socks issued so they could be changed several times a day.

The troops operated a buddy system whereby they would rub whale oil into each other’s feet to stimulate circulation and waterproof the skin. Better trench drainage and the issuing of gum-boots also alleviated the problem.

A severe case of 'Trench Foot'

A severe case of ‘Trench Foot’

Nevertheless, by the war’s end 74,000 British servicemen fell victim to ‘Trench Foot’. That figure is, no doubt, an underestimation as neglect of the feet was a chargeable offence in many units, thus suggesting that other cases went unrecorded.

As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, body lice – or chats as the soldiers called them – also presented a terrible problem.  The lice nestled in the crevices of uniforms and would only emerge to feed.

Soldiers scratched lice bites, forcing the infected faeces of the louse into the lesions caused by the bites… and that’s when the problems really began.

A soldier might not show any sign of infection for up to a month, at which point he would suffer severe headaches and debilitating muscle pains. This ‘Trench Fever’ could last for five days before subsiding, but could then reoccur at a later date.

The condition commonly led to depression. Up to 80pc of sufferers remained unfit for duty for up to three months.

To counter the lice, men would run a flame along the seams of their uniforms in a bid to kill their unwelcome guests.

Disinfecting baths were also set up in the rear lines where men could take a quick wash while their uniforms were de-loused, but the lice always returned.

An incredible 800,000 cases of ‘Trench Fever’ were recorded in the British Army alone during the war. Its effect on the other armies in the theatre must have been equally devastating.

Acute Necrotizing Ulcerative Gingivitis or ‘Trench Mouth’ was another common ailment. Poor hygiene, stress bad diet and heavy smoking caused a huge increase in oral bacteria, which would attack the gums, causing bleeding, ulceration and – probably the least of a soldier’s worries – bad breath.

Pain was such that eating, swallowing and talking were difficult. Often, painful swellings in the glands in the throat and neck occurred.

The only cure was a return to a decent diet, plenty of rest and good hygiene – in short, all the things unavailable to a front-line soldier.

When we think of war our minds, inevitably, turn to its noisy carnage – the thunderous explosions, the rattle of machine guns and the screams of wounded men.

However, we should also bear in mind the silent, hidden enemies – the ones that never ceased in their attacks and which, in their own way, caused as much havoc as the hot lead and cold steel of the battlefield.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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19 Responses to Trench warfare, but not as we know it…

  1. A twist as always, David. Truly horrible what those men endured every day. The lice alone would have driven me nuts!


  2. Louis says:

    David, I have to assume several of these men also brought home the original war souvenir, an STD. They have apparently been with soldiers since the dawn of warfare. World War I added new horrors to the old ones.


  3. John L. Monk says:

    So glad I found this blog.

    Today’s winning snippet of awesome: “…neglect of the feet was a chargeable offence “


  4. Carol Ervin says:

    Enlightening, David, thanks for posting.


  5. Glynis Smy says:

    They certainly suffered. So many horrors they had to deal with! I hate having sore feet, so would never have coped!


  6. rhchatlien says:

    WWI was such a tragic waste on so many levels.


  7. P. C. Zick says:

    Horrible effects of war. Wasn’t it this war that began the regular circumcision among gentiles because of the infections caused from unsanitary conditions?


  8. graham64 says:

    The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920 which killed between 50 and 100 million people, was carried around the world by soldiers returning from World War 1.


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