The eager thousands who signed up for war in August 1914 never had an inkling of the horrors in store for them. Many young men died on their first day in the trenches from a precisely aimed sniper’s bullet. Trench warfare is a term inextricably linked to the Great War.
Transcribed medical records have revealed how British soldiers fighting in the trenches during the Great War not only had to deal with shells and bullets, but also fever, rheumatism, piles and wasp stings. Scrutiny of records of 30,000 men treated in field hospitals has revealed a long and grisly list of common medical complaints.
The wet, cold and squalid conditions in the trenches brought about immense discomfort and suffering to the soldiers. A simple cut on the finger from cleaning guns or digging a trench could quickly become infected and develop into pneumonia. The men were knee deep in mud nine out of 12 months of the year in close proximity to bacteria from the bodies of men and animals. The soldiers were easy prey to illnesses because their bodies were weak from lack of sleep and a poor diet.
Rats infested trenches in millions. A variety of brown rat was especially feared, they would gorge on human remains and grotesquely disfigure them by eating their eyes and liver. These rats could grow to the size of a cat. Attempts to exterminate them proved futile, a single rat couple could produce up to 900 offspring a year, spreading infection and contaminating food.
Poisonous gas was used for the first time in the Great War. Although some gases caused only minor irritations like a running nose and watering eyes many others were far more deadly. In fact, when gas was first used doctors and nurses were in the dark about how to deal with even the simple symptoms.
Protective masks were handed to all soldiers since it took only a few minutes to affect the sight and breath of soldiers. Some fumes stayed on clothes causing blisters and sores. Bathing and washing could have provided some relief but this was impossible for the soldiers who had to spend days on end in the trenches. Many soldiers suffered from the effects of exposure to gas for the rest of their lives.
Many soldiers suffered from a condition called ‘Trench foot’ which was caused by standing in water and mud for long durations, which led to loss of blood circulation.
In many terrible cases, soldiers’ socks started to grow on to their feet and that led to gangrene in severe cases. In such situations, soldiers had to have their feet or legs amputated.
Many medical cases featured pyrexia or Trench fever that was spread by the lice that infested nearly all the soldiers. This unpleasant disease caused by body lice easily passed between soldiers. Symptoms were high fever, headaches, aching muscles and sores on the skin. It was a painful affliction and patients took nearly 12 weeks to recover.
Close proximity of the soldiers to each other for days and nights caused some soldiers to be struck more than once by Trench fever.
Shell shock was another illness introduced to soldiers by the Great War. This mental trauma was caused by the constant noise of explosions and guns along with the smell and danger of the trenches. Shell shock led to many soldiers acting strangely. Many soldiers found life on the frontline unbearable and were unable to follow commands and duties properly.
In those days there was minimal awareness of the effects of mental trauma and many officers and doctors did not understand the illness and thought the soldiers were weak. Although some were sent to hospitals to recover there were many unfortunate ones who had to carry on fighting.