Although World War 1 was the first major conflict in which battlefield casualties exceeded those caused by sickness and disease, even the most common ailments could be debilitating in trench conditions.
The military genealogy website Forces War Records, which has digitised 30,000 previously unseen medical records for British troops in WW1, has revealed some of the nastier complaints, including: haemorrhoids, rheumatism and sexually transmitted diseases.
Piles were a constant problem, possibly brought on by bad diet, poor hygiene and prolonged periods of sitting in uncomfortable conditions in the trenches. Rheumatism and arthritis, particularly in knees and ankle joints were common complaints due to the unnatural posture that many had to adopt in front line trenches to avoid enemy fire, and probably by the weight of equipment they had to lug with them ‘over the top’. And when they were behind the lines, seeking home comforts in the local brothels, STDs became rife.
The 30,000 records, which come from Royal Army Medical Corps archives, will be available online tomorrow and comprise the first tranche of an archive of 1.5 million records that will be transcribed over the next two years.
Dominic Hayhoe, chief executive of Forces War Records, said:
“For those killed in battle, names can generally be found in rolls of honour, war diaries or names on a cenotaph. However, for personnel who were injured and survived, military information tends to be very scarce. An entry in a medical register might be the only record of their WW1 service. They can show who was treated, for what and their movements after being patched up or taken to hospital. Wet, cold, squalid conditions of trench warfare brought with it untold discomfort and suffering. From conditions such as gunshot wounds, trench foot and mustard gas poisoning to tonsillitis, Spanish flu and even in-growing toenails, few men escaped unscathed. These records are priceless pieces of information for families looking up their ancestor’s past. Unless they had been killed, many went through the war largely undocumented. A soldier who was killed or badly injured in action would often make the news back home but one suffering from haemorrhoids would not, understandably.’
Forces War Records has also published an accompanying e-book called Trench Traumas and Medical Miracles that contains a top 20 list of the most common complaints among the men:
- Pyrexia of unknown origin (8.7 per cent)
- Inflammation of connective tissue (7.9 per cent)
- Trench foot (6.8 per cent)
- Influenza (6.6 per cent)
- Scabies (6.1 per cent)
- Shrapnel (4.9 per cent)
- Gun shot (4.7 per cent)
- Mustard and chlorine gas poisoning (3.98 per cent)
- Diarrhoea (3.0 per cent)
- Rheumatism (2.6 per cent)
- Shell shock (2.3 per cent)
- Gonorrhoea (2.2 per cent)
- Lung infection (2.1 per cent)
- Syphilis (2.0 per cent)
- Fractured femur (1.9 per cent)
- Urinary tract infection (1.8 per cent)
- Lice (1.8 per cent though most men are thought to have had them)
- Other STDs (1.6 per cent)
- Gangrene (1.3 per cent)
- Wasp stings (1 per cent)
Ceri Gage, curator of collections at the Army Medical Services Museum in Aldershot, Hants, said:
“The top 20 list is the most accurate breakdown of ailments soldiers suffered in the trenches. Infections presented the biggest problem. A simple cut to a finger from cleaning your gun or digging a trench could quite quickly become infected and develop into pneumonia. The men were knee deep in mud 9 out of 12 months of the year surrounded by bacteria from the bodies of men and animals in No Man’s Land. Their bodies were weaker anyway from a lack of sleep, wet and dirty clothes and a restricted diet in which a piece of fruit or vegetable was a treat.”
Source: Daily Mail