By Morn, With Rain We Were Drenched

July 01, 2020 7:16 AM | Sarah Halter (Administrator)

by Mary Mauer

With the outbreak of COVID-19, we’re reminded now more than ever of the importance of good hygiene. Trench Warfare during the First World War is an excellent example of what can happen if hygiene is not well understood. Trenches were dug for numerous reasons-- to protect from heavy artillery, gas, and bullets, to name a few. But with trenches came unexpected consequences, one being trench foot. (Photo:  © IWM Q 10622 from the Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection of Imperial War Museums)

Trench foot, also known as “immersion foot,” is a condition brought on when feet are exposed to wet and cold conditions for long periods of time, although it can even manifest during warmer weather as high as 60 degrees if the feet are constantly wet. Humans loose heat in our wet feet 25 times faster than we do when they are dry. To prevent heat loss, the body inadvertently acts against us- constricting blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet. [i] If left like this long enough, the outcome can be disastrous. Symptoms include tingling and or itching, pain, swelling, cold and blotchy skin, numbness, and a heavy feeling in the foot. The feet may become red, dry, and painful when warmed. In severe cases, blisters will form and, if left untreated, the skin and other tissue can break down. [ii] This can lead to gangrene and can require amputation. [iii] Over the course of the war, it is predicted there were up to 2,000 American and 75,000 British casualties from the condition, alone.[iv]

Because of frequent rainfall in Europe, trenches would flood or flow with rivers of mud. Winters could become horrifically cold, and before preventative measures, soldiers’ feet and boots were persistently wet and cold. Filthy conditions in the trenches certainly didn’t help the matter. Below are personal recollections of life in trenches. As seen, the two primary factors that induced trench foot were frequently mentioned miseries for soldiers both in and outside the trenches.


The Man in the Trench

(Written after the great Battle of Ypres)

From here I watch you, through the driving sleet,

Under the evening sky,

Hurrying Home. [v]

James Bernard Fagan,

The Daily Telegram, Nov., 1914

 _____

 

Fight of the Last Battalion

All day long we pushed them back,

By night we’d their second line trench,
Then we “dug in,” and waited for him,

By morn, with rain we were drenched

Did you ever lay out in the cold all night,

When the frost just creeps through the air,

When death and misery stalks the night,

Like a giant bat of despair? [vi]

“Buck Private” McCollum

 ____


“Thank the powers it has stopped raining and we’ll be able to get dry. I came in plastered from head to foot while lying in the rain on my tummy and peering over the top of a trench.” [vii] Coningsby Dawson

                                 Letter to his mother, September 19, 1916

_____ 

“The winter of 1916-17 was notoriously a very, very cold winter. And for my part, I think I almost in my own mind then tasted the depths of misery really, what with the cold.” [viii]

Victor Fagence

_____ 

 

Once it became clear that trench foot was a serious ailment, doctors began to look for the cause and preventative measures. Prevention was simple. By keeping the feet warm, dry, and clean, trench foot could be avoided. Soldiers were given a spare set of socks in the trenches and, when circumstances permitted, instructed to dry and rub their feet, and put on dry socks. [ix] Soldiers were also provided with whale oil to coat their feet as a means of waterproofing them.[x] Additionally, feet were often inspected for signs of the condition. [xi] Attempts were also made to improve the trenches with the installation of Duckboards, as theoretically the raised edges on the boards would protect the men’s feet from standing water. [xii]

An unexpected and hard lesson was learned over the 4 years of the war; there are dire consequences to poor hygiene. Your life and the life of others around you can be saved by something as simple as pair of clean and dry socks, or hands that have been washed with soap for at least 20 seconds.


[i] “Cold Stress- Cold related Illnesses Types of Cold- related illnesses,” CDC and NIOSH, (updated: 6 June 2018), accessed 27 May 2020 https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/coldstress/coldrelatedillnesses.html

[ii] “Trench Foot or Immersion Foot. Disaster Recovery Fact Sheet” (last reviewed 8 September 2005), accessed 26 March 2020 https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/trenchfoot.html

[iii] Canadian War Museum. Canada and the First World War, Rats, Lice, and Exhaustion, (created 20, June 2008. Last Updated 16, October, 2018), accessed 27 May 2020 https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/life-at-the-front/trench-conditions/rats-lice-and-exhaustion/

[iv] RL Atenstaedt, 2006. “Trench foot: the medical response in the first World War 1914-1918”, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine Journal. Volune 17, Issue 4, Pages 282-289, 2006. I used page 282 https://www.wemjournal.org/article/S1080-6032(06)70334-9/pdf

[v] Carrie Ellen Holman (selected by). In the Day of the Battle. Poems of the Great War (Toronto: Anness Publishing, 1918) p. 42

[vi] L.C. McCollum History and Rhymes of the Lost Battalion (1922) p. 48, p.51

[vii] Coningsby Dawson. Carry On (New York: John Lane Company, 1917) p. 48

[viii] Imperial War Museum. Voices of the First World War: Winter 1916, (created 5 June 2018), accessed 26 May 2020 https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-winter-1916

[ix] Library and Archives Canada, RG9 111-B-2, vol. 3615, file 25/7/1-25/7/6: Name of file. General Routine Order Regarding the Prevention of Chilled Feet in Soldiers, October 11, 1915 http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e001/e000000266.jpg

https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/canada-first-world-war/Pages/felix-cullen.aspx?wbdisable=true

[x] Imperial War Museum, Why Whales Were Vital in the First World War, (crated 14 June 2018), accessed 26 May 2020, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/why-whales-were-vital-in-the-first-world-war

[xi] Amanda Mason, Imperial War Museum, How to Keep Clean and Healthy in the Trenches, (created 11 January 2018), accessed 27 May 2020 https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-to-keep-clean-and-healthy-in-the-trenches#entry5

[xii] Imperial War Museum, Our collections: Duckboard, British, First World War, accessed 26 May 2020    https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30028121

 


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