How Medical Conditions Changed Warfare

Trenches were methods used during World War One to protect troops. One positive outcome of the trenches was the prevention of deaths caused by dangerous weapons. However, they didn’t prevent troops from contracting infectious diseases. Remaining within the trenches over long periods of time lead to an un-sanitized environment and unpleasant conditions such as trench foot, trench mouth and the influenza pandemic now known as the Spanish flu. Because of these conditions, trenches became obsolete and changed the outlook of how war should be fought.

“Trench foot is an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and insanitary conditions”. Non clean environments and wet conditions contributed to the cause of trench foot. Men stayed within trenches for days, weeks even months at times. These ditches held the troops left over waist, wet puddles, rats, lice and dead bodies that were buried right where they fell and eventually rose to the surface. It took less than a day of exposure for trench foot to develop. Because of reduced oxygen and nutrients of the feet symptoms began with swelling of the heels, toes or the entire foot causing them to get up to three times their normal size. Eventually the feet begin to turn a red or bluish color. “If allowed to progress, tissue and nerve damage occur. Swelling increases and a constant pins and needles sensation develops. In extreme cases, blisters and ulcers develop and skin starts to peel “. Throughout these manifestations, consequences such as gangrene, the death and decomposition of body tissue occur, leading to amputation of the feet. Prevention and treatment of trench foot included thoroughly cleaning and drying the feet. Using an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal dressing and air the feet regularly, re-warming the feet to improve circulation and Potassium Permanganate foot baths that help draw fluid out of the affected area. Soldiers only had 3 pairs of socks provided for them and were hard to be kept clean. About 20,000 cases of trench foot was recorded after world War 1.imageimage

“Trench mouth is a severe gum infection caused by buildup of bacteria in the mouth”. Men were not able to clean there teeth for days leading to the overgrowth of bacteria within the gums from un-sanitized canteens and exposure to bacteria within their food left by rats. Related to trench foot, exposure to multiple germs led to inflammation of the gums and painful ulcers which are open sores on external and internal surfaces of the body. “Symptoms included bleeding in response to irritation, pressurecrater-like ulcers in the mouth, fatigue, fever,  grayish film on the gums and red, swollen, or bleeding pain in them gums”. These conditions also caused swelling or blisters within the cheeks, tongue and loss of teeth which led to soldiers not being able eat food and eventually starving. Prevention and treatments of trench mouth included ” Good general health, Good nutrition, Good oral hygiene, including thorough tooth brushing and flossing and no smoking” which was hard to sustain during constant battles.image

The influenza virus is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs caused by a bacteria known as “Pfeiffer’s bacillus” . “Disperse of the flu was inhaling tiny droplets from coughs or sneezes of someone who has the flu. You can also catch the flu if you touch something with the virus on it, and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.” In this case, within trenches the influenza was very contagious because rats continued the transportation of the bacteria that caused the virus. “One pair of rats can produce 480 babies per year”. This clarifies that many rats who sheltered in the trenches contributed and carried the flu within their fur, nose and mouths, causing the flu to easily spread when they scavenged through the food and other items of the soldiers. Symptoms begin with extreme fatigue, fever, and headaches. Men died within hours or some times up to two days after results of “Foamy blood exited from their mouths and noses. A few bled from their ears. Some vomited”. During battles within the trenches, men fought side by side which also caused very high risk of catching the flu. The virus killed almost 20,000,000 in October of 1918 alone. “Before the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s, practitioners had only a limited ability to treat the disease. Moreover, even if antibiotics had been available in 1918 (they were not), a viral disease such as influenza could not have been treated by these drugs.” Prevention of the influenza was impossible since no vaccines had been produced. Even if, There was an estimate of 65 million men who were mobilized to fight in world war 1 therefor even if treatments had exist, they were very limited meaning the men would have had no luck.image

image Since poor conditions continued within the trenches, it was a struggle for soldiers to prevent trench foot and trench mouth because continuous cleansing was needed. It was also hard to keep from getting the influenza flu because precautions were unable to be retained and vaccines hadn’t occurred. The causes of these conditions continued within the trenches which made them become obsolete and changed the outlook of how war should be fought. Within world war 2, trenches were no longer in use and lower rates of trench foot, trench mouth and the influenza were recorded.

For more information on World War 1 Trench Warfare, review the link below


– J’Ayleen Figueroa

Websites cited:


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