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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Trench Foot on the front line.


Maxsparky

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What impact had Trench Foot on the strength of Battalions on the front line. Particularly if they were immersed in mud and water for 7 or more days before relief. Did this have a major effect on available manpower. Were there any records kept of amputations carried out due to Trench foot. How did this compare percentage wise to other causes of injury. I have read that whale oil was used as a preventative. Sounds like the cure was worse than the cause?

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Many soldiers fighting in the First World War suffered from trench foot. This was an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and insanitary conditions. In the trenches men stood for hours on end in waterlogged trenches without being able to remove wet socks or boots. The feet would gradually go numb and the skin would turn red or blue. If untreated, trench foot could turn gangrenous and result in amputation. Trench foot was a particular problem in the early stages of the war. For example, during the winter of 1914-15 over 20,000 men in the British Army were treated for trench foot.

The only remedy for trench foot was for the soldiers to dry their feet and change their socks several times a day. By the end of 1915 British soldiers in the trenches had to have three pairs of socks with them and were under orders to change their socks at least twice a day. As well as drying their feet, soldiers were told to cover their feet with a grease made from whale-oil. It has been estimated that a battalion at the front would use ten gallons of whale-oil every day.

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TRENCH FOOT - " A painful condition of the feet caused by prolonged immersion in cold water or mud, marked by swelling, blistering and some degree of necrosis,(the death of a piece of bone or tissue).

Regards Cliff.

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Trench foot is not a WW1 phenomena having been recorded in wars and theatres as a as diverse as the Crimea, Tibet (Hounghusbands expeditionary force) and the Falklands (where about 14% of casualties were from this cause). It has even been recorded in some numbers (several hundred) at some Glastonbury festivals! In WW1 the French seem to have suffered from it even more than the British and research carried out by some of their medical officers suggested a micro bacterial origin however this was not accepted by most authorities post war. It seems to have been worst in the early years of the war and became less (but was not eliminated) as the war went on as foot care became much more institutionalised within the British Army (it eventually became an offence to have trench foot as this indicated that you had neglected your feet). It would seem that amputation of toes (not always all toes) was not uncommon but loss of whole feet was comparatively rare. I have seen nothing on its existence in the German army but I would be surprised if they did not have it as well.

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Within 3 weeks of being in the front line, The 1st Sherwood Foresters had 70 in hospital with trench foot. A number of men also suffered from frostbite during the winter of 1914 with several losing both feet.

SM

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2nd RWF took the view that trench foot was a function not only of the conditions, but neglect of themselves by the men AND NEGLECT OF DUTY BY THE JUNIOR OFFICERS AND NCOs.

They made strenuous efforts [not always successful] to get men into dry socks and boots on every relief from manning the front trenches.

" .......... prevention depends on the internal economy and discipline of the unit". They had only one case in the severe winter of 1914.

See TWTIK, Dunn, December 1914. Dunn knew what he was talking about, as a very experienced Doctor and ex-trooper DCM.

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Grumpy and Co, Wasn't the process formlised as a "FFI" where the Pl comd, Sect Comd's and Coy medic, inspected the feet of all soldiers everyday. For the life of me I cannot recall what the acronym FFI means, but it was looking for tinea, immersion damage, frostbite and so on.

Cheers,

Hendo

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By 1918, as I said earlier, you could be charged for having TF. I gather that sufferers by this date were treated with efficiency but not much TLC. One gets impression that they were up from SIWs (but not by too much) and below STDs.

To be fair by this date trench construction was in general much improved, changes of footwear (socks) and things like talc were usually readily available and trench or gum boots were being issued when necessary. The use of the word infection may reflect the French theory that TF had a germ base to it.

I did read somewhere that some old soldiers (with experience with pre WW1 campaigns) eschewed socks and filled their boots with grease (lard) into which they inserted their bare feet, not removing the boots for weeks. This seems to have worked but cannot have done much for their social life.

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From at least the end of 1916 one sees constant reference in operation orders to the need to apply whale oil to the feet of all men going up in cold weather in wet sectors. Supplies of whale oil were available for issue. As an example of the scale of the problem at the beginning of 1917, the Deputy Director Medical Services of the Canadian Corps reported 83 cases of trench foot in April 1917, where there had been 7 in March, 12 in February and 30 in January. April was the month of the big operations.

I suspect that units had started getting a handle on the problem by this time. Incidentally, the 4th Canadian Division seemed to have had more cases than the other divisions, leading one to suspect that their regimental officers were not as picky about this issue as were their opposite numbers elsewhere.

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This reminds me of an old Sergeant from the Korean War lecturing us on the need to carry clean dry socks. When we asked him how many pairs to take, he told us, "as many as you can jam in where more ammunition won't fit."

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During the winter of 1944-45 approximately 45,000 G.I.s were pulled out of the line in Northwestern Europe due to trench foot. That was the equivalent of three infantry divisions.

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