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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Diseases Commonly Found in the Trenches


Bingo794

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I have just found the service records for a relative of a friend. He was invalided out due to nephritis caused by the climate during the winter of 1915-16 in France. I would be interested to know if this is one of the common diseases of the trenches

I am researching the men of Wheldrake in Yorkshire who saw action between 1914 and 1918. One of them who sae action in France was discharged due to recurring nephritis. There may be a whole raft of cases out there

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I think that many cases of malaria must have been recurrences in men who had cought it elsewhere. The diary of an unknown nursing sister records a case in December 1914 on an ambulance train in Northern France. Don't get many mossies around there and then. An article by the WFA also provides another possible explanation.

"The diagnosis of the disease [typhoid] was often confused with tuberculosis and/or malaria. Also for many years' typhoid and malaria were erroneously thought by some military physicians to be part of the same disease pattern ? a sort of composite disease."

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I think that many cases of malaria must have been recurrences in men who had cought it elsewhere. The diary of an unknown nursing sister records a case in December 1914 on an ambulance train in Northern France. Don't get many mossies around there and then. An article by the WFA also provides another possible explanation.

"The diagnosis of the disease [typhoid] was often confused with tuberculosis and/or malaria. Also for many years' typhoid and malaria were erroneously thought by some military physicians to be part of the same disease pattern ? a sort of composite disease."

May I recommend

Leo van Bergen, Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-1918. (Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2009)

Very good, very readable book.

Parts of it you can find here:

http://books.google.nl/books?id=qR-mzZkvaM...;q=&f=false

Regards,

Yvonne

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I guess this is a testament to the human immune system but I am always surprised that, given the exceedingly filthy if not toxic conditions in which men had to live, sleep, eat, drink day to day the rate of casualties caused by bacterial infections was not considerably higher.

It was also a testament to the work of the Royal Engineers, pioneers and medical services.

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Thanks, p.a.p.m.p.t,

Good point that

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I've heard it said, and read, (but so long ago I can't remeber in which books) that WWI was the first major war that the UK (and constituant nations) engaged in where there were more casualties from enemy action than from disease. The RE get liitle acknowledgement for their contribution in keeping the relative number of casualties so low.

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I've heard it said, and read, (but so long ago I can't remeber in which books) that WWI was the first major war that the UK (and constituant nations) engaged in where there were more casualties from enemy action than from disease. The RE get liitle acknowledgement for their contribution in keeping the relative number of casualties so low.

On the Western Front, the British Empire suffered a loss of 709,000 deaths from all causes. Of these, 95.5% were from enemy action, being killed in action or dying from wounds. The death rate from disease was astonishingly low, although it should be noted that several million men were sent to hospitals suffering from various ailments. About 87.5% of all France's military dead were from enemy action : likewise, for the Germans, battle deaths accounted for about 90% of all fatalities in their army.

The trenches in France and Flanders, for all their squalor, were havens of health compared with battlefields of former conflicts. Unfortunately for the soldiers, this was more than countered by the exponential growth in the lethality of the fighting !

Phil

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It was also a testament to the work of the Royal Engineers, pioneers and medical services.

The trenches in France and Flanders, for all their squalor, were havens of health compared with battlefields of former conflicts. Unfortunately for the soldiers, this was more than countered by the exponential growth in the lethality of the fighting !

There is a lot of truth in this but it is anything but the whole truth. Yes, doctors (and nurses!) could do more for the sick and wounded than ever before, because of farely recent knowledge of hygiene and bacteria. WWI was indeed the first major war in which more men died from battlefield wounds than from disease. Nevertheless more men than ever before died of sickness (so much and much more men than ever before died of wounds). The more men dying from wounds, the easier it is to keep the sickness rate below that number. Doctors did their best but healing was 'making men fit for battle' and sick was a diagnosis meaning 'no right to a war pension'. Sick was: sick or wounded not as a result of battle, and wounded was 'wounded or sick as a result of battle'. It is obvious especially the psychiatric wounded became the victim of this. I fear the ugly truth is that in average the doctors looked more at military necessity than at medically and humanitarily necessity. Medicine did not so much help the sick and wounded, medicine above all helped the war.

Leo van Bergen

medical historian

author of: Before my Helpless Sight. Suffering, dying and military medicine on the Western front (Ashgate Publishing 2009)

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Nevertheless more men than ever before died of sickness (so much and much more men than ever before died of wounds).

Leo van Bergen

medical historian

author of: Before my Helpless Sight. Suffering, dying and military medicine on the Western front (Ashgate Publishing 2009)

Your statement suprises me, Sir. Considering the size of the armies and the duration of the conflict , the numbers of disease deaths ( on the Western Front) were remarkably low. The American armies in France were, relatively speaking, hardest hit. You are an authority, and you must know a lot more than I do about this. Please enlighten me.

Phil

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The pattern of diseases is very interesting. On the issue of malaria, it was endemic in parts of France (see post here) but not in the areas in which the BEF was involved. Large numbers of men returned from Palestine and other malarious areas, especially in response to the German Spring offensives. As has been pointed out, this would have been the most likely cause for a rise in the incidence of malaria. As to the mistaken diagnosis of malaria, it is highly unlikely that the symptoms were confused with tyhpoid. Perhaps with typhus, which is not associated with diarrhoea. Even then, the history is normally a key differentiator in the absence of examination of the blood for evidence of the malaria parasite. Any soldier who had served in a malarious area, who had contracted malaria in the past, and who was experiencing a recurrence of the symptoms would very likely be diagnosed as having malaria on the WF. The name 'typhus' comes from the Greek tuphous, which refers to severe drowsiness and confusion associated with high fever. These are features of malaria too, indeed any infection causing high fever.

It must be recalled that the general pattern of illness in young fit men was different at that time. There are several diseases that were definitely linked to the war, but conditions like TB and nephritis (to name but two) were not uncommon before the war.

Tribute has rightly been paid to the Royal Engineers for their part in minimising sickness. Their work is a reminder that while the trenches may have been muddy at times, they were not filthy in the sense of disease-ridden as had been the case in some previous wars.

Robert

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Robert, Your use of the word "malarious" intrigues me : I had always thought the right word would be "malarial". Is there any differential between the meaning of malarious and malarial ? For example, is it correct to refer to an illness as malarious, and to a swamp as malarial ?

Phil

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Dear Phil,

Actually it is quite simple. Researchers on WWI often only look at the percentages of men returning 'healthy' from hospital . But the sheer number of men that got sick (certainly on the Eastern front, but in the west as well) was so enormous, that although not relatively speaking, certainly in actual numbers, it outweighed everything that had been seen in wars before. And as said the term healthy had (and has) another meaning in wartime than it has in peacetime. So even the percentage of men returning healthy would have been a lot lower if healthy was considered a bit more than just 'fit enough for battle'. As a commander said: 'If i can not séé there is something wrong, than there isn't something wrong'. Or as Magnus Hirschfeld said in his (fantastic) Sexual History of the World War: '90 percent of the men returned to battle. I wish I could say that was only due to the enormous skills of the physicians. But I can't.'

Leo van Bergen

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On January 16 1916 the war diary of the 14th Royal Warwicks (Bham Pals) recorded its first case of measles in the Bray area of the Somme. On the 31st there were 23.

So for the whole of February (a leap year) the battalion was quarantined at Vaux sur Somme and segregated from their Brigade. They remained in this situation until March 6.

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Or as Magnus Hirschfeld said in his (fantastic) Sexual History of the World War: '90 percent of the men returned to battle. I wish I could say that was only due to the enormous skills of the physicians. But I can't.'

Leo van Bergen

Hirschfeld...now that brings back memories. I remember, as a little boy, finding this book at the top of my mother's wardrobe : it wasn't about the war, it was more of a survey of sexual obsessions. All the salacious details were written in Latin, a language at which I developed a sudden proficiency. That year I was top of my class, and could translate Caesar's Gallic War perfectly, I had to wear boxing gloves at night, though....

Phil

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Is there any differential between the meaning of malarious and malarial ?
Phil, at this point in time the only difference relates to the time in the morning when the post was written ;). I will check my medical texts.

Robert

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