Historical Trivia: Trench Maladies
The list below lays out the top twenty medical conditions treated by the Royal Army Medical Corps’ 51st Field Ambulance attached to the 17th (Northern) Division from July 1915, where they saw action during the at Passchendaele, the Battle of Albert, the Battle of Delville Wood and at Cambrai.
A Field Ambulance was not a vehicle but rather the British Army’s designation for a medical unit which was responsible for the treatment of soldiers near to the front line. Once a soldier was wounded or injured he would be taken to his regimental aid post, from their he would enter a chain of aid and dressing stations run by one of the Division’s Field Ambulances. A casualty would be brought from the front by stretcher bearers to clearing stations and then to a field hospital.
From the list below only four of the twenty ailments are result of direct enemy action, these include soldiers treated for shrapnel and gunshot wounds, gas poisoning and shell shock. The remainder include fevers, pulled muscles, broken bones, sexually transmitted diseases, diarrhoea, rheumatism and trench foot brought about by cold, wet conditions and interestingly wasp stings.
Astonishingly recent research has shown that nine out of ten British soldiers who served in the Western Front’s trenches survived. Even more interesting is that the average soldier, depending on the sector he was posted to, spent just 15% of his time in the front line. The rest of the time troops were rotated between the support trenches and positions in the rear with many spending 45% of their time away from the front line. As such the average soldier was statistically more likely to suffer from a non-combat related malady than a wound sustained in action.
The list in full:
- Pyrexia (Fever) of unknown origin (8.7% per cent)
- Inflammation of connective tissue (general muscle aches & pains) (7.9%)
- Trench foot (6.8%)
- Influenza (6.6%)
- Scabies (6.1%)
- Shrapnel (4.9%)
- Gun shot (4.7%)
- Mustard and chlorine gas poisoning (3.98%)
- Diarrhoea (3.0%)
- Rheumatism (2.6%)
- Shell shock (2.3%)
- Gonorrhoea (2.2%)
- Lung infection (2.1%)
- Syphilis (2.0%)
- Fractured femur (1.9%)
- Urinary tract infection (1.8%)
- Lice (1.8% though most men are thought to have had them)
- Other STDs (1.6%)
- Gangrene (1.3%)
- Wasp stings (1%)
The above list was compiled from a single Field Ambulance which served a single brigade of one of the British Army’s divisions serving on the Western Front. The company Forces War Records transcribed the records for use by genealogy research services. Over the next two years they hope to transcribe a further 1.5 million records held by the National Archives. In the time being the records of the 51st Field Ambulance give us a fascinating insight into the ailments of British soldiers on the Western Front.
Image One Source - Wounded Irish Guard receives treatment at aid station during Battle of Passchendaele
Image Two Source - King George V visits a British field hospital in France c.1918
The RAMC Field Ambulances of 1914-1918 (source)
51st Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps (source)
'How did so many soldiers survive the trenches?', BBC, (source)
'British soldiers' WW1 trench battles with STDs, rheumatism and wasp stings', Telegraph, 08/10/14, Source