Q&A: What caused trench foot in WW1 and how could it be treated?
Peter Hart explains the causes and cures for one of the many wartime woes endured by a Tommy in the First World War trenches…
On top of trying to survive the bullets, shells and poisonous gas attacks, the average soldier in the damp, cold trenches of the First World War had to contend with a risk of exposure, lice and perhaps one of the most memorable afflictions: trench foot. Speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, Peter Hart explains how the nasty condition came to be rife in the trenches, and how a solution came in the form of one of the world’s largest mammals…
What is trench foot?
I always say it's like when you stay in the bath for too long when you’re young and your skin almost starts going spongy – except it's not funny. It's having your feet in freezing cold water for hours and hours. You get a sponginess that then goes dead. Then, you start to get frostbite, your toes go black and they fall off.
How did WW1 soldiers treat trench foot?
Trench foot is perfectly stoppable. You can stop it in its tracks, so to speak, by putting on dry socks and putting your feet somewhere that’s not in water. However, that's impossible in 1914 on the Western Front, where you're in a ditch with no drainage. If you don't stand in the water, the Germans will put a bullet through your head because it would be standing above the low trenches. So, troops were dealing with constant immersion in freezing cold water.
There was a practical cure, which is that you rub your feet in whale oil. I've often wondered which genius first thought of this whilst thinking about whales, that if they just rubbed whale oil on their feet that it would stop them getting trench foot or whatever. But it does work. After 1915, one of the ways that the headquarters could tell if a unit was any good was by the amount of trench foot. If the unit had trench foot, they had poor discipline and they weren’t using whale oil.
Peter Hart was speaking with Emily Briffett on the HistoryExtra podcast, answering your top search queries on life in the trenches during the First World War
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