TRENCH FEVER AND TRENCH LIFE IN THE AIF
Dr. M. G. Miller
Western Front Trenches
The front line trenches in three parallel zigzag lines: the fire trench, the support trench and the reserve. Each line joined to one behind by communication trenches. Depth varied, but they usually four or five feet deep, with built up wall to allow men to stand upright, duck-boards lying on the bottom to prevent men from sinking into the mud (often no boards, just mud).
fire trenches had a fire step built into the front wall.
Dugouts: reinforced with wood frames, for officers quarters (especially British army). Regular soldiers either dug holes in rear of trench (unsafe, could cave in) or slept on the bottom of the trench or leaning against the sides.
The German trenches better--designed as semi-permanent features with deep, shellproof dugouts, sometimes with several levels. Better drainage, since Germans usually held higher ground.
"Whether in the fire trench, the support or the reserve trench, the men had to live, fight, eat, sleep, wash and relieve themselves in a narrow trench which was open to the elements and often flooded for weeks at a time. The forward wall of the fire trench was constantly under enemy observation and any part of a human body that appeared over the top was promptly shot at by snipers. The whole front line system was regularly bombarded by mortars or high explosive shells, and often bombed or machine gunned by enemy aircraft."
In winter: waterlogged, snow and ice filled trench..."Even the lighting of fires was forbidden because the smoke would attract enemy attention and the men could only huddle together for warmth, thus increasing the risk of louse infestation."
"Latrines were ideally dug behind the front line trenches, but obviously these could not be used during enemy attacks, and a small pit was usually dug in the front line trench to accommodate the men. As the war progressed, if the trench was demolished by shellfire, dead bodies were incorporated in the repaired trench wall and the stench of putrefaction was added to that of urine and faeces. It needs no imagination to understand what the trench conditions were like after such a trench had been recently shelled! These crowded, squalid conditions, in which the men had to live and fight, were a fertile breeding ground for rats who lived on scraps of food or the corpses. These rats were described as being as big as cats. There were flies in the warm weather, transmitting dysentery, and, of course there were lice. "
In front lines, lice "infestation of the officers and men ran at about 97%."
"the soldiers had to attempt to remove the lice as best they could. This removal, a procedure known as "chatting up," was usually by hand, picking out the lice from the clothes, or with the flame from lighted candles run up and down the seams of the clothes. (This was the origin of the verb "to chat" as the soldiers made the removal of their lice into a social event). These attempts at removal, unfortunately, only removed the lice temporarily and did nothing to halt the spread of trench fever because the infectious louse excreta was not sterilised; actual sterilisation of the clothes could only performed by washing in very hot water." Baths available in rear lines, at best, only every ten days.
Trench fever symptoms:
Trench fever had a latent period of 8-30 days before a sudden onset. Fever, severe headache, pains in the muscles of trunk and leg and characteristic shin pains. Shivering attacks were common and there was a variable short lived pink rash, sometimes lasting only a few hours so that the diagnosis was often confused with influenza.
Graham's description of trench fever refers to a sudden onset of the illness with headache and giddiness...sometimes so severe that the patient would fall down. Graham wrote: "...before the pains concentrate in the shins...there is usually a sense of stiffness and soreness about the whole of the lower extremities. The lumbar pain sets in early, is severe, and in some cases quite as unbearable as it is in the invasion period of smallpox. ... The exhaustion following the acute stages of this disease is very marked."
"The fever was exceedingly variable, but commonly lasted for about five days (sometimes the illness was called "Five Day Fever"). The fever was followed by a remission and then a recurrence after 5-6 days. These recurrences were single or multiple and up to 12 recurrences every 5 or 6 days were not uncommon. This resulted in a prolonged disability. Unlike typhus, trench fever was fairly benign, the only late complication being a profound, debilitating depression that occurred in the more prolonged attacks.
"Treatment was only symptomatic and very little could be done for the sufferers except admission to hospital for nursing care. Although few men, if any, died from the disease, 80% of infected men remained unfit for duty for up to 3 months. Trench Fever was usually benign. The main complication was depression, and this occurred in the more prolonged attacks; however during 1916 to 1918, 80% of infected men were found to be unfit for duty for 3 months."