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How To Keep Clean And Healthy In The Trenches

Conditions on every fighting front posed serious issues for the health of soldiers during the First World War. Over 6 million British and British Empire soldiers were treated for sickness, and, without improvements in sanitation and medical care, the figure could have been far higher.

The deadlocked network of trenches on the Western Front posed particular challenges. Large numbers of men rotated through these claustrophobic spaces, living in very close proximity to each other and at the mercy of the weather. Illnesses were rife.

Many soldiers fell victim to conditions particular to their environment. ‘Trench foot’ was caused by permanently damp feet, and ‘trench fever’ had symptoms similar to ‘flu. On other fronts, men fought diseases such as malaria and sand fly fever.  

The importance of keeping dirt and disease at bay was recognised by the army authorities and by the men themselves. Keeping clean could help maintain morale and it was crucial that troops stayed healthy so they could keep fighting.

Here are 10 ways a First World War soldier could stay healthy in the trenches.

  • 1. Drink clean water

    British two-pint water bottle.
    British two-pint water bottle.
    EQU 3857

    Drinking water was transported to front line trenches in petrol cans. It was then purified with chemicals. To help disguise the taste, most water was drunk in the form of tea, often carried cold in soldier’s individual water bottles. In extreme circumstances, soldiers might resort to boiling filthy water found in shell holes. Drinking polluted water could lead to diarrhoea and outbreaks of dysentery.

  • 2. Take medicine

    British medicine kit containing gelatine lamels in a wallet. This sort of item could be bought by servicemen themselves.
    British medicine kit containing gelatine lamels in a wallet. This sort of item could be bought by servicemen themselves.
    SUR 824

    In winter, soldiers in the trenches were plagued by sore throats, common colds, ‘flu and vomiting. Whatever the season, they suffered from exhaustion, constipation or diarrhoea, skin rashes, boils and sores. Soldiers often brought medicines from home or received them in parcels. These gelatine lamels, dissolved on the tongue or in drinking water, were used for the relief of common ailments.

  • 3. Chatting

    Australian troops searching their shirts for lice, Armentieres, May 1916.
    Australian troops searching their shirts for lice, Armentieres, May 1916.
    Q 582

    Lice were a constant problem for soldiers living in the cramped and crowded conditions of the trenches. These tiny insects infested clothing, irritated skin and caused ‘trench fever’ and typhus. Men in the trenches killed lice by ‘chatting’ - crushing them between finger nails - or burning them out with cigarette ends and candles.

  • 4. Get a pet

    Pet dog of the Middlesex Regiment with its catch of rats. © The rightsholder (IWM Q 115420)
    Pet dog of the Middlesex Regiment with its catch of rats. © The rightsholder (IWM Q 115420)
    Q 115420

    Crowded and unsanitary conditions in trenches led to infestations of rats and other vermin, attracted by food waste, and the proximity of dead bodies. Some soldiers trained cats and dogs to hunt them.

  • 5. Foot inspections

    A Medical Officer conducts a foot inspection in a support trench near Roclincourt, 9 January 1918.
    A Medical Officer conducts a foot inspection in a support trench near Roclincourt, 9 January 1918.
    Q 10622

    A major problem in the trenches of the Western Front was a condition called trench foot, in which the foot swells up and begins to decay. It is generally caused by exposure to damp and cold conditions and where blood circulation is restricted. Soldiers were encouraged to wash their feet and change into dry socks regularly and their feet were often inspected.

  • 6. Wash clothes

    Soldiers washing clothes near Ypres-Comines Canal, 25 September 1917.
    Soldiers washing clothes near Ypres-Comines Canal, 25 September 1917.
    Q 6013

    When soldiers left the front line trenches they could use special laundries to wash and change their clothes. Washing their clothes removed any lice but this was often only a temporary relief as the lice would reappear after they returned to the confined spaces of the front line.

  • 7. Have a bath

    British soldiers washing in makeshift baths, possibly near Armentieres, 1915.
    British soldiers washing in makeshift baths, possibly near Armentieres, 1915.
    Q 110658

    At regular intervals, soldiers not on front line duties were given an opportunity to have a warm bath and change their clothes. Baths were usually large, communal spaces and often in makeshift locations, such as breweries.

  • 8. Maintain personal appearance

    Two British soldiers shaving in a trench, Gallipoli, 1915.
    Two British soldiers shaving in a trench, Gallipoli, 1915.
    HU 129371

    Shaving regularly and maintaining basic standards of cleanliness was vital to sustain morale. Officers were expected to uphold standards of appearance amongst their men, although many relaxed the rules in difficult conditions.

  • 9. Use the latrines

    Latrines at the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) Rest Station, Buire, 15th January, 1917.
    Latrines at the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) Rest Station, Buire, 15th January, 1917.
    Q 29235

    Toilets – known as latrines – were positioned as far away as possible from fighting and living spaces. The best latrines came in the form of buckets which were emptied and disinfected regularly by designated orderlies. Some latrines were very basic pit or ‘cut and cover’ systems. There were strict rules prohibiting ‘indiscriminate urinating’, but at times soldiers did resort to urinating in a tin and throwing it out of the trench.

  • 10. Collect litter

    An empty field gun cartridge case dump, near Mealte, July 1916.
    An empty field gun cartridge case dump, near Mealte, July 1916.
    Q 4027

    Rubbish accumulated in trenches. Sandbags were often used to collect waste and hung up on the trench wall. ‘Sanitary men’ had the task of collecting and sorting non-recyclable rubbish. Much of the waste generated came in the form of used cartridge cases. These were collected and sorted in large dumps behind the lines for recycling.