“Trench Foot” Causes Distress in 1915

Friday, June 25, 1915

Reserve Billets – Le Quesnoy

The Battalion War Diarist wrote nothing for this day:  [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY:  On this day “the Battalion was inspected by Brig.-Gen. Turner, who announced that the Distinguished Service Order had been awarded to Lieut.-Col. W.W. Burland and that, for bravery and devotion at the Second Battle of Ypres, Capt. F.A.C. Scrimger, Medical Officer of the Battalion, had been granted the Victoria Cross.  Rain fell during the inspection, but failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the troops who cheered heartily.  Obviously the honours gained by the Commanding Officer and the Medical Officer were approved by all ranks of the Battalion.”

RMR history trench foot“The condition known as “trench foot” caused great distress to the soldiers, and embarrassment to the medical service on account of its novelty and resistance to treatment. In the winter of 1914-15 the disease was common; in the following winter, the first spent by the Canadians in the line, it was of only occasional occurrence. What was once a disease had now become a ‘crime’; but it was the unit as a whole that was penalized by stoppage of leave, and not the man. Measures had been discovered for preventing the conditions, and they were rigidly enforced.

By the English, ‘frost bite’ was applied as the cause; but it was hard for Canadians to understand how feet could be frost-bitten in a temperature that showed only a few degrees of frost. Continued cold wetness was the principal element in the case, with added secondary infection from the soil. The appearance of the foot was startling. A mild case showed a brawny swelling, but as the condition advanced the foot became dusky; the toes dropped off by a process of gangrene, and even the whole foot might be destroyed in a very few days.

Trench foot was proved by Lorrain Smith and his colleagues, working experimentally upon the rabbit, to be a condition due to cold which stopped short of death of the tissues, differing from frost-bite only in degree, although it also may end in gangrene. The primary lesion is vascular, followed by a secondary reaction when the element of cold is removed.

Cure was difficult, but prevention sure. Boots must be well oiled and large, the puttees loose. Feet and legs were rubbed with whale oil or other animal fat, and dry socks put on. The period for a battalion in the trenches was reduced to 48 hours, and wet trenches were lightly held by about 48 men of the company, the remainder being dry in close reserve. After 12 hours in the outposts the men were relieved and marched back to a warm rest station, where they were stripped, rubbed down, and wrapped each in three blankets. They were given a hot meal and allowed to sleep or rest for 24 hours, when they rejoined their unit. If feet or hands did become “chilled,” the circulation was to be restored by rubbing with oil, never by fire or hot water. This elaborate procedure was not necessary when the trenches could be kept reasonably dry, and was only employed in situations where the very nature of the soil prevented rapid movement or surprise by the enemy. This condition accounted for 246 casualties amongst officers, 4,741 in other ranks, with only two deaths.”

[1]  War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, June 25, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089753.jpg
[2]  R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pg. 62.
[3] http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2d/Case_of_trench_feet_suffered_by_unidentified_soldier_Cas_de_pieds_des_tranch%C3%A9es_(soldat_non_identifi%C3%A9).jpg
[4]  Sir Andrew Mcphail, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War: The Medical Services,” 1925, King’s Printer, Ottawa, pp 264-265

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