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Somme - October 1916

Hell by Georges Leroux

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After being involved in the First phase of the Somme Battles, the 27th Field Ambulance rested away from the front for the whole of August and September, re-entering the fray for the final stages during October. Now the equinoctial rains turned the battlefield into a slippery bog. Haig soldiered on in the mystic belief that somehow, somewhere an exhausted foe might suddenly break. The British army was equally exhausted. Conditions became even more appalling.

On returning to the battle zone the 27th Field Ambulance experiences some success in retrieving casualties after dark from no-mans-land. Teams of 100 men were dispatched, manned by assistance from other brigades, and these bring back 40-50 casualties. The exercise is not without hazard, and Elsner comments "several men were hit and one was killed". These activities seem to have been brought to a halt on 19th October 1916 when 100 stretcher bearers return from their activities without a single casualty, having failed to meet up with their guide.

19th October 1916 Pouring with rain. Front line trenches are appalling. Seeking corrugated sheeting for temporary shelters.

20th October 1916 Losses of stretchers causes concern and responsibility for accounting for them passes to FA units. Bed socks, Pyjamas, mitts and hot water bottles sought from Red Cross stores for patient comfort.

21st October 1916 "The condition of these trenches is appalling - there are quantities of rifles, equipment and at least 12 stretchers half buried in the deep and adhesive mud. There are also a few corpses I think". Attack to continue on 25th.

23rd October 1916 cases of Trench Foot arriving.

Whatever the attack was that was planned to resume on 25th October, plans seem to have been abandoned. The Field Ambulance unit again moves away from the Front and start to resume their other role as the bringers of hygiene. However, they have huge problems trying to find suitable premises for the Baths. Eventually they end up at a place requiring a 14 mile march there and back for the 'lousy' troops. An extract from a paper presented by M.G. Miller at a clinical meeting of the Second Anzac Medical Society held in France in October 1993 gives a flavour of trench life and the joys of body lice.

The British Generals on the Western Front had a policy of attack; trench warfare was only considered to be temporary and they saw no point in supplying materials to make the front line habitable as it was anticipated that the trenches would be used only as a starting position for the next attack. Indeed, it was seriously thought that the soldiers aggressive spirit would be eroded if the trenches were too comfortable! As a result the soldiers had to live, fight, eat, sleep, wash and defaecate in a narrow trench which was open to the elements, and often flooded for weeks at a time. The men's attempts to dig sleeping holes or "pozzies" in the rear of the trench was soon to be forbidden following a number of cave-ins in the wet weather when the occupants of the holes were buried. The men were subsequently expected to sleep wherever they could; in wet weather they lived under groundsheets or tents in the bottom of the trench on duckboards.

This was bad enough in summer, but it is almost impossible to imagine what it was like to live in a waterlogged or snow and ice filled trench in midwinter for weeks at a time; even fires were 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 shell fire, 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 the 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 the bodies, they were described as being as big as cats. There were flies in the warm weather and of course lice.

Louse infestation ran at about 97% and explains why Trench Fever was so common; it is amazing that Typhus was so rare, usually found only in the few Australians who had been infected before leaving Egypt.

The vector for Trench Fever was, of course the body louse, which became infected by feeding on the blood of infected soldiers; spread was by migration of the louse and infection of the new host by the insect bite or by scratching the skin which was contaminated by the louse excreta. The excreta remained infective for long periods, weeks or months.


Body lice have such an association with man that they are unable to live more than a few days without him, the longest known is 9 days; "they are a parasite which is utterly dependant on man's blood for sustenance and man's body and clothing for prolonged prosperous longevity and reproduction They are expert at digging in among the seams of clothing to which lice strongly adhere by hooked claws. Favoured sites are creases at the back of shirts and seams at the fork of breeches" (A. D. Peacock, referred to in Butler's Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services, 1914 - 1918. Vol ll, p. 572.)

Spread is from man to man by contact and the louse is guided solely by a sense of warmth; the spread is measured in terms of space by a few feet and in terms of time by a few days. Men huddling together for warmth in a cold, wet trench in winter make an ideal situation for the louse to spread. Peacock found that, in 1916, the infestation rate of British soldiers after six months at the front, was 95%.

The louse has an enormous capacity for infestation, one pregnant female on a man produces 8-12 eggs a day and the egg to egg cycle is only 16 days: the egg hatches within 3-30+ days and is resistant to chemicals, although the adult is more vulnerable to oleaginous applications which block the breathing pores. During the great War, treatment was by Naphthalene, usually in the form of NCI (Naphthalene, Creosote & Iodoform) powder or paste, and the clothes were sterilised by the use of heat, either by dry heat, or steam.

Elsner does his best to combat this miniscule foe, but at times is thwarted by lack of supplies, for example on 24th November 1916 he records "Disinfection by the Foden-Thresh engine ceased from lack of coal."

horizontal rule - men advancing

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