Imagine this: It is World War I, and you’re one of the soldiers on the Western Front having to stay in the trenches filled with rainwater that would, later on, turn into creamy mud. It’s the same place where you would sleep and spend most of your time fighting the enemy forces. Changing your clothes is not a norm, and don’t even think about bathing. Your boots and feet are soaked in the murky water the whole time, and you don’t have much choice but to stay there and endure the entire situation until your muck-soaked skin starts to get wrinkly… and more.

That was the situation of the soldiers during the Trench warfare of World War I, so harsh that many suffered a disease called “Trench foot.”

The Trench’s Muddy Situation

In general, the trenches of World War I were dirty and dangerous, to say the least— the threat of your enemies bombarding you with heavy firepower or sneaking in the night to silently kill you with their melee weapons like trench knives and trench clubs. The trenches were built to shelter the soldiers from the enemy fire. It was a great idea until the heavy rain in Belgium and Northern France started pouring down. As British Officer Joseph Price, who served on the Western Front, said, the water was “always over your boots.”

“When you take your boots off, [your feet are] like a washerwoman’s hand, all wrinkled, cold, and everything was shrunken, terrible,” he added.

trench feet
Case of trench feet suffered by an unidentified soldier. (LAC/BAC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The rainwater filled the trenches along the Western Front. The water got stuck without a proper drainage system and turned into a muddy situation. Both the Battle of Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele were witnesses of the condition.

Keeping the soldiers’ feet dry was not a walk in the park. The prolonged soaking in the murky water resulted in the skin of the foot breaking down. The exposed wound would soon get infected and become painfully sore. Initial symptoms felt were tingling, pain, and numbness in the feet. The injury would then swell before it broke down. If the wound is not dealt with, the muscles and tissues of the feet would soon decay, making it extremely painful for the soldiers. In the worst-case scenario, soldiers would be unable to fight and lose their toes or even the whole foot. The condition was called Trench Foot.

Trying To Resolve It

THIS IS TRENCH FOOT. PREVENT IT! KEEP FEET DRY AND CLEAN. (National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Upon knowing the situation and its effect on the performance of their soldiers, the people in charge tried different ways to prevent them from acquiring Trench foot.

As mentioned earlier, the dirty water soaking their feet caused the condition. The higher-ups encouraged their soldiers to keep their feet dry and clean by providing them with multiple socks and boots as often as possible. They also offered whale oil that they could rub on their shoes to repel the water somehow.

Apart from that, they would do a “stamping drill.” It was an activity where they would stomp and rub their feet in unison to get the blood on their feet flowing. They also instructed the soldiers to take their boots off while sleeping. However, soldiers often disregarded this command because it was quite impractical to have to put on your boots first in the event of an enemy attack.

They also tried to dig drainage ditches and lay duckboards to prevent the water from pooling. When all else failed, there wasn’t much choice but for the soldiers to lose toes, feet and even their lives to gangrene. Given the state of medicine at the time, primitive anesthesia and no anti-biotics, the chances of survival could be pretty bleak.

Effect in War

The Medical Officer of the 12th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, conducts a foot inspection in a support trench near Roclincourt on 9 January 1918. (Thomas Keith Aitken (Second Lieutenant), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
As many as 20,000 British Army soldiers reportedly suffered from Trench foot in the winter of 1914 and 1915. Throughout the whole war, 74,000 troops suffered from it, specifically from the armies of Britain, France, the United States, and Germany. Because of the sheer pain the Trench foot caused, the soldiers had to be cared for and replaced as their ability to fight was greatly hindered.