Hygiene and war are words that don’t often go together for understandable reasons. A soldier, for instance, would choose his life and safety over smelling fresh and clean or having a newly-shaved mustache and beard. Even so, it’s still essential to keep oneself as clean as possible, even when in the most gruesome and cruelest situation if your health is already at risk. So if you ever wondered what hygiene was like for World War I soldiers, if there’s any at all, then let’s explore them.

Buckets Or Deeper Holes As Latrines

Soldiers had to improvise and make the best of the trench situation to relieve themselves. They did so by designating specific areas to serve as their restrooms that were not meant to be permanent. They would dig four to six feet deep pits used as-is. The horrifying smell would attract flies, so some troops tried to keep them away by building wood boxes around these pits. They also tried to mask the odor by covering their excrement with chloride of lime.

Alternatively, they used buckets, biscuit tines, and even shell holes in place of the pits. These “toilets” were emptied daily. Each company would assign two men to perform the sanitary duties, a task that was understandably despised by people and was often given to those who broke the army regulations. It was also a courtesy rule that the outgoing unit would dig a new latrine for the new arrivals and fill in the ones they used.

Despite the not-so-enjoyable trip to what they considered their toilets, they couldn’t always walk out for pee or poo breaks, regardless if one has diarrhea from contaminated water. As a British lieutenant in the Devonshire Regiment who fought in Passchendaele in 1917 recalled,

“If, for instance, you wanted to urinate and otherwise, there was an empty bully beef tin kept on the side of the hole, so you had to do it in front of all your men [and] then chuck the contents, but not the tin, over the back.”

German soldiers used one of these latrine holes. (©Drake Goodman)

Unsterilized Water Was A Norm

Sterilization of water through boiling is the most common and perhaps most uncomplicated method of producing potable water. However, the soldiers in the trenches found this seemingly simple act challenging due to their lack of necessary equipment and the dangerous environment. So the British Army tried to sterilize their water with purifying chemicals like their trusty chloride of lime. The problem was that it made the water taste awful, so they tried using acid sodium sulfate instead. As Royal Army Medical Corps wrote:

“It was decided also, in August 1914, to issue tablets of acid sodium sulphate (Rideal and Parkes, 1901) for small parties of cavalry, who it was thought might easily get separated from their units. Each tablet contained 16 grains of anhydrous sodium bisulphate and 1/4 minim of oil of lemon. They were issued for emergency use only as they had several drawbacks. Being a powerful metal-solvent they acted on water bottles made of enameled iron if they were chipped forming ferrous sulphate which has a bad taste and colours the water. A very objectionable taste occurred on prolonged contact with aluminium, and if exposed to a moist atmosphere acid was liberated which burnt both clothing and skin.”

Soldiers carrying out regular tests on water points to check for organic or chemical poisoning near the Somme (National Library NZ on The Commons, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the time, the soldiers would rely on their fellow to treat water away from the trenches and then transport them back at night. The problem with this was they often used old gasoline containers to carry the water, obviously contaminating them that they’re almost again undrinkable. Due to desperation and thirst during active fighting, the troops would just drink whatever water they had, regardless if it was unsterilized and contaminated with all sorts of bodily fluids.

Cats And Dogs For Pest Control

A sailor on board the HMAS Melbourne clutches a pair of cats in 1917. (Australian War Memorial)

The troops are not without company while sheltering in the trenches. They were joined by thousands of rats that fed on whatever little food scraps they had left. Not only that, but the men were buried almost where they died, so their decomposing bodies were just there below the surface.

As Robert Graves wrote in his book, Goodbye to All That, “Rats came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly. While I stayed here with the Welch, a new officer joined the company and, in token of welcome, was given a dug-out containing a spring-bed.” When he turned in that night, he heard a scuffling, shone his torch on the bed, and found two rats on his blanket tussling for the possession of a severed hand.

Moreover, the rats could reproduce quickly, with about 880 offspring per year. It was not too long when the trenches were swarming with them. They even grew as big as cats. The rats brought with them diseases like typhus and the plague.

To control this rat problem, the soldiers brought terrier dogs originally bred to dig and hunt for prey like pesky rats. They also “drafted” cats and were believed to have around 500,000 of them that all helped clear rats off the trenches of WWI. The soldiers would also catch and slay rats as a pastime during slow days. The military also offered a reward for killing rodents. One army corps was able to kill about 8,000 of these pests in one night.

Clean Clothes And Fresh Armpits Were Unheard Of

It was not like soldiers were not provided with facilities where they could laundry their clothes, rest, and be deloused. Instead, they set up communal baths to clean themselves and hopefully take the awful odor off their bodies brought about by the corpses, trash, and reeking open latrines in the trenches.

The problem was that they did not have much time to do these cleaning as they had to stay in the trenches for several days without bathing or even changing their clothes. As a result, the soldiers in the trenches developed body odor from their unwashed hair to their unchanged socks.

It was even worst during the heavy rains when their feet would be soaked in muck, and the lack of a proper drainage system kept the murky water in the same place where they would spend most of their time. Not only that, but they also attracted all sorts of itchy lice living on their clothes and bodies. In a text reprinted by NCpedia, one North Carolinian recalled, “At first we had only one kind [of lice]; but now we have the gray-back, the red, the black, and almost every color imaginable.

So, their time away from the line was usually spent cleaning themselves and steaming their clothes to get rid of their rainbow lice. As simple as it sounds, these things boosted the troops’ morale.

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Forget About Oral Hygiene

The importance of tooth brushing was only emphasized in WWII. However, in World War I, oral health was deemed unnecessary, and the government and the soldiers paid no mind to the state of their teeth. These soldiers from the working class already had poor oral hygiene before being sent into the war.

Interestingly, people who tried to enlist with poor oral health were rejected. That was because the rations they provided needed some really good and tough teeth to consume, like the infamous biscuits of abomination. These biscuits were so hard that they had to grind them to a powder or mix them with milk or jam to make them softer and edible. Those with dentures were not allowed either.

Biscuit. Essex Regiment Museum, Chelmsford.

It was not until General Douglas Haig had an unbearable toothache during the Battle of Aisne that they realized the importance of dentists on the battlefield. After his experience of having to wait for a dental surgeon from Paris to solve his tooth problem, he contacted the War Office to ask that dentists be recruited into the army. Only then did 12 dentists arrive to address the troops’ dental concerns.

Collection of photographs from the area by Karl Bösl, dentist (15.3.1892-21.12.1971) and Fritz Bösl, hairdresser (1886-17.5.1954). (Photo: Michael Kassube/Kurt Bösl (owner)/Europeana, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Shaving Kits With Anthrax

Chemical weapons were commonly used during the war, and the gas masks were believed to fit more snuggly if the wearer had no facial hair. To help, the US government distributed these “khaki kits”— shaving sets that made shaving while in the field easier for men. The kit came with brushes made from horsehair.

Unfortunately, the brushes were not properly disinfected and were laced with anthrax. This infectious disease is caused by a bacterium called Bacillus anthracis, which can survive and reproduce for long periods in the soil. Livestock, like horses, would consume the bacteria, and then humans who come in contact with them can get the disease. The bacteria would find their way into the cuts and nicks of the soldiers’ freshly-shaved faces. As a result, over 200 British and American soldiers had anthrax cases that authors called a “mini pandemic.”

1917 advert for the Gillette U.S. Service Set. (Gillette Safety Razor Company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Whale Oil Against Amputation

As mentioned above, the ditches tend to be flooded due to the rainfall and the lack of a functional drainage system. The Western Front soldiers had to endure their feet being soaked in the slimy and sticky mud that their socks began to stick to their skin filled with sores. These wounds were a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, add to the lack of proper blood circulation on their feet, the soldiers began developing trench feet. As a result, around 2,000 Doughboys and nearly 75,000 British soldiers suffered from injuries like amputations, permanent loss of feeling in the feet, and severe infections.

The wet conditions in the mud were not only unpleasant in themselves, but they were also a breeding ground for other problems. Lice were common and were the carriers of the very weakening Trench Fever. Constantly wet feet also caused severe forms of foot rot. (National Library of Scotland, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)

To combat this, they were given pairs of socks to change to dry ones. There were also times when they all had to stomp their feet to encourage blood flow, and lastly, they were supposedly provided with whale oil to repel water from their boots.

All in all, the troops endured these horrible things to fight for the nation and what they believed in. Sufferings that we should never allow our soldiers to experience ever again.