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.