Disease

Part of the service record of Percy Walter Jackman of Camberley, Surrey, showing that he was, on enlistment for war service, willing to be inoculated against disease. Ancestry.com. British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008. Original data: The National Archives of the UK (TNA).

Part of the service record of Percy Walter Jackman of Camberley, Surrey, showing that he was, on enlistment for war service, willing to be inoculated against disease. Ancestry.com. British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008. Original data: The National Archives of the UK (TNA).

Historically, disease has often caused a greater number of deaths in times of conflict than has fighting. During the Great War, disease had a significant effect on both Surrey’s service persons and its civilians.

The conditions endured by soldiers on the Western Front promoted the rapid spread of disease. Soldiers lived on a restricted and meagre diet and limited sleep, causing their bodies gradually to weaken. They lived in cramped, crowded and squalid conditions, with poor sanitation and waste disposal systems and little opportunity to wash or change clothes. Such conditions allowed infections to spread rapidly and simple wounds quickly to become serious. They also enabled rats, lice and other vermin to thrive; these creatures infested both the trenches and their inhabitants and caused further disease. Those serving in the trenches lived in close proximity to the decomposing corpses of men and animals abandoned in No Man’s Land and the maggots and flies which lived on them. Despite living half underground, soldiers in the trenches were very much exposed to the effects of the elements: heavy rain caused the trench networks to flood, often to at least knee height, whilst the winters were long and harsh (particularly that of 1916-17). Living in flooded trenches with constantly-wet footwear led to the condition known as ‘trench foot’, a wasting disease which could develop in a matter of hours and which, if untreated, led to gangrene and the need for amputation. The cold weather caused exposure and frostbite.

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