Dentistry in the trenches – yet another horror of World War One
In the history of World War One, dentistry is often overlooked – and understandably so. Nevertheless, the leaders of both sides soon learned that the oral health of their soldiers was of huge importance. After all, a soldier in constant agony from toothache would not be an efficient fighter and could even be a liability for himself and his comrades. From the early days of the Great War, then, makeshift dental surgeries were set up on the front line, with troops able to make use of brutal but efficient healthcare.
In the British Army, for example, generals soon wised up to the importance of keeping their soldiers’ teeth in good shape. Most of the men in the trenches were from working class backgrounds, and the vast majority had never seen a dentist in their lives. The oral health of the troops was, therefore, pretty poor to say the least. What’s more, the rations of tough biscuits were also hard on the teeth and led to a number of problems. Often, a doctor or other medic would be pressed into service as a frontline dentist. In some instances, a special dentist’s chair was fashioned out of planks of wood from the trenches. Here, the patient was just held down while the troublesome tooth was extracted – there really wasn’t the time or space for any more complex procedures.
The oral health of the British troops was given special attention after the Battle of Aisne in October of 1914. Here, General Douglas Haig came down with toothache and could not be treated. He had to travel to Paris to visit a proper dentist. After that, he contacted the War Office and ordered them to recruit specialist dentists into the army and get these men sent to the frontlines as a priority. Nevertheless, many men returned from the war with their mouths destroyed by the tough biscuits that were rationed out to the men.