Accidents and illness in war time

Something that I don’t think military history has ever quite convinced in portraying is the extent to which people are vulnerable to accidents and illness war time. In particular during the periods of mass mobilisation during both world wars. The National Roll of the Great War gives unparalleled information about how people died, which sheds new light on the experiences that affected the people of Portsmouth.

During war time, the usual health and safety and economy measures go out of the window. On a Dreadnought, or on the front line, for that matter, there are all manner of things that can go wrong. Several men were washed overboard warships. There were accidental explosions. Men fell into dry docks, or even Canals. One man drowned whilst attempting to rescue a man who fell overboard. One man was seriously injured when he fell under his horse. All manner of dangers could befall individuals during war. And we need to remember as well that in general life was more dangerous than it is now. Danger was an accepted part of life, and there was no such thing as health and safety. Personal Protection Equipment did not exist, and neither did risk assessments. But neither did litigation.

During wartime people seem to have been far more susceptible to illnesses that might be less than fatal in peacetime. Men died of illnesses as varied as Meningitis, Heart disease, Rheumatism, Brights Disease (nowadays called Nephritis), Blood Poisoning, appendicitis, post-operation illnesses and Malaria. If you think about it, a young man with an underlying heart weakness or defect is going to be susceptible to becoming ill during stressful circumstances. And that goes for pretty much any kind of illness. And in situations where there was a lack of sanitation, medical care or supplies, and poor diets, it is not surprising that so many people succumed to illness. Cuts and grazes or even insect bites could cause blood poisoning, and of course men in tropical climates were susceptible to Malaria.

Of course many men died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic during 1918 and 1919. Again, with so many men moving around the world, it is not surprising that the flu virus spread so virulently. Men who were tired and malnourished may not have had the immune system to fight off the flu. It is interesting also that a few men died of pneumonia during 1918 and 1919 – was this misdiagnosed influenza, or caused by it?

More obviously, several men died of the lingering effects of being gassed, some almost a couple of years after they had come home. Theirs must have been a horrific demise. A couple of men died from the effects of exposure – one the master of a Tug who had probably been at sea in cold weather, and suffered the consequences. Men also died of the effects of Trench Fever, and one man even died of frostbite in the Ypres sector in 1917.

Several men died soon after being invalided home with shell shock. Whilst it is hard with the information available to prove that shell shock killed them, it is not impossible – particularly considering the way in which shell shock was treated in the Great War.

One painter actually died from the effects of lead poisoning – almost certainly down to the lead content in paint. He was only 27 and had joined the Navy at the age of 18. Clearly nine years of working with lead paint on a daily basis was deadly. How many other men died of what we now know as industrial diseases? We all know nowadays about asbestos, but a hundred years ago so many hazards were not known. I also wonder how many stokers died of respiratory disease, or of illness linked to their job.

One man died from the effects of what was termed, at the time, acute nervous prostration. Nowadays, this would be termed a serious nervous breakdown. I’m loath to mention the gentlemans name, but he was a seaman who had been invalided out to hospital in 1916, and died the next year. If you think about it, many of us suffer from mental health issues, so for one man among almost 5,000 to experience a breakdown is not that surprising. Especially when you consider what he might have been through. Also, in 1916 treatment for mental illness was a lot more harrowing, as the condition was not nearly so well understood.


Filed under Uncategorized, World War One

21 responses to “Accidents and illness in war time

  1. This is so interesting. We think of people being killed: shot, shelled, torpedoed, etc. But they were vulnerable to the usual diseases, too, and of course there were accidents. I do wonder what they meant by rheumatism — rheumatic fever?

    • James Daly

      I think they were even more vulnerable than most of us are nowadays. Healthcare was far more rudimentary, and of course not on anywhere near like an NHS level, and most people had pretty basic diets (albeit not as much crap, junk food and sugar!). And then when you consider the strain that people were under, its really not surprising that war took a toll in unseen ways. In the same way that when you’re tired and stressed you’re more vulnerable to coughs and colds, your average Tommy must have been pretty susceptible to all kinds of ailments.

  2. Reblogged this on ww1ha and commented:
    When I scrambled across Hill 60 (or maybe it was 62), the ground is to uneven, I kept thinking about how easy it would be to blow out your knee or twist an ankle. I suppose then you’d get shot.

  3. Interesting subject. The research I have conducted not specifically about illness during wartime, but research into propaganda and morale suggests that the Government of the day swung between a policy of information and one of disinformation – no different in fact to all Governments whether wartime or not. However, a number of aspects of war and day to day situations were of course kept from the public, it was considered unnecessary to worry them, The health of the nation and its Armed Services did not come under official scrutiny to any great degree so whilst a good diet and campaigns warning of the dangers of coughs and sneezes were considered OK, a lot of cases of ill health were suppressed until post 1944.

    • James Daly

      Funnily enough, I found when comparing my research on Portsmouth WW1 and WW2 casualties would suggest that more cases of illness, accident, natural causes etc were recorded by the CWGC in WW1 and WW2. I think this was possibly because in WW1 people with illnesses etc were discharged and then died as civilians, and hence were not technically war dead. But then in WW2 you also had far more deaths from aerial bombing.

      Some of the background research I have done on the home front in WW1 suggests that the arrival back in Britain of injured servicemen had a profound effect on all who saw them.

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  5. Medic

    I once did research on a WW1 soldier who was kicked by a mule and died the next day.

    During WW2 in UK, many Canadians soldiers died after being hit by a truck. Me and other friends came to the conclusion that the reason why so many were hit by a vehicle is in Canada we do not drive on the same side of the road as in UK, when a Canadian soldiers were crossing the streets maybe they were not looking the right way. Here in Canada you have to look left first and then right.

    • James Daly

      Again, thats something else that I really wouldn’t have thought of. I’ve done some research on Australians who died in Portsmouth in WW1, and apparently after the Canadians experienced a bitter winter on Salisbury Plain the authorities decided to base the ANZAC’s in the Middle East for their initial training, and hence avoid a climate that they would probably have found pretty trying. I wonder how many Aussies used to nice balmy weather struggled in the cold of North West European winters.

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