English Words in War-time

Winter and the war 1915-16: From “frostbite” to “trench foot”

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©IWM (E Aus) 1120.
Australian soldiers having their feet inspected for ‘trench foot’ at Zonnebeke, September 1917.

 

Frostbite in trenches’ announced a prominent headline in the Evening News in January 1915. ‘Frostbite. Winter in the Trenches’, the Daily Express echoed. The accompanying articles detailed still other unforeseen circumstances of war on the Western Front. While Ernest Shackleton had set off to  cross the Antarctic via the South Pole in August 1914 — a domain where frostbite was a known and present danger –its stated prevalence in accounting for military casualties on the Western Front is striking.

“During the abominable weather of December and January, “frost-bite” raged like an epidemic’, the Scotsman noted in March 1915, looking back at the toll the previous months had taken. It had been a “scourge”, affecting the feet of soldiers in the trenches in unprecedented ways. “The surgical history of the war in Flanders shows that during last winter frost-bite was responsible for much intense pain and permanent maiming2, an article in the Daily Express affirmed later that year. As the second winter of the war approached, it reflected on the lessons which had, hopefully, already been learned.

Frostbite in this respect was, however, another new sense-development of war. The word  could, of course, still occur in its conventional sense. As the relevant entry in the  Oxford English Dictionary explained in 1898, frostbite in the strictly medical sense was a condition caused by ‘severe cold’. The modern revision of the Dictionary, in an entry dated to March 2015, is still more explicit. Frostbite is identified as:

Injury to body tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting the extremities and often involving only the skin, which initially becomes white and hard, but in severe cases resulting in gangrene of deeper tissues and loss of the affected parts.

A number of articles in the Words in War-Time archive comment on the danger of exposure to extreme temperatures, and the kind of damage that can occur to the face and hands if left unprotected.

Nevertheless, uses of frostbite from early in the war  differed in critical ways from the kind of processes described in the OED. Unlike frostbite (OED sense 1), frostbite of thsi kind  was characterised by swelling, itchiness, and blisters. It occurred moreover in conditions of sustained damp, irrespective of the temperature of the air. As the Scotsman explained, for example, the number of ‘”frost-bite” patients was in fact closely correlated with the opportunities that  soldiers had to dry and warm their feet, rather than with the presence of freezing temperatures per se:

“’During the spell of sharp fighting in January, when there was no time to think of their feet, there was another jump in the number of “frost-bite” patients’.

Frostbite in this sense was, it commented, better seen as ‘the consequence of living in the trenches with permanently wet feet, and never taking one’s boots and tight puttees off’. Indeed, it might, more appropriately, be termed water-bite, another article ventured, since it thrived in conditions of continual damp, such as those which had pertained at “Plugstreet” before recent improvements in material conditions had been made:

The men had to stay for weeks at a time in the trenches, swimming in water, without planking to walk on, and without the knowledge which has since been gained on how to preserve the feet from the scourge of frost-bite, or water-bite as it should be called.

Mud-bite was another designation which appears in war-time dicourse. Bite in all three can effectively suggest the intensity of pain and suffering that accompanied this condition.  ‘The first glow of life burns like red-hot pokers’, a later article in the Scotsman (from November 1915) confirms.

Renamed trench frost-bite in the Lancet in September 1915, in yet another shift of nomenclature, the disease was to be carefully documented in terms of cause, consequence, and prevention. Frost-bite in this transferred sense did not require frost — but it depended instead on the sense of numbness and chill (as well as pain) that popular connotations of frostbite suggested. Left untreated, moreover, it, too, could result in gangrene — and amputation of the affected limb.

It was this specialised sense of frostbite (still unrecorded in the OED) which would, in time, gain the label by which it is usually known to-day — trench foot. Dated to 1915, this has survived as perhaps one of the more surprising legacies of WW1 in modern use. ‘Glastonbury 2015: Medics prepare for cases of trench foot’, as the Independent informed its readers in June 2015. LIke the trenches of WW1, the mud and rain of Glastonbury, as the article explained, offered ideal conditions for what is now seen as an immersion foot disorder.

War-time uses of frostbite continued, however, ‘for the duration’, even if they have  become obsolete today. Frostbite and trench feet often co-occur in accounts from 1915 and 1916, offering a form of symbiosis and mutual definition. As the Scotsman recorded, for example, here in marking the beginning of the winter of 1915-16:

“Trench feet,” which we used to call frozen feet” last winter, are coming into the field ambulances again and getting passed down to the casualty clearing stations. It is easy enough to cure if taken in time, but the men “stick it” too long sometimes, and then it is a bad business trying to bring life into the senseless limbs.

‘This winter’,  the M.P. Major Lyell stated in December 1915, the Allies ‘knew better how to combat frostbite and trench feet and how to keep the trenches dry and livable’ (Scotsman 16 Dec 1915).

In other contexts,  frostbite clearly retained a popular and colloquial role . As Andrew Clark’s war diaries (‘Echoes of the Great War’) confirm, frostbite (and associated words) continued to be used as popular descriptors, being assimilated into the general parlance of the war, on Home as well as Western Front. ‘Ernest Wright is in hospital in France with feet frost-bitten’, Clark notes, for example, in February 1917. Another villager, Leonard Cule, has ‘had his feet frost-bitten’, thus becoming ‘a case for Blighty’, Clark’s diary states in the following month.

Looking at language in 1916, we can therefore see this continued patterning of old and new forms of reference. As in the quotation below, anti-frost creams are, for example, explicitly directed as what is now given as trench foot; frost, by extension, does not denote the presence of crystals of ice but is used in signalling a sense of generalised discomfort in which cold and wet prevail. The product promises:

A POWERFUL SKIN STIMULANT FOR RESTORING CIRCULATION TO BENUMBED AND CHILLED EXTREMITIES. INVALUABLE FOR TRENCH FEET.

As remedy against trench foot (and trench feet), and frostbite we can likewise find other new products such as trench waders, in other locutions which are equally embedded in the historical moment (and absent from the formal lexicographical record). The ailments of the Western Front would, in this as in other respects, clearly present further opportunities for commodification and language alike.

Anderson’s POCKET TRENCH WADERS ARE REALLY WATERPROOF Stockings, fitting completely over the socks –inside the boots – at bottom, and fastening to wait buttons at top. Being absolutely Waterproof, they afford adequate protection against the terrors of cold and damp and …. frostbite

 

 

 

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