Weird History

What Was Hygiene Like For Soldiers In WWI Trench Warfare?  

Erin McCann
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How did WWI soldiers keep clean in the trenches? The answer lies somewhere between "with great difficulty" and "they didn't." Although WWI was known as the Great War, trench hygiene was anything but great. Soldiers in the trenches spent their time in unsanitary conditions among open latrines, others who went days without bathing or changing their clothes, and the remains of many men who lost their lives. Although WWI hygiene and medical issues were notoriously inadequate, the lessons learned during WWI helped improve conditions and responses to sanitation and medicine for future generations, both on and off the battlefield.

Although most people know the war had an enormous body count and saw the beginnings of chemical warfare, the answers to everyday issues like how did soldiers go to the toilet in WWI are almost as terrible. Diseases were plentiful, and those who weren't killed directly from combat may have very well perished due to their living conditions. Although WWI cost many their lives, the fighting forced doctors to come up with better ways to treat and prevent illness, and led military units to create more effective methods of personal hygiene and sanitation. 

Soldiers Used Either Buckets Or Deeper Holes Within The Trenches As Latrines
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Photo: National Photo Company Collection/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In order to go to the bathroom in the trenches, soldiers designated specific areas to serve as the latrines. Soldiers dug pits anywhere from four to six feet in depth in which to relieve themselves, and while these holes were usually used as-is, some troops attempted to control the amount of flies attracted to waste by building wood boxes around the pits. The job of digging and then maintaining the latrines was so despised, these chores were often given to soldiers as punishment. The smell was equally as horrifying, and troops dealt with the odor by attempting to cover it with chloride of lime.

Unfortunately, choosing when to need the bathroom isn't often possible, especially for those suffering from diarrhea due to contaminated drinking water. Those unable to use the latrine often made use of buckets or empty food cans to relieve themselves. "If, for instance, you wanted to urinate and otherwise, there was an empty bully beef tin kept on the side of the hole," one British lieutenant recalled. "...You had to do it in front of all your men [and] then chuck the contents, but not the tin, over the back [of the trench]."

Soldiers Had Equipment To Sterilize Water But Often Ignored It Out Of Desperation
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Photo:  Agence Rol/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although one of the most common methods used to sterilize water for drinking is boiling, this was impossible for soldiers in the trenches due to their dangerous environment and the equipment needed. The British army experimented with sterilization equipment and purifying chemicals, such as using chloride of lime. The chemicals made the water taste awful. They tried giving soldiers acid sodium sulfate tablets to purify an individual amount of water, but the chemicals reacted badly with the aluminum of soldiers' canteens and ended up burning skin and clothing if it came into contact with moisture in the air.

For the most part, soldiers on the front lines relied on their fellow troops treating water elsewhere and transporting it to those in the trenches at night when it was dark. Unfortunately, militaries often used old gasoline canisters to carry the water which contaminated this water and made it nearly undrinkable. If active fighting or other circumstances stopped a water delivery to the front lines, soldiers in the trenches found themselves completely without. This led many soldiers to drink questionable water simply because they had no other choice and were desperate. "We were so thirsty that we actually drank water out of shell-holes, and God knows what a shell-hole contains," one soldier recalled. "It could hold anything - very often parts of a human body. But we were so thirsty we drank it cold and without boiling it, because you couldn't get a fire very often."

The French Army Released Cats And Dogs Into The Trenches To Combat The Rat Infestation
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Photo:  John Warwick Brooke/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Since trash, food scraps, and corpses attract rats, the trenches were often filled with rodents. "There was no proper system of waste disposal in trench life," soldier George Coppard recalled. "Empty tins of all kinds were flung away over the top on both sides of the trench. ...During brief moments of quiet at night, one could hear a continuous rattle of tins moving against each other. The rats were turning them over." Due to the plentiful amount of food, rats grew large in size; according to one story, a soldier spotted one the size of a cat. "They were so big they would eat a wounded man if he couldn't defend himself," a soldier wrote. In addition to being a nuisance, the rats spread disease like typhus and the plague.

French troops tried to control the rat problem by bringing terrier dogs into the trenches with them. Catching and slaying rats became something to pass the time during daylight hours. The military offered soldiers a reward for slaying the rodents as incentive to decrease their numbers. According to one report, troops got so into the game, one army corps managed to catch 8,000 in a single night. Other soldiers adopted cats instead of dogs, and its believed around 500,000 cats helped out in the trenches over the course of WWI. Many of the cats, and some of the dogs, ended up serving as mascots for troops on the front lines as well as hunters.

Since Baths And Laundries Weren't Available At The Front, The Trenches Reeked Of Body Odor
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Photo: Castle, W.I. (William Ivor)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In order to extend the stamina of their troops, soldiers rotated their time in the trenches. Units set up facilities away from the front lines that soldiers could use to be deloused, launder their clothes, and rest. There were also communal baths to clean themselves of the odor they developed while in the trenches. This helped boost morale and keep many soldiers healthy, but soldiers often had to stay in the trenches for a number of days without bathing or changing their clothes before they were allowed this rest.

Due to unwashed bodies and clothes, open latrines, and the odor of nearby corpses and trash, the trenches - and all who spent time in them - smelled awful. Not only did soldiers in the trenches have pungent body odor, their infrequent bathing and laundry caused them to attract and spread lice to their fellow soldiers. As one soldier recalled, "At first we had only one kind [of lice]; but now we have the gray-back, the red, the black, and almost every color imaginable."