Putting a Sock into Trench Foot
No sooner had the short war of movement ended with the retreat from Mons and victory in the Battle of the Marne, than the BEF faced a new grave threat. In October 1914 No 6 Casualty Clearing Station encountered a condition which was to become known as ‘trench foot.’ During the first winter more than 20,000 soldiers were treated. Sufferers did not need prolonged exposure to adverse conditions – less than a day would suffice. Wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. It took the men a long time to recover (upwards of six months). Already threatened by a manpower shortage, diagnosis and preventive measures became vital.
Incidence of Trench Foot for British & Dominion Troops (France & Flanders):
1914 – 8 cases (British only, 0 deaths)
1915 – 6,462 cases (6 deaths)
1916 – 16,955 cases (1 death)
1917 – 21,487 cases (3 deaths)
1918 – 7.096 cases (0 deaths)
The Western Front was particularly unsuited to keeping your feet dry. In Belgium the water table was high. You could only dig a couple of feet down. Trench walls were constructed above ground from millions of sandbags. As soon as the men dug below two or three feet the bottom of the trench would fill with water. Whilst in France, in the valley of the Somme, the chalky soil would turn to glutinous mud when it rained.
By late 1915 the 200 miles of front between the Belgian coast and Switzerland had become a network of interlocking trenches. There were three lines; the reserve, support and front lines. When your turn came to spend three days or more at the front, your twisty route lay via the deepening communication trenches.
The most graphic account was written by an Australian soldier EPF Lynch Somme Mud: The war experiences of an infantryman in France 1916-1919.
“Back to our post I wade and put in a miserable night standing in the mud. Nowhere to lie or even sit. The best we can do is to lean back against the wet wall of the trench, but that’s not comfortable, as we slide down as soon as we doze. We stand in the mud. A quarter of an hour’s standing and we find we have sunk to our knees, so pull our legs out of the freezing bog and stand in a fresh place. No better. Again we sink into the mud, only quicker. A blanket is dropped in the mud and we stand on it. It’s a great idea and keeps a man out of the mud – for the first five minutes, then it begins to sink under us. Down the blanket works till our feet have again disappeared under the cold grasping mud. With an effort, we work one leg free and get that foot on a fresh spot. Then we give a heave and up comes the other leg, but the exertion has by now buried the first foot again … The muddy cycle goes on. All night we juggle our feet and struggle with our blanket. It’s a great life.”
Some of the victims were brought to Shropshire. First to Berrington War Hospital and then to Stokesay Court VAD Auxiliary Military Hospital for convalescence. Private E Humphreys enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1913. He had been mobilized at the outbreak of war. The Commandant Mrs Rotton wrote “Frostbite, trench feet and gangrene has caused him to lose all his toes – and his hands he is only beginning to use”.
He was rescued from the field of the Somme after four days and four nights in the trenches without moving. Up to his waist in mud Humphreys was dug out. In an exhausted condition he was carried to hospital at Albert and hence to Shropshire. Mrs Rotton details Humphreys’ income and outgoings to make his case for assistance. Humphreys had married in 1916. He had been supporting his wife and his mother He had worked as a crane driver at Henry Tate & Sons, sugar refiners for 28/- a week with an average bonus of the same amount.
Identifying the problem
During the first winter of the war diagnoses varied: ‘frost-bite’, ‘chilled feet’ or ‘not yet defined’ (NYD) feet. By December three main causes had been identified but it would be some time before they secured universal acceptance. They were; soaking of the troops’ limbs in cold and muddy water, long periods of immobility (meaning an absence of local heat production in the leg muscles) and tightness of footwear.
It would be mid 1915 before the majority of doctors accepted that the disability, now being referred to as ‘trench foot,’ was not the same as classical frost-bite. Trench foot could develop in temperatures up to 16°C or 60°F. Army Routine Order of October 1915 advised the “condition caused by prolonged standing in cold water or liquid mud in the trenches, and their onset hastened by tight boots, tight puttees and everything calculated to interfere with the blood circulation.”
Sergeant Harry Roberts, Lancashire Fusiliers, interviewed after the war.
“If you have never had trench feet described to you. I will tell you. Your feet swell to two or three times their normal size and go completely dead. You could stick a bayonet into them and not feel a thing. If you are fortunate enough not to lose your feet and the swelling begins to go down. It is then that the intolerable, indescribable agony begins. I have heard men cry and even scream with the pain and many had to have their feet and legs amputated.”
Putting the socks in
The only remedy was for soldiers to dry their feet and change their socks several times a day. By the end of 1915 soldiers in the trenches had to have three pairs of socks with them. They were under orders to change their socks at least twice a day. During the First World War the army issued over 137 million pairs of socks.
In addition to these official supplies, every magazine and yarn manufacturer produced patterns for ‘soldiers and sailors comforts’. As wool became scarce, jumpers were unpicked and knitted anew into practical items; lots of socks, but also balaclavas for example. There were patterns for ‘rifle gloves’ with a separate forefinger and thumb to make firing the Lee-Enfield easier.
Thanks to the database compiled by the Red Cross I have found just five miles away from our home the volunteers of the Onibury Knitting Party No 4602. Fanny Davies of Onibury and Alice Jacks of Clungunford, no doubt amongst others, were knitting socks and various comforts. Items were sent to Red Cross HQ or directly to soldiers in the auxiliary hospitals at home and abroad.
Socks by Jesse Pye
Shining pins that dart and click
In the fireside’s sheltered peace
Check the thoughts the cluster thick –
20 plain and then decrease.
He was brave – well, so was I –
Keen and merry, but his lip
Quivered when he said good-bye –
Purl the seam-stitch, purl and slip.
Never used to living rough,
Lots of things he’d got to learn;
Wonder if he’s warm enough –
Knit 2, catch 2, knit, turn.
Hark! The paper-boys again!
Wish that shout could be suppressed;
Keeps one always on the strain –
Knit off 9, and slip the rest.
Wonder if he’s fighting now,
What he’s done an’ where he’s been;
He’ll come out on top somehow –
Slip 1, knit 2, purl 14.
© Permission by owner, provided at no charge for educational purposes
The knitted comforts could be made very personal by adding a little message from the Home Front. Sometime before April 1915, my wife’s aunt, at the time a 12-year-old schoolgirl, was also busy with her needles. She had tucked a message in with the socks. She received a postcard from Private Beighton, formerly a neighbour of theirs.
Dear Edith, There are a lot of Oldbury chaps out here … we were greatly surprised when they brought your note and the socks to us. Tell your Uncle Harry (Edith’s uncle was the co-composer of It’s A Long Way To Tipperary) we taught all the soldiers the song whilst we were on the march …
The preventative measures
Improvements to trench drainage, foot inspections, the Baird undersock and whale oil were all to play their part. Pumps were installed wherever possible. Revetting the sides of the trenches with timber, mud no longer slid from the sides to the bottom and duckboards on the floor of the trenches kept the soldiers’ feet out of the mud.
The Baird Undersock
The most curious intervention was that of John Logie Baird around 1916/17. The future inventor of television was working for the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company.
He proved to be as much an innovative advertiser as an inventor. “The Baird undersock is a specially medicated soft absorbent sheath worn next the skin under the ordinary sock. It instantly absorbs and neutralises all perspiration … It is perfectly pure and antiseptic … keeps the feet beautifully warm in winter. In summer the undersocks may be worn alone (keeping) the feet wonderfully cool and fresh in the hottest weather.”
He designed a full-size replica tank in wood, plastered it with advertising and trundled it around Glasgow. His sandwich boards carried by women in place of the men also attracted the attention of the media and the public. The socks proved profitable, Baird left Clyde Valley and took off for Trinidad.
I came upon a book A Tommy in the Family by Keith Gregson, which quoted extensively from Trench Standing Orders of Jan 1917 prepared exclusively for 7th Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.
“The following precautions against Trench Feet will be taken in the winter months: – On the day the Battalion proceeds to the Trenches, Companies will hand in to their Quartermasters one dirty pair of socks per man, receiving in exchange one clean pair per man. Thus each man will go up to the Trenches with one clean pair of socks on, and one in the haversack. During the first night, each man will again change his socks, and one pair of socks will be sent to the Quatermaster under arrangements to be made with Battalion HQ. When returning dirty socks, Company Commanders will render a certificate as to (a) Number of socks drawn the previous night (b) Number of socks returned. Boots will be taken off once daily, during which time whale oil will be rubbed into the feet.”
It was a daily duty for each platoon officer to send in a certificate: “I have to-day personally examined the feet of all men in my platoon, seen them whale-oiled, and their socks changed.” A key preventive measure was regular foot inspections; soldiers were paired and each made responsible for the feet of the other. If a man got Trench Feet, there were inquiries up to the General, and sheets of explanations were called for. The platoon officer was generally in for the “strafing.”
Whale Oil – “like nothing we’ve ever smelt before”
It was estimated a battalion (almost 1,040 officers and men) at the front could use up to ten gallons of whale oil a day.
“Each man was issued with a tin of the horrible stuff, and so keen were all the heads on whale oiling and whale-oiled feet, that it was a serious offence for one to lose his tin, of oil. Whale oil was certainly good for our boots, for it remained in them to ooze out later on when summer came along. It wasn’t so good for other things. There was whale oil in our food and on our tunics; many had sat down where a tin of it had been oozing; it was on our puttees and our blankets, waiting everywhere for winter to depart and the dust of summer roads to come to be caught by it.
“The wet weather of the latter part of 1917 and the winter of ’17-18 brought a change. The whale oil disappeared; being used, we were told for margarine and axle-grease, and we had our feet trained with a special soft soap, washed in warm water and then powdered with talc powder. The process was pretty much the same. One Stretcher-Bearer would soap and wash them and the second would dry and the third would rub and powder them.”
The pulling on of the socks, after the feet had been saturated in oil, was difficult. It was most uncomfortable to have whale oil, thick, smelly and sticky-oozing between the toes and gripping the socks tight against at the feet. No one liked it, most detested it … Even the clean socks to be issued were generally greasy, for the Army washing didn’t affect the previous oiling of them.
“We make the trip and land back in the trench with some tins (of whale oil) which we passed along, and the men somehow got their boots off, pour some oil into each boot and put them on again. The oil is supposed to prevent trench feet, but has an awful smell like nothing we’ve ever smelt before.”
Wilfred Owen had spent Christmas 1916 on embarkation leave. On arrival at his regiment he wrote to this mother, Susan, living at Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury. Shropshire’s great war poet graphically portrays the miserable conditions.
Tuesday, 16 January 1917
[2nd Manchester Regt, B.E.F.]
“My own sweet Mother,
I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last four days. I have suffered seventh hell. – I have not been at the front. – I have been in front of it. – I held an advanced post, that is, a “dug-out” in the middle of No Man’s Land.
We had a march of three miles over shelled road, then nearly three along a flooded trench. … the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, three, four, and five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water. Men have been known to drown in them. Many stuck in the mud & only got on by leaving their waders, equipment, and in some cases their clothes.
… we reached the (former German) dug-out, and relieved the wretches therein. … My dug-out held 25 men tight packed. Water filled it to a depth of 1 or 2 feet, leaving say 4 feet of air … Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life.
Every ten minutes on Sunday afternoon seemed an hour. I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees. … I was mercifully helped to do my duty and crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No Man’s Land to visit my other post. It took me half an hour to move about 150 yards.”
From Harold Owen and John Bell, (eds.), Wilfred Owen: The Collected Letters, Oxford University Press, 1967.
The author gratefully acknowledges the help from Ms Caroline Magnus of Stokesay Court.