Thursday, 9 August 2012

The agony of toothache in the trenches

'My teeth have been troubling me this last couple of weeks, and I can't get them extracted as we don't possess any forceps.' So wrote one poor soldier from Northern France in 1918, whose letters I'm reading at the moment. As if life in the trenches wasn't bad enough, many servicemen were forced to endure grinding toothache too.

There were people who could help - officers attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps carried out the duties of dentists during the First World War, but they weren't always around when you needed them. 'I had to walk to Poperinghe in great misery to have a tooth put to rest or die in the attempt,' wrote the poet Edward Blunden. A similar tale was told by Robert Graves in his famous memoir Goodbye To All That: 'I got toothache which forced me to take a horse and ride twenty miles to the nearest army dental station at corps headquarters. I found the dentist under the weather, like everyone else ... After half an hour he dug the tooth out in sections. The local anaesthetic supplied by the Government seemed as ineffective as the forceps. I rode home with lacerated gums.'

My soldier, however, discovered that help was nearer at hand. Shortly after complaining about the lack of forceps, he wrote to his wife: 'Sgt Small came to tell me he had got a set that day, so last night I went to him and had two of the brutes out'!

Lack of proper dental care caused 'an extensive wastage of soldier manpower' during the Great War, according to the National Archives. 'This state of affairs could not be allowed to carry on.' By Royal Warrant on 4th January 1921, the Army Dental Corps was formed as a component of the Army Medical Services. Too late, unfortunately, for the gallant troops who fought between 1914-18, but one less thing to worry about for those who were called upon to defend their country 20 years later.

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