After the outbreak of War in August 1914, Britain began to raise a huge volunteer citizen’s army lead by Lord Kitchener, which has been discussed in a previous London Mint Office blog: ‘Lord Kitchener: The Recruitment of Britain’s New Army’. Unlike most people, Lord Kitchener believed this would be a long war and Britain could no longer just rely on its small, professional army.
It’s said that many men joined Lord Kitchener’s new army out of a sense of duty or patriotism and even saw it as a chance to leave dull lives for new adventures. Due to this, in just eight short weeks, over three quarters of a million men in Britain had joined up.
The busier sectors of the trenches that were under constant shellfire by the enemy brought death to many soldiers, whether on active duty, resting in the trench or lying in a dugout. Many were buried as a consequence of such large shell-bursts.
As the war continued and the death toll rose, rats in their millions started infesting the trenches. Gorging themselves on human remains, they could grow to be the size of a cat. Men, exasperated and afraid of these rats tried many methods to rid themselves of the creatures, however, the rat problem remained for the duration of the war. Rats were not the only source of infection and nuisance. Among the rats, lice was a never ending problem causing the men to itch uncontrollably. The lice caused a painful disease called ‘Trench Fever’ resulting in severe pain followed by a high fever. Recovery away from the trenches took up to twelve weeks.
As the war stretched on, trench foot became a major medical condition; this was a fungal infection of the feet caused by the cold, wet and unsanitary trench conditions. Trench foot needed to be handled quickly or it could turn gangrenous and result in amputation.
It is difficult to measure the true number of people killed during the First World War however it has been estimated from 8.5 to 12.0 million.
Source: London Mint Office