By Sara Millbank
On 11th November, we remember all the brave men and woman involved in war, past and present
so I decided to look into some of the illnesses that affect people mainly during war. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I set to work on doing some research. I was completely shocked by my first search engine result which came back with the words “Trust me, you don’t want to know!”
Like most people, I remember studying WW1 and WW2 in history at school and my father served in the RAF during WW2. He lost family members, like many, but although he survived, he suffered many related ailments. What I didn’t know was that WW 2 in didn’t have as many illness-related deaths as World War1.
World War 1
This war had trenches and with it brought terrible illnesses. We’ve all heard of Trench Foot caused by prolonged exposure of the foot to water. Conditions varied from how much damage it caused, depending how long the solider was in the trench. Socks and boots were never changed and feet would either go numb or turn red and blue. Worst cases saw the feet swelling with open sores and blisters and soldiers reported being able to put their bayonet through their foot without feeling anything! Eventually it would lead to fungal infection and amputation, but as with all infections, if left untreated it would kill.
Other illnesses common in WW1 included Tetanus, Shell Shock, burns from the Mustard Gas, lice, Typhoid and tummy bugs, often not helped by the rats in the trenches. Towards the end of WW1, a large number of soldiers in the trenches in France became ill. They had sore throats, headaches, loss of appetite and appeared to be highly infectious. Doctors named it the “3 day fever” as recovery was rapid, but eventually they decided it was a strain of influenza. The soldiers named it the Spanish Flu, although no-one knew where it had come from and interesting the Spanish called it French Flu.
In the summer of 1918, many of the soldiers with flu developed bronchial pneumonia or septicaemia blood poisoning and a one in five died as a result. It reached the German Army and over 40,000 died, while 70,000 from the American troops were hospitalised with one in three failing to recover. The virus quickly spread throughout the civilian world, with India being the most affected; from the first case being reported in June 1918, a year later 16,000,000 people in India had died from the virus. It has been estimated that in total 70 million people died from the pandemic by its end in the autumn of 1919.
World War 2
By the Second World War medicine had advanced along with the way that war would be fought. Called the deadliest conflict in human history, for good reason, over 100 million military personnel were involved from all over the world. Of these, over 60 million were killed, but figures are vague and there seems to be no data on how many died of illnesses related specifically to the war. There is certainly evidence of Tetanus, Typhoid, diarrhoea, tummy bugs and boils, along with TB, which my father had while serving in India. There were more prisoners of war during this time bringing different conditions and illnesses and many who arrived in perfect health, died in the camps. In figures published recently, after years of research, from nearly 60 countries taking an active part in WW2, it appears that the USSR was the nation to suffer the most losses, by a long way.
More recent wars have brought their own problems completely different from those experienced in WW1. In 1991, the Gulf War saw many soldiers suffering from chronic fatigue, memory loss, joint pains, loss of muscle strength, headaches and exposure to chemicals. This has become known as Gulf War Syndrome. These are very different symptoms from Trench Foot or Shell Shock, but show a different type of war being fought. In 2008, a paper published after research suggests that exposure to Nerve Gas and insect repellents used in the Gulf War, would explain the symptoms. Interestingly, many of the symptoms of GWS are similar to those experienced in WW1 from Mustard Gas.
Combat soldiers were also vaccinated against Anthrax, which often caused skin reactions which lasted for months. During the war, many oil wells were set on fire and the smoke was inhaled by large numbers of soldiers who later suffered from acute pulmonary disease, asthma and bronchitis. Soldiers also suffered from infectious diseases including leishmaniasis caused by sandfly bites and mycoplasma. Studies since the war have also shown that some soldiers have low fertility problems, although this has not been proved to be related.
Many US veterans of the 2003 Iraq War reported a range of serious health issues similar to the symptoms of the Gulf War Syndrome. However, lessons had been learnt and most cases of health problems in troops were not believed to have been connected to the same problems found in the Gulf War.
Even with the modern advances in medicine things don’t seem to have helped our men and woman fight wars. Many of the Golf War Symptoms are very similar to those experienced in World War1 from the mustard gas used then. As one great singer said: – War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!