War’s mudbaths made soldiers’ lives a misery

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Do you remember the storm last Saturday night?

Spectacular lightning, if a bit weak on the thunder, and shedloads of rain made it a storm of semi-Biblical proportions.

Having just caught the start of the storm in the the no-man’s-land between my house and a riverside pub, getting moderately soaked into the bargain, I maintained equilibrium by moderately soaking my interior.

Two hours and a couple of Tyrconnell’s whiskeys later, I was calf-deep in rainwater blocking the way home, rain still lashing down, on the trawl back across no-man’s-land.

I didn’t fancy a long detour, so I waded in. The First World War analogy didn’t escape my attention, though.

I was soaked to the skin. I don’t think my socks have ever been as wet inside my shoes as they were on Saturday night, apart from the time I fell into Newcastle’s Leazes Park pond while taking the children to feed the ducks.

On Saturday, I could get home, change into dry clothes and get warm, however.

Even for that short time wading through the water, my toes had begun to go blue and soft and shrivel the way they do when you have stayed in the bath too long.

Heaven knows what it must’ve been like to stand all day in waterlogged trenches.

For soldiers in the trenches of the First World War right across the globe, conditions were pretty grim.

No sentimentality about war, and no looking back with rose-tinted spectacles, can disguise the fact that this conflict in particular, more than many others to follow, was ugly, nasty, dispiriting, morale-sapping, dirty and generally unhygienic for body and soul.

Somewhat ironically, it was also the first war to see more combatants killed in battle than by disease.

Descriptions of trench life are legion. Photographs of soldiers wading knee-deep in mud are a symbol of the stalemate of the First World War.

Keeping clean and dry was impossible. Sanitation was questionable and supplies of clean drinking water were irregular.

Add in the constant need to guard against body lice, usually a futile exercise, and a huge increase in rat populations and, bingo, a variety of diseases could lay low great swathes of soldiers in and around the front lines and effectively reduce the strength of fighting forces.

Diseases such as trench foot, trench fever, influenza, dysentery, malaria and typhus were rife.

The single deadliest flu pandemic in history was the Spanish flu pandemic during the last year of the war, from 1918 through to 1919.

Occurring in three waves of increasing lethality, Spanish flu killed more people, both military and civilian, than the war itself.

Spanish flu accounted for more fatlaities in one year than smallpox or the Black Death did in 50 years.

Accurate data on death by disease is, like a lot of First World War information, often difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, the old dictum that 10,000 deaths is a statistic, though one death is a tragedy, seems to somehow apply here.

The Northumbria World War One Project, subsidised by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is researching the deaths of all services personnel from within the modern borough boundary of North Tyneside.

This project follows on from another in Tynemouth that researched nearly 2,000 combatants from the old borough. It will look at an estimated further 3,000 fatalities.

By the end of the project, an expanded database, accessible to all, will contain information about all these casualties.

Early research by our volunteers has uncovered a number of deaths due to unspecified illnesses.

Buried in Wallsend’s Church Bank Cemetery are a number of naval personnel killed by illness on active service.

Stoker John Barry, of Vine Street, Wallsend, died less than three weeks before the end of the war, and Henry Chesterton, of Davis Street, also in Wallsend, a deckhand on the trawler Glatian, died after falling ill too. Further research is required on both men.

A lot more is known about is Mary Sylvia Stephenson, the only woman so far on the radar of the project to be a casualty. She was the daughter of the former Mayor of Wallsend and died of dysentery while serving as a nurse for the Red Cross Society in Egypt in 1915.

A full article will be devoted to Mary Sylvia in coming weeks.

The Northumbria World War One project welcomes anyone with information about any family member who was killed in the First World War and who had a connection to the North Tyneside area to get in touch as well as those who are interested in getting involved in research.

The project’s information centre in Front Street, Tynemouth, next to the library, is open at weekends over the rest of the summer. A number of small exhibitions of the project’s work and publications can be viewed and purchased.

Anyone with information about anyone killed in, or who died as a result of, the First World War is asked to contact the project.

The project workroom at Linskill Community Centre in Trevor Terrace, North Shields is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone wanting to learn more about the project or how to get involved. A visit to www.tynemouthworldwarone.org is thoroughly recommended. Our address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.