A hundred ways to die in the trenches: Canadian casualties from illness in the First World War

[W.N. Mitchell, 67th Battalion (Western Highlanders][c1915] Collections CCGW/CCGG
[W.N. Mitchell, 67th Battalion (Western Highlanders][c1915] Collections CCGW/CCGG
Canada’s war dead for the First World War numbers over 60 000, scattered across France and the UK, and even some buried in Canada. Violent death on the front was certainly the most prevalent, but many participants also died of illness; the outbreak of the Spanish influenza killed more people in the years following the war than during the war. Illness, though not hugely common, still killed men and women in the prime of their lives; it wasn’t only shells that one had to watch for

William Mitchell enlisted with the 67th Battalion in September 1915, at the age of 27. A tailor, he had left his childhood home in St.Catharines, Ontario and worked in Victoria before his enlistment. Mitchell trained with the battalion at Willow’s Camp in Victoria and later embarked to Europe with them in the spring of 1916, arriving at Bramshott Camp as part of the 4th Division. The 67th Battalion was destined for the Somme, but William Mitchell would not go with his comrades. He died of cirrhosis of the liver on 27 June 1916 and was buried in the Bramshott (St. Mary) Churchyard; Private Mitchell joined the 6 767 members of the CEF who died of disease.

As in any situation with people crowded together in less than sanitary living conditions, communicable diseases and infections were rampant. Private Mitchell’s cirrhosis may have been caused by any number of things, since he was passed as physically fit upon enlistment, but there were diseases that were directly traceable to the trenches. Trench fever was one of these, likely caused by conditions in the trenches, as was trench foot and the even more horrible trench mouth. Any of these could land you in the hospital, though trench foot cases were somewhat tricky as many times the sufferer was punished for malingering, since trench foot was thought to be prevented by frequent changes of socks. Scabies and typhus were both the result of external parasites and plagued the men throughout the war, and during the winter, the common cold was endemic with battalions sneezing and coughing their way through until spring.

When the Spanish flu hit Europe in 1918 soldiers were some of the first to suffer it. Highly communicable, the flu attacked healthy young people first, causing the lungs to fill with fluid and essentially suffocating its victim. For this reason, soldiers were ideal for the virus; they lived in crowded, unclean conditions and travelled miles for hospital care, communicating the disease to others along their path to medical attention. In total, 779 members of the CEF died of the flu, though the number of non-lethal cases is less well known. Soldiers returning home also brought the disease with them to their families and by the end of the epidemic in 1919 some 50 000 more Canadians died from it, on top of the nearly 60 000 war dead the country had already suffered.

While illness may not have killed nearly as many in the CEF as the shells and bullets of the front, it was still an ever present part of trench life. Most soldiers and medical staff would have suffered some kind of illness during the war, even if it was not serious enough to require medical attention. For those, like William Mitchell, unfortunate enough to be seriously ill death was never far away. What makes it even more difficult to trace illnesses brought on by war service was that many would not manifest until well after the serving individual had been demobilised. Damp life in the trenches shortened lives and many former CEF soldiers suffered after the war from tuberculosis, organ damage and reduced lung capacity. All of these ensured that the cost of war continued long after the guns in Europe were quiet.


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