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Absolute misery of life in the trenches.

Byline: By Tony Henderson

Bombs, bullets and barbed wire made the front line in the First World War a horrendous experience.

But a Durham doctor has explored how ( quite apart from the fighting ( the appalling living conditions in the trenches added another layer of utter misery for the troops.

Dr John Charters, a semi-retired GP who lives in Shincliffe, has studied the impact of disease and health breakdown among soldiers caused by factors like lice, vermin, dirt and wet and cold conditions.

"If you want an impression of how awful it was, dig a 6ft hole in the garden, fill it with dead dogs and sewage and have the neighbours shoot at you," said Dr Charters, who will give a talk on the subject on Saturday at 2pm at the Durham Light Infantry Museum.

Dr Charters' interest in the First World War began 45 years ago when he read Robert Graves' memoir Goodbye To All That, and last year he was awarded an MA by Birmingham University in First World War studies. His dissertation was on lice infestation suffered by the soldiers. In 1916 a survey by a researcher from Newcastle, published in the British Medical Journal, showed that 95% of men in the front line had 30 to 40 lice, some were inflicted with over 100 and one man had 10,000 in his clothing.

"Lice are very small insects which live on human blood and which like living in thick woollen clothing. Overcrowding, lack of washing and insanitary conditions are perfect for lice," said Dr Charters.

"If soldiers were scratching all of the time because of the lice, they couldn't sleep, and because of the dirt the scratches would become infected, and there were huge epidemics of skin infections." Lice also carry diseases such as typhus and relapsing and trench fever.

A total of 300,000 British troops suffered from trench fever during the war. Trench fever is very debilitating and it was a huge drain on the army. "Illness took a big toll," said Dr Charters.

Another trial was huge rats living on so much decaying matter, and flies. Cold and exposed conditions also caused pneumonia.

Dr Charters said that at any given time, around half of the army would be out of action through sickness.

"The surprising thing is that, despite the shelling, the killing, friends being lost, dead bodies lying around and the general conditions, morale held up pretty well and discipline kept going," said Dr Charters.

"I have tried to edge towards the central question of the First World War ( how did men stand it?"

Talk tickets are pounds 4.35 with a pounds 3.25 concession, pounds 2.45 for children and pounds 2.15 for season ticket holders, and are available in advance from the dli on (0191) 384-2214.
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Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 3, 2007
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