Life in the trenches was not a happy place. The total environment around the trenches was a combination of several problems all of which easily aided the progression to disease.
Consider some of the more signifiant problems: cold moisture/water within the confines of the trenches, dead and wounded bodies of soldiers as well as dead horses (8,000,000 horses were killed in WW1), control of waste including food and human excrement, and stress both physical and mental. Soldiers lived in close proximity without adequate water for maintaining cleanliness. I personally can’t imagine worrying about coughing around someone or worrying about hand cleanliness when I am worrying about staying alive.
Trench Foot has been known as a medical condition affecting soldiers since Napoleon. It wasn’t until WWI, however that the name “Trench Foot” actually took hold. During Vietnam, the disease was more commonly referred to as “Jungle Rot.” One of the solutions in Vietnam was a canvas boot which allowed the feet to “breathe.” In WWI, the trenches provided a moist sometimes cold environment that could result in one’s feet becoming involved with Trench Foot. Sometimes the condition could begin in less than one day. The definition of cold was temperature around 60 degrees F. The condition is not like frost bite.
At first the circulation in the foot becomes slowed as the blood vessels constrict. This cools the feet, and the feet can become blue or red. This is the body’s natural attempt at maintaining normal body temperature. The blood supply to the feet is now compromised, resulting in poor nutrition and lower oxygen levels to the foot. Later the feet become numb and sometimes the foot swells. If left untreated, necrosis of the tissue may result in foul odor from the foot. Later open sores may develop. Blisters and even a fungal infection can result. Gangrene can occur if left untreated and can result in amputation.
The cure is to have the feet dry and warm. Many of the cases require 6-8 weeks to be cured. Generally, this was at a place away from battle. Today long term antibiotic therapy may be necessary for recovery.
In 1914 over 20,000 British Soldiers had Trench Foot. Towards the end of WWI, the armies developed techniques for preventing Trench Foot. First, they provided an elevated wooden floor in the bottom of the trenches. They enhanced the trench drainage systems, and they also developed a buddy system where each soldier was responsible for his buddy’s feet being dry and clean. Also, the officers were responsible for any new development of Trench Foot. This helped reduce the number of people struggling with the disease.