Foot was a serious disorder during World War 1, especially during
the winter of 1914-1915, when over 20,000 Allied men were affected.
Whale oil played a vital role in minimizing the condition but even
so some 74,000 Allied troops had been afflicted by the end of the
Flanders and France trenches were dug in land that was often at
or near to sea level and where the water table was just beneath
the soil surface. After a couple of feet of digging the soldiers
inevitably hit water and the trenches became flooded. To make matters
worse, the heavy artillery barrages destroyed the agricultural land-drains
and the whole landscape became a sea of mud in which men could literally
drown. Conditions were arguably at their worst at the battle of
Passchendale in the Ypres salient. The photograph, taken on November
14th 1917, shows Private Reginald Le Brun and other members of the
16th Canadian Machine Gun Company in the reserve line at Passchendaele.
days of standing in soaking wet socks and boots, Trench Foot would
begin to set in. The men's feet would swell and go numb and then
the skin would start to turn red or blue. Untreated feet rapidly
became gangrenous and would need to be amputated. The feet in the
photograph belong to an unfortunate, but unknown, Canadian soldier
struck down in 1917.
minimize the chances of contacting Trench Foot, the men were
ordered to change into dry socks as often as possible.
Around 1916, John Logie Baird started to sell socks prepared with
borax to help alleviate the problems of wet feet. These were widely
used by soldiers at the front. The soldiers were also instructed
to grease each others' feet with whale oil at least once a day.
It is estimated that a battalion (1007 men and 30 officers) at the
front would use up to ten gallons of whale oil every day.
How many bowhead whales would be needed to supply a battalion for
a month? You might find the following link helpful.
Oil history - whale oil
Library of Scotland
Conditions at Passchendaele
National Archives of Canada