Illustration of Red Cross nurses Illustration of Red Cross nurses by Fabien Fabiano for French magazine 'La Baionette' in 1915

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During World War One, soldiers suffered not only from injuries in battle but also from illnesses and diseases caused by the dreadful conditions in the trenches.


Dog wearing a gas mask Dog wearing a gas mask

Poisonous gas was used as a weapon for the first time in World War One.

Some gas was intended to only cause noses to run and eyes to water. Others were far more dangerous.

When gas was first used, doctors and nurses did not know how to treat even simple symptoms. Gas could affect someone seeing and breathing in just a few minutes so protective masks were given to all soldiers. Some fumes stayed on clothes causing blisters and sores. Bathing and washing would have solved the problem but this was not possible in the trenches. Many soldiers suffered from the effects of gas attacks for the rest of their lives.

Trench foot

Soldiers during a foot inspection Soldiers during a foot inspection

Some soldiers suffered from a condition called trench foot.

This was caused by standing in water and mud for a long time and losing blood circulation. In some cases, soldiers' socks started to grow on to their feet. In severe cases, soldiers had to have their feet or legs amputated (cut off).

Trench fever

Soldiers picking lice out of clothing Soldiers picking lice out of clothing

Trench fever was an unpleasant disease caused by body lice during World War One.

The fever was easily passed between soldiers, causing them to suffer from high fever, headaches, aching muscles and sores on the skin. It was painful and took around twelve weeks to get better from. For many soldiers, it was an illness that struck them more than once.

Shell shock

Shell shocked soldier Shell shocked soldier

Shell shock was another new illness during World War One.

It was not a physical illness, but a mental one. The constant noise of explosions and guns, along with the smell and danger of the trenches made many soldiers very scared and uncomfortable. Shell shock caused soldiers to act strangely. They found life on the front line very hard to deal with and would stop being able to follow commands and do their duties properly.

To begin with, officers and doctors did not understand the illness and thought the soldiers were weak. Some were sent to special hospitals to recover. Others had to carry on fighting.

Teachers' notes

Teachers' notes and classroom ideas looking at medicine during World War One.

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