One of the strongest impressions from Peter Jackson’s film We Shall Not Forget Them (not the best title) is the dreadful state of the soldiers’ teeth. This may not have been a strong intention in the colourisation process, but the film was a very bad advertisement for the state of the nation’s teeth; Britain is renowned for the general bad standard of dental health – remember Spike Milligan’s poem Teeth, which ends ‘Three cheers for the Brown, Grey and Black’. British soldiers’ teeth, as seen in the film, certainly live up to this description, where they remain at all. How did soldiers deal with toothache, rotting teeth, and the effects of gum disease?
This from In Mesopotamia, by Martin Swayne (1917):
A great many men suffered from bad teeth, and the suitable treatment of their cases became a problem. In the ordinary establishment of a general hospital, in the Army, there are about thirty medical officers, but no provision is made for dentists. In Mesopotamia decay of the teeth was rapid. Dentists in small numbers were sent from India. I hesitate to put down the amount that one dentist told me he was making each month. We had, for some time, only one dentist, and his waiting list was several hundred cases, all requiring urgent attention. Some of the bad cases became base men that is, they were attached for permanent duty at the base and assisted in hospital work. If each hospital had had a dentist attached to it as a matter of routine, and a couple of mechanics for repairing dentures, receiving the same pay as a doctor, the problem of teeth, which is always troublesome, would have been to a considerable extent solved. I do not know why teeth decayed so rapidly. It may have been due to incipient scurvy, or to the nature of the rations, or to the general state of health, or it may have been caused by some septic condition of the mouth, induced by the heat and dryness. Some young fellows lost every tooth in their possession in a year.
For those who lost had lost their teeth, maintaining dentures in a good state of repair was problematic – soldiers in the Spanish Civil War used to keep liquorice root to chew on to stop them from breaking teeth or denture during a bombardment, but presumably during the First World War leather or cloth was used. For those at the Front who broke teeth or dentures, the civilities of home dentistry might seem very distant; Kipling, in The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923), reports the words of a soldier whose false teeth had been broken in an attack: ‘I’ve been to him [the doctor], Sorr, and it’s little sympathy I got. He just gave me a pill and chased me away, Sorr’.
Before being shipped out to a Front overseas soldiers might be treated a little more generously – Douglas Walshe in With the Serbs in Macedonia (1920), reported on a happier circumstance:
A certain private damaged his artificial dentures – argot, broke his teeth. Tremendous issues were immediately raised. Was it a genuine accident, or was it done with intent to avoid embarkation overseas ? The culprit, or victim, declared that he had dropped them out of his mouth in the latrines.
I am sorry, but this is a military history, and in the Army that is where everything happens. Whenever you want a man, that’s where he is. If he’s late on parade or parades unshaven— that’s why.
Evidence there was none, except that of the victim, or culprit. To make a new set would mean that he must be left behind, and he claimed that he was entitled to a new set at the public expense and objected to a mere repair. Like his officers, he didn’t see why he shouldn’t get all he could out of the Army.
The matter was settled by arbitrarily sending the man and the dentures into Bristol under escort. There a dentist at first demanded a guinea to mend them, was apprised of the facts, and agreed to do it for five shillings, and finally, when the moment of settling came, accepted half a crown!
He made a most excellent repair of them, and the man himself made a most excellent soldier. He was, indeed, one of the best men in the Company.
Among the private companies sponsoring phrasebooks for soldiers in the United States Army and Navy was the Kolynos Company, who published the wonderfully named The Kolynos ‘Parley Voo Booklet’, giving English, French and German phrases with a pronunciation guide, written by Col F N Maude and Frank Scudamore, who had already written “Parley Voo”!! Practical French phrases, Arabic for our Armies … Words and phrases with their equivalent in colloquial Arabic, and Turkish for Tommy and Tar in 1915, and Sprechen Sie Deutsch and “Parley Voo”!! Practical French and German Phrases, and how to pronounce them, in 1916, all published by Forster Groom & Co. in London. F N Maude had collaborated with Scudamore in a work of fictional conjecturing, The Great War of 189-. A forecast, a pre-Entente scenario which cast Britain as an ally of Germany, but which otherwise, especially in its description of a Balkan spark to war, was, in many ways surprisingly prescient – though any study of the structuring of international treaties of mutual defence and aggression would suggest something similar.
In keeping with the spirit of private enterprise and sponsorship, the Kolynos booklet carries an advertisement on its back cover, but also, on its inside front cover, an exhortation to the serving soldier or sailor to take good care of his teeth. There is however no suggestion that sound teeth would help in the pronunciation of French or German; perhaps the absence of the ‘th’ consonant made this less of an essential. ‘Trench Gingivitis’ is a rare term, and does not have the easy application of ‘trench foot’, still less ‘trench-coat’; but anyone watching Peter Jackson’s film might imagine the need for a term something like ‘trench teeth’.