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Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Special thanks to http://www.nature.com/bdj/journal/v192/n11/full/4801449a.html for this fascinating insight to how our soldiers dealt with the agony of toothache


Toothache in the trenches

First World War literature abounds with accounts of toothaches experienced on the battlefields of France. In that most famous memoir Goodbye To All That Robert Graves8 relates 'Then I got toothache which forced me to take a horse and ride twenty miles to the nearest army dental station at corps headquarters. I found the dentist under the weather, like everyone else. He would do nothing at first but grumble what a fool he'd been to offer his services to the King at such a low salary. "When I think," he complained, "of the terrible destruction to the nation's teeth now being done by unqualified men at home, and the huge fees that they extract for their wicked work, it makes me boil with rage." There followed further complaints against his treatment at headquarters, and the unwillingness of the R.A.M.C. to give dentists any promotion beyond lieutenant's rank. Later he examined my tooth. "An abscess," he said. "No good tinkering about with this; must pull it out." So he yanked at the tooth irritably, and the crown broke off. He tried again, damning the ineffective type of forceps which the Government supplied, found very little purchase, and broke off another piece. After half an hour he had dug the tooth out in sections. The local anaesthetic supplied by the Government seemed as ineffective as the forceps. I rode home with lacerated gums.'

The poet Edmund Blunden9 described his wartime dental experiences 'Long tramps day and night ruined my feet, but I had to walk to Poperinghe in great misery to have a tooth put to rest or die in the attempt. In daylight one might be unlucky over getting a lift on that hazardous road, which could be seen between its trees from the German and from our front line. I was. The tooth was pulled, back I went, and saw again the tipsy water-tower and the sole surviving pinnacle along the road through Ypres with illogical happiness. By the station I noticed some newly installed howitzers, and there was a suspicious quickness among those now passing out of Lille Gate, but even so, the dentist had been settled with.......... I could dilate upon other drama that occurred towards July 31, 1917; there was, for instance, that tooth of mine, which our Irish doctor painfully extracted for me by muscular Christianity in the wood, surely the last afternoon we were there; as many of my signallers as were off duty stood around with a hideous pleasure, and one or two begged to offer their compliments on so great a fortitude!'

Toothache tales: Part 1

Gargoyle from unknown church in Southern France, 13th century (BDA Museum LDBDA C33)

The Irish poet and writer Monk Gibbon10while serving in France '... began to suffer tortures from toothache. Watson mocked at my groanings and writhings, although I assured him he had been just as bad over his chilblains. Mosse, whom I was beginning to like greatly, was more sympathetic and departed down the road one night to fetch me oil of cloves from his billet........

Joy-rides were few, unless one could count a trip or two to the Canadian dentist at the hospital in the Citadelle in Doullens. Though he was in no way responsible for my unit he accepted me as a patient during my worst throes and afforded me some temporary alleviation.......

Our first halt was at Authie and our horses found themselves back on their old lines. I was once more in the throes of toothache, and, after the meal, made my way to the hospital in the chateau to beg a doctor there to take mercy on me and to remove the tooth. But the offending molar deceived him, just as it had deceived my Canadian friend at the Citadelle, and I was assured that it would be a 'great pity to take it out'. After a chat about Ireland and the gift of some aspirin, I returned to my billet and, with the help of Mosse's oil of cloves, managed to get a reasonable night ignorant of what torments still lay ahead of me........

Billets for the night varied greatly. After being in the saddle all day one welcomed a comfortable bed, but not infrequently this involved us in long arguments with some old woman. Oil of cloves had become useless for my toothache. If anything it seemed to aggravate it. I had read somewhere in a comic paper of standing on one's head as a remedy, and, in desperation one night, kneeling up in my sleeping bag, I lowered my head until I was more or less in the position advocated. The diary recorded my tortures.

Nearly went mad. Crying, praying. Stand on head, and it at last stops and I get to sleep. Late getting up next morning and across to breakfast. I indignant with Haines because no fish cakes for brekker......

After a further bout of agonising toothache while on trek, I rode into St.Venant to a field ambulance. This dentist also wanted to stop the tooth. But I declared that it had had its last chance. Out it came, after putting up a forceful resistance. It was 'a divil' according to the dentist; quite hollow below the surface of the gum, and on the point of forming an abscess. Looking into its cavernous depths, I could understand the agony which it had caused me.

11 comments:

Partial denture repair said...

I think, Until the last decades of the twentieth century, few individuals went through life without, at some stage, suffering the pangs of toothache. It is hardly surprising therefore, that toothache is a subject commonly referred to in literature particularly of the autobiographical genre.

Williams Schermer said...

Wow, that was a very impressive research! I can only imagine how soldiers deal with the pain when on the field. It must be an excruciating experience. Well, the solution is still to take care of your teeth at an early age. Having a healthy dental habit will help prevent toothaches and other tooth agonies.

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