As today is Remembrance Day we thought it would be good to step back in time think about the role dentistry had during World War I.
Dentistry, granted, is not a topic that often comes up when discussing World War I. But the poor state of working-class mouths – no dental care for most of them – and the difficulties that the very basic army food presented, made the all-consuming pain of acute toothache all too common.
In 1914 when world war I broke out many of the working and lower-middle-class soldiers had very poor teeth – the result of too much sugar and too little dentistry. In some cases, teeth were in such a poor state that volunteers were rejected.
Jokes about the state of the nation’s teeth even reached the pages of Punch. In August 1914 it published a cartoon of a disgruntled man at a recruiting office protesting to the MO who’d turned him away because of his rotten teeth: “Man, ye’re making a gran’ mistake. I’m no wanting to bite the Germans, I’m wanting to shoot ‘em.”
The number of volunteers being rejected on the grounds of their bad teeth led to some patriotic dentists stepping forward. C J McCarthy of Grimsby advertised in the local paper promising free treatment to the first 25 volunteers rejected because of their teeth that reported to his surgery.
The army was reluctant to pay for dentists and when the British Expeditionary Force travelled to France in 1914 not one dentist accompanied them.
Famously in October of 1914 Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the First Army, suffered tooth ache during the battle of Aisne. Due to the fact no dental surgeons had been sent out with the army they had to send to Paris for a French dentist.
After this the War Office was asked to send dental surgeons to the active areas and 12 were sent for duty at casualty clearing stations.
The events of the First World War demonstrated that a modern army could not function efficiently without an established dental service. Here are a few facts:
- By the end of 1914, a soldier could not be discharged just because he had too many lost or bad teeth.
- From February 1915 all recruits with bad teeth would be passed as fit, so long as they were treated once they got to their depot.
- The most common way to cure toothache, was to pull the tooth out.
- Trench warfare caused terrible facial injuries and surgeons had to pioneer new treatments.
- 1918 saw 850 dental officers in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
That said, it was not until 1923, with tireless campaigning form the BDA, that the Royal Arm Dental Corps was formed.
The First World War cost many lives and the dental profession was not exempt. Some were serving in their professional capacity within the forces, but many were not.
We’re also thankful to all those who serve today for their dedication to our safety, their humanitarian work, and support of world peace.
Lest We Forget.