Suffering in the trenches

Trench fever was one of the most common afflictions suffered by soldiers during World War I, infecting over 1,000,000 victims in that war ’s filthy trenches. Also known as “pyrexia of unknown origin” or PUO, it was transmitted by human body lice. Bathing and cleanliness were uncommon in the trenches and might have been among the least of soldiers’ concerns. The actual bacterial cause of the infection was not identified until the 1960s. 

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The illness was not known to be fatal in World War I, but could be severely debilitating. Symptoms included fever up to 104° F, chills and sweats, loss of strength and balance, headache, abdominal pain, bone pain (especially in the shins), neuropsychiatric weakness and depression, and even heart symptoms. 

Bedrest and cleanliness usually cured it in several weeks, but many cases persisted for three months or longer. J. R. R. Tolkien (see “Inklings at war,” pp. 17–19) was incapacitated by trench fever for the better part of two years. 

Trench fever was rare after the First World War, but reappeared on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. It is now treatable with antibiotics, but exists today as “urban trench fever” among homeless, and the poor.

This article is from Christian History magazine #121 Faith in the Foxholes. Read it in context here!

By Paul E. Michelson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #121 in 2017]

Paul E. Michelson is distinguished professor emeritus of history at Huntington University.
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