Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War

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The Library has recently subscribed to the database Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War – an incredibly valuable resource revealing the unique culture that developed in the trenches. Of particular relevance to the Library collections are the journals produced by medical units, which give fascinating insights into the treatments and procedures in use, and how they were perceived by service personnel.

Photograph of WWI New Zealand Soldiers

World War I New Zealand soldiers with a copy of ‘New Zealand at the Front’, 20 Nov 1917
Reference Number: 1/2-012980-G. Image credit: Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The journals are humorous, bringing some light relief to the troops. But they also had a serious side and were used to disseminate valuable messages. They are conservative and populist in style. Although they weren’t official forces publications, they were also not the place for dissent, and the content demonstrated a strong sense of loyalty and camaraderie.

Vaxxing lyrical

Becca Parrot and Vicky Sinclair from the Library’s acquisitions team delved into this newly acquired online resource and investigated the subject of vaccination in the trenches to give a taste of the kind of material in the journals. Although troops were being vaccinated against several diseases by this time, the introduction of one particular vaccine caused controversy.

In August 1914 Sir William Osler wrote to the Times urging compulsory anti-typhoid vaccination for the troops. His letter was followed by letters in support from Sir Almroth Right and Sir Lauder Brunton, both leading figures in the medical profession. The government and military authorities were reluctant, perhaps not wanting to embark on a time-consuming political confrontation over the rights and duties of the soldier, whilst recruiting a huge volunteer army in a very short period of time. The medical establishment persisted and this generated vigorous opposition from anti-vaccination campaigners.

Anti-vaccination groups had been relatively quiet since compulsory vaccination against smallpox ended in 1907, the greater public having lost interest in the cause with the end of compulsion. This attempt by the medical profession to introduce compulsory anti-typhoid vaccination in the army was seen as a great opportunity to agitate and promote their views. In this instance, the main group behind the agitation was BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection). As well as leafleting the troops and publishing articles in their own journal The Abolitionist, BUAV published ads in various papers, including this one in Punch:

Punch, 13 January 1915

Punch, or, the London Charivari, January 13 1915. Image credit: Vicky Sinclair.

The heated confrontation lasted through the autumn and winter of 1914 – 1915 and the government and military authorities decided not to make it compulsory. Other forms of pressure were applied, leaflets produced and education programs established. The troops did come forward voluntarily, if somewhat reluctantly.

The trench journals were used as a tool by medical staff for educating and persuading service personnel towards vaccination. They would often use the voice of patriotism and loyalty: of fighting with and for compatriots on the battle-field and also in the sense of fighting disease. Dissenters were ostracised from this sense of unity. The First Eastern General Hospital Gazette, 1915, states: “He is a source of infection, and therefore of danger, to his fellows.”

And The Gambardier, 1915, wrote: “A more unpatriotic action than that of the Anti-Vivisection Society it is hard to find… Surely it is worthwhile bearing a little personal inconvenience, if thereby the safety of hundreds of one’s comrades is assured.”

But these journals also contain contributions from other service personnel, and there is a wealth of poems, stories and letters, which contrast with the serious tones of the medical viewpoints. And these often portray a strong tone of sarcasm and resignation to the onslaught of seemingly relentless vaccinations. An Uncensored Letter to Aunt Maud in The Royal Sussex Herald, 1916, is one such example:

“I think this is the eighteenth application for eleven different diseases, there now only remains flat feet and flatulence and then we shall be absolutely immune.”

Through articles such as this, an alternative perspective to the politics and propaganda of vaccination is revealed. And there is so much more to uncover and explore within the wealth of information and first-hand accounts to be found in these publications.

We hope that the Wellcome Library’s subscription to Trench Journals and Unit Magazines will offer our users the opportunity for more compelling and thought-provoking research around this fascinating topic.

Trench Journals and Unit Magazines is available in the catalogue to Library members from anywhere online with a Library card.

Melanie Grant

Melanie Grant

Melanie Grant is the Acquisition Services Manager for the Wellcome Library. Melanie and the Acquisitions Team support the work of the Library by enhancing its collections and promoting its resources. Melanie studied History of Modern Art before becoming a librarian as a means to work with important and inspiring artefacts.

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