This Saturday, we celebrate ANZAC Day in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the disastrous landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Among the tragic realities of this landing is that the troops were not accompanied by dentists.
Although today we consider dental health as an important aspect of the overall health of a soldier as well as a civilian, this wasn’t the case at the beginning of the last century. After all, it was only in 1900 that New South Wales even required the licensing of dentists at all. They weren’t considered a speciality that needed to be included in the Australian Army Medical Corps (AAMC). In fact, when WWI broke out in 1914, the only dental appliances included in the medical kit of the AAMC was a pair of forceps for the purpose of extracting teeth.
Paradoxically, these men were also in greater need of a dentist than our young recruits are today. Without the benefit of fluoridated water, fluoride toothpaste, and, in most cases, regular dental visits, about 90% of children had decayed teeth by age 8 (compared to 50% today), and by age 18, many of them had lost teeth or would need to lose teeth.
Private Care or None at All
As troops assembled in NSW to embark for Egypt to help bolster the British forces there, soldiers who went to the AAMC for dental care were told that they would have to seek out private dentists to have their teeth cared for. This didn’t mean regular checkups — such things weren’t considered — these men needed fillings, root canals, or extractions. This was despite the fact that many dentists had volunteered for service, and, in other places, had been allowed to practice as dentists. These dentists were allowed to practice by their local commanders, as the army hadn’t officially recognized the commissioning of dentists.
Some commanders recognized this was a problem, and in fact General WDC Williams, Director of Medical Services, had proposed as early as 1906 that dentists should be included in the AAMC. But when the soldiers left for Egypt, they did so without dentists, except in the cases where dentists who had enlisted were able to equip themselves to carry out dental work. At times, the soldiers were helped to make these purchases by their commanders or by the Red Cross.
This continued as the troops served in Egypt, where troops often had to use Egyptian dentists whose skill and training were dubious.
Dentistry in a Ditch
Despite repeated appeals by commanders, by the time the ANZACs sailed for the Dardanelles, there was no authorization to commission soldiers as dentists, so those that practiced dentistry often did so on top of other duties and without the resources or equipment necessary to carry out their profession. It wasn’t until 18 May 1915 that dentists were allowed to be commissioned.
And by that point, it was too late to make adequate provision for dental care. The lack of dental care made a significant impact on the state of forces: by July, more than 600 soldiers from the First Division — which made up the bulk of the forces — had been evacuated from the front as “dental casualties.” Sadly, even these men often didn’t get the care they needed. They were sometimes sent to Greek islands or Egypt, then on to Malta, then back to Gallipoli months later having received no care.
When possible, dentists were practicing in Gallipoli, but their equipment was crude. While on the Western Front, dental surgeries were performed in a Rolls Royce. In Gallipoli, they were performed in a dental chair that consisted of a dugout part of the trench and a pack for the patient to rest his head. These “dental surgeries” were located just a few yards from the front, and on at least one occasion, a dentist got shrapnel in his knee while in the midst of an extraction. There was usually no anesthetic, so fillings and even extractions were performed without.
This sad state of affairs no doubt contributed to the morale problems that would plague the ANZACs as the battle’s stalemate dragged on. When we remember the sacrifices of our brave soldiers, we also have to remember how some of those sacrifices were manufactured by poor decisions at the command level — and, at Gallipoli, most of them were.