The Enemy Inside

(October 28th, 2014) War is a bad thing, no matter how you look at it. But recent research shows that in the trenches of World War I, soldiers had to fight  not only against their human enemies on the other side but also against parasites infesting their guts.

Long forgotten, the Kilianstollen in France, near the German border, received renewed interest when, a few years ago, archaeologists excavated the bodies of 21 WWI soldiers. On March 18th, 1918, French soldiers bombarded the German emplacement, leaving these 21 unlucky souls dead and buried in a barricaded part of the complex gallery system.

Bones and teeth can tell the scientists a lot about the soldiers’ lives but French scientists extracted even more from their remains. New research by Matthieu Le Bailly from the Université de Franche-Comté in Besançon, France, and colleagues, revealed eggs from roundworms (Ascaris lumbricoides), whipworms (Trichuris trichiura), tapeworms (Taenia sp.) and the capillariid group in the abdominal cavity of two of the 21 German soliders. The morphological and morphometrical comparisons represent only the second instance of parasite eggs recovered directly from WWI human remains.

Whereas the presence of the worms did not surprise the researchers, the capillariid eggs, which bear similarity to rodent parasites, gave them more of a headache. Was it a real infection or were the eggs just passing through? One of their hypotheses about how those eggs ended up in the soldiers’ abdomen, involves, “accidental ingestion of capillariid eggs with food or water, ridden with rat faeces” or, “direct consumption of rat meat”. This is a question the authors will tackle soon, studying additional sites.

Even without the capillariid eggs, the scientists’ findings hint at the poor living conditions in WWI trenches. “It is general knowledge that conditions in WWI trenches were bad, especially for things like hygiene or clean water”, says Matthieu. “Insalubrity, close human proximity, the poor management of organic remains, undercooked or raw food consumption and a lack of knowledge of parasites”, also contributed to the fact that WWI soldiers had, first and foremost, to fight the enemy inside their own bodies. 

“Here we have the evidence that soldiers really were infected by intestinal parasites. The huge presence of rats in the trench and the galleries near the combatants resulted in the pollution of the environment, water and food, which probably led to the presence of parasite eggs in the human intestines,” he adds.

Interestingly, Matthieu et al. also note that, “the lower ranking soldier, #1018, yielded a high positivity for helminth eggs, in particular for ascariasis. The higher grades, the sergeant, #1019, and the corporal, #1012, tested slightly positive or negative. Easier access to commodities, water, and possibly a better sanitary education could explain this result”.

So in the dirty and frightening trenches of WWI, being a private almost certainly killed you, one way or another.

Karl Gruber

Image: Le Bailly et al. (PLoS ONE)

Last Changes: 12.08.2014