When I first saw “Discharged: Dentally Unfit” I thought there was typo on the card, but later on I found more like it, and on a few occasions servicemen being discharged for refusing dental treatment.
That phrase stuck in my head because I could not really fathom what was going on. I do remember that prior to us going up to the Border in December 1980 our whole infantry company was marched off to the dentist up the road in the military hospital, and those who had dodgy teeth had them treated before we flew out to South West Africa (now Namibia) .
This past week revealed another link in the chain when a recruiting poster for WW1 popped up on facebook. Emblazoned in a largish font at the bottom was the advisory “Bad teeth no bar”.
Jokes abounded about how you cannot have a bar if you have bad teeth or can only visit a bar if you have good teeth.
Each time I was called up for a camp we visited the military dentist in Potch too and he noted the condition of your teeth, the reason being that if you were a casualty identification may be possible through your dental records. There was method in that madness after all. I do not know whether this was also true way back 1914, or if it was just a ploy to gain more cannon fodder for the generals to throw into badly planned and executed attacks. I do suspect that the military back then was more concerned about not having their soldiers all going on sick leave with dodgy teeth. Dental hygiene was quite poor back then, a cavity would not be given a temporary filling followed by an even more expensive permanent one. The dentist just grabbed his biggest set of pliers and let rip!
Military dentists were not known for their compassion, and for that matter the same could be true of some “civilian dentists”. They were doing a job and they probably saw some horrible things during the course of their day, although a mouth of rotten teeth on a living soldier was much preferable to that of the corpses that were left after a bloody battle. I believe in earlier wars the teeth of dead soldiers became the source of many pairs of false teeth. There were people who picked through the corpses and extracted teeth which they then sold off to the dodgy false teeth creator. It was a perfectly respectable way to earn a living.
My current reading matter is all about Victor/Viktor Capesius, a Romanian who served at Auschwitz and who was put on trial for his part in the “selections” alongside “men” like Josef Mengele. Mention is made in the book of the inmates who were given a pair of pliers and sent to extract the gold filled teeth of the dead, and how Capesius allegedly stole of that ill gotten gold. Given how many people died in Auschwitz the amount of gold obtained from fillings was a large amount, and while most ended up in the coffers of the Third Reich, the unscrupulous nature of the perpetrators of the horrors of genocide in the camps certainly extracted their cut too. (The Pharmacist of Auschwitz: The Untold Story, by Patricia Posner)
My curiosity is suitably satisfied for now, but you never know what else will pop up in the future.
© DRW 2017. Created 07/07/2017. Image of the military dentist was taken in Winchombe during the Wartime Weekend on the GWSR,and he most certainly was a decent fellow just doing his bit.