An Army That Cannot Bite Cannot Fight

In our latest blog, guest author Iain MacLeod takes a look at a British War Office issued dental stoppings (fillings) kit from our collection and tells us why it is so remarkable.

Amongst the museum archive collections of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh is a small wooden box containing the equipment required to place a simple restoration in a tooth. The hand instruments made mostly by Evans Wormull and Claudius Ash would be instantly recognisable by dentists today with the exception of two which have rose head burs fitted; presumably to allow for some crude cutting of dental tissue or more likely softer gross caries.

British War Office issue dental kit (1914-1918)  Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh (ED.CS.2015.1)


What is remarkable is that this military dental set had been produced specifically for the restoration of teeth when, at the time most operational “field dentists” could probably offer little more than extractions.

At the beginning of the First World War in August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) landed in France. With them went a contingent of the Royal Army Medical Corps but not a single dental surgeon! This was somewhat surprising since just over a decade earlier during the 1899-02 Boer War, 2000 soldiers had to be evacuated on dental grounds and 5,000 declared unfit due to a lack of dentures. Leading to the old adage: “an army that cannot bite cannot fight”.

The story then goes that the most senior officer in the British Army, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, got toothache and they had to send to Paris for a dentist. By November 1914, 12 dental surgeons arrived in France having been given temporary commissions with the Royal Army Medical Corps. At the time of the Armistice in 1918, a total of 849 dentists were serving.

This intriguing dental set has another enigma and that is the instructions included for its use. These are very explicit and simple for something dentists at the time would have been very familiar with. Could this just be an example of military efficiency or were they written so others such as medical doctors or orderlies could use? The Dentists Act wasn’t until 1921 so providing the “operator” didn’t use the term dentist or dental surgeon, it is feasible.

Instructions on how to use the kit.  Surgeons’ Hall Museums (ED.CS.2015.1)



Iain Macleod is a retired consultant and honorary clinical senior lecturer in dental & maxillofacial radiology.

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