The dentists who unofficially kept our diggers going in WWI

An Australian dental unit in France during WWI (insert) Royal Australian Army Dental Corps Badge
An Australian dental unit in France during WWI (insert) Royal Australian Army Dental Corps Badge

DENTAL problems were of little consequence to the Australian Army authorities when the First World War began. By that time, although there were Dental Hospitals in most capital cities, dentists were mainly trained by dentists in an apprenticeship system.

The Army considered that their doctors could look after the teeth of its men and all doctors were provided with a pair of dental forceps as part of their medical kit.

It was thought, however, that men who enlisted with bad or missing teeth could be a problem so a dental officer was appointed to advise medical staff at most enlistment centres. He had no authority, however, to carry out dental procedures.

The dental profession was of course aware of this situation and some dentists offered a free service to soldiers while they were training. Dental Hospitals were also made available free of charge. Because of this the Army was rejecting fewer men because of dental problems.

However, problems persisted in the forces overseas and by mid-1915 it was found that over 600 men had been evacuated as dental casualties.

Separate dental units were established in Australia in February 1916 and these embarked with troops. Units were attached to the Army Medical Service initially but apparently towards the end of the war the name Army Dental Corps was being used at least unofficially.

So far seven local men have been identified for enlisting as dentists in the First World War.

From Casino was Lieutenant Frederick Richmond Crouch; from Grafton: Captain Henry Richard Arnold and Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Flintoff; from Lismore: Captain Charles Sidney Barham, Lieutenant Charles Frederick Finigan, Staff Sergeant Reginald Charles Maegraith, and Lieutenant John McKenzie McLachlan.

There were also seven men who were either dental mechanics or dental assistants:

Corporal Royden James Ainsworth (Ballina); Sergeant Gordon Knight Cumming (Casino); Pte Norman Allan Cameron, Staff Sergeant Jack Lloyd Dykes, and Sergeant Gordon Ewart McKenzie (Grafton); Pte Samuel Thomas Hall, and Pte Sydney Musgrove Waugh (Lismore).

Because of the circumstances surrounding dentistry and the dental units the records of some of these men are hard to interpret. An example is Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Flintoff.

He is said to have enlisted initially in November 1915 but was apparently working with the Red Cross or some other agency, presumably as a dentist.

He was wounded several times and was mentioned in despatches for his courage. A more official enlistment is dated November 1918 when he is said to have embarked again and was made Commander-in-Chief of all the troops for the voyage. The ship was later recalled as the war had ended.

Corporal Royden Ainsworth enlisted in January 1916, aged 18.

He was a dental mechanic but possibly he served as an ordinary soldier attached to 26th Infantry Battalion. He died in a tramway accident in Marseilles in August 1916. 

Lieutenant Charles Finigan also had an accident. He had enlisted in November 1915 but, while on leave, he slipped on a footpath at Brisbane Railway Station and broke his leg.

At the time he was apparently working at the Army General Hospital in Brisbane, perhaps as a dentist. He was discharged as medically unfit in November 1916.

The RAADC Badge is interesting - a dragon having its teeth cleaned with a sword. Perhaps it matches the doctors' car badge depicting a snake!

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