When civilians have a sore tooth, a quick visit to a dentist and perhaps a change in toothpaste can help ease the pain but what happens when soldiers are deployed – who takes care of their teeth so they can focus on the job at hand?
The Royal Army Dental Corps (RADC) has spent a century taking care of the dental health of British Army personnel – both in barracks and on operations – so that when they deploy, their teeth are not a distraction.
Dental Officers and Nurses of the RADC go wherever army personnel go to provide high-quality oral care.
To be fighting fit, personnel need to keep an eye on more than just passing their fitness test. Dental fitness is also a priority.
Why Is It Important To Look After Our Teeth?
Poor oral hygiene can cause gum disease which, in turn, can increase the chances of getting other health problems like strokes, diabetes and heart disease.
Intense gum disease is, according to the National Health Service, believed to “slowly damage blood vessels in the heart and brain over a long period of time”.
Also, a painful tooth can take your attention away from the job at hand and when you are tasked with accurately shooting a target or being aware of everything going on around you, maintaining focus can save lives.
But when did dental health become such an important part of being a soldier?
History Of The Royal Army Dental Corps
During peacetime and operations, uniformed dental teams have provided high-quality, clinical care on base or wherever troops find themselves for 100 years.
Small mobile surgeries on operations can offer serving personnel a wide range of treatments from dental check-ups all the way through to fillings, extractions and root canals.
Things were a little different in 1660.
It took another 261 years before the Corps was formed in January 1921, but in 1660 an active military dental service did exist.
Musketeers in the 17th century had to have healthy incisors and canine teeth to enable them to open the gunpowder charge. This was the first official army dental standard, born out of necessity.
A few centuries later and nothing much had changed.
In 1899, there was no dental care provided for troops fighting in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. This resulted in more than 2,000 men being sent back home and 5,000 being classed as unfit for duty due to dental problems.
While the British Dental Association tried to get the dental care of soldiers seen as a priority after the Anglo-Boer War, nothing official was put into place which meant that by the time of the First World War, there was still no dental corps.
Dentistry at the time was not something people thought of as a priority. The introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 saw an influx of people wanting to have their rotten teeth pulled out or have their dentures replaced.
Before this, some people would have all their teeth pulled out and replaced with fake versions to prevent increasing costs further down the line. Others, without the financial means to take such extreme measures, would simply grin and bear it.
In the 1937 book ‘Road To Wigan Pier’, British novelist and critic George Orwell wrote of how rare it was to see a working-class person with good teeth. Even children were showing signs of bad teeth health and there was a feeling that “it is best to ‘get shut of’ your teeth as soon as possible”.
At the start of the First World War in 1914, no dental care was provided for serving personnel. It took one senior officer suffering severe toothache and asking for a dentist to treat him during the Battle of Aisne for the flood gates to open.
The Parliamentary Committee on Manpower and the Army Dental Service, also known as the Pennefather Committee after the MP who led it, was formed to examine the issue of bad military dental health.
It found that ‘the efficient man-power of our Army would be increased, and preventable sickness and suffering to our soldiers reduced’ by simple things like focusing on the dental health of serving personnel before they deploy, sending more qualified dentists to the frontline and making sure those with dentistry qualifications were taken away from combat roles and their skills used more wisely.
By 1918, 850 dentists were in France, attached to Casualty Clearing Stations.
The formation of the Army Dental Corps (ADC) was approved by Royal Warrant – signed by His Majesty King George V – in January 1921. The Corps served around the world, in places like Germany, Gibraltar, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Burma, India, North China and the Caribbean.
Colonel Quentin Anderson, Colonel Commandant RADC, spoke to Forces News in May 2021 about marking 100 years of the Royal Army Dental Corps, saying:
“It’s been a hundred years of progress in terms of army dentistry and army dental health.
“What we’ve been able to do over the last 100 years is bring military dentistry up to date.
“Before the corps was formed it was, at best, ad hoc, and before then, non-existent.”
Twenty years after the formation of the Army Dental Corps, the treatment of serving personnel’s teeth was a much bigger deal.
By 1940, army dentists were attached to field ambulances, casualty clearing stations and general hospitals, providing a vital role in keeping oral hygiene a priority.
Six years later, a Special Army Order was issued, approving the change in title to the ‘Royal Army Dental Corps’.
Since the Second World War, the Royal Army Dental Corps has supported the British Army around the world in operations in places like the Gulf, the Falkland Islands, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.
What Challenges Do The Royal Army Dental Corps Face Today?
The COVID-19 pandemic meant a fall in oral health among troops as access to routine dentistry was reduced for them as well as the civilian population. Because of this, serving personnel were at risk of developing dental health problems while on operations.
So, for the first time since operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Royal Army Dental Corps started to treat their patients in tented field dental surgeries filled with all the equipment you would expect to find in a ‘normal’ dentist’s office.
WATCH: Royal Army Dental Corps personnel deploy mobile teams to combat falling levels of oral health.
Chief Dental Officer Colonel Tim Davies is adamant that getting back to field dentistry has proved vital for the corps, saying:
“I think this is an immense step forward for forces dentistry.
“It proves the agility and flexibility of my personnel in the corps, but also the fact that we are an occupational service prepared to step out and do something a bit different in order to provide the care for our forces.”
Today’s military dentists do not just look after teeth.
Because they are in the armed forces, they get to take part in adventurous training, travel the world and are free to choose the treatment they think is best – not simply what the patient can afford.
The Royal Army Dental Corps play a crucial part in keeping serving personnel fighting fit and operationally ready.