Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Weather on the Western Front - Sun

An officer, 'Geoff', standing beside crates of beer, in the Western Front, c.1914 - 1918 (D/DLI 7/701/2(157))
D/DLI 7/701/2(157) An officer, 'Geoff', standing beside crates of beer, in the Western Front, c.1914 - 1918
After weeks of rain, this extract from a letter written 4 November 1915 by Second Lieutenant John Gamble speaks for itself,

‘One does appreciate the re-appearance of the sun, after it has been sulking behind heavy rain clouds for 18 days.  When it suddenly comes to itself, and objects to its obscurity and commences to drive away the frowning clouds, which send down a spiteful little shower to demonstrate their ill-feeling, it cheers us, drenched soldiers, immensely.  And when, after a brief contest with the moist-old divil - Rain - it bursts through with a brilliant bayonet charge, and sends the enemy blowing away in haste, it is greeted by many a broad smile, and a "Bonjour old sport". ‘

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Weather on the Western Front – ‘Blancmange au noir’

Aerial view of shell craters behind British lines, taken to the west of Ypres, Belgium, c.1915 – 1918 (D/DLI 2/7/18(319))
D/DLI 2/7/18(319) Aerial view of shell craters behind British lines, taken to the west of Ypres, Belgium, c.1915 – 1918
‘Blancmange au noir’ is what Second Lieutenant John Gamble calls mud in a letter he wrote on 28 October 1915.  

Mud was pervasive in the Western Front.  Flat, low lying fields, incessant rain and hundreds of thousands of men tramping across it, digging it up, and, of course, blowing it up.  If you think about how unpleasant Glastonbury Festival looks after a few days of bad weather, then consider the above conditions over four years. 

The mud caused serious problems for horses and vehicles used for transport as well as for soldiers trying to get around on foot.  In a letter to his wife on 14 October 1917, Colonel Hubert Morant recounts a close call he had in the mud,
‘This was all enormous shell holes full of water, with just a little partition or ridge of earth between some. We made our way along these little narrow ridges & then found ourselves between 2 Batteries, very soon the Boches began on them & to my horror one of these partitions between shell holes was so soft I sank right up to my knees & couldn't move & felt myself going deeper, the more I tugged the deeper I went & Harold's Boots began to come off, meanwhile bang came the most terrifying bangs & splinters. I implored the Adjutant to pull me out but he was so occupied with the shells that he didn't notice! Eventually he noticed and hauled me out. On we went & down came the shells one in front & one behind at the same time, just anywhere. Then we found a little dugout full of water with a bed of shavings, fairly dry, in we popped & stayed there about quarter of an hour when things cooled down.’ 
Another danger of the wet and muddy conditions was trench foot.  Temperatures did not need to be freezing for this to set in.  Men could spend days in wet trenches and caked in mud, never removing their clothing or boots.  The feet would go numb, turn red or blue, they could then blister or turn gangrenous, severe cases could require the affected foot or feet to be amputated.  Due to the high numbers of men affected during the first winter of the war, measures were put in place to try and improve the situation, though it did not eradicate the problem.  As well as the duckboards in trenches as referred to in last week’s post [create link here], officers had to make frequent inspections of their men’s feet and whale oil was provided to for men to rub on.  In a letter dated 15 May 1915, Major John English of 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry tells his wife how in the absence of spare socks, wrapping his feet in paper before putting the wet ones back on was ‘quite a good dodge’. 

An officer of the 7th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, relaxing at a camp in the Western Front, c.1914 - 1918 (D/DLI 2/7/18(183))
D/DLI 2/7/18(183) An officer of the 7th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, relaxing at a camp in the Western Front, c.1914 - 1918
Even in the rest camps, away from the front lines, conditions were not always much better.  On 20 October 1917 Colonel Morant wrote,
‘The squalor, discomfort, mud and general wretchedness when you do get away from the front is so depressing. No sort of comfort & even if one is more or less provided with shelter oneself one feels everyone else is so uncomfortable it is almost as bad.’
When soldiers were newer to the war, some could see some humour in the situation.  Lieutenant Frederick Rees had been France for about four months when he wrote to his younger brother in December 1915,
‘My old stick is useful, you would roar to see me nearly falling down in the mud and doing a Charlie Chaplin walk to save myself.’
A piece of prose written in May 1916 by Second Lieutenant Gamble and titled ‘Pencillings at Dusk’ feels all the more poignant this centenary year of the beginning of the war:
‘Close your eyes with me here, and listen to nature gently protesting that she still does, and always will hold sway; that war will not continue for ever, and soon she will reassert herself in this stricken land, and with the aid of time, gradually cover up and remove all the appalling signs of the forces which have endeavoured to upheave her.’

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Weather on the Western Front – Rain and more rain

Soldiers of the 7th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, marching along a road in the Western Front, c.1914 - 1918 (D/DLI 2/7/18(223))
D/DLI 2/7/18(223) Soldiers of the 7th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, marching along a road in the Western Front, c.1914 - 1918
Rain was one an inescapable part of life for soldiers during the First World War.  I have not found any figures to back this up but it seems as though the rainfall was higher than average, letters and diaries frequently refer to rain with amazement and despair. 

On the 2nd November 1915, Second Lieutenant John Gamble wrote home from Belgium,
‘I never knew before what it was to RAIN!  The whole country is flooded, and really one cannot put down one's foot anywhere, whether in a farmyard, field, road, or lane, without sinking at least over the boots in mud and water.’
As if the rain alone was not bad enough, the movement of men was often undertaken at night over unfamiliar terrain. Even when on the road, obstacles could get in the way, in December 1915, Gamble wrote,
‘…when we got a move on it was pitch dark - and the rain – ugh! not ordinary stuff, nor extra-ordinary stuff, but great cold sheets of it, descending with the velocity of an 18 pounder…in the blackest darkness, pouring rain, no guides nor maps, and with 300 men to keep together it was really the Divil's Own job! Didn't enjoy it a scrap! We started by falling into great shell holes recently made by Jack Johnsons; running into piles of masonry etc., from houses which had been blown right across the road by high explosives…’
Colour pencil sketch, by Robert Mauchlen, of a soldier sheltering from the rain under a bivouac [at Baizieux Wood, France], n.d. [August 1916] (D/DLI 7/920/9(57))
D/DLI 7/920/9(57) Colour pencil sketch, by Robert Mauchlen, of a soldier sheltering from the rain under a bivouac [at Baizieux Wood, France], n.d. [August 1916]
 Belgium is a low lying country and the Ypres Salient already had a high water table.  This meant that when trenches were dug down, they would already be wet in the bottom.  Add to this the amount of rain and this led to trying conditions.  After the first winter of 1914/15, duckboards became more common, these were a wooden platform for men to stand on that at least kept their feet out of the water and gave a relatively solid walking surface.  It did not protect them from the water coming down.  Out of the trenches, conditions were no drier with men often only having water proof sheeting to protect them from the elements which were formed into a bivouac as shown in the above picture. 

The commanding officer of the 10th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, Colonel Hubert Morant writes to his wife about the conditions as they wait in reserve at Sanctuary Wood near Ypres.  The letters from this time show a man who is being worn down by the conditions of fighting and it is obvious that he is aware of the circumstances his men are living in,
13 October 1917
‘I have kept pretty dry so far in my pill box but the poor men & officers who have to live in the open & wander about on pitch black nights in rain & mud over the most awful ground, it is horrible for them.’
Trenches were not the only things to fill with water, when shells exploded on the ground, they created large craters.  Trying to navigate across a landscape riddled with these in the dark was a dangerous endeavour, with or without the threat of further shelling or gunfire.  With the surrounding ground just mud, falling in without assistance to help you out would have been extremely difficult at best, fatal at worst.  Colonel Morant wrote home on 23 Oct 1917,
‘Very depressingly wet & our old Bog on which we lie is fairly oozing with water. Last night a party had to turn out at 4am for “carrying”, black dark & pouring rain. I heard a Sergeant shout out we shall want another man as one has fallen into a Shell hole, they are of course brim full, what a man does when that happens I cant imagine…’
 The previous day, Morant had written,
‘I have a shell hole full of water just outside my tent I am seriously thinking of bathing in it, you could swim easily.’
 Whilst men likely did wash in the water that filled these holes, they would likely have been unpleasant sources, not only because of the mud and sanitation conditions, but due to potential contamination by dead bodies, animal and human.
Ministry of Information photograph of British soldiers carrying a wounded man, on a stretcher, across a battlefield near Ypres, Belgium, 15 February 1918 (D/DLI 2/8/61(13))

D/DLI 2/8/61(13) Ministry of Information photograph of British soldiers carrying a wounded man, on a stretcher, across a battlefield near YpresBelgium, 15 February 1918