Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Weather on the Western Front - Cold and snow

Pencil drawing of two British soldiers standing in the cold outside three bell tents, in camp at Bezeaux [Baizieux], France, 12 December 1916, drawn by Private Thomas McCree Scott, an artist from Sunderland (D/DLI 7/956/1(31))
D/DLI 7/956/1(31) Pencil drawing of two British soldiers standing in the cold outside three bell tents, in camp at Bezeaux [Baizieux], France, 12 December 1916, drawn by Private Thomas McCree Scott, an artist from Sunderland
The weather played an enormous role in the experience of soldiers.  Living mostly outdoors, they were exposed to the elements.  On the Western Front,  Second Lieutenant John Walcote Gamble of 14th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, had been in Belgium less than two months when he wrote home on 20 October 1915:
'It is extremely cold here, and I am not properly warm even now, with the following wrapped round my person in various ways:- Two pairs sox, gum boots, putties, body belt, 2 vests, thick shirt, woollen white sweater, tunic, British warm overcoat, woollen muffler, and cap comforter.'
A month later, on 20 November, he was able to derive some humour from the situation:
'The water in the front line was everywhere a foot or more deep; it was intensely cold; the hail came across with such force, that it seemed to be mixed with bullets, and I'm sure many men must have thought they were shot by hail-stones. The harder we pumped, the deeper the water seemed to become. If we had left it undisturbed, we should have been frozen in, and Bosche was rather active with his artillery.

We discussed various ways of using or abusing the liquid devil. One bright idea was to cut a trench through from our line to theirs, make it fairly deep, run in the water, and torpedo them!!!

Another, to make a number of fires in buckets, and hang them up in our dug-outs, which of course were half-full of water. After a time surely the water would boil and we could get hot baths!!

Boat and swimming races were dismissed as frivolous, but the idea of skating about the support trenches was seriously considered!!'
Photograph of soldiers marching across a snow-covered field [possibly in Belgium], n.d. [c.1914 - 1918] (D/DLI 7/951/7(2))
D/DLI 7/951/7(2) Photograph of soldiers marching across a snow-covered field [possibly in Belgium], n.d. [c.1914 - 1918]
Hubert Morant, commanding officer of the 10th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, had access to slightly better conditions.  In January 1917, he was away from the front lines teaching on a training course that found him staying in a deserted chateau but perhaps not much warmer.  Writing to his wife on 25 Jan 1917:
'We have two fairly snug rooms to live in but my bedroom, an enormous one with leaky windows etc is bitter.  Ice all over Sponge, Water etc. What about the men's barns seems too cold for anything. Still a terrific frost & snow all round.'
Two days later on 27 January he writes:
'The cold of this Chateau is terrific, in my room everything is frozen even a shirt I washed & put in the chest of drawers is absolutely stiff. I had a Bottle filled with hot water last night, that was better. My fingers get absolutely numb before I finish dressing. Its still freezing like blazes, a man was frozen to death in the trenches a night or two ago.'
Incidences of frostbite and death from exposure are not typically given in information for the Western Front.  One location where details of this can be found for is Gallipoli, Italy, an area where there were no Durham Light Infantry units fighting. 

On 26 November 1915, a torrential rain storm caused flash flooding of allied trenches.  This rain soon turned to snow and temperatures plummeted.  Vivid accounts can be found online and statistics appear in official histories and war diaries.  Battalions such as the 2nd Royal Fusiliers lost around 88% of their men [killed and injured] between 26 November and 1 December when an account was made.  This included men who had drowned as well as died of exposure, plus numerous cases of frostbite and other injuries. 

A rum ration could be issued for warmth and nerves and as uniform was not always adequate for the harsh conditions, soldiers would improvise with items sent from home.  The satirical magazine Punch provided a particularly comic example of this:

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