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.’

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