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

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