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Podcast 25: Winter 1916-17

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The winter was so cold that I felt like crying. In fact the only time… I didn’t actually cry but I’d never felt like it before, not even under shell fire…

After the close of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916, the men on the Western Front dug in for the coming winter. That year, it proved to be exceptionally cold. All those who lived through the winter of 1916-17 had memories of the bitterly freezing conditions. Basil Rackham served with the Royal Naval Division during the Battle of the Ancre.

Well of course, after that battle we had to go back behind the reserves and we got reinforcements and so on. Then we came back into the line again at the same place, at just above Beaucourt and this was in February, early February 1917. And the conditions there were the coldest winter we’d ever had – terrible. The conditions in the… well, there wasn’t really a front line, there wasn’t a continuous trench but these little holes that we had. You just couldn’t dig any more it was all hard as bricks.

The severe cold tested the troops’ morale, as Victor Fagence, a private in the Royal West Surrey Regiment, discovered.

The winter of 1916-17 was notoriously a very, very cold winter. And for my part, I think I almost in my own mind then tasted the depths of misery really, what with the cold and all that sort of thing, you see. We were forbidden to take our footwear off in the front line. Although, I myself disobeyed that on one occasion. I was so cold when I came off sentry go, and we had a bit of a dugout to shelter in, when I went in there – this was before leather jerkins were issued – there was an issue of sheepskin coats. And I took my gumboots off and wrapped my feet in the sheepskin coat to get a bit of extra, you know, to warm them up a bit.

The icy weather made life during the day miserable – but the drop in temperature at night was even worse. Near 40th Division’s forward Headquarters, British artillery officer Murray Rymer-Jones found an unusual way to cope with it.

Now, for our own comfort, to be in a tent with snow on the ground and the appalling cold was nobody’s business. You couldn’t have heating in the tents, you see. So the only thing I could do then was, we had a double loo heavily sandbagged all round in the entrance, you see, it was like little rooms. And although there was no connection between the two, you could talk to the chap next door! So Hammond, from another battery who came and joined us for a bit then, he and I used to sit in the loo most of the night – because it was so heavily sandbagged it kept it reasonably warm – and talked!

For the men who faced the winter in kilts, exposure to the bitter weather was unbearable. NCO J Reid served with the Gordon Highlanders.

We went up with these casuals and joined the battalion; the 6th battalion again, joined the battalion at a place called… I can’t remember the name of the place now. The battalion was made up to strength, anyway. And a couple of days after, we was on the march. It was the month of January, dead cold. Oh, God it was cold. We were going up to Arras which was about 30 km – 30, 40 km – from this place. We marched and I always remember that. Our knees were even frozen up, you know, with the usual field bandages to wrap up our knees and all up our legs to keep the frost from biting into our legs, our bare legs.

It wasn’t just the cold that made winter on the Western Front so difficult to endure. Flooded trenches were also a feature of life there, something which Harold Moore of the Essex Regiment found out to his cost.

The communications trenches were half full of water and they had to have these duckboards on the side of the trench to walk up to the front line. You had to come up, file up in single line, single file. And as we was going up to the line there was a fellow in front of me, he was a machine-gunner and he’d got two buckets of these circular ammunition what he used for his Lewis gun. He stopped for a moment, you know, cos they were heavy! I said, ‘I want to get by cos I’ve got to get up to the front line.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you must wait; I can’t go any further for the moment.’ Well then I tried to get round the side of him and, as I did so, he just gave a heave of this bucket and it knocked me in the shell holes full of water.

The waterlogged ground meant the men soon found themselves in extremely muddy conditions. Andrew Bain of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders described the dangers of such an environment.

Mud and cold. Oh, for weeks we were up to the thighs in mud. And if we were moving forward to the trenches, many of the shell holes were filled up with muddy clay. And if a man fell into that he couldn’t get out. And they were simply drowned in mud. There was nothing could be done about it.

Because of the abnormally cold conditions that swept the Western Front that winter, the ground froze solid. This turned out to be lucky for officer George Jameson, who was based near Aubers Ridge.

I had gone over to a position on the ridge where I could observe one day and, as I say, the ground was iron hard. I was walking back and a gun started to fire. I suddenly heard this swish and I could tell by the very sound of it I could tell it was coming fairly near to me. Suddenly, there was a burst away to my right and I thought, ‘Well thank goodness for that, plod on chaps.’ I kept going on and suddenly the gun fired again, another one; it had changed its angle a bit and I heard this thing. It sounded as though it was coming extremely close. I hadn’t time to do anything. Just suddenly quite by my side there was this [noise] and, about 150 yards beyond me, the shell burst. What had happened, the ground was so hard that the shell had just glisséed on the surface, you see. It struck within about a yard to the right-hand side of me as I was walking and then went on and in the air, about 150 yards beyond, it burst. Now, if that had been soft I’d have had that. That’s the kind of thing that happened. Not me this time chaps, on, on!

The weather also affected the vehicles used along the Western Front. Antonia Gamwell worked as an ambulance driver with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.

Of course in the winter it was bitter and we couldn’t keep the cars mobile, I mean they just froze of course if they were left to freeze. But we had to keep winding them up. We tried every other way, we tried putting hot bottles in the engines and under the bonnet and heavy bonnet covers and every device we could possibly imagine, but it was no use. We had to simply stay up, there were details. So many of us – six I think it was – used to be on duty and every twenty minutes we went up and wound up the whole lot.

The bitter cold also froze clothing, blankets, food and drink. For men serving in the front line, a warming cup of tea would have been very welcome – but, as NCO Clifford Lane explained, this wasn’t always forthcoming.

The coldest winter was 1916-17. The winter was so cold that I felt like crying. In fact the only time… I didn’t actually cry but I’d never felt like it before, not even under shell fire. We were in the Ypres Salient and, in the front line, I can remember we weren’t allowed to have a brazier because it weren’t far away from the enemy and therefore we couldn’t brew up tea. But we used to have tea sent up to us, up the communication trench. Well a communication trench can be as much as three quarters of a mile long. It used to start off in a huge dixie, two men would carry it with like a stretcher. It would start off boiling hot; by the time it got to us in the front line, there was ice on the top it was so cold.

Serving with the Honourable Artillery Company in the Ancre sector, Bill Haine had similar problems with frozen water.

We were on a show there at a place called Baillescourt Farm. And we took this farm and we had to hold on to it. Nobody could get up to us and if they did get up to us with water it was no good because it was completely frozen stiff; our water bottles were frozen stiff. And all we’d had for about three days was to suck ice, cut your water bottles and suck the ice out of it. The River Ancre was just on our right at that time and we went down to the Ancre every night with pick-axes to try and get through to the water, but we never succeeded.

For British sapper George Clayton, the simple task of shaving was made almost impossible by the sub-zero temperatures.

You could get a handful of snow and put it into one of them empty Capstan tins, you know we used to get tins of Capstan, had 60 cigarettes, it was just about like a milk thing. And you could warm your snow in there to get water underneath a candle then you had some warm water when the snow melted. Have a shave and by the time you were shaved – they issued us with cut throat razors there wasn’t any safeties in them days – but by the time you were shaved the water was frozen again to ice. And you had to melt the water that you’d left your lather brush in before you could get it out! It was a block of ice again! I know me I’ve had to do that more than once! Oh, aye.

As the winter weather took hold, the troops were issued with warmer clothing. Sidney Amatt of the Essex Regiment listed what he wore.

In the winter we had our normal clothes on, we had thick woollen underwear and woollen shirts, and then we had a cardigan or a pullover and then our uniform. Then on top of that we had our overcoat. During the winter of 1917 we had sheepskin coats issued for the troops who were manning the front line only. And that was over the top of your overcoat and that was a leather – sheepskin leather – coat with the fleece still on it and you put it on so that the fleece was still outward. And you had gauntlets, large gloves, that was if you were up at the front line only. Otherwise you had woollen gloves issued to you and you had a woollen scarf which acted as a cover for your head after you’d taken your steel helmet off.

Despite the extra layers, many of the men still fell victim to frostbite and trench foot. Walter Grover was a private in the Royal Sussex Regiment.

All the time you’ve got in the trenches you never knew you’d got trench feet. Your feet were terribly cold with no feeling but when you got out of the line and you took your boots and socks off then your feet swelled up and you could never get your boots on again. And the agony of trench feet, you know, chaps used to groan with it and of course some actually lost their feet with it, you know, frostbite. Trench feet is something to be endured to describe it.

With a bit of care and good luck, Frederick Holmes was able to escape this painful condition.

Quite a number of our troops had to go away with frostbite but, personally, I managed to keep my feet dry by avoiding holes in the duckboards and being generally careful, I suppose. And I didn’t suffer so much in that respect. Strangely enough, although I, as a child, I always had chilblains and I never stood the cold very well, I survived very well indeed – considering.

In extreme cases, men even died from exposure to the biting cold. Charles Wilson came close to such a fate with an attack of pneumonia.

We were behind the line; we were in reserve, we were at Mametz Wood. We were under canvas in the middle of winter, this was December and I’d been down on a course and had come back. And my kit had gone on up, I knew where the battalion was, I was there before I left, I knew the way up to the battalion and had left my kit to be sent on, my valise, to be sent up with the rations. But my kit never arrived and I had no cover and the battalion had only one blanket per man. It was a very hard frost and I arrived at this place very hot and sweaty and got a chill and was carried down from that to hospital.

However, even in the midst of such a bleak winter, Christmas Day offered a bit of cheer for at least some of the men. George Cole of the Royal Artillery warmly remembered the festive extra rations he received.

We went back into the line and we went to Flers and we were there over Christmas. And that Christmas there was a ration of Christmas pudding sent out and so forth. And the officers brought some wine among the troops. The major, him and one of the officers, they came round and they shook hands with us all. And they started laughing and saying, ‘We wish you a happy Christmas’! And we got an extra rum ration.

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 26: The submarine war