This image, which makes you cold just by looking at it, is perhaps more reminiscent of the Eastern Front in WW2, but in fact it was taken in early 1917. It shows a German machine-gun position in a forward trench close to the village of Le Transloy on the Somme front during the winter of 1916/17. This was the coldest winter of the war on the Western Front, when temperatures dropped to minus twenty on the Somme. This area of the battlefields is open and exposed, even in the summer, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to survive during that winter nearly a hundred years ago.
The photograph comes from the photo history of the 26th Division, a Wurttemberg division, who fought in Russia and on the Western Front.
This extraordinary image shows an early war German position on the Western Front during the winter of 1914/15 – so exactly a hundred years ago. Little damage from shell fire is visible, but on the left in the trees the head of a German soldier peaks out from above his trench and to his right there also appears to be a periscope. This would mean the image would have to have been taken in No Man’s Land, which makes it even more unusual as the enemy would have to have been to the rear of the photographer.
A close inspection of the barbed wire shows it covered with snow; glistening in the winter sunshine. The old world had ended; man had made a new world on the Western Front which grow even more terribly as the next twelve months evolved.
It is that time of year again and thoughts of the Old Front Line during the winter months of the Great War come to mind.
This image is from a German source and shows a well constructed trench in Eastern France, possibly the Vosges during the early period of the war. There are little signs of damage, which would indicate a second or third line position and while there is a man on sentry duty in the background, it is unlikely the enemy is very close. What is always amazing when viewing images like this is the thought that men lived in positions like this on a daily basis come sun, rain, or as in this case – snow.
As the depths of winter approach the Western Front turns one hundred; it was created a century ago following the First Battle of Ypres and the fighting in France when the German forces had been stopped. Germany now faced a war on two fronts; facing Allies in the west and the Russians in the East. In response German troops dug in, and those opposite soon did likewise; these were not the first trenches, however. Those had been dug on the Aisne in September 1914 when the Germans haven been defeated on the Marne, pulled back to the Aisne heights. Here small systems of trenches were dug and the first signs of static warfare appeared in images of the period. By December 1914 the system of trenches were no longer posts laid out in isolation. Both sides were joining them up creating whole networks of trenches which by early 1915 would result in 450 miles of continuous trenches running from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Border: and thus the Western Front was born.
The images seen here come from a contemporary photographic history of the German 26th (Reserve) Division and show some of the first trenches they had dug on the Somme front around Thiepval. The trenches were basic, often straight, and gave only rudimentary protection from artillery fire, which at this stage of the conflict was nothing like it would later become of course. The top photograph shows men in the wooded area below Thiepval chateau and the image above shows a strongpoint on the ridge. It is hard to think of the Somme outside the context of 1916 but these images clearly show that the development of the system of defences that would play a role in the battle here eighteen months later would require time to build up, time the Germans would subsequently have in this sector. For now they would doomed to spend the first winter on the Somme in muddy ditches (below) which would soon be filled with snow, while they faced the French troops beyond.
As Christmas approaches thoughts turn to trench life on the Western Front during the Great War. This image dates from a small private collection relating to the 1/13th Battalion London Regiment (Kensingtons) and was taken in France near Fleurbaix during the winter of 1914/15. The men are dressed informally as was typical of that early period of the conflict and aside from a great deal of personal kit being worn to keep the cold out, the man on the left has a typical goat/sheep-skin jerkin of this first winter. At least the rum ration is close at hand! The fact that the men are standing up and the parapet of the positions behind is low, would indicate this was in a reserve trench some distance from the actual front line.
We end this month’s Winter War series with a photograph from Christmas Day 1914. It shows men of the 11th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (1st Southdowns Battalion) having Christmas Lunch in their wooden hut at Cooden Camp, just outside Bexhill-on-Sea. The lunch was paid for by the man who had raised the Southdowns, the county of Sussex’s equivalent of ‘Pals’ battalions, Lieutenant Colonel Claude Lowther MP. The men are still in their ‘Kitchener’s Blues‘ uniforms; enough khaki not having yet arrived to equip more than handful of recruits.
The 11th would last the longest of all the wartime raised battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment. It’s war would take it finally to France in 1916, and then in almost every major engagement up to the end of the conflict on the Western Front and in late 1918 to Russia where it would stay well into 1919 fighting against the Bolsheviks.
For these Sussex worthies it was the first Christmas of a long war; how many of them in this photo would come home when the battalion was finally disbanded?
The Belgian Army in some ways is often a forgotten force in the Great War. Their men fired some of the earliest shots when the Germans crossed the border during the Schlieffen Plan and by the end of 1914 they were holding the Yser Front from north of Ypres to the Belgian coast at Nieuport; positions largely along the Yser Canal. By 1918 more than 30,000 Belgian soldiers had died in the war.
This image from the winter of 1917 shows two Belgian soldiers equipped for the cold, dressed in their greatcoats. After 1914 much of the Belgian Army equipment was supplied by Britain and the Belgians began to wear a uniform that was a variation of the some of the British designs as all their factories had been overrun by the Germans. But their headgear was always distinctive, as seen here.