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.
The Great War was the first conflict in which motorcycle Despatch Riders played any sort of role in battlefield signals. The Royal Engineers took on the main task of providing them and men were specially trained pre-1914 to operate motorcycles. Those with motorcycle experience were brought in when volunteers flooded in after the outbreak of war to cope with the expansion of the army.
This image shows a motorcycle Despatch Rider in winter dress wearing a standard British Army greatcoat but of the shorter type issued to drivers of vehicles and horse transport. He has leather gloves for a better grip and to keep his hands warm when out on his bike and he has a scarf to protect his neck area. On his head is the first wartime issue cold weather gear for British soldiers, the so-called ‘Gor Blimey’ hat. On it is his pair of Despatch Rider goggles. His Royal Engineer cap badge is visible in the middle. Post war the RE Despatch Riders formed an old comrades association which was active well into the 1960s.
This image comes from the same collection as the trench scene featured yesterday and shows three British officers of the 11th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment (Hull Tradesmen) in their dugout at Hébuterne in December 1916. This system of trenches had been taken over from the French in the summer of 1915 and despite attacks here during the Battle of the Somme, the line had remained unchanged.
Very few images exist taken inside WW1 British dugouts and this one shows it is a basic construction with solid timber supports. The occupants have salvaged a table from a nearby house and all are dressed for the cold; the officer on the right is wearing a goat or sheep-skin jacket, common in the winter but prone to being a breeding ground for lice. That particular officer is Second Lieutenant John ‘Jack’ Harrison. Harrison was a prominent local Hull rugby player; he had joined the Hull Pals in 1914 and served with them in Egypt and on the Somme. He would later be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery in the fighting at Oppy Wood on 3rd May 1917.
This image comes from a small collection relating to the 11th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, the second Pals battalion raised in Hull in 1914 and otherwise known as the Hull Tradesmen’s battalion as it drew many of it’s original recruits from those who worked in various trades across Hull. As part of the 31st Division the battalion had moved from England to Egypt in December 1915, where it occupied defences along the Suez Canal which was then threatened by the Turkish Army. In March 1916 the battalion moved to the Western Front where it spent the next year on the Somme, aside from a short period in Northern France, taking part in the fighting for Serre in November 1916.
This photograph was taken in December 1916 after the first major snowfall on the Somme had melted, flooding the trenches. This particular trench was close to the village of Hébuterne and on the left of the image flexible tubing is visible which was part of a British trench pump system. The problem with alleviating this flooding is evident here. The soldier from the 11th East Yorks has a woollen cap comforter on under his steel helmet, a common practice during the winter months on the Western Front.
Working in the snowy conditions of winter on the Western Front was a hard task for all soldiers. While the work kept you warm, the frozen conditions on the battlefield often made such work near impossible in the first place.
This French image from La Guerre Documentee shows a group of French Poilus working on their trenches in a wooded area with picks; so hard is the ground it seems that shovels are not enough. There has been a heavy snow fall and one man keeps watch over the far parapet, but this is likely to be a reserve position away from direct observation otherwise the soldiers would not risk getting up in the open like that. The soldiers are all wearing their great coats, have gloves and scarves, and the image gives us a good insight into how difficult life was on the Western Front during the winter months.
This image was taken in the Vosges area, a region known for its severe weather and deep snow in the winter, and a sector of the Western Front in Eastern France where the fighting revolved around mountainous terrain. Here a group of French Alpine Troops are using skis are ‘on patrol’ although the front here was never really that fluid to allow such patrols to take place in the face of enemy positions and this is likely to be a posed image taken behind the French lines. However, it does give an insight into winter conditions in the Vosges in 1915.
This contemporary illustration from La Guerre Documentee shows a typical French Poilu in a front line trench in winter garb. The French soldier was issued with a substantial greatcoat worn over his tunic which did offer some protection from the cold, but as this illustration demonstrates they also had to result to make do and he has a pair of woollen gloves and a scarf to help make long periods in the front line during the winter at least bearable. The artist, Guy Arnoux, was a well known French illustrator of the period whose work appeared in many magazines and children’s books
The Argonne Forest lies between the battlefields of the Champagne east of Reims and the ground at Verdun. The fighting here in 1914 established the lines around the forested area of the Argonne, where it would remain for much of the rest of the war. Still a forested area, it contains to this day much evidence of the war with trench lines still visible in many places.
This German image dates from the winter of 1915/16 and shows a well constructed trench in the Argonne Forest, where a lone German officer looks out across the snow. The lack of damage and the fact that he has no problem about popping his head above the parapet would indicate this was a reserve trench line, some distance back from the actual battlefield. Much of these reserve lines in the Argonne were finally taken by American troops in the final battles of the autumn of 1918.
The Winter War post yesterday looked at the uniform and kit worn by British troops during winter periods on the Western Front.
This image, dating from 1915, shows a group of German soldiers dressed in their version of the make-do gear to keep them warm during a winter in the trenches. The sturdy coats are leather with a fur liner, again likely to be sheep or goat fur like the British version but a more complex garment and perhaps a little better? The coats have a fur collar and two of the German soldiers have beards, something British soldiers were not allowed to have, even during the winter. It certainly makes an interesting comparison to the sort of kit available to those on the other side of No Man’s Land.
During the Great War the issue of cold weather gear for troops in the front line was limited. In the British Army soldiers had a leather jerkin and greatcoat but as the Northern French winters got colder – it dropped to more than -20 on the Somme during the winter of 1916/17 – a great deal of improvisation took place.
This photograph, dating from 1916, was taken in a French photographer’s studio in a back area on the Somme front. It shows a typical animal fur jacket worn by British troops; in this case with a separate over jacket and arm pieces. It was likely made from sheep or goat fur. While these were warm, they were also breeding grounds for body lice and while extensively used in the early war period, they were less common as the conflict progressed. The soldier also wears a British steel helmet, standard issue by this time, and the strap across his fur jacket is from the small haversack which contained his gas mask, likely to be a PH Helmet at this stage. His Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Rifle has a cover over the main working parts to protect it from the elements. Images like this are rare, especially those taken in studios, and it gives as an insight into what British troops wore during some of the winter periods.
This German image shows an officer and men from the ’12 Sachsen’ in a snow covered dugout in Northern France during the winter of 1914/15. This unit was in fact the Königlich Sächsisches Feldartillerie-Regiment Nr. 12, part of the German 23rd Division. It had fought in Belgium in 1914 and also in the Battle of the Marne and then had been in action on the Aisne. During the winter of 1914/15 it was north-west of Reims, where this photo was taken. Equipped with 77mm Field Guns, the regiment was based some way from the front line as this type of dugout even in the early period of the war would have been quite a target directly on the battlefield. In 1915 the regiment would go on to fight in the Champagne and later in 1916 on the Somme.
As winter officially began this week it is an apt period to be looking at winter on the battlefields of the Great War and all this month the site will feature images relating to the winter period during WW1.
We start with a German image of the Vosges mountains in the snow sometime in 1915. The Vosges was the end of the Western Front, an area of occasionally heavy fighting but largely characterised by long periods of static attritional trench warfare. Being in Eastern France it was also the colder end of the front where during the winter temperatures regularly dropped substantially below zero. While the landscape in the snow might look attractive, and this also appears like a tourist photo, the reality is that men had to live in holes in the ground on battlefields like this during the winter period. The Great War generation was tough but even they struggled to cope in landscapes frozen solid and covered with deep snow.
The winter months on the Western Front, even for a tough generation like that of the Great War, could be a trying time. Temperatures on the Somme in 1916/17 dropped to below -20 and living in exposed muddy ditches in weather like this often caused more casualties than from enemy fire.
Private William Kelly Saunders is pictured here in France during the winter of 1915/16 wearing a lightweight rubberised waterproof cape to offer some protection against wet weather and some home-made ‘trench gloves’ fashioned from goat or sheep fleece to keep the cold off while working in the front line. Underneath he is wearing the standard uniform of his regiment, the London Scottish. While the fleece gloves may have been warm soldiers soon found they became breeding grounds for lice and often ended up throwing them away.