After the iconic images from the Trenches of soldiers wading through mud then next most common images are of snow covered battlefields. After listening to historian Steve Smith dispel myths and show how we can’t always trust photographs I decided to do some research in to this and see if it was snowy on the Western Front or if these images are actually of the Eastern and Balkan lines.
Met Office reports for the UK in December 1916 list the month as having “weather conditions appropriate to the month of the winter solstice – cold and inclement, with frequent and severe frosts and a good deal of snow.” Snow depths of up to 23cm were recorded in some areas of Wales and Scotland whereas “the streets of Dublin were exceptionally dangerous on the 17th, when some 300 cases of accident were treated in the hospitals” due to the ice.
January 1917 is headlined as being “Stormy and Abnormally Mild” and the full account talks of gales across the country throughout the month and temperatures recorded in Scotland made it the warmest January for 60 years. More worryingly “a sharp Earthquake shock occurred at Shrewsbury, Craven Arms and Onndle at 7.30pm on the 14th. The rumbling noise lasted 10 seconds; houses were shaken and windows rattled.”
February was a much worse month being listed as “Stormy, Mild, and Rainy, then Cold with much Snow.” The snow, when it arrived towards the end of the month, was particularly heavy with Norwich (specifically mentioned) recording 261% of the average expected. The drifts in Dartmoor were 3 ½ metres deep.
This cold and snowy weather continued through March and well into April, which in places was the coldest recorded since 1856. Records show that it showed somewhere in the UK every day right up until the 19th of April.
However as was noted in a previous post about wartime weather however close to the Western Front areas of the UK are the weather conditions may not have been mirrored.
By reading some of the diaries and letters available from men serving in France and Belgium we can get an idea that the winter of 1916/1917 was exceedingly cold, snowy and unpleasant in France and Belgium too, although December and January seem to be swapped in conditions!
In the book Somewhere in Flanders: Letters of a Norfolk Padre in the Great War the Revd Green’s collected letters from the Front to his Parish give a clear indication into the weather in his sector:
Letter from 1 Jan 1917
On the day before Christmas Eve, we left the trenches to go into billets. The trenches had become very uncomfortable owing to the prevalent wet weather, and we were glad enough to leave them. We had to march six or seven miles […] There was a head wind, which at times almost brought us to a standstill.
A letter from 11th Feb 1917 written in the Neuve Chapelle sector states:
We have been having a very severe spell of cold weather. The French people say that they have not had such a frost for over 20 years. For weeks now the whole country has been covered with snow, and all the streams and ditches are covered with ice many inches thick.
The cold weather is very trying for the troops. When we are in the trenches it is not possible to keep warm because it is impossible to move about very much, and it is not always possible to have much of a fire because the smoke might attract the unpleasant attractions of the enemy over the way. So we have been very cold in the line.
The mild December is also remarked upon in another correspondent’s, Arthur Dease letters home. (Arthur’s letters have a wonderful story behind them and I recommend exploring the whole website where they are published http://www.arthursletters.com/)
Curious all the frost you have had & snow, here mild for the time of year & cloudy, some rain and everlasting wind. I sincerely hope it will not freeze, so hard on the poor men in the trenches standing in mud & water up to their waists, it would mean so many frozen feet.
Sadly Arthur’s hopes for a mild winter are dashed and he mentions a change in his letter dated 14th Jan “Snowy & very slushy & beastly generally” and again on 26th Jan “Bitter cold continues, hard frosts & clear days, ground like iron & all lightly covered with snow.”
His report from 3rd Feb paints an even colder picture:
Weather still cold & bright, but not quite as bad as it was. It freezes night & day. Such a long spell. We dread rain here as this limestone country is so sticky & messy, still the roads even after rain will be a treat after the Somme. Such a job to get dry wood & keep warm. It keeps us busy cutting & splitting for kitchen & our wretched little oil drum stove in room where we eat. My friend who went home a few days ago left his petrol stove & I keep it in my room all day going & it makes quite a difference. Without it was just an icehouse.
Which continues in his letter from the 11th
At last today a bit milder, been bitterly cold day after day, freezing day & night. Almost as you throw out water it freezes. Clear days. Seems coldest winter in France since 70! Home too it seems cold & snowy & a lot of skating, so it has given some pleasure.
“we having good weather which is very nice as we are in tents.” It does seem however that this was only a temporary respite (or perhaps Philip trying to reassure his parents) as in a letter from 25th March he writes “It is bitterly cold weather, you know, freezing hard and blowing, occasionally snowing too.”
The bad weather continues and is written about on 27th March:
“It snowed hard yesterday, then it freezes in the night thaws & rains in the mornings so the roads are in a dreadful state.”
Like in the UK the weather doesn’t improve in France as April starts as Philip continues on 2nd April:
“We are having extraordinary weather, this morning when we woke up there was snow on the ground & all the puddles etc were frozen, there has been a biting wind all day too.”
Easter Sunday, 8th April is reported as being a nice day but again this seems to have been a false spring as Philip writes on 12th April that:
“it is now a land of snow! The whole place is white with it lying thick, it has been very cold all this week, and I am glad we are not in the trenches.”
It doesn’t get better as his letter from 17th April says:
“I must just say what awful weather we are having. I am not really as hard up for news as that you know. But just fancy it is the middle of April and I am wearing two waistcoats to-day. Last night there was a hurricane of cold wind and driving rain, to-day has been the same, & sometimes hail and finishing with driving snow!”
Fortunately for all of those in France this does seem to be the last report of really bad weather for this winter as the cold is not mentioned again.
This bad weather didn’t stop the fighting however and while there were no campaigns on the scales of Ypres or the Somme there were still deaths.
By using the Commonwealth War Graves websitethink I have ascertained that 47, 763 men are commemorated in France or Belgium as having died between 1st December 1916 and 20th April 1917. Further research shows that 144 of these men were from the Norfolk Regiment. (The Norfolk Regiment is listed on the same site as having lost 635 men in this 4 month period – the majority of deaths not coming from the Western Front.)
The Imperial War Museum has a recording of an actual WW1 Veteran NCO Clifford Lane recounting his memories of winter 1916/17 which you can find here along with other first-hand accounts.
Resources used in this Blog:
- Imperial War Museum website
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
- Met Office Weather Reports (accessed using the internet archive)
- The Edwardian Era and WW1 from a Different Perspective website
- Somewhere in Flanders: Letters of a Norfolk Padre in the Great War edited by Stuart John McLaren (borrowed from Norfolk Heritage Centre)
- The First World War Letters of Philip and Ruth Hewetson edited by Frank Meeres (borrowed from Norfolk Heritage Centre)