Inspired by a trip to the Somme

Over the past 4 years we have enjoyed sharing stories from research undertaken at Gresham’s School into their Old Boys and a recent email about how the research, and a trip to the Somme, have inspired current pupils is wonderful.

History competition inspires pupils to create poignant World War One tributes

Year 9 pupils at Gresham’s School in Holt have created some impressive replicas of World War One trenches for a History competition following their recent trip to the Somme Battlefields in France.

Ben Hunt, from Holt, was awarded first prize for his outstanding tribute entitled “Far Field” made all the more poignant as he had individually made 115 poppies for his trench to represent the staff and pupils from Gresham’s who had lost their lives in the Great War.

Ben said, “I feel extremely proud of what I have created as I spent so much time perfecting my trench to ensure it looked as authentic as possible.” The fourteen year old used a shoebox, wood, barbed wire and even some clay he had gathered on a recent trip to France to help recreate his trench.

Head of History, Mr Simon Kinder said, “This term we are studying the Great War and I have been really impressed with how the pupils researched and developed their entries for this competition.  The standard this year has been particularly high and this is a consequence of how important commemorating the Great War centenary has been at Gresham’s. The students have clearly embraced the challenge and learned so much from constructing their trenches.”

More than 500 former pupils fought for their country, leaving a lasting impact on the school and the surrounding community. As part of the commemorations of the end of the Great War, the school held Remembrance Services where the 115 pupils and staff who lost their lives were remembered.

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Snow in the trenches, the harsh winter of 1916/1917

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.

This image, 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. The photograph comes from the photo history of the 26th Division, a Wurttemberg division, who fought in Russia and on the Western Front. https://greatwarphotos.com/2014/12/13/winter-war-snow-bound-german-trench-on-the-somme/

This image, 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.
The photograph comes from the photo history of the 26th Division, a Wurttemberg division, who fought in Russia and on the Western Front. https://greatwarphotos.com/2014/12/13/winter-war-snow-bound-german-trench-on-the-somme/

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.”

Picture Norfolk Image: Royal Norfolk Regiment, 2/5th Battalion group 'somewhere in England' 1917

Picture Norfolk Image: Norfolk Regiment, 2/5th Battalion group ‘somewhere in England’ 1917

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.

Picture Norfolk Image: Royal Norfolk Regiment, 2/5th Battalion group 'somewhere in England' 1917

Picture Norfolk Image: Norfolk Regiment, 2/5th Battalion group ‘somewhere in England’ 1917

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.somewhere

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/)

5th Jan

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.

first-world-war-letters-o-1After February neither Arthur nor Revd Green mention the weather again but another correspondent, Philip Hewetson writes to his parents from the Wulverghem sector on 18th March:

“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)

Images from the archive

A hard earned rest

A hard earned rest

This image has been loaned to us by Bethan Holdridge and comes from a collection of WW1 photographs belonging to Julie Brown. The collection has been in the family for several generations and seems to have originated from Oliver Brown (J.B’s grandfather on the maternal side). The only information we currently have about him is that was born in Hadleigh and during the First World War he accompanied an official war artist.

WW1 on Stage – The Wipers Times

A review of the New Wolsey Theatre matinee performance, 9th November 2016

Official poster for the play

Official poster for the play

The Wipers Times is a new play (based the TV drama of the same name) created by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman and apart from calling it a wonderful watch putting into words what I saw on the stage is proving very difficult.

The original Wipers Time newspaper was the brainchild of two officers serving on the front-line who realised that perhaps the best way to survive the horrors of the war was to do so by making them comical.  Their newspaper was written and printed by men actually serving in the trenches rather than those sitting behind desks behind the lines or back in Blighty. It was a firm favourite with the men and and a thorn in the side of those officers bravely fighting the war from their desks a long way from any bombs…

The comic scenes of the men writing the articles (these would start by simply being read and turn into action scenes upstage or shown as full vaudeville acts) were interspersed with scenes from behind the lines in staff HQ, the men on leave in France and the bittersweet moments of home leave or letters.  Then there were also the scenes of the men in the trenches waiting for the big pushes – the Somme and 3rd Battle of Ypres for example.

I found the play managed to show the absurdities and horrors of war very effectively without ever feeling as if it was playing with my emotions, it was sad at times but overall very uplifting.

I’ve seen the play described as a cross between Blackadder Goes Forth and Oh! What a Lovely War but I did also see a hint of Journey’s End in there – it wasn’t all comedy.

Some of the lines, puns and jokes were terrible and were signposted a mile off but these weren’t necessarily the lines from Hislop and Newman and neither were the lines about press accuracy interestingly enough.

What I found the most interesting about this play however was how much the later World War One satires such as Blackadder owed to the Wipers Times even if this was unintentional and they knew nothing about the paper.

All of the original editions of the Wipers Times newspaper were reprinted in a facsimile edition and you can borrow this from Norfolk’s Libraries but I really do hope that this play will return to the stage soon – it has an important story to tell.

Christmas in the Trenches

christmas-in-the-trenches

 

Christmas in the Trenches

Wednesday 14th December

7pm (tickets £2)

We’re very pleased to welcome author and historian Steve Smith back to the Millennium Library in Norwich for another of his fascinating, and moving, talks about the Norfolk Regiment’s involvement in World War One.

This talk will have a seasonal theme as Steve will talk about the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment and the Christmas Truce. Other Christmas myths surrounding World War One will also be looked at.

To book please call into the Millennium Library, call 01603 774703 or email millennium.lib@norfolk.gov.uk

Mud, Mud Glorious Mud?

Trench Warfare and mud appear to go hand-in-hand when World War One appears in books, on film and in photographs which lead me to wonder what the weather was like during the first year of the war.  Was it really extraordinarily wet?

A working party in the rain.

A working party in the rain.

Weather forecasting as a science was very much in its infancy during the war, although it did improve rapidly as advance knowledge of the weather proved to be essential when planning aerial or gas attacks.  However detailed records of the daily temperature, pressure, rainfall and hours of sunshine were recorded all over the UK.

These detailed UK records have been made available thanks to the Met Office and I have found it fascinating to read through the monthly reports for the first year of the war to see what the weather was like.

Walking the trenches

Walking the trenches

Below is a very simple table of the month, the weather in the South East of England and also major events on the Western Front.

Month and Year Weather report Western Front Activity
August 1914

 

After the first 8 days of the month it was warmer and drier than average, some thunderstorms but little rain.

 

BEF arrive in France

Battle of Mons

September 1914

 

 

Windy, slightly warmer than normal but much wetter than average.

 

Battle of the Marne

Trench network started

October 1914

 

Rainfall much below average and temperatures above normal.

 

Trench network continued

Start of 1st Battle of Ypres

November 1914

 

 

Above average rainfall, often occurring in torrential downpours. As a whole temperatures above average.

 

Trenches reach the coast

1st Battle of Ypres continues

December 1914

 

Wettest December since 1876. Mainly mild for first half of the month then cold.

 

 

Isolated skirmishes but no major battles.

Both sides digging in to trench system

January 1915 Rain fell on every day of the month and it was also windy. Generally mild but the worst frosts were in the South of East of England. Battles in the Champagne area of France
February 1915

 

Wetter and windier than average with isolated heavy snow showers. Temperatures around normal.

 

Battles in the Champagne area continue
March 1915

 

Rainfall was below average, the month ended colder than it started. Battle of Neuve Chapelle
April 1915

 

 

A mostly dry and sunny month although cooler than average. 1st use of poison gas

2nd Battle of Ypres

May 1915

 

Heavy downpours at the start of the month make the month wetter than average overall but the second half of the month dry and warm.

 

2nd Battle of Ypres
June 1915

 

Exceptionally dry (no rain is recorded in Dover for 37 consecutive days in May/June). Heavy thunderstorms at the end of the month. Temperatures average but not much sun recorded.

 

No major battles or offensives on the Western Front although isolated action/fighting does take place
July 1915

 

Windy, heavy and thundery downpours push the rainfall figures above average, not very warm or sunny for the time of year.

 

No major battles or offensives on the Western Front although isolated action/fighting does take place

 

August 1915 Again heavy isolated storms push up the average rainfall totals but the month is not consistently wet. Temperatures and hours of sunshine around or just above normal. No major battles or offensives on the Western Front although isolated action/fighting does take place

Although this is a highly unscientific and rudimentary comparison of the weather it can be seen that during the autumn and early winter of 1914, when the initial battles were being fought and the trench network on the Western Front was being dug, the weather reports do show that it was wetter than average. This analysis is backed up by reports given by members of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1915 and thus perhaps the iconic image of a muddy trench is accurate and not an over used trope.

Knee deep in mud

Knee deep in mud

A disclaimer to all of this: relying on weather reports from England to make comparisons with conditions on the continent may not give an accurate representation at all.  However close Dover maybe to France the weather patterns that affect the two areas can be very different.  The British weather is controlled by a maritime climate pattern  whereas just across the channel the weather is influenced by the continental pattern .

It must also be noted that the soil in Northern France and Belgium also played a role in the creation of the muddy trenches as it was it often drained poorly and quickly became waterlogged. Being churned up by the constant movement of men and equipment also worsened the muddy conditions.