Recording the Weather in WW1 – a Norfolk connection

Past articles here on the blog have talked about the weather during World War One, most recently in February 2017. While these posts have been indulging in a personal interest  and myth busting one of our regular readers and contributers has actually found a WW1 link to both the weather and Norfolk!

John Henry Willis

Norwich Meteorologist, Naturalist, Writer, and Inventor

We are indebted to Carey Pallister of Victoria, British Columbia, a descendant of Edgar C. Willis, the younger brother of John Henry Willis and his wife, Jenny Russell Currie. Her interest in this posting has been very supportive; she has provided much useful information including a family tree, as well as invaluable family photographs expertly scanned.

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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)

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.

Mesopotamia: a Garden of Eden? Part 1

As the troops of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment began to adapt to life in and around Basra and Qurna, we can wonder about the condition of the country in which they found themselves… our researcher into this theatre of war tell us more:

Mesopotamia: a Garden of Eden? Part 1

The inhabitants, Arabs from many tribes and their Turkish overlords, were Muslims. South of Baghdad they were predominantly adherents of the Shia branch of Islam, whilst to the north they were mainly Sunni. The Turks were largely, although not exclusively, Sunni. The Kurds, an Iranian people, were religiously diverse, but the majority were Sunni.

This generalized distribution of the main groups within modern Iraq gives some indication of the position in 1915.

Perry Castaneda Map Library, University of Texas

Perry Castaneda Map Library, University of Texas

Both the Muslim Koran and the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) refer to this land of rivers as the Garden of Eden:

 Koran 9:71 Allah promiseth to the believers, men and women, Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide – blessed dwellings in Gardens of Eden

Genesis 2:8 And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

Scholars cite the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 11-14 as evidence for the Garden of Eden being located in Mesopotamia, although they do not agree quite where:

And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison; the second is Gihon; the third is Hiddekel; the fourth is Euphrates. (The Hiddekel,which goeth toward the east of Assyria, is generally taken to be the Tigris.)

eden1

Certainly, the PhotoVenus studio in Basra had few doubts when it photographed this local view for a postcard which the troops no doubt sent home. We might be justified in thinking that this picture with its muddy creek and date palms bears little resemblance to the image of the Garden of Eden as painted by generations of artists.

Yet, the marshes about and above Qurna (Kurna) have an almost mystical quality which Wilfred Thesiger described in The Marsh Arabs (1964). See also, Thesiger, Desert, Marsh and Mountain (1979) for a collection of wonderful photographs:

That morning I had no idea what I should find beyond those distant reed-beds. We were pressed for time, unable to linger, but even so I gained an impression of a delightful and unexpected world: of narrow waterways winding through the tufted reeds, duck circling above still lagoons, the crying of geese, a village of reed houses clustered on the water, a hum of voices, and the incessant passage of canoes; dark dripping buffaloes, the sun crimson through the smoke of burning reed-beds, a boy’s voice singing in the dark, firelight on a half-turned face, the croaking of frogs, and stillness, the stillness of a world that had never heard an engine.

A Marsh Arab Village commons.wikimedia.org : author www.abualsoof.com

A Marsh Arab Village
commons.wikimedia.org 

Lieutenant Bill Spackman, a young Regimental Medical Officer with the 48th Pioneers, Indian Army, expressed a slightly different view in his diary for late 1914;

Qurna was locally reputed to be the site of the Garden of Eden, and although in winter the climate was at least tolerable, and justified Adam and Eve dressing up a bit, there were times in summer when one was not a bit surprised that they had left the place. A British Corporal succinctly expressed his opinion when he said (in rather more forthright language) ‘Well, if this is the Garden of Eden, the bleeding angel wouldn’t have needed a  f***ing sword to keep me out!’

from Captured at Kut: Prisoner of the Turks – the Great War Diaries of Colonel W C Spackman (2008).

 

The marshes have suffered much since the 1980s through extensive drainage works, in part politically motivated. Reflooding in recent years has sought to rehabilitate some of the marshland, with its unique ecology and way of life.

Other photographs of the time suggest alternative locations for the Garden, perhaps as here, upstream of Baghdad on the Euphrates; a world quite different to the marshes of Lower Mesopotamia:

eden2

Mesopotamia is topographically two regions, roughly north and south of Baghdad. Upper (Northern) Mesopotamia is made up of hills and plains and the spurs of the Taurus Mountains. The land is quite fertile due to the seasonal rains, and to the streams and rivers flowing down from the mountains into the Tigris and Euphrates. Lower (Southern) Mesopotamia is made up of marshland and flat, barren plains. Irrigation is needed here for cultivation. (NB Modern Iraq also includes the desert fringes of Syria and Arabia in the south-west.)

The Topography of Iraq adapted from commons.wikimedia.org : contributor Sadalmelik

The Topography of Iraq
adapted from commons.wikimedia.org : contributor Sadalmelik

 

In August 1916 (two years after soldiers arrived in the area) the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty War Staff produced Volume I, the first of four volumes, entitled A Handbook of Mesopotamia: Volume II appeared in provisional format in May 1917.

handbook iraq

This is how Volume I describes the topography of Mesopotamia:

[Mesopotamia] relative to the surrounding highlands, is a vast depression of the surface… This depression falls away from the northern mountains, at first at a steep and then at a slowly diminishing gradient, till it reaches the point where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers approach to within 40 miles of each other, viz. on the line Baghdad – Fellujeh. Here, now at a very low altitude, it changes suddenly into the great alluvial basin which, in almost a dead flat, stretches southwards for 350 miles, to end at the Persian Gulf. The heights of the mean river levels above the sea at the following places will illustrate conveniently and graphically the scale of declivity of this depression from north to south, till the sea is reached : Samsat, 1,615 ft. ; Birijxk, 1,115 ft. ; Diarbekr, 1,900 ft. ; Mosul, 980 ft. ; Baghdad, 105 ft. (350 miles from the sea in a straight line) ; Basra, 5 ft. (55 miles from the sea in a straight line).

Baghdad is geographically located where Upper and Lower Mesopotamia meet. From 1914 until 1916 the British campaign was largely fought to south of Baghdad, in the marshes and on the sometimes flooded plains of Lower Mesopotamia. (See Mesopotamian Map Overview in the posting of December 22, 2014)

A Handbook of Mesopotamia includes a comprehensive vocabulary in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish and Syriac, presumably because in 1916 the War Office was unable to predict how the war against Turkey would progress, and into which territories British troops might have to advance. It asks the important question, What will the weather be today?

what will the weather

Robert Palmer, a young officer with the 6th Hampshires, writing his diary from a steamer anchored in the Tigris wrote in September 1915:

 

It was hot, but nothing fabulous. My faithful thermometer never got beyond 104 in my cabin. The disadvantage of any temperature over 100 indoors is that the fan makes you hotter instead of cooler. There are only two ways of dealing with this difficulty. One is to drink assiduously and keep an evaporation bath automatically going: but on this ship the drinks used to give out about 4 p.m. and when it comes to neat Tigris-cum-Euphrates, 1 prefer it applied externally. So I used to undress at intervals and sponge all over and then stand in front of the fan. While you’re wet it s deliciously cool: as soon as you feel the draught getting warm, you dress again and carry on.

The health of troops has on the whole been good. Ice and fans are installed wherever possible, i.e. nowhere beyond Basra. The hot weather sickness casualties have been just over 30% of the total force: but as they were nearly all heatstroke and malaria, it ought to be much better now. Already the nights are cool enough for a blanket to be needed just before dawn.

Station January: Average Daily Temperature°F July: Average Daily Temperature°F January: Average Daily Rainfall(inches) July:Average Daily Rainfall

(inches)

January:Average Daily Humidity

%

July:Average Daily Humidity

%

Mosul 41.0 (5°C) 94.8 (34.9°C) 2.5 0 87 46
Baghdad 48.8 (7.1°C) 92.1 (33.4°C) 1.0 0 67 39
Basra 51.8 (11°C) 90.2 (32.3°C) 1.2 0 79 59

This data taken from recordings in A Handbook of Mesopotamia mask the true nature of the climate that the troops had to endure: Temperatures could be low in winter with average daily minima for January of 32.0° (0°C) in Mosul, 38.2° (3.4°C) in Baghdad and 43.7° (6.5°C) in Basra, whilst July could see average daily maxima of 118.8° (48.2°C) in Mosul, 120.2° (49°C) in Baghdad and 114.4° (45.8°C) in Basra. According to the Handbook:

 

The smiting power of the sun in Mesopotamia is very great, and consumption of alcohol should be most moderate, especially in the case of those whose work exposes them to the sun-rays. Alcohol should not be taken before sunset.

The extreme heating of the ground surface caused mirages in summer, and additionally with fine dust picked up by the wind visibility was frequently poor. Sandstorms were not infrequent in spring.

The rainfall amounts were very modest: the annual total for Mosul being 16.18 inches, Baghdad, 6.95 inches, and Basra, 6.23 inches. It is unsurprising therefore that the great civilizations of Lower Mesopotamia, Sumer and Babylon, relied upon irrigation for the cultivation of crops.

In summary, from Baghdad to Qurna (at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates) the climate was characterized as hot and dry. South of Qurna the climate became damp as well as hot with frequent heavy dews.

 

The annual floods were a serious environmental hazard faced by troops. The main flood season occured from late March through to early June when the Tigris, Euphrates and their tributaries responded to the snowmelt in the mountains and frequently burst their banks in the level plains of Lower Mesopotamia. The low flow season was in September and October and the Handbook quotes average water discharge figures:

 

Tigris, 14,000 cubic feet per second in September, but 106,000 cubic feet per second in April. Euphrates, 16,000 cubic feet per second in September, but 97,000 cubic feet per second in April.

 

Floods could also occur in December and January as a result of heavy winter rains in the uplands. The consequences for the comfort of the troops is shown in this photograph from The Illustrated War News of January 26, 1916. The caption reads, ‘Flooded Out And Not Minding A D***’.

flooded out

Mesopotamia: a Garden of Eden? Part 2 to follow: malaria, boils, sand-flies and sanitation…