Thursday, February 9, 2017

Winter Warfare

Snow covered ruins on the Western Front,  WFC Holden 1919
© IWM ART 17281
War on the Western Front had always been a grim affair, but the conditions in winter were particularly brutal. Writing home to his wife, Rowland Feilding tells of what the troops endured:

The men are practically without rest. They are wet through much of the time. They are shelled and trench-mortared. They may not be hit, but they are kept in a perpetual state of unrest and strain. They work all night and every night, and a good part of each day, digging and filling sandbags, and repairing the breaches in the breastworks;— that is when they are not on sentry. The temperature is icy. They have not even a blanket. The last two days it has been snowing. They cannot move more than a few feet from their posts: therefore, except when they are actually digging, they cannot keep themselves warm by exercise; and, when they try to sleep, they freeze. At present, they are getting a tablespoon of rum to console them, once in three days.*

Soldier and poet Edgell Rickword also wrote of the merciless conditions in his poem “Winter Warfare.”

Winter Warfare

Colonel Cold strode up the Line
    (Tabs of rime and spurs of ice),
Stiffened all where he did glare,
    Horses, men, and lice.

Visited a forward post,
    Left them burning, ear to foot;
Fingers stuck to biting steel,
    Toes to frozen boot.

Stalked on into No Man’s Land,
    Turned the wire to fleecy wool,
Iron stakes to sugar sticks
    Snapping at a pull.

Those who watched with hoary eyes
    Saw two figures gleaming there;
Hauptmann Kälte, Colonel Cold,
    Gaunt, in the grey air.

Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved
    Glassy eyed, with glinting heel
Stabbing those who lingered there
    Torn by screaming steel.

As men huddle in their trenches, desperate to find warmth in the bone-chilling night, two gleaming figures are seen brazenly marching up the line. They harry the forward observation posts, stalk boldly into No Man’s Land, and menace the men at the front with stabbing knives of frost and ice. The mythic figures of Colonel Cold and Hauptmann Kalte (literally, “Captain Cold” in German) heartlessly torture men on both sides of the Front.

They appear as nightmarish visions of death, gaunt and skeletal, and their glassy eyes betray no human feeling. No one is spared, neither horses, lice, nor men, as the icy commanders leave in their wake toes blackened with frostbite and the searing pain of fingers painfully fused to rifle barrels. While there may be a stern beauty in barbed wire that is frosted like fleecy wool or iron stakes that glisten like sugar sticks, it is a cruel and brittle splendor. 

This is a severe world that is inhospitable to warmth and tender emotions, for in addition to enduring the cold, as the last verse reveals, the men must helplessly watch their comrades who lie wounded between the lines, “torn by screaming steel,” slowly freeze to death. German and British soldiers are united in this: their most implacable enemy is the cold.

Rickword wasn’t assigned to the Western Front until January of 1918; the men who were at the front in the early months of 1917 endured one of the harshest winters of the war. The ground was frozen solid; men slept in their clothing with their boots on under frozen blankets, falling victim to frostbite and trench foot. British soldier Clifford Lane remembers, “The winter was so cold that I felt like crying. In fact, the only time. I didn’t actually cry, but I’d never felt like it before, not even under shell fire.”**

In the midst of these agonizing conditions, one thing that stands out is the courage and endurance of the men who managed to survive.  In another poem, Rickword praised that tenacious spirit that could jest in the midst of war:

In sodden trenches I have heard men speak,
Though numb and wretched, wise and witty things;
And loved them for the stubbornness that clings
Longest to laughter when Death’s pulleys creak...


*Rowland Feilding, letter dated 14 December 1916 from War Letters to a Wife.
**From Podcast 25: Winter 1916-1917, Imperial War Museum’s Voices of the First World War.

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