from ‘the War Illustrated’ 11th December, 1915
'Winter in the West 1915'
by Our War Correspondent, F. A. McKENZlE


Combatting the Cold on the Western Front

makeshift winter clothing for British soldiers
see also : Winter Quarters on the Somme


Winter in the West

The British Army in Flanders, is now living under winter conditions. The severe weather and the exceptionally heavy frosts try endurance to the full. There have been intense cold — frosts sufficient to freeze deep marshes so that they can take heavy traffic — and high, bitter winds. Hard as this is, many of our. Men would probably prefer it to the weeks of mud which preceded it. Before the frost came on, roads were bogs and trenches the home of all discomfort. Some trenches were knee-deep in mud. "Mud is everywhere," one man wrote. "One never has a dry foot." Our men are fortunate in having an abundant supply of Jack-boots, jerseys and fur coats. I understand that rubber boots can be had, the rank and file paying for them by instalments.

If the. weather is trying for us, it is, equally trying for our enemy, and in this test of endurance, experience shows that the British soldier comes out w-ell. There is very little illness in our ranks, and most of that is rheumatism. Happily, the medical treatment of rheumatism has enormously advanced. In particular, the absorption of drugs by electric massage is carried to a point of high perfection.

British Chees-iness and German Despair

It is a proof of the careful attention given to our men that this electric massage, usually a most expensive form of treatment, is provided freely for the private in the ranks. The Almeric Paget Corps, directed by the wives, daughters, and sisters of some of our most eminent soldiers, provides this treatment in the convalescent camps and military hospitals with results that are simply amazing.

Our boys are cheerfully enduring the strain. Sometimes the enemy is not. Let me quote from a letter from a soldier now in a clearing hospital, knocked out for the time with rheumatism. "I was in the trenches two days before my knees cracked up. They were in an awful state, the water well over our knees. There were no dug-outs, and the trench was continually falling in, and we were getting a lot of enfilading fire. But if we were having a bad time, the Germans were having a worse, and one night one hundred and fifty of them came over and gave themselves up. They told us they were shelled out and flooded out, and could not get any food. They were in a sorry state, and 'fed up.' "

If I dwell on the dark side of the trench life for the moment, it is because I am anxious to make my readers realise our responsibility for our men in the fighting-line. Of course, they are not in the trenches all the time. But even in the rest camps many of the roads must just now resemble Salisbury Plain in December. Anyone who knew Salisbury Plain last year, when the Canadians had their camp there, will understand what I mean.

Soldiers' Unanimous Vote for Rum

Rum rations are by now probably served out to all sections of our Flanders troops. They were started in some divisions, I know, in November. Some people at home feel very uncomfortable about the small rum ration that the troops receive. Almost every man I have met who has served during the winter is in favour of it. A few convinced teetotalers use it to rub their feet ! To most men the drink comes as a glow of light and warmth.

One very innocent, if very widely read, medical authority declared recently that it would be far better to give the men in the trenches a cup of hot soup. Of course it would. But, incidentally, he forgot to say how the hot soup was to be served to the men in the lines. If ever a drink was justified, I believe it is the soldier's winter tot.

We are drawing near the close, of the time for sending Christmas parcels to the front. It is surely scarcely necessary to urge on people living in the comfort of home their duty in this. matter. Most of us have at least our own kith and kin to send to. Those who have not, and who do not know of any, can send to the commanding officer of some regiment at the front, and ask that their parcel may be handed to a man in the ranks who needs it. "What am I to send? " you ask. Warm underclothing, warm socks, and warm stockings are good for a start.

All the information that reaches me goes to show that the Germans are much stronger along the Belgian front than is generally realised at home. Their coast positions are guarded at many points by 15 in. guns ; and they have liberally used thick armour-plates in the construction of forts to hold up an advance. The dream of some of our commanders of getting cavalry brigades behind the lines and making broad sweeping movements would seem very difficult to realise.

While German strength is beginning to weaken, and German effectives to decline, it would be foolish to imagine that we are going to have an easy task before us when we next attempt a direct advance. Our chief aid here is likely to be that our auxiliary forces are all the time improving. It is no longer a secret that our Air Service has taken an enormous step forward during the past few weeks. Our Inventions Board has been far from idle, and some of the devices it has perfected are of the highest importance. Great improvements in equipment have taken place. It would not be discreet to refer to these in more than general detail. The improvements stretch from very small things to very great.

Wanted — News from the Belgian Front

Incidentally, much curiosity is expressed in many circles why more is not heard of the fighting done by the Belgian Army. This Army has been re-equipped and re-armed. The broken, haggard ranks that I saw after the escape from Antwerp are now new-clothed, strengthened, and reformed. In the great September advance of the Allies little was heard of what the Belgians did.

Why this silence ? At the beginning, King Albert's soldiers permitted war correspondents to stay with them. Then, at the direct instigation of the British authorities, the correspondents were excluded. Yet, surely the tales they were able to spread over the world of the gallantry of the Belgian soldiers and the horrors of the German invasion were great factors in arousing the storm of pity which spread everywhere for this most unhappy nation.

Belgium would do well to have some correspondents visit her lines again, and describe in detail the deeds of her soldiers. Otherwise there may be danger of the impression spreading abroad that the new Belgian Armies are simply passively holding a small section of the front. Such an impression would be harmful all round. I for one, am particularly anxious that it should be avoided, for I know something of the kindness of Belgian ladies to our wounded prisoners in the districts of Belgium held by the Germans. Knowing this, I wish no decline in the glory which today belongs to the martyr nation.

While dealing with the position of our men in the west, I would like to call attention to a very real hardship falling on many men who have been wounded and recovered. They are sent back, not to their own rank and, place, but to whatever rank is vacant. Often they lose seniority. For example, one captain — the senior captain of his regiment — was badly wounded. He recovered sufficiently to be put on light home duties, and then was sent to the front again as junior captain.

Injustice to Those Who Return

I hear of sergeant-majors having to go back as lance-corporals. For the married man, there is not only the loss of prestige in going back to lower rank and the loss of pay, but also the lower allowance to his wife. It is, of course, often difficult to fit men in. If a soldier is attached to a regiment with a full complement, the men already promoted cannot lose rank to make room for them. But there ought to be some way out.

The campaign of economy in the Army is really proceeding apace. Men engaged at high wages for special service are being replaced, or arc being offered their choice between renewing at a more moderate pay or taking their discharge. Food is being served out with more common- sense. The danger of the immediate future may be the coming of an era of extreme stinginess, succeeding a period of unnecessary waste. Extremes on either side are harmful.


makeshift winter clothing for British soldiers

see also : Winter Quarters on the Somme

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