from ‘the War Illustrated’ 20th January 1917.
'Winter Quarters on the Somme'
By Basil Clarke


Getting Through the Winter

several pages from 'the War Illustrated'
see also Winter in the West 1915


“Caesar then led his army into winter quarters." This sentence, or something like it, occurred so frequently in one's school Latin that as a youth I often paused in plodding through it (more laboriously than through Somme mud) to wonder what winter quarters could be like. For if anywhere in those writings of Caesar's an explanation of the term is given I must have skipped it as I did much other, no doubt, excellent prose written by that worthy Roman.

The thought occurred to me again the other clay on the Somme front, when I wakened one morning to find the water in my bath ewer coated with half an inch of ice, and looked out of the windows to see the trees and the ground white with frost. How much more comfortable war would be if modern generals, British and Hun, could lead off their respective armies into "winter quarters " - whatever they are - as the generals of Caesar's day seem so regularly to have done! Nice snug winter quarters - for so I always pictured them - how our poor lads now plugging away so resolutely on the Somme would relish a month or two's slack time in snug billets !

Clothes and the Man

But modern war does not admit of that, and cruel as winter fighting is they must nevertheless "carry on." Still there is no reason why the hardiest fighter should not make himself as comfortable as possible in whatever circumstances he is placed, and this our fellows are pretty good at doing. They can move into no special winter billets, of course, nor can they get much specially winter provision apart from a few extra clothes. But by ingenuity and nimbleness of wit they contrive somehow to dull the sharper edge of winter's tooth. Suffer they must, and badly, but without that ingenuity they would fare even more badly still.

The first winter measure, of course, is to get the right clothes ; for without these no ingenuity would resist the freezing bite of Somme air. In the matter of clothes, Tommy does not "grouse" much, for the Army is pretty generous. In the old days of the war the first thing was to get hold of a goat-skin coat with the fur on, and cloaked in one of these grey skins Thomas considered himself something of a "nut." But with the risk of contact with Somme mud - of which an ordinary topcoat, if thoroughly immersed in it, will pick up thirty or more pounds weight, any long-haired garment became impracticable and in place of goat-skin coats, sleeved waistcoats of yellow leather are being issued. These are worn under the tunic. Leather is really the only thing that will resist effectually the cold, wet winds and fogs of the Somme. Another garment that one sees worn a good deal at the front at these times is a leather jerkin without sleeves to fit over the tunic.

Waders and "Palm Cloths”

Working-parties, who want their arms free are often equipped with this garment. It is both warm and rain-proof . Rubber trench boots and waders (a much longer kind of footwear) are also in great demand for all districts in which the mud does not actually pull things off your legs. But they seem harder to get this year for some reason. Tommy says there are not enough, while the storekeepers say Tommy does not look after them as he should, and that careless use has made them scarce. Which is the right end of the story I cannot judge, but it would seem possible to establish some means. of issuing rubbers and waders to such troops as are going into trenches - just as lamps are issued to miners entering a pit - to be returned to the issuing store and cleaned up and dried in time for reissue. You would need double sets of course, but the method would be an economical one in the long run.

Mittens, gloves, comforters, and wool caps - these may be rated among the luxuries of equipment, but it is to be noticed this winter that most Tommies have managed to get hold of them from somewhere. But not all. I was watching some lads unloading shells one frosty December morning - a morning on which any metal, filing such as a shell-case took to itself a temperature that made it like a hot thing to touch - and these lads had made for themselves queer palm cloths out of layers of sacking, cut to fit the palm of the hand and the fingers and looped with string round the wrist and round each finger. Thus the backs of the hands and fingers were exposed, but the palms and insides of the fingers which came in contact with the shells were protected.

Cold Drink and “Iron Rations"

In the trenches themselves the difficulty of keeping warm is well-nigh insuperable. For fires are not allowed. It was found that whenever a waft of smoke rose front a trench fire the Germans promptly sent over mortar or shells or hand-grenades - feeling pretty sure of course, that wherever there was a fire there also would be. a little knot of Tommies gathered round it. And generally, unfortunately, they were right. So after several little. disasters due to trench fires, they were forbidden. If hot rations could always be carried up to the trenches things, though bad, would not be so very bad. But hot rations are not always practicable. For no rations could possibly be kept hot over some of the difficult and slow journeys that have to be made between front trenches and support trenches. When it takes your food-party six or seven hours to get to the rear to fetch rations, you could not expect them in really cold weather to arrive back with anything even lukewarm. Cold drink and "iron rations " (tinned food) are common fare in the trenches, and precious cold comfort they must be. Rum is served out in many division and very welcome it is. But not in all, for here and there is a general who forbids the rum ration.

Trench Fires without Smoke

For your three or four days spell in the trenches then, you can generally count on a chilling time. You may suffer perishing cold that seems to defy all the leather and all the wool that you can pile on to your poor anatomy. One excellent little idea is gaining ground among the men, and it is one which I think the authorities might look upon with a fatherly eye. It is the Primus stove club-custom, which is spreading, especially, among the richer regiments. It is simply that three or four of your pals of a company, club together to buy a Primus stove. It has an oil reservoir, a little hand-pump, and a burner. You heat up the burner with some oil to pump up the pressure, prod the burner holes with a pin to clear them of burnt oil, and away goes the stove-burner into a circle of blue flame, which roars with a pleasing little drone of its own that is quite companionable - and not loud enough to be overheard by Fritz in the enemy's trench. There is no smoke at all - just a little ring of roaring, blue flame. Very "devilish" it looks down in the blackness of a trench on a dark night.

As these stoves and the fuel for them are not an Army issue, the trouble is to get your oil fuel up to the front line.. You may carry up a small supply, begged, borrowed, bought, or stolen, from someone down at your rest billets ; but there is nothing like regularity of supply and private supplies tugged up to the trenches with infinite labour soon give out. Paraffin is the right fuel, but, it is not easy to get and you find daring young campaigners using petrol begged, borrowed, bought, or stolen from a friendly motor-driver "away behind." The Primus in a trench is invaluable, not because you can warm yourself on a cold day by its modest heat, but because you can prepare on it warm drink, and can warm up "iron rations” so that they in their turn warm you.

One little Primus club that I came across warmed up all their tinned food before they opened it. The method is to put the food tins into water boiling on the Primus.

Bully beef, Maconochie, stew, salmon and the rest were all served hot in this "club." One genius of the party heated a tin of jam, vowing that no other food was really so hot and so warming as hot jam. They dipped their spoons into the tin and ate it so hot that the tears ran down their eyes. Still you can stand heat in quantities out on the Somme.

In billets and dug-outs, the "winter quarters" problems of the soldier are less difficult, if stiff difficult enough. The chimney of the cellar under a ruin in which you live may rebel utterly at even the ghost of a fire. Smoke may refuse utterly to find its way up that chimney and you may be confronted with this alternative - either to freeze or to choke. Which would you choose ? You would probably do as Tommy does and choose a little of each by turn. But if human ingenuity can make that chimney "draw," enough human ingenuity will generally be found among the occupants of the average cellar billet. You will see chimney-pipes made out of petrol-cans, cut up and fitted. One. cellar I visited had had an entirely new ventilating and chimney-shaft cut out of the solid brick and stone.

Another had an old iron stove with a new flue-pipe made of empty tins, with the lids off and the bottom cut out. This pipe was rather loose jointed and would have fallen down with a push, but it took away most of the smoke.

Brown Paper Blankets

Sometimes your billet has no fireplace, and then you have a fire in a brazier or an old bucket punctured at intervals always provided you can beg, borrow, or steal a bucket or brazier. This open fire is not so bad if your billet is an old barn which lets out the smoke - and lets in the wind at a thousand draught holes, but if the billet is a dug-out or a cellar you may go through heroic sufferings from smoke in return for warmth. Stout brown paper, sacking, and old blankets are in great request just now for patching up leaky billet windows, Brown paper, it has also been found by cold soldiers, makes a very good and warm lining to a waistcoat, or put between blankets has almost the warmth of an extra blanket. Newspapers are used for this purpose also. "There is a good deal. of crackling and rustling among a billetful of sleepers, using these extra blankets of paper," said my informant, "especially if they are fidgety sleepers ; but you don't mind a bit of extra row in the night if only you are warm.

Making Friends with the Cook

Winter diet is not much different from summer diet at the front. Tea and " bully," " Maconochie - and the rest are the same as usual, but there is a big preference for taking them hot. It is noticed that our men will eat more fat in winter and fat is of course, the best thing for keeping out the cold, as any Russian soldier will tell you. When the bacon is grilled or fried on a winter's morning (this is not possible, of course, in front trenches), there are a greater number of men, it is to be noticed, who creep along to the cook with a slice of bread and ask him to fry it in the fat of the bacon. You have to be very good friend with the cook or the cook's mate to get this privilege. Failing that, you must be content to have your bread merely dipped in the liquid fat of the bacon.

The fuel difficulty is not always easy to overcome. If your quarters are in the neighbourhood of a coal dump, supplies of coal may come up regularly enough, but otherwise it means foraging for fuel. You go out and beg it, or you "win” it - which is the Army euphemism for stealing it. I know one officer who used to have a little office near headquarters. He was allowed two sacks of coal a week after October. It was a small office, and he was a man who would not have a fire unless it was bitterly cold.

The coalman came along in the second week, and the occupier said : "It's all right. You need not leave any coal this week. I have not used up my last supply.” - “That can't be helped, sir," said the man. “My orders are to leave two sacks of coal here every week, and two sacks you'll have to have, sir.” It was a small office, I said. Before winter had thoroughly arrived you could not pick your way about it for coal-sacks.


several pages from 'the War Illustrated'
see also Winter in the West 1915


other pieces also by the same author/reporter

Everyday Life on the Western Front
War-Horses for the British Army
How British Wounded Were Brought Home
The Road to Calais


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