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Remembering WW1: weather in the trenches

Jen Bartram
Digital News Editor

Monday, August 4, 2014, 12:50 PM - Today, people all over the world are remembering and commemorating the beginning of the First World War.

Leaders will gather at ceremonies around the world to mark 100 years since Britain joined the First World War on August 4 1914.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said: “A hundred years ago today Britain entered the First World War and we are marking the centenary to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure the lessons learnt live with us forever.”

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper marked the centennial at the National War Memorial on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, where he laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Around 620,000 Canadians enlisted during the war, with more than 400,000 going overseas. Around 60,000 lost their lives.

Although fought on almost every continent, most of the fighting of WW1 took place in the trenches of Europe. Almost 10,000 kilometres of trenches were dug on both sides of the western front, generally around 10ft deep and 6ft wide, and as well as the threat of shelling and sniper attacks, soldiers were at the mercy of the weather.

The trenches accumulated water quickly at the bottom when it rained, turning them into a squalid mud bath, infested with rodents and insects. Sometimes the water was up to waist height. The muddy conditions caused ‘trench foot’, which caused blisters, open sores, fungal infections and eventually led to gangrene, requiring amputation. One estimate suggests that 20,000 British casualties were caused by trench foot in 1914 alone.

Over the course of the war, wet conditions in the trenches gradually improved due to better drainage and more waterproof footwear, but the weather still made life unbearable for many soldiers, particularly during the harsh winter of 1916-1917.

A person with trench foot. Photo: By LAC/BAC

A person with trench foot. Photo: By LAC/BAC

The bitter winter was the coldest in living memory for soldiers in France and Flanders. Soldiers suffered from frostbite and exposure, causing them to lose fingers. The trenches did little to provide shelter or warmth from the extreme low temperatures, especially at night, when even clothes and blankets froze solid. The muddy walls became hard as bricks, and any food and water became almost impossible to eat. Vehicles also succumbed to the cold: engines wouldn’t start, prompting soldiers to attempt to revive them using hot water bottles.

The Imperial War Museum’s First World War Centenary project has compiled audio podcasts of soldiers’ first-hand experiences of the trenches. NCO Clifford Lane described the bitter trench conditions. You can hear his account here:

“The coldest winter was 1916-17. The winter was so cold that I felt like crying… I can remember we weren’t allowed to have a brazier because it weren’t far away from the enemy and therefore we couldn’t brew up tea. But we used to have tea sent up to us, up the communication trench. Well a communication trench can be as much as three quarters of a mile long. It used to start off in a huge dixie, two men would carry it with like a stretcher. It would start off boiling hot; by the time it got to us in the front line, there was ice on the top it was so cold.”

The winter of 1916-17 also caused a famine in Germany and is often known as the ‘Turnip Winter’. After an extremely wet autumn had ruined the potato crops and cereal production, the German population was forced to subsist on turnips in order to survive.

This evening, the Royal British Legion is encouraging people to participate in their ‘Lights Out’ event between 22.00 and 23.00 BST, where all lights will be turned off in buildings around the country, leaving just a single candle burning.

This event was inspired by wartime Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who famously said upon the outbreak of WW1: "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time."

With files from Daniel Martins and the Canadian Press.

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