The Winter of 1916 – As told by Albert Edwards and others
Contributed by Michael Hall
Canberra man Albert ‘Eddie’ Edwards joined the 1st Battalion on the front line near Ypres in Belgium in the aftermath of the bloody conflict at Pozières. Four weeks later, in October 1916, as winter was approaching and the rains set in his battalion was sent to the Somme. To Edwards the Somme was a nightmare where ‘men lived a life of mud in a landscape of mud, never knowing for days together what it was to have a dry place to rest, or dry clothes, or dry boots to live in.’1
The front had advanced only a few kilometres beyond Pozières to Flers when Edwards arrived. The front line was under constant bombardment from the German artillery, so reaching the trenches meant trudging at night along muddy tracks that tugged like glue on their legs. Stray from the tracks and they risked drowning in shell holes or sinking into the mud. Leslie Bassett was trapped up to his armpits in the Somme mud for six hours before being found and rescued. 2 On his way to the trenches with the 55th Battalion, Stan Bingley was struck in the chest by shrapnel. He died from his wounds on 2 November.
Edwards’ introduction to trench warfare on the Somme ‘was 56 hours in two feet of water on an empty stomach.’3 Yet the men were expected to attack the Germans despite the conditions. On 5 November the 1st and 3rd Battalions attempted to straighten the front line near a position known as The Maze. To Edwards it was pre-ordained to fail. ‘It rained like hell,’ he later wrote, ‘wet through to the skin, frozen stiff, mud to the knees, I could not see my hand in front of my face, and to fill our cup of discomfort, pressed down and flowing over.’ They reached the German trenches but could not hold them and were forced to retreat. Only seven men from Edwards’ platoon answered roll call the following day.4
A second attempt to seize The Maze was made by the 2nd Division on 14 November. David McKean, a plasterer working for the Department of Home Affairs before the war, was with the 7th Field Company of Engineers. During the fighting he was attempting to build a strong point and bombing block when he was killed. Malcolm ‘Mack’ Southwell from ‘Fern Hill’ in Upper Canberra was killed instantly by a shell when he left the trench to get some water.
Life in the trenches was bleak. Edward’s wrote that ‘The very name of the Somme conveys visions of mud, mud and then more mud.’ The men could not move around 5. If they walked or even stamped their feet to keep warm the floor of the trench turned to thin mud into which they would sink even further. Cutting protective niches into the trench wall was forbidden as it caused the sides to collapse. Fires were banned. The frequent result of exposure to these cold, wet and insanitary conditions was trench foot.
Trench foot was a disabling foot disorder resembling frost bite that, if not treated, could result in gangrene. Of eleven known cases on the ACT Memorial the shortest period of recovery was David Tully’s two months, possibly because he was treated in France. Out of the others, all sent to England for up to eighteen months of treatment, only eight returned to France, and two did not return to the front line at all.
As Christmas approached reinforcements for the 55th Battalion, including the Men from Snowy River marchers, arrived at their unit’s billets at Buire in the rear of the Somme battlefield. They might have been behind the frontline but Jack O’Grady was less than impressed with their billet, describing it as ‘one big stink hole, mud knee deep in places.’ Yet they managed to enjoy Christmas with one company securing six suckling pigs which ‘Big Bill Muir’ and another man slaughtered and dressed. Beer was provided, along with tobacco, lollies, dates and plum pudding.6
Despite the festive season, Edwards and his compatriots were still in danger. While returning from the front line near Gueudecourt on 21 December 1916, Edward Jenkins was struck by a shell and killed as he passed Needle Dump. On Christmas Eve 1916, the former brickie Tom Morgan was killed in action in the frontline and buried where he fell, in the vicinity of Fritz’ Folly and Fatigue Trench near Gueudecourt. Arnold Bretherton was on detachment to 2nd Division Headquarters as an Intelligence Officer. On Boxing Day he went out to an observation post near Rose Trench where he was shot through the eyes by a sniper. Ernie Roffe had only been in France a couple of weeks when, on his first visit to the trenches, he was hit by machine gun fire. He died of his wounds on 12 January 1917.
In mid January 1917 the winter freeze set in, bringing snow and colder temperatures. The mud froze. When O’Grady was sent to the trenches he had to wear ‘long wool underwear, wool singlet, flannel shirt, corduroy knee breeches, putties, long gum boots up to the thigh, next tunic, then sheep skin vest and last great coat, all wool.’ After adding battle equipment, ammunition and a balaclava, O’Grady was left to wonder how they were able to move around at all.7
At the beginning of February 1917 the 1st Battalion was in the line near the Butte de Warlencourt. Edwards recalled that it was ‘so cold that the Company alternated front line trench every 24 hours’. The ground was so hard ‘that 18 pounder shells ricocheted without penetrating the surface’ and ‘the earth was frozen to a depth of 3 feet, and the shell holes were a solid mass of ice’.8
By 22 February 1917 a thaw had set in and rain began to fall again. The winter of 1916, one of the coldest recorded in France for decades, had been ‘a ghastly nightmare of mud, snow and misery’.8 However, something significant was occurring on the conflict zone. The Germans began to retreat to their nearly complete Hindenburg Line, opening up a new phase in the war for the Australians and the end, for a time, of the fighting on the Somme.
- A.W. Edwards, 'My War Diary' (p.29), 1920 (AWM PR89/050, with permission of the Edwards family)
- AWM Roll of Honour Circular
- Edwards, p.33
- Edwards, p.34
- C.E.W. Bean, ‘Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18’, Vol. III p.919
- Timothy J. Cook, ‘Snowy to the Somme – A Muddy and Bloody Campaign, 1916-1918’, 2014, p.94
- Cook, p.95
- Edwards, p.41
- Edwards, p.31