Winter in the Trenches 1914-15

The Liverpool Scottish in the Front line (early 1915)

These photographs are part of a series which were taken in Ypres Salient, probably in reserve trenches but very close to the front line. The presence of cameras in the front line was strictly forbidden but Private F.A. Fyfe, a press photographer by profession, certainly used his miniature camera in the front line as the rare photographs taken under fire during the charge at Hooge in June 1915 demonstrate. The man who took these photos (very possibly Captain G.F. Dickinson) must have been close to the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel JR Davidson, as the CO features in many of them. This series of photos had quite a wide distribution amongst the men of the battalion as surviving albums (including Captain Dickinson's own album) in the Museum archive demonstrate.

Arriving in France

The Liverpool Scottish had arrived in France  at the beginning of November 1914, one of the first infantry battalions of the Territorial Force to join the British Expeditionary Force. They arrived in the period almost immediately after the 'Old Contemptibles' of Regular Army (a 'contemptible little army' according to the German Kaiser Wilhelm) had fought alongside the French and the Belgians in a highly mobile campaign with a retreat from Mons to a sharp blocking battle at Le Cateau and beyond to a phase of checking and throwing back the German advance on the River Marne. This was followed by the "Race to the sea" as both sides attempted to out flank each other to the north. This estabished the trench line that ran 400 miles from Nieuwpoort on the Belgiun coast to the Swiss border. By November 1914, the Regular Army had suffered many casualties and the battle had settled into the pattern of trench warfare that was to persist for most the next four years. The Scottish moved into the trenches on 27th November at Kemmel, about six miles south-west of Ypres (Ieper). The trench system at that stage was very haphazard and not the highly structured system of , say, 1916. There was no depth, no continuity, no communication trenches, no drainage and no sanitation. On November 27th 1914 the battalion was 26 officers and 829 other ranks and six weeks later mustered only a total strength of 370 men: the causulties being mainly to the winter conditions rather than the enemy. 
The Liverpool Scottish came into the 3rd Division of II Corps (a Regular Army formation) and was initially addressed by the Corps Commander, General Sir H. Smith Dorrien, to the effect that, with the co-operation of the Russians, the war would be over by the summer of 1915. The Regimental Historian records that newly-arrived citizen soldiers of The Scottish 'were surprised to learn that the Staff expected the war to last so long'.


The Liverpool Scottish in the Front Line (almost certainly Trench 38 at Hill 60 in March 1915) 

Trenchs 1915 1The evidence of Photo 1(left - click on image to enlarge): Soldiers are in a mixture of headdress and while most men are wearing the official glengarries with the diced (chequered) band, one is wearing the more practical woollen 'cap-comforter' which were already appearing by November 1914. A trench periscope is being used in the centre and can be seen sticking up over the top of parapet. To the left is a metal sheet with a slot cut in the bottom; this is an armoured loophole to allow a rifle to be fired with protection to the firer. There were a variety of methods of protecting observation points and loopholes. Soldiers appear to be watching to their front and to a point above them; a rifle grenade is being fired by the man in the right foreground who is, in fact, the Commanding Officer, Lieuteuant Colonel Davidson, whose diary says that on the 20th March 1915, he went up to Trench 38 at Hill 60, inspected a new loophole that he had had made and and fired about 12 rifle grenades with a 'very fair degree of success'. Left to right the personalities are Captain CP James (Adjutant and observing through armoured slit), Captain AS Anderson (Company Commander), an unknown private, Lieuteuant Kenneth Gemmell and Lt Col JR Davidson. A water bottle can be seen to the bottom right; supplies of drinking water were a great problem particularly in the early days of trench warfare when there were very few communication trenches.

 The Liverpool Scottish in the Front Line - Captain AS Anderson - Spring 1915

Early 1915 trenches 2The evidence of Photo 2 (Right - click to enlarge): this shows a sandbagged trench. Sandbags were difficult to come by in 1914 so this suggests a later date. As the glengarry with diced (chequered) banding is still the headress of choice but soldiers are still in gloves and greatcoats, this suggests Spring 1915. The soldier to the left in the standard peaked cap is not of the Liverpool Scottish but may be a member of an English battalion coming into or going out of the trenches or possibly Lieuteunant Kidson RAMC. The 'relief' of one battalion by another was a difficult operation, normally conducted at night. Alternatively he might be one of the few Army Service Corps or Medical Corps soldiers attached to the battalion although the binoculars and the location in what appears to be the front line make this unlikely. This particular soldier is well wrapped up against the cold by his scarf; the binoculars that he carries may indicate that he is an officer or a senior NCO. The other officer is the company commander, Captain AS Anderson. Lance Corporal  JCT Nisbet (later killed in action before he was able to take up commission as an officer) Liverpool Scottish in the Front Line - Spring 1915 - note the kilt

 The Liverpool Scottish in the Front Line - Lance Corporal J.C.T. Nisbet

L/Cpl J.C.T. NisbetThe evidence of Photo 3 (Left - click to enlarge) Whilst identification is very difficult when the clipped military moustache was so common and everyone is dressed similarly, albums in the possession of the museum identify this soldier as Lance Corporal  JCT Nisbet who was later killed in action before he had the chance to take up the commission which would have made him a 'commissioned' officer. He looks rather smarter, cleaner and less tired than some soldiers in this series of photos. His kit is neatly arranged and it would appear that a groundsheet or poncho is neatly folded onto his pack. The grassy bank might suggest that this is not in the front line or that the photograph has been posed.

Coping with the Trenches

The battalion's doctor, Captain Noel Chavasse RAMC, took a lead in devising strategies to cope with trench foot and the 'Q' (quartermaster) element of the battalion developed innovative procedures for feeding men in the trenches such as the division of rations into bagged portions for groups of men so as to ease the problems of distribution. This may seem obvious but at the time it was revolutionary.

 Soldiers came from Liverpool wearing shoes and spats (gaitero) as the standard Highland leg dress. In the conditions of the trenches a soldier could find that his shoe and his spat had been sucked from his numbed leg by the mud without being noticed.

 Liverpool Scottish in the front Line - Gourmet Dining 

Early 1915 Trenches 4The Evidence of Photo 4 (Right - to enlarge) The soldier whose leg is in the foreground seems to be wearing boots and puttees which have replaced the totally unsuitable shoes and spats that the Liverpool Scottish originally wore when they joined the B.E.F. Boots seem to be remarkably clean and this would appear to be a dry sector.

    The group seems to be enjoying a meal, an open can rests on the kilted knee and another can is in the centre. One of the standard canned rations was the 'Maconochie Patent Ration' which was a 26 ounce can (about three quarters of a kilo or 750 grammes) of unspecified meat and vegetable. The Army Service Corps manual of 1914 says that the contents can 'be eaten hot or cold but are much more palatable hot'. Lack of hot food in the trenches at Kemmel was thought to be a contributory factor to the high rate of sickness in the first winter of the war; it was only possible to bring up hot tea at night often over distances of over a mile and over bad ground for it to arrive lukewarm. Here the trenches appear dry and this photograph might originate from the period after March 1915 when the battalion moved into the Ypres Salient.

    On the left of the man in the background (as seen by the viewer), there appears to be a rifle with a fixed bayonet; it would seem to be the old 'long' Lee Enfield with which the battalion was initially equipped and which was unsuitable for trench conditions in that its long barrel was easily fouled with mud and it required non-standard Mark VI ammunition whilst the general issue was Mark VII. The Regular Army had the SMLE (short, magazine, Lee Enfield) and this was not issued to the battalion until early 1915. However, drafts from the UK and men who had been detached from the battalion would continue for some time to report back for duty equipped with the cumbersome 'long' rifle.

    Another point of interest is the man in the right foreground who is wearing a balmoral or Tam o'Shanter (TOS) bonnet. The glengarry was gradually replaced and had disappeared by 1916. Men wore the woollen cap comforter or the TOS which evolved into its pancake form during the war. The modern TOS is a much briefer and more smartly tailored affair based upon the Lowland bonnet.

The SMLE had been introduced following the Boer War to provide a single weapon for both cavalry and infantry, short enough to be carried on horseback but with more "stopping power" than a cavalry carbine. This marked the transition of the cavalry role towards the provision of mobile firepower.

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