Winter in Holland was bad enough, but winter in Holland in a slit trench couldn’t be worse. Ian cursed the weather, the Jerries, the army, and himself for ever having joined up.
Dark, gray days, sodden with snow, or a pale, wan glow through a frigid haze greeted them week after endless week. Clear sharp days were a rarity and welcomed. Bright sunshine was almost worshipped.
The two-man slit trench had a crude roof of branches, sandbags, and snow that kept off the falling snow and sleet, but nothing could keep out the cold.
Ian wore long johns, a wool shirt and uniform, two pairs of socks, boots, bulky overshoes, greatcoat, balaclava, and mittens, yet stayed miserably cold, day and night. A wool scarf knitted by some mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother in Canada and tied over the head helped keep his ears from freezing, but it was the wind that made life so bloody miserable.
The frigid Arctic air, straight off the North Sea, swept relentlessly across the low-lying country, unfettered and chilling to the bone. It froze weapons, fingers, noses, then rushed on, uncaring. When it stung faces with hard-grained snow and biting sleet, the men suffered and were thankful that no patrols would be sent out.
Jerry was holed up, too. The front was truly a no man’s land. The snow bowed trees; the branches sagged sadly toward the ground. Bushes broke under their white load, and snow drifted into the slit trenches. When a shell exploded, frozen clods were almost as dangerous as the hot metal splinters. It was miserable.
A two-man slit was never quite long enough for a man to lie in and give the other room to stand comfortably. Digging a hole in the frozen soil was labor enough without making it comfortable.
They gouged holes in the sides so that ammo and grenades would be handy. They shit on their shovels and threw it out into the snow. They pissed into a bully can and threw it out, too. New-fallen snow soon covered the brown and yellow stains.
They smoked incessantly. Thank God, Canadian cigarettes only cost a dollar a carton. The sorry-tasting Limey Woodbines that came in the compo packs were saved for the bad days when no mail came.
Matches were precious, saved for the Tommy Cooker tablets. Petrol lighters were used for smokes. The methylated spirit tablets for the cookers gave off tremendous heat for a while as the water boiled, and chapped hands curled over the welcome warmth and became nimble for a time.
Weapons froze. Bren gunners had to hand cock and fire several rounds before the guns would warm up and function properly. Rifle bolts were stiff and hard to work until a couple of shots were fired through them.
Thank God, Jerry had the same troubles. Maybe God was on their side, as the padre kept proclaiming.
—Adapted from Fearsome Battle
Robert Rogge, an American, fought with the Canadian Army in World War II. He wrote of his experiences in Fearsome Battle. Under the pen name, Robert Elliot, he is also author of The Eagle's Height, a novel of air combat in World War I.