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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/December 1914/The War and the Weather During the First Three Months of the Fighting

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 85‎ | December 1914

By Professor Robert DeC. WARD


WAR and the weather seem, at first sight, to have no relation to one another. Set in motion by human forces apparently far beyond the control of our ordinary physical surroundings, military campaigns seem likely to go on unaffected by such more or less "accidental" conditions as cold or heat; rain or snow; wind or cloud. Yet all through human history, as far back as we can secure accounts of wars and of military campaigns, the weather element stands out as one of the great controls, a control to be reckoned with by every commander, and one which, when powerful enough, has had consequences of far reaching historical importance. The weather factor in war is not a joke. It is a perfectly serious subject for study on the part of military and naval strategists. It must be taken into account in laying out a campaign or in organizing troops for a battle. To disregard the weather factor in warfare is almost, if not sometimes quite as serious an omission as to forget to provide food, or clothing, or ammunition. The weather has, time and again, turned the scale, for victory or for defeat. Written large in history, as events of the greatest significance, we have the retreat of the Turks from Vienna in 1529, their siege artillery having been left behind in Hungary on account of heavy rains which made the roads impassable, and the besieging army being hampered by inclement weather and by the scarcity of provisions, which were both difficult to secure, and almost impossible to transport. All three of the Spanish Armadas (1588, 1597, 1719) suffered from hostile winds and storms. In 1719 the Spanish fleet was scattered off Cape Finisterre by a violent storm which raged for twelve days. Only two ships succeeded in reaching the coast of Scotland. To take an illustration from our own early history, the closing chapter in the evacuation of Boston by the British would probably have been quite different if a severe storm had not frustrated General Howe's plans. The Americans had begun the fortification of Dorchester Heights during the night of March 4, 1776. The morning of the 5th dawned clear and mild, with a bright sun and a warm southerly wind. General Howe and Admiral Shuldham, realizing that their own positions were insecure as long as the Americans remained on the heights, sent between 2,000 and 3,000 men in transports across the Bay, the plan being to have them land and attack the enemy in the rear. But a violent storm, which began during the afternoon, drove three of the transports ashore on Governor's Island. The rain fell in torrents. There was no abatement of the storm on the following morning (March 6), there being a furious gale from the southeast which caused such a surf on the Dorchester shore that "an attempt to land (on the part of the British) must have proved fatal." The Americans continued to fortify in spite of the storm, and when the weather had improved sufficiently for the British to attack, they realized that the American position was too strong. By night of March 6 the evacuation had been decided on. General Washington wrote on March 14: "A very heavy storm of wind and rain frustrated their design." The terrible winter retreat of Napoleon's Grand Army from Moscow furnishes a tragic but wonderfully vivid illustration of the strength of Russia's two invincible generals, January and February, who, if the scene of the present war should be transferred into Russia during the winter, would again be found fighting on the side of the Czar. We may note, in passing, that the French Revolution was precipitated by a severe winter, and that the "Boxer" outbreak in China, in 1900, was brought on by a scarcity of rain in the preceding autumn, leading to famine and destitution, and driving the people to robbery and pillage.

History is full of examples of individual engagements in which weather played an important, if not actually decisive part. Heavy rains, making the roads muddy and the movements of troops and of guns difficult, had a marked effect upon the plans of the commanding officers in the battle of Waterloo (1815), the battle itself being postponed for this reason. In our own civil war the list of weather controls is a long one. Of one of General Grant's campaigns in Virginia it is reported that the country was densely wooded and the ground swampy—the troops waded in mud above their ankles, horses sank to their bellies and wagons threatened to disappear altogether. The men began to feel that if any one in after years should ask them if they had been through Virginia, they could say, "Yes, in a number of places." Dense fog favored the northern forces in the battle of the Wilderness. Deep mud and impassable roads were, at least in part, responsible for General McClellan's delays, which caused so much anxiety and indignation in Washington. During the fighting around Tientsin in 1900 the situation of the allied troops was very critical, when a torrential rainfall compelled the Chinese to retire. Cold and snows have time and time again been potent factors in warfare. In the last Russo-Turkish war thousands of men died of the cold, and the sufferings of the troops at Plevna were terrible. The siege of Sebastopol furnishes another illustration of the sufferings which a severe winter inevitably produces. In the Russo-Japanese war fighting continued in the severe cold of the Manchurian winter. Frozen rivers or lakes may make it very easy for an army to proceed on its plan of advance, and, on the other hand, the ice may help a pursuing army to follow its retreating enemy without the delay needed for building bridges. In 1780, troops were led on the ice from New Jersey to Staten Island, to attack the British, and provisions were sent across on sleighs. In 1809, the Russians were led to Sweden across the frozen Gulf of Bothnia. Sudden thaws after severe cold are often serious handicaps in a campaign. Roads and fields are suddenly turned from hard ground into deep mud or swamp, and the movement of troops, and especially of guns and supplies, may be stopped. Heat has caused as great suffering as has the cold, but less often, in our latitudes. The sufferings of the French army under General Kléber in Egypt in 1798 are well known to students of history. Officers threw themselves on the sand and gave way to despair.

If we look over the foregoing, and many other cases of weather controls in war, it is easy to see that these examples may be grouped in two classes. In one of these, the particular weather condition or phenomenon was so to speak accidental; it was sudden; unexpected at that special time; and therefore hardly to be guarded against. Cases of this sort are the sudden storms which have so often been decisive factors in military undertakings. In the second class the weather conditions were perfectly normal and natural for the particular region and season in which they occurred, but the army was not prepared for them because of the ignorance, or lack of foresight, or over-confidence, or haste, on the part of the commanding officers. Thus, the terrible disaster which befell the French army in Russia was largely due to Napoleon's own recklessness in rushing unprepared troops into the teeth of a northern winter. Cold and snow contributed towards making a disaster complete which would probably have been a serious one under any meteorological conditions. Again, during the British expedition into Tibet, a few years ago, great difficulty was experienced at the higher altitudes owing to the hardening of the oil in the guns, on account of the cold, and the low boiling point at those great altitudes made it difficult to cook food properly in the absence of special cooking utensils adapted for use at low pressures. These handicaps could have been provided against if proper care had been taken beforehand.

It is clear that weather, although not always, or ultimately, is a factor which must be reckoned with in warfare. It is one of a large number of factors, among which topography, soil, hydrography, vegetation, and so on, must also be included. To know, in advance, the general climate of the war zone; to be prepared for the special weather conditions which are reasonably to be expected at this or that season; to have as accurate a knowledge as possible of the probability of occurrence of severe cold; of sudden thaws; of heavy rains; of great heat; of high winds; of deep snows—this is a very essential element in planning a campaign or in organizing a single engagement. This is to make our knowledge of climate and of weather of immediate practical use, however much we may deplore the occasion which necessitates such use. Heavy rains make roads muddy and often impassable; delay the movements of troops, and of supplies; necessitate the abandonment of heavy guns and of ammunition; flood trenches and camps; cause discomfort and suffering, and bring on illness. Deep snows have many similar effects, but in addition are often accompanied by severe cold. Unless proper clothing, protection and fires can be provided, and often in spite of such precautions, severe cold almost inevitably increases the sufferings of the men, especially of the sick and wounded, causing an increase in the sick and mortality rates; disabling men through frostbites; making them unfit to march or to use their hands; freezing up water supplies, etc. Hot spells necessitate shorter marches, and may disable hundreds of men through sunstroke or heat prostration. Droughts make it difficult to secure water and food; cause dust which hampers the movements of troops, and may make their presence known to the enemy, and interferes with the accuracy of cannon and rifle firing. It does make a difference whether an army marches on dry, hard roads, or through deep and slippery mud; whether it suffers from frozen feet or is warm and comfortable; whether snow is falling or the sky is clear and the sun is shining; whether the wounded on the battlefield are soaked with rain, and beaten by hail, and covered with ice, or can be cared for under favorable conditions. As Sir John French put it, a few years ago: "The darker the night, the more inclement the weather, the more disagreeable the surroundings, the more valuable the training will be, and our young soldiers will gain some glimmering of what they must expect to meet in war."

Picked troops; discipline; a well-organized system of transport; proper clothing—in short, all that goes to make up the most efficient military organization, is of vastly more importance than the weather. But we fail to read history aright if we do not recognize that the weather element is by no means the least important of the many external factors which have affected military campaigns.

The present war gives us an immediate opportunity to study the influence of weather upon military operations. Although the war has lasted but three months, there are already many cases which may be cited in illustration.

During the first six weeks of the war the despatches made practically no mention whatever of the weather. Only incidentally was reference made to the oppressive heat. We may, therefore, conclude that there was nothing in the meteorological conditions in August and early September which had any noticeable effect upon the campaign. The mild and pleasant weather of the European late summer apparently ran its accustomed peaceful course. Suddenly, beginning with mid-September, we come upon constant reference to the difficulties caused by heavy rains. Autumnal rains, usually especially marked in October, are characteristic of the northern coasts of Europe. They come in connection with storms that drift in from the Atlantic Ocean, and pass eastward, across the Channel and the North Sea. It was to be expected that there would be many difficulties on account of the wet weather during the latter part of September and in October. The despatches from the front clearly show that the expected happened. Heavy rains during the long battle of the Aisne caused the rivers to swell; filled the trenches, and often drove the troops out to fight with their bayonets, thus changing the plan of operations. The difficulty, even the impossibility in some cases, of moving the heavy guns through the deep mud, was a serious handicap to both armies. During the general retreat of the Germans from their advanced position in France many guns and much ammunition had to be abandoned. On September 19 a despatch to a London paper said that the heavy rains had flooded such large areas that it was unlikely that the Germans could move their heavy siege guns towards Antwerp, but that these "would probably end in destruction in the mud." Subsequent events, however, proved this prediction a mistaken one. Nevertheless, the bad weather for a time threatened disaster to the Germans in that it delayed the arrival of reinforcements, and of provisions, and helped to demoralize the tired troops. The Allies, also, were prevented from advancing rapidly for similar reasons, and an extra time allowance was necessary in order that the various divisions could reach the ground assigned to them. The flooded rivers made the work of the "heroic engineers a veritable task of Hercules."

During the later fighting along the Franco-Belgian line, and near the Channel coast, the heavy rains continued to cause incessant trouble. "Torrential rains," producing "seas of mud"; "quagmires"; "morasses"; "bogs"—these are the expressions used to describe the condition of the region. Both sides were severely handicapped by the difficulty of moving the heavy artillery and motor trucks, but the Germans seem, on the whole, to have suffered most, with their heavy guns and motor trains. When the roads became impassable, the guns and trucks were driven through the fields, and in many cases became hopelessly stalled. The misty, rainy weather, making observation at a distance almost impossible, led to less artillery action. Autumnal fogs several times afforded a protecting cover which made a sudden assault on the enemy's trenches possible. At times, when the weather was especially stormy, the fighting ceased entirely. We read that "General Rain" helped the Allies. The discomfort of all the troops was very greatly increased because of the growing cold as autumn came on, the cool, damp nights and early mornings proving especially trying. It is interesting to note that the Belgian troops who were interned in Holland after the fall of Antwerp accidentally crossed the Dutch frontier in the dark, rainy night of their march.

These autumn rains were not limited to the Franco-Belgian war zone. In the eastern campaign, in late September, we read that the roads were quagmires and that the German troops who were advancing against the Russians were greatly hampered by the difficulty of moving the heavy guns and armored motor cars. In early October the rain and mud in this district interfered with the movements of both armies, but the Russians had the advantage because their field guns and wagons are especially designed for going through mud and soft ground, as a result of their development in districts where there are few good roads. The German artillery and automobile trucks, on the other hand, built low for service on hard ground, were moved with great difficulty or not at all. Hence the rain and the mud fought on the side of the Russians. The troops of the Czar got more of their artillery into action, and used it sooner. The Germans even found it impossible to protect themselves in the customary roofed-over trenches, because the soil was so saturated with water.

Late in October, in the campaign around Warsaw, heavy rains seem largely to have defeated the German plan of operations. The deficiency in railroads was to be made good by means of long trains of fast motor cars, but the mud was so deep that whole roads are reported to have been blocked with abandoned German transports and guns. In the advance towards Warsaw, the German artillery was so much delayed by the mud that it could not be brought up to strengthen the advance guard. The Russians captured many guns which had been abandoned in the mud. The big Krupp siege guns, which proved so effective in the west, where the roads are good, were a serious handicap in the east. Up to the end of October no important fortress had been taken by bombardment by the Germans in the east. In the west, fortress after fortress fell under the heavy gun fire. In such a region, of lowlands and swamps, winter cold, by freezing the ground, will make campaigning easier.

It is clear from these few illustrations that modern warfare has in no way become independent of the handicaps imposed by rain. Motors instead of horses are used to pull artillery and supply trains, but the guns have become heavier, and deep sticky mud is just as serious an obstacle as it ever was.

The grim specter of winter began to rise above the horizon as far back as the middle of September, and almost every day since then has brought some new evidence of the nearer approach of the cold, and the snow, and the suffering which are sure to come with the shortening days and the lowering sun. Modern wars are intense. They do not come to a dead stop in winter. The armies do not go into winter quarters as they did in the old days. The soldiers in the present war will suffer from the cold; the icy roads will make it difficult for horses to keep their footing; the snow will block roads and delay marching and transportation, just as has happened in the wars of the past under similar weather conditions. Modern methods of transportation are so well-organized that winter storms and cold do not interfere as much as was formerly the case, yet the movements. of the heavy guns, the automobiles and the motor trucks of the present-day army are likely to be blocked by deep snows at least as effectively as was once the case when horses were exclusively used.

From Galicia, with its high ground and its exposure northwards, towards the great Russian lowland, came, in mid-September, the first mention of the suffering of troops from the cold. Early in October we read that the soldiers there were marching and camping in the snow. The Russians, well protected by their heavy overcoats, suffered little discomfort, but the Austrians whose winter clothing had been captured by the Russians in Lemberg were less fortunate. Whatever may have been the other reasons for the Russian advance into Austrian Poland, it is clear that this southern route into Austrian and perhaps later into German territory would naturally give the longest open season for the prosecution of the campaign. In the northeast, the Germans seem to have been surprised by the setting in of cold weather in the first half of October, and, not having heavy clothing, they are reported to have suffered severely. The Russians, on the other hand, were well protected, having fur caps covering both their heads and necks and being otherwise well equipped with requisites for a fall and winter campaign. It is not unlikely that the Germans, even if they were distinctly victorious in this zone, would think of penetrating far into Russia, to face, as did Napoleon, the might of Generals January and February. Heavy rains and sleet made speedy movements of troops difficult in early October. Toward the latter part of October snow was interfering with the offensive of the Russian army in Poland, because delaying the movement of their transport. The German and Austrian troops, therefore, retreated less rapidly, and made a more determined resistance. They were, however, themselves greatly hampered by a breakdown of their own supply trains. It is probable that the German activity against Russia in the east has been at least in part due to the desire to gain a distinct advantage before the setting in of the rigorous Russian winter. The capture of Warsaw before winter would have greatly strengthened the German line in East Prussia, would have endangered the Russian frontier in Galicia and would have had a distinct moral effect on the Poles. Further, if a large body of German troops could then be transferred to France, a new campaign against Paris might perhaps be attempted during the milder French winter. The Russians are more accustomed to severe cold than are the men from the west and south of Europe, and will probably prosecute the war with little diminution of energy. The Germans have evidently been preparing for the winter fighting in Poland, for the troops which went to the front early in October were equipped with fur gloves and sheepskin coats.

In the French and Belgian war zone the September rains are noted as having brought lower temperatures, "with a distinct feeling of autumn in the air, especially in the early mornings." This warning chill, with cold winds, seemed to arouse all the commanders to a sudden realization of the unpreparedness of their troops for a winter campaign. The terrors of the winter suddenly loomed up on the horizon of warring Europe. Living outdoors and in trenches is bad enough when the weather is favorable, but the sufferings of the men, especially of the sick and wounded, when the weather is cold are immeasurably greater. The lowered vitality of the wounded leads to many deaths from the cold, even if none of the men are actually frozen to death, as has so often happened in previous winter campaigns in Europe. On all sides we hear of preparations for winter. The German Crown Prince, some weeks ago, telegraphed to the Emperor for winter socks and underclothing for his men. Germany has ordered sheepskin clothing from Rotterdam; fur coats to the number of 150,000, presumably for the use of German officers, have already been delivered, and 2,000,000 sheep and lambskins have been bought for the use of the men. People ordinarily employed in glove-making are now engaged in providing the troops with clothing made from the skins usually taken for gloves. For the German cavalry, special leather leg protectors are being made. The French minister of war some time ago sent a circular to all the prefects, requesting them to obtain as rapidly as possible supplies of woolen underclothes, socks, gloves and blankets for the use of the French soldiers during the winter. England has made special provision for her Indian troops in the way of mufflers and warm underwear; has commandeered large quantities of woolen goods, and is importing from this country at the present time immense numbers of rubber boots and cardigan jackets. The difficulty of digging trenches, and of living in them, is greatly increased when the weather is wet and cold. Under date of October 16, we read that the allied troops are protecting themselves in the trenches with blankets and waterproof sheets, and are guarding against the cold by wearing "sheets of parchment" under their uniforms. Dug-outs are being cut under the sides of the trenches for the men to sleep and take shelter in. These refuges are raised somewhat above the bottom of the trenches, so that they are dry in wet weather. Some of the trenches are now provided with cover overhead, for protection against the weather as well as against the shrapnel fire. In the last week of October snow fell in the Vosges, in considerable amounts, and also at several points along the French frontier. The nights were reported as becoming steadily colder. The French colonial troops, especially those from Africa, were stated to be "benumbed by the cold."

There are many respects in which the weather is of more importance in warfare to-day than it ever was in the past. The use of searchlights and aeroplanes in directing ordnance fire, and the greatly increased mortality caused by modern artillery, make the protection of troops, in trenches or otherwise, of essential importance. A low cloud, a fog, a snowstorm, a heavy rain, may give just the protection needed, and yet not interfere with the free movement of the troops. In this very war, the surrender of Namur was hastened by a heavy fog, which enabled the Germans to plant their siege guns in a good position and without danger to themselves.

It is hardly necessary to point out that in the matter of aeroplanes and airships modern warfare is far more dependent upon weather conditions than it ever was. Since the great war began we have had many illustrations of this fact. It seems to be a fairly well established point that in order to have his reconnaissance of real value the observer in an aeroplane must, unless the weather is unusually clear, come down low enough to be in danger of gun and rifle fire. Fogs and low clouds obscure the surface from an aerial observer. Wind may wholly interfere with his work at a time when his report is most needed. The increasing numbers of London fogs with the coming on of autumn led to great anxiety in London on account of possible Zeppelin attacks. Tests were made at the end of September to ascertain whether searchlights can detect a Zeppelin even through a fog. A warning has been issued by aviation experts to the effect that an attack on London is most likely on a clear calm night. Foggy and misty weather hampered aerial reconnaissance in northeastern France during the October storms. In a despatch dated October 24, from Paris, we read that the aviators who were protecting the region over Paris suffered severely in "terrible hail and snowstorms." The German aviators, it is noted, set out according to schedule, in spite of unfavorable weather. It is not difficult to realize how serious the lack of a daily European weather map must now be to the whole aerial campaign. Germany, in particular, if she plans a Zeppelin raid on England, will find the lack of observations from the British Isles most serious. Possibly some of the secret wireless stations which are reported to have been discovered in Great Britain were used for sending daily weather reports to Germany. So far as the naval side of the war is concerned, there has thus far been little or nothing to note on the meteorological aspects. With the approach of winter, and the increase of stormy weather over the northern seas, we may not unreasonably look for losses due to gales, and thick weather, and fogs, and to suffering from the cold. Bough water and fog make the approach of a submarine difficult or impossible to see, and therefore help the attacking vessel. We note that the weather was "bitterly cold" at the time when the British cruiser Hawke was torpedoed, so that the chances of saving the men who were struggling in the water were greatly lessened. Special precautions should be taken to guard against collision, shipwreck and submarine attack, as the winter comes on. The German fleet is doubtless waiting for a winter gale to scatter the British ships. At the end of October a severe storm was raging in the North Sea—a sure sign of the approach of winter—and was making life on board of the smaller vessels, the torpedo boats and submarines, most uncomfortable. Archangel, which evidently served as a very important port for the Allies during the summer, is now frozen, and will remain so until next summer.

Thus, throughout the area of the Great "War, the weather from day to day is playing its part in the campaign. Modern military tactics; modern armament; modern methods of all kinds, have not in any way eliminated the weather element as a factor of the greatest importance. The story of the present war does not, thus far, read so very differently from that of the stories of previous wars in the same countries. In 1586, the Spanish, as related by Motley, encountered such terrible rains on the Meuse that they retreated. A previous fall of Namur, in 1692, was largely due to heavy rains which prevented the English from crossing the river and meeting the besieging French army. The English in Flanders in 1708-09 endured great hardships on account of deep snows, which blocked the roads. The cold was intense and the troops, who were short of firewood, suffered severely. The Duke of Marlborough wrote (1708): "Till this frost yields we can neither break ground for our batteries nor open our trenches." The French, in Poland, in 1806-07, found mud 3 feet deep; drenching rains; driving sleet; melting snow and icy streams. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, over the same historic ground in France, we read of torrential rains; floods; icy roads; muddy fields, and of sufferings on account of cold.

So the story goes on, from age to age, from one war to the next. War and the weather: they are related to-day, as they were in the past, physically, physiologically, psychologically, and as they will be until wars shall cease.