Although the winter of 1915-16 was nowhere near as wet across Northern Europe as the previous winter had been, it was wet enough to force a temporary lull in the fighting and both sides paused to take stock, to train new recruits, to reshuffle their forces and to build up stocks of heavy guns and of ammunition of the right type in readiness for resumption of the offensive in the spring of 1916. Both were also absorbing the lessons of the year’s fighting; both were developing new tactics and new weapons, such as the early tanks, or more lethal forms of poison gas, to break the enemy’s trench lines.
The miseries of “trench foot” and of living and fighting in deep mud and water were slightly mitigated – compared with the winter of 1914-15 – by the availability of more troops, so periods in the front line were reduced compared with the early months of the War and by better-experienced staff and supply arrangements. Proper winter clothing (thigh-length rubber waders, for example) was being issued and officers were being taught to take better care of the men in their charge.
There were no Christmas “truces” in this second winter of the War – 18 months of fighting had beaten any desire for such things out of the majority of front-line troops.
The withdrawal from Gallipoli released the men involved for other theatres of war. The entry of Bulgaria into the war on the German side and the consequent conquest of Serbia led to the opening of a new front in Salonika (Greece), while others were sent to take part in the fighting against the Ottomans in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).
The 24-year-old Herbert Axe
of 416 Carter’s Lane
, now a Driver and Saddler in the Royal Field Artillery component of the 29th Division’s 17th Artillery Brigade, was probably not best pleased to find himself posted from Egypt back to the Western Front in the depths of winter. On the other hand, Albert William Best
of 454 Weston Street
, now a Lance-Corporal, later promoted to Sergeant, in the 10th (Service) Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, was probably quite happy at being posted to Salonika; an exotic and glamorous-sounding place (until he arrived and discovered what the place was really like).
The 19-year-old Private William Bartlett Young
of the 1/1st West Somerset Yeomanry, still fighting without their horses, and Gunner George Axe
, 527th (Howitzer) Battery, Royal Field Artillery, were also possibly looking forward to the delights of warfare (omnipresent flies, heat, sand, dysentery and very tough Ottoman troops to fight) in the flat and open sands of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) after surviving the Gallipoli campaign.
The Allied war leaders, meanwhile, had met at Chantilly, outside Paris, on December 2nd to decide a joint strategy intended to defeat the Germans in 1916. The total failure of all the Allied attacks on the Western Front, in Italy and in Gallipoli and the Middle East demanded a complete rethink of Allied planning; unfortunately, the realities of early 20th-century warfare meant that no truly radical answers were available to them. Furthermore, no-one consulted the Germans, who had plans of their own. The outcome for the British Army would be the Somme offensive, with all that that implied for many of the men from East Chinnock, one of whom would not survive its first day.