Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Tobacco Screen

Update 1st Dec 2014

I was watching the interview with Henry Williamson recorded in the 1960s this evening to prepare a lesson on the 1914 Truce - I like to use his interview as you can allow students to comment on his vivid account and then add in the extra details about his life after the war - author of Tarka the Otter and his later links with Oswald Mosley - and see how their view changes.

When describing the events of 24th December he mentions that he was part of a working group sent out into no-man's land to erect a series of posts that would become part of a screen to allow men in the trenches to have a little more cover - sniping is frequently mentioned in the war diary of the Somersets at this time and seems to have caused more problems than shelling at the end of 1914.

This is a well-known story and although some aspects of his interview have been questioned I have little reason to doubt it took place - but if anyone has further evidence then let me know. He then mentions that the posts were to be covered in dried tobacco leaves that he states the Belgians had been drying on hurdles in the Autumn and then abandoned- I think it can be concluded that the Tobacco Screen referred to in the trench map is just that - a protective screen covering a trench or other important position made of tobacco leaves on  picket fence. The Germans were therefore using one in October 1914and that is what Lt Braithwaite marks on his map, the British decided to put one on place later that year. Williamson states that it was to be used to provide cover if his regiment needed to re-occupy a trench that had been abandoned due to flooding, this something the Somerset diary mentions happening in early December

I suppose to prove this we would need other accounts of these screens being erected and maybe the view of an expert in Belgian tobacco production in the early 20th Century. Here are a couple of images I found of the sort of devices used to dry tobacco and I think it is possible to imagine them being mounted on a wooden frame to provide some sort of cover, I can't imagine they would last too long though
Tobacco drying rack
Drying cabinet

There are a few accounts of improvised defences at this time - the diary of Private Coward mentions the use of tins on wire to warn of enemy attacks in the time before the mass use of barbed wire - Williamson also refers to these in his account - which can be found here (UK only I think) the section on the Truce and the 24th December starts at about 20 minutes

Original Post - 29/10/14

The image here is a trench map, taken from the War Diary of the Somerset Light Infantry (Crown Copyright)
It was drawn by Lt Valentine Braithwaite on 24th October 1914 and shows the position held by A Company on this date. Valentine is worthy of a few postings in his own right - he had already won the MC at Mons, so
more on him later

The map shows an area just north of Ploegsteert on the Franco-Belgian border and was created just after the Somersets had taken the town of Le Gheer - an action that lead to the GOC writing a note of congratulations that contained the phrase "Good Old Somersets" and gave the blog a name.

It is unusual because of one label - a German defensive point labelled B (in the middle of the map) is described as a "Tobacco Screen". If anyone has seen this used anywhere else or can explain what it is meant to denote then please get in touch

Trench map by Lt Valentine Braithwaite

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