Although it’s starting a little late this year, we’re coming to that special time in Vermont. Mud Season! When the muddy ruts in the road suck your tires into their depths and the only way to save yourself and your car is to drive faster. When your favorite footwear are your muck boots and your floor and carpet have a new pattern – brown paw prints.
And all that is nothing compared to parts of the Western Front during the Great War. The low lying areas of Belgium and France were especially bad. There, the water table was often seasonally very high which meant digging only a foot below the soil surface might result in a water-filled hole. The Germans often took the high ground and kept relatively dry, but the muddy Allied trenches and shell-pocked No Man’s Land near Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme are infamous. And the mud wasn’t just wet earth. It was full of human waste, rotting food, corpses and dead animals, broken equipment, rusting metal shells, shrapnel, barbed wire and tin cans. It was a slimy, stinking, foul ooze that literally swallowed men and animals if they weren’t careful. Thousands of men fell into the mud never to be seen again. Sometimes horses and mules became so stuck that the soldiers had to take off their traces and leave them to die in the mud.
A classic WWI book written by a former French soldier, Henri Barbusse, and first published in 1916 called Le Feu or (Under Fire) drives home the horror of mud. From the beginning of the novel to the very end, his description of mud is tangible. “You can see a maze of long ditches in which the last remnants of night linger. This is the trench. The bottom of it is carpeted with a viscous layer that clings noisily to the foot at every step and smells foul around each dugout because of the night’s urine” (pg 7).
The final scene of the novel finds a group of faceless, nameless men (literally, for it is dark and no one knows who is talking) lying in the mud and rain. They carry on a long conversation about the stupidity of war, “[t]wo armies fighting each other-that’s like one great army committing suicide!” (343). Only to find on the final page that they form a new squad, and the cycle of war continues.
Standing in water and mud led to trench foot which could be particularly troublesome for soldiers, in some cases leading to gangrene and foot amputations. The foul mud often resulted in debilitating and deadly bouts of dysentery among the troops as well. Not only shells and machine gun bullets were the deadly enemies of the regular soldiers in the trenches, but mud was too.
My great uncle Harry spent most of his time in France near Verdun which is farther south of the level muddy lands of Flanders. He fought at St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, but in late October and November he was in Belgium as part of an offensive to drive the Germans east. It wasn’t until his return to France in December and January that he went through some of the muddy hellish places that are legendary. And there he experienced mud. He writes, “[We] are now in a much better part of France. It is hillier here than where we were. There, it was nothing but mud till a fellow thinks but mud.”
So as I gear up for our spring thaw and the muddy roads, I will be grateful for our mud season. It is really not such a big deal after all.