At school I used to go out running with a slightly mad fellow enthusiast who persuaded me one winter that we should run barefoot in the snow ‘to toughen our feet’. Small stuff on the scale of what cold can do to you, but enough that this poem by Edgell Rickword (1898-1982) can still make my toes tingle at the memory of it. And what a brilliant stroke of personification, to fuse the hostility of winter with that image of callous commanding officers whom at least some of their soldiers on either side seem to have viewed as no less a hazard of the war.
Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(tabs of rime and spurs of ice);
stiffened all that met his glare:
horses, men and lice.
Visited a forward post,
left them burning, ear to foot;
fingers stuck to biting steel,
toes to frozen boot.
Stalked on into No Man’s Land,
turned the wire to fleecy wool,
iron stakes to sugar sticks
snapping at a pull.
Those who watched with hoary eyes
saw two figures gleaming there;
Hauptmann Kälte, Colonel Cold,
gaunt in the grey air.
Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved,
glassy-eyed, with glinting heel
stabbing those who lingered there
torn by screaming steel.