Heatwave, drought and wildfires ravage much of Europe and North America. There is talk of war with Russia. Concerns are voiced over UK food security as farmers have struggled against imports and a growing American market. All of these things could make headlines today in one form or another, but they were the reality of 1911.
In July 1911 temperatures in New York were reported to be as high as 104F (40C) , whilst “the temperature in Kansas fields has been unprecedented in human records ranging from 108 to 115Montreal saw a death rate of 183 with 146 of them being children due to the heat.[i]
July saw record temperatures recorded in Berlin which was suffering from drought. Wild fires raged throughout Europe with the resort towns of Bavaria suffering so many fires as hotels burned along with houses and even whole villages were razed - 60,000 holiday-makers returned early from their holidays to Berlin [ii]
“Forest fires caused by the heat are also reported from various parts of the continent. A central News telegram from Verviers Belgium states that the forest fire which has been raging for eight days in the Hertogenwald, lying between there and the German frontier grew further in extent and magnitude on Saturday. Huge areas of firs trees in a very inflammable condition are sending forth huge columns of smoke and sparks and the conflagration is a menace to the inhabitants 15 miles around. The smoke is already causing them great inconvenience in that distance. A thousand German soldiers and 600 men of the Belgian Engineers are fighting the flames, helped by volunteers from the neighbouring villages. As ambulances has been installed in the forest where those engaged in circumventing the fire who have been overcome by the heat or injured in various ways are being treated. Immense trenches are being dug with feverish haste in a desperate attempt to arrest the progress of the steadily advancing flames.”[iii]
Here in Britain the drought and heat was felt badly with temperatures well in the 90’s in the shade (over 32C) and 121F (49C) reported in the open. Over 20 furze fires developed around London in mid-August. Crooksbury Hill in Surrey was aflame as was the forest at Tilford near Farnham. Meanwhile the fire brigades in Guilford, Farnham and Aldershot were being over-run by fires and required the assistance of 500 soldiers from Aldershot.
Lincolnshire suffered greatly especially in South Lincolnshire where ponds and water courses completely dried up resulting in no water for livestock. Livestock were breaking free from their fields and enclosures in a desperate search for water and many were lost or died. The shortage of water in these parts caused pumps to be locked by the Parish Councils and water doled out to inhabitants twice a day. In other places water was being carried in and charged out at 2 pence a bucket.
The drought had an extreme effect on the availability of forage “ A poor grazing season likely to be the general experience this year (1912). The grass fields sown out last year did not get chance to germinate, and these enclosures are clothed this year with thin and scanty herbage. What this means to graziers and cattle feeders is not easy to realise. It means that the natural feed must be supplemented by various kinds of artificial feed, and when that fact is considered it seems unlikely that the high prices at present quoted for these materials are likely to be much reduced during the summer months.”[iv]
In short, although prices were substantially higher for meat, and unaffordable to many, the losses of the previous year and the extra cost of feed meant, in many cases, the farmer was no better off. America was expanding greatly and as a result cheap imports that had been crippling British farmers in the late nineteenth century dried up with America competing aggressively to import meat and foodstuffs from markets that Britain had previously dominated especially Russia and Canada.
All this was at a time when there was no internet, no public radio broadcast (at least in Britain), no television. Cinema newsreel was silent and in its infancy. The only means of the public being aware of the heatwave from beyond their own local experience was the newspaper.
Is it what is actually happening, or our almost immediate access to world events that makes so many shout of a world in crisis. Should history help us keep it all in proportion and not be alarmed?