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Podcast 42: Prisoners Of War

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Along top of the bank was the guards with their rifles and if they saw anybody slack they’d soon prod and make you work a bit faster and so on…

Thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers were captured by their enemies during the First World War. Unable to take any further part in the fighting, they became Prisoners of War, or POWs. British private, H Stone, was captured on the opening day of the German Spring Offensive, in March 1918.

It was a misty morning so we put our tin hats on the floor and sat on them; it was wet. We happened to look up and about 30 yards away there were 70 or 80 Germans, fully armed, coming down to attack our positions. Although we shouldn’t have been surprised we were, so suddenly surprising. We both fired in the middle of them, I don’t know what we did there – we never hit anybody. And then we ran. Well I got into the wood, a slope down there, I slid down, lost me tin hat, slipped down and more or less sort of hid under a bush. And they came along down this slope and I was down the slope and they came along down like that, I should think about a dozen of them passed. All of a sudden one looked down and spotted me and he shouted to some of the other Germans and they came up. And he could see I was unarmed. And they came up and they got hold of me and eventually got over to the German lines and I went into, they took me into a dugout there. One little chap coming down with them, he said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘the war’s over for you…’

Prisoners were often interrogated for useful information. RFC pilot Frederick Powell was captured in February 1918 – but, as an officer, he was treated with some respect.

This staff officer came down, as I say, after about two hours, he came in. He then took me by road in a car, a staff car, and I was then taken up to Douai where I was handed over to another German officer, who interrogated me, and asked me the usual things – my name, regiment, rank, which I gave him. And he said, ‘Your squadron?’ And I said ‘Now, excuse me, but you know very well at this stage of the war that we are not allowed to give the number of the squadron.’ And he said ‘Oh, that’s quite all right,’ he said, ‘it just saves a little time.’

Often, when large numbers of prisoners were taken in a battle, their captors were overwhelmed and unable to provide proper accommodation for them. As a result, POWs were marched away from the lines and held in large outside compounds. The harsh conditions could be very dangerous, as Walter Hare, who was also captured in 1918, found out.

I think it was a sergeant took us over and he marched us back. We went a mile or two back and he took us to a wire cage, at Villers I think it was. There were a real mixed bag in there: all sorts of units had got mixed up, hundreds of us. And it was muddy and filthy. We laid on the ground and when we could sleep, we tried to sleep but we didn’t get much. And each night of course some of the poor chaps couldn’t stand it, they died of exposure. But the guards used to come in on a morning and look round and see if any had died during the night, pick them up, take them out and they dug a long sort of trench at the side of the wire cage and each morning the dead were thrown in there. They were just thrown in, a bit of soil on top of them. I don’t know how many we lost there but quite a few because a lot of them weren’t in very good condition; they couldn’t stand it.

POWs were not supposed to carry out work that was directly connected to their enemy’s war effort – but this rule was not always adhered to. Before he was sent to a POW camp, Ernest Wilson laboured for the Germans near the front line in 1916.

At Hendicourt we were marched out to work, we were marched out every morning and picks or shovels were handed out to us and we used to then march to a place called Bullecourt, perhaps a mile and a half away. Yes, working in the vicinity of Bullecourt we also worked at little villages near-hand and occasionally at Croisilles, which was a railhead in those days. We worked mostly on the railway sidings at Croisilles, unloading trucks of all sorts of materiel. It was pretty grim and I tried to keep as cheerful as ever I could but each day some of our lads fell by wayside. And if I remember correctly, we were – when we set out as working party – a party of probably about 50 or 60. By the end of February, early March, we were reduced to probably 35.

Those carrying out this forced labour had long days and little sustenance. British private H Turner described how he added to his meagre diet.

We worked from early morning ‘til dusk and were then marched back to the compound and given our daily ration of bread. A small loaf, but this was for three men. The bread we thought was made from potato meal and probably a little flour added. We prisoners used to say it was 90% sawdust. Daily, we became weaker and weaker. By this time, we were seeking other sources of food supplies than that issued to us by the Germans and which appeared to be getting less and less. We found in the early morning a snail-like creature, stuck to the bark on the willow trees. We gathered these, and also some nettle leaves. On getting back to the camp at night, we would boil the snails and chop them up with boiled nettle leaves, making a sort of paste to spread on our bread. I can’t say that the snails had any particular taste, but they did at least supplement our scanty rations in some small way.

Many POWs were wounded when they were captured. The medical care they received varied. Ulick Burke, an officer in the Devonshire Regiment, explained how he was treated.

Terribly, from my point of view. I had been wounded previously and I had been used to nice soft beds; sheets; washed and shaved every morning; wounds dressed. When we arrived here, we laid on straw palliasses, hard beds with two blankets and the treatment – the dressings – were terrible, I mean I complained the first time about the dressing. It was supposed to be white lint going on and it was brown in the middle and I was told to shut up. And I realised afterwards that they were reusing all their dressings because they were so short. They were sterilised, but it looked nasty you see.

At the start of the war, there weren’t enough places in Germany to hold all the POWs that were being taken. Camps were hastily constructed for them. Once these were built, prisoners were transported to them from the front. Prisoners were often given a hostile reception by civilians they encountered on these journeys, including Alf Bastin, who was captured in 1914.

Well we got as far as Cologne and the train stopped on the station. And we found out afterwards that the German people had been told that half the British navy had been caught. Of course, it was all poppycock. And we got on the station; they opened the doors and there all the German people were on the platform, all booing us and shouting and that; throwing stale bread, mildewed bread – which we were pleased to pick up and eat I might tell you! After a while it was all over and we set off again.

When they arrived, the camps varied in their standards of accommodation and sanitation. Thomas Painting was taken prisoner in November 1914 and sent to a very basic camp in Germany.

We finally arrived at Güstrow in Mecklenburg. And it was in a snowstorm. The tent that I was put into it was a huge tent, hold about five or six hundred people. There was a street through it, and on each side of the street there was a pen – six foot six in length – and straw was on the wet ground. And you were allowed two foot six in sleeping space, and that was your accommodation. Lie down in the straw on the damp ground and a thin blanket which you could hold up and see through it.

Walter Hare had better conditions in the camp he was imprisoned in, in 1918.

We finished up at a little place called Emmendingen and they marched us across to a camp, just a small camp with two huts in it. But it was clean; there was taps; there was running water and basins. We felt it was more like civilian life. They had wire beds, and we had a blanket with a palliase. So we really felt as though we were treated more like human beings. We’d a trestle in the yard itself, in the compound, with taps on and basins so we could get washed. And we got an issue of Krieg Seife – war soap.

British POWs in the Middle East had a different experience to those on the Western Front. They were generally treated badly, and many died because of the harsh and at times inhumane conditions. Officers, such as Joseph Napier, were mostly spared the more extreme treatment. He described the basic but comparatively good camp he was sent to in Turkey.

It didn’t take us long I must say on arrival to appreciate the conditions that we were going to live in because we went into this big building which consisted of a few large empty rooms on the ground floor; stairs going up to a passage alongside of which were numerous small rooms. The place had no furniture of any sort in it and we just wondered where we were going to lie and so on. We then realised that our place was on the floor and we were all in one room. We were allocated by the Turkish sergeant who came in, a position on the floor and told not to take our beds from it – which was rather extraordinary to be treated like this. However we accepted it. And I remember that evening – there were no lights in the place – as soon as it was dark we had nothing to do but just to go to bed. The bed wasn’t a very agreeable place – I suppose for a pillow, our shoes and our coats wrapped up in it.

Food was a source of misery for nearly all prisoners. They were provided with very little, and it was of poor quality. Thomas Mitchell-Fox described the typical POW diet – and its effects.

The quality of the food was extremely poor and very meagre. It was about one meal a day. Which consisted of a piece of black bread about half the size of the palm of your hand, which was the whole day’s ration of bread; and that was black, a sort of rye bread. The main meal would be something like a plate of sauerkraut – as you know is sour cabbage. And then there was a cup of this, so called, coffee. To give you some idea of the effect of the lack of food: malnutrition and so on meant a considerable loss of body weight in the majority. And to give you an indication of how weak one became; there was a flight of stairs – not very steep stairs – up to my particular bedroom and after a while I could negotiate the first two steps standing upright. The remainder of the stairs I had to do on my hands and knees because I hadn’t got the strength to walk upright up the stairs.

The Red Cross and other charities added to prisoners’ supplies with packages of food, tobacco and other essentials. Joe Fitzpatrick received help from the Lancashire Comforts Fund – and some fellow POWs.

Well we used to get a parcel about once a fortnight. Little bit of bacon; a little bit of either margarine or butter; tea; cigarettes if you were on cigarettes or tobacco if you was on tobacco. And it was a right good hamper – a real good hamper, it was. And then, what with my two Belgian friends, they got plenty of peas, beans, a bit of cabbage or a bit of vegetable and kartoffels, which is potatoes. They were always – anybody who went out working, they always came back with a pocketful.

Health and hygiene were not usually given much priority at the prisons. As a result, POWs suffered from infectious diseases and body lice. Thomas Painting explained the lice situation at his camp.

Not being able to have a bath or anything, we were soon very verminous. And before we moved over to these huts the Germans collected us and took our clothes off us, stripped us naked, put a dab of soft soap on our shoulder, had a sluice down under a spray bath. Your clothes, while you had been in there were fumigated. And they were issued to you again, you see. And then we went over to these huts so we were fairly clean, you see, we were a new life. I tell you when I killed 365 lice alone on my shirt you can imagine what the conditions were like…!

The prisoners who weren’t officers were made to carry out a range of work, from agriculture and road building, to factory production and mining. The labour was often tough, as Charles Colthup found out.

You had to work, you see, at the camp, like. We had to go out at six in the morning, oh a mile or two away, making a road. They called it Kaiser Wilhelm’s Park – belonged to him or something. And this road went right up this hill we were making. And there was, used to be about 400 of us go up there. And four of you to each truck, or skip, you see. One packing; one shovelling and filling up and two of you run it down and then empty it and then you’d got to push it back. And along the top of the bank was the guards with their rifles and if they saw anybody slack, they’d soon prod. And now and again the sergeant major, they would come along behind you and make you work a bit faster and so on.

Percy Jackson found a way to sabotage his work at a factory in Alsace.

Well I was a joiner and they put me on a circular saw and I was working away happily until I suddenly realised: ‘I’m working for the enemy!’ It was timber, to go in the dugouts, lining the dugouts. And I thought, ‘I’m helping the enemy!’ So I spoilt a few and they took me off it!

The work could be dangerous, as Alf Bastin explained.

We were at Dobritz and we were going out into the woods there digging up gravel which was required for building purposes in the camp and town. We used to have one of these huge farm carts, fill it with gravel, and it was dragged by about 24 prisoners. So, where we were working there was quite a steep hill down to the exit. And I remember on one occasion we’d started down the hill and the idea was that people holding the ropes would hang on back behind to steady the vehicle, getting out of hand. But unfortunately, something went wrong this particular day and it started away on it’s own. And unfortunately for one poor lad, he lost his life. It went over his head, and that was an awful scene.

For some POWs, their work placements provided respite from strict camp regulations. George Thompson lived on a farm in the Soltau area in 1918.

We had a hut in the farmyard – quite a comfortable hut in the farmyard. And we were fed, of course, in the farm kitchen with the other farm labourers. The job was potatoes, really, that’s why we were there the extra labour for potato picking. They treated us like ordinary people; I mean they didn’t bother about us being prisoners at all. We used to go down to the villages and have a look round. If we had some prisoner of war money – we were paid about a penny a day for working – we’d spend it in the village shop.

When a POW wasn’t working, life in the camp could be pretty dull, as Albert Barker discovered.

There was no football or anything like that. You couldn’t do anything, actually. Later on they got books from England, but we didn’t get many. You’d waste your time. If you were a fit man you went out to work for so many hours a day. But such as us who were in the camp you’d nothing to do, you got fed up with it. It was just a case of you were a prisoner and that was it, you had to make the best of it.

Some prisoners organised learning schemes and orchestras, read books or played games. At William Shipway’s POW camp, there were morale-boosting concerts.

Of course we had the orchestra, as I said, and we got up shows. In which we got up costumes and scenery and so forth, invited the German staff, the German officers and they invited German officers in from the garrison and quite a ‘do’. We did I think it was two shows that I can remember. One of them was called the Raja of –. And the raja had a beauty chorus of officers dressed as ladies, you see. Oriental costumes; heavily made-up.

Escape attempts were fairly common in First World War POW camps. In July 1918, 29 officers left Holzminden prison via a secret tunnel, in one of the most famous escapes of the war. Holzminden inmate Vernon Coombs described the reaction to the breakout.

Do you know, I knew nothing about that tunnel; it was being built for months! I knew nothing about it until after the escape. I don’t know why I didn’t know – I suppose it was very secret. Well, every morning we were paraded and counted and when, after the escape, we paraded, they said there are 29, I think, missing. And that was a great excitement and, of course, pandemonium amongst the Germans. Because the commandant had always prided himself on a camp where no escapes could take place. He was thoroughly deflated and absolutely mad!

For British prisoners, escape was difficult without money, food or the ability to speak German. If they were caught, escapees could be harshly punished. George Cole and his friend tried to leave their camp in 1918.

We went in front camp commandant and this interpreter was interpreting for the German. So he asked if we knew we could be shot for trying to escape. And I don’t know where I got it from, I says, ‘No sir,’ I says, ‘that’s the prisoner’s privilege of trying to escape – we are supposed to escape.’ The interpreter told it to the German, see. And I can remember him giving me a kind of a smile, see, and he spoke back to the interpreter. And he says, ‘He’s going to give you five days in a cell, bread and water.’ So I says, ‘Oh well,’ I says, ‘it’s a soldier’s duty trying to escape, to join his regiment, see.’ Martin kept saying, ‘Be quiet!’ And the German was laughing, like, see.

Allegations of cruelty, neglect and brutality were commonly made by prisoners of war. The POW experience varied – but mistreatment did occur. Hugh Matthews was threatened when he refused to work.

We were ordered to go out to work. And that was a thing I was very much opposed to doing on principal; I never had done any manual work since I was captured because I held that full ranks shouldn’t be forced to work. But however, one morning we fell in at half past 6 in the side road between our barrack blocks in parties of about 50. The guard fell in in front of us, facing us, a very heavy guard – about one file to every two files of prisoners. And we were given the command, right turn, to go and get shovels and things. Well of course, nobody moved. And the sentries were given a very smart and angry order and off came their rifles and they very ostentatiously put one in the spout to start with, closed the bolt and they just stood there waiting for the command to fire. And we were told if we didn’t move at the next command, we should be fired upon. And of course it would just have been a slaughter. So when the ‘recht -’ came, we just ‘recht -’, you see, and shambled off.

British private, H Stone, witnessed maltreatment of other prisoners at his camp.

I saw the first brutality there. These Italian prisoners used to come into our compound; they were not supposed to be in the compound. They used to come in there – they were in a shocking state, all toes sticking out of their boots, rags – and they used to come round to the cookhouse looking for potato peelings. The Germans, if they saw them, used to come over and they used to knock ’em flat – you know, knock ’em flat on the floor and kick ’em out of our compound. I’d never seen any brutality like that – I didn’t realise that our people suffered just the same until later on.

Thomas Painting remembered a fellow POW being punished for complaining about conditions in a letter home.

Discipline was severe and the treatment was bad. Rifleman Turner he wrote home and said he was hungry, he got no food. The Germans come down and got Harry Turner. And tried him for writing home saying he was being starved. And in the camp there was a post four inches square, wood, seven foot high. They put two bricks under his feet, tied him to this post round his arms and waist and legs, took the bricks from underneath his feet and left him to hang there for two hours in a snowstorm. He was nearly dead when they cut him down. That was a punishment for writing home saying he was hungry.

Huge numbers of Germans were also captured during the war, and imprisoned by the Allies. British soldier Clifford Lane had a good rapport with some German prisoners taken on the Western Front in 1918.

We took some German prisoners and I had the job of escorting them down to the battalion headquarters. On the way down, the Germans put up – on the communication trenches – they put up a terrific bombardment. The two or three of us who were escorting these prisoners got them into a dugout, where some of our people actually were, a deep dugout. Of course, we took advantage of these dugouts. These Germans were most comical. One was called Hans, I remember. And we gave them a rum issue and they were laughing – of course, they were glad to get out of it, I suppose. But anyway, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Norman Collins of the Seaforth Highlanders also showed kindness to a captured German.

I remember a German, a young German prisoner, a young German, hopping, coming in with a piece of wood – which no doubt he’d got from the dugout – acting as a crutch. I could speak a few words of German and I just asked him how he felt. And I wasn’t popular because I had him put onto a stretcher and taken back with the British wounded behind the lines. I could see that I wasn’t popular at all for that. It was probably the wrong thing to do, but he was a young fellow; he didn’t look more than 18. He was badly wounded and he couldn’t walk, except hop on this crutch made out of wood, and I suppose I felt sorry for him.

There were, though, instances of British hostility aimed at German POWs. Henry Brunker recalled one he witnessed in Salonika.

We brought in seven German prisoners, you know ,to question them, you know. And Colonel Greenwood looked at one of those Germans – a big German, about 6 foot 3 – big fellow. He looked at this German as good as insult him, you know, in the way. I felt sorry, you know, in a way that he did that. And this German looked at him as though he would have killed him! I thought, ‘If he was free, he’d have killed him’ – he would have!

The war ended in November 1918, but POWs were not immediately released from captivity. George Thompson did not even find out that the war was over until January 1919.

I had a load of potatoes down at the station, the village station, due to be loaded into a truck. And a train pulled up and an Englishman pushed his head out of the train, he says, ‘What the hell are you doing there?’ I says, ‘Working, I work here on a farm.’ He said, ‘Well, the war’s been finished for ages.’ That was the first I knew about it. And then I got, in January, I got a letter from the Pied Piper’s town – Hamlyn – saying there was a railway warrant in it and I had to take the train from Celle to the camp at Hamlyn. And from Hamlyn, we were put on a train the next day and came into Holland. And that was the end of that.

For many POWs, it was months before they returned home. Their families often found that their experiences had changed them. Beatrice Lee’s husband had been badly treated in his POW camp in Germany, after he’d tried to escape.

In 1919, my husband came back – it was on a Sunday evening. And when he came back, he was thinner than me. I had a lot to do for him; he was a sick man, a very sick man. Anyway, I took him to Ireland – Larne – we started off at Larne. And we went to a little quiet place, Ballycastle, thinking it would bring him back to his health. But it was no good.

After spending more than three years as a POW in Germany, Charles Colthup just wanted the familiarities of his home life when he returned to Britain in January 1919.

We arrived out in my village, outside mother and father’s house. It was after midnight when we got out to my village, yes, and everybody was in bed, naturally. Anyway, I went up the steps to our house and tapped the door and called out, ‘I’m home.’ Mother got up and came down and – oh dear – the reunion, well you can guess what it was like. Straight away she lit the fire and put a kettle on – we soon had a cup of tea…

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 43.