Personal Experiences of a Prisoner of War in Germany - First World War
The following is a personal story of a soldier of the 10th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment of his capture and experiences as a prisoner of war:
After being repulsed twice, the German attack on the 21st March, 1918, was successful and Bapaume was captured.
During this action I had been sent with a message to an isolated Lewis Gun post, and on my return found the Battalion had retired. I therefore reported to an officer of the Royal Fusiliers, who appeared to be collecting and organizing strays like myself.
I was placed in charge of thirty men of the Middlesex Pioneers, and joined the troops ordered to cover the retirement and delay the German attack until midnight.
In the meantime the troops in rear had dug in and erected wire entanglements. At midnight we retired and on approaching the wire we were greeted with "Here they are, boys—give them hell!" Rapid fire was opened, and some little time elapsed before we could convince them that we were not the Germans.
Highly coloured compliments having been exchanged, we passed through the lines and marched for about two miles, then halted and reorganisation took place. Voices were heard calling: “R. Fusiliers here, Middlesex Pioneers over here, Highlanders this way.”
My own Regiment not being present, I decided to report to the Royal Fusiliers as I thought the Middlesex Pioneers would undoubtedly be put on to further digging, and as digging was never a popular pastime with me, the Royal Fusiliers appeared to be the better proposition.
The officer to whom I reported was the same one who had given me my previous command; he recognised me and said "I want you to take charge of this party (15) and take up an outpost position." He showed me the position and ordered me to dig in (The Pioneers marched to the rear and I believe were later employed in constructing a strong defence line.) We commenced digging and before dawn had constructed a trench, and also had a certain amount of rest.
At about 7.0 a.m. the enemy opened heavy fire on our position, and to our consternation the fire appeared to be coming from all directions. Our worst fears were confirmed when we were ordered to retire as quickly as possible, as we were practically surrounded. We made for a sunken road, thinking it would give us a covered approach to our new position, but found the enemy had also realised its value and had posted men at one end, who opened fire as we dropped down into the road.
The enemy made the mistake of opening fire too soon, and instead of being trapped in the confined space of the sunken road, the troops kept to the comparative safety of the open, with the exception of myself. I was unlucky; I had received a bullet in the thigh, and remained where I fell in the road; there were no such things as Stretcher-Bearers during this "hit and run" period.
The enemy now opened fire with a field gun on the British end of the road and prevented it from being occupied. No further advance was made by the enemy for about an hour, when the first German platoon came up the road at the double, and halted for a rest near where I was lying.
After being disarmed by the platoon commander, he ordered his medical orderly to bandage my wound; I was also given a drink by one of the platoon. These were obviously fresh troops as the coffee in their water bottles was still hot. In all, four platoons came up the road, at about five minutes interval; each platoon halted by me, so presumably I was a landmark.
At about noon artillery galloped up and opened fire. This was replied to by a British heavy battery, and I received a slight wound in the leg from a shell splinter. Firing ceased at about 4.0 p.m.
At about 5.0 p.m. I was visited by a German artillery officer, who informed me that the attack was a huge success and that they would be in Paris in two days’ time; he said the English were running so fast that they could not keep up with them. He offered me a drink of "Black and white," which he told me he had obtained from the B.E.F. Canteen at Bapaume (he called it the officers’ canteen, and would not believe me when I said it was for the use of all ranks). He had also “won” some bread, and informed me that it was the first white bread he had seen since 1915.
I was later given an old broom to use as a crutch and told to make my way to Bapaume, where I would find a dressing station. I started off and eventually found a main road. By this time it was getting dark and still there appeared to be no signs of a dressing station. I arrived at last at a cross-roads and stood for a moment deciding which road to take, when three figures came out of the gloom. Not being able to speak German, I spoke the one word "Bapaume?"
They answered "Was Englander?" and I was pushed into the usual French ditch at the side of the road. Picking myself up, I chose the opposite road to the one taken by the Germans, and shortly found myself mixed up with what was apparently a battalion’s first line transport.
I was asked by a man standing by a travelling kitchen if I was wounded, and on replying that I was, he offered me a seat on the cooker. He spoke very good English and told me they were taking rations up the line to his battalion, and he would take me with him to their aid post; he also informed me that they had just returned from the Russian front and was quite pleased they had arrived in time to be in at the death. He was quite sure the end of the war was a matter of days; he was well supplied with English cigarettes and was quite pleased with his share of the loot from the B.E.F. Canteen.
We arrived at the dressing station at last and my wounds were re-dressed with paper bandages. I was given a blanket and told I would be moved to hospital in the morning.
At about 5.0 a.m. I awoke to find breakfast being served to the troops prior to going into action. The breakfast consisted of one slice of black bread and a cubic inch of some white substance very much like lard, and a mug of coffee. I was given the same except that I did not get any “lard.” This, I was told, was too scarce.
Later that morning I was picked up by an ambulance and taken to the railhead, placed on a Red Cross train, and started on my way to Germany. After two days’ train journey I arrived at the prisoners of war hospital at Friednecksfield Rhineland.
The Ambulance train, with about fifty or sixty British prisoners on board, arrived at Friedrichsfeld at about 6.0 p.m. We were met by a stretcher party of prisoners, who carried us to the hospital. On the way to hospital I was given the tip by one of the stretcher bearers to forget my Brigade, Division, etc., and to remember my personal particulars and my Battalion and Regiment only. This conversation came to an abrupt stop when the stretcher bearer received the butt of a rifle in his ribs and a torrent of abuse (in German) from one of the guards. I was placed in a ward holding fifty and was soon fast asleep.
At about 9.0 a.m. the following morning a German medical officer arrived, inspected our wounds and gave instructions to his two orderlies as to dressings.
At about 10.0 a.m. I was visited by two intelligence officers, who were very concerned about my wounds; was I comfortable and had I everything I wanted? etc. They left me with the remark that I was an English swine when they discovered that I did not know my Brigade, Division, etc.
The tip given to me had apparently been passed on to all the other new prisoners, and they did not appear to have gained much information.
Life for the next month was just the usual hospital routine, except that regulations were much more lax than they are in an English hospital. If a man felt he was fit enough to get up, he got up; and if he found to his cost that he was not so fit, then he only had himself to blame. Wounds were dressed every third day, bandages as we know them did not exist; all dressings were made of paper. Minor operations took place at one end of the ward, and as the use of anaesthetics was restricted to major operations, the sigh of relief from the whole ward when the Medical Officer had finished for the day does not require much imagination.
At last the day came when I was discharged hospital and taken to the main prison lager. The camp was surrounded by two high wire fences, with a live electric wire between them; at each corner a raised look-out tower had been built. These towers also contained a machine gun. Sentries constantly patrolled the outside of the wire during the day, and at night more sentries were posted on the inside of the wire.
The food was bad. Breakfast was black bread (Kriegs Brot) and coffee, dinner at 12.0 noon was a soup consisting of cabbage, or barley and potatoes; once a week the soup contained meat. On Sundays as a special treat we had sourkraut, the smell of this is sufficient to drive all thoughts 0f food from the average Englishman. The last meal of the day was tea at 4.0 p.m., when we again had bread and coffee.
The Germans admitted that the food was not good, but said they could not improve it, owing to the British blockade. They themselves did not appear to fare very much better. All food was rationed, and any German of twelve years of age and upwards who was not employed at work of national importance received no bread or meat. In view 0f this, it is remarkable that so few 0f our food parcels from home went astray.
Prisoners below the rank 0f full corporal were made to work in factories, coal mines, stone quarries, and on the farms. Life in the factories and on the farms was comparatively good, but the mines and quarries were bad. Twelve hours was the normal working day; these were known as Strafe Commandos, and prisoners were usually sent there as a punishment.
The British, French, and Russians formed the bulk of the prisoners confined at Friedrichsfeld, each nationality having its own block of huts. The Russians did all the fatigues outside camp, such as unloading supplies at the station and bringing them to camp in hand-carts. A party of twenty Russians would only have one sentry, whereas the same number of British or French would have at least ten sentries.
The Germans believed in collective punishment, and on the slightest provocation turned us out of our beds at 4.0 a.m. and made us stand to attention until 6.0 a.m. This was known as "stilly standt," and was a favourite German punishment. Other punishments were "Strafe," which means close confinement for a certain number of days (usually three) without bedding; and "strong strafe," which was solitary confinement in semi-darkness and bread and water.
In August, 1918, the British prisoners complained that they were not getting the same treatment as other nationalities. The French were allowed out of camp in small parties under escort for a short walk on Sundays; this privilege was denied the British. At an interview with the Camp Commandant, we were told that the English could not be trusted out of camp, but if we would promise not to attempt to escape, he would allow ten of us to go for a short walk in the country.
The following Sunday at 8.0 a.m. the ten selected by vote paraded for the short walk; accompanied by a strong guard, they left camp at 8.15 a.m. and marched steadily with brief halts until their return to camp at 5.0 p.m. I Needless to say, no further applications for "short walks!" were made.
When the German retirement commenced, the prisoners who had been kept for work behind the lines were sent back to the main camp. They were in a very bad state, more than half starved and in rags. Several died shortly after their arrival; many deaths were caused by too generous a meal after their semi-starvation behind the front line.
Rumours of the Armistice were now confirmed, together with the news that all prisoners were to be repatriated, and shortly afterwards I was on my way to England via Holland, arriving home at the latter part of November.