A Prisoner of War in Germany
By A. Tyreman
[The Living Age; July 13, 1918; from The Cornhill Magazine]
[On September 28, 1914, the writer was taken prisoner by the Germans. The enemy had successfully attacked the shallow trench where he lay at the edge of a wood. A tree, snapped off by shell fire, fell upon him and injured his leg, pinning him down for twenty-four hours. After scraping away the earth with his free hand, he at last got clear, and, hobbling away in search of water for other wounded men, fell into the hands of the German Medical Corps, and was taken to headquarters—a farmhouse. Here he was questioned by an intelligence officer, who, in a rage at learning nothing, ''told me more about the movements of my own brigade than I knew myself, from when we mobilized up to that very day,' and, finally, purple with fury at some remarks on the Kaiser in a friend's letter, and the conscious smile on the face of his prisoner, 'he called me everything from a pig to a pickpocket; threw my letters at me, and stalked off with the others, muttering "Huh! Englander! Schweinhunde!"]
I was left standing where I was for a few moments, when a tall Uhlan approached me, saying in good English, 'Where do you come from?' I was dumbfounded, and, on my not replying, he said 'You come from the Isle of Wight, don't you?' I said 'Yes.' 'I thought so,' said he. 'I 've seen you several times on Hunny Hill, Newport. You are a music-hall artist. I have seen you giving turns several times at Cowes and Hyde. I saw you once at Medina Hall and once at the Palace, Newport.' He then offered me some cigarettes. I thought of my dignity, and answered 'Thank you, but I have some English cigarettes.' 'I suppose you prefer those to Continental cigarettes?' said he. I replied 'Infinitely!' I felt that I had scored one.
Just then I heard an altercation on my right, and, on turning, I saw three or four Uhlans violently jabbering with threatening gestures at another Britisher. I looked a little closer and recognized him as a man belonging to my own regiment, whom I knew very well. The Uhlans seemed as though they would have liked to tear him limb from limb, but he stood there with a perfectly impassive countenance. This seemed to infuriate them all the more, especially one big Uhlan, who stepped back a few paces, grabbed a lance that was leaning against the wall, and, pointing it towards my friend's head, rushed at him.
The Englishman, seeing what was coming, suddenly sprang to attention, and the lance just missed the top of his head and stuck into the door at the back of him. This caused a roar of laughter from all the Germans in the courtyard, staff officers and all; but the Englishman never for a second relaxed his position of attention.
The laughter having somewhat subsided, the big Uhlan then stepped forward and pulled the lance out of the door. This done the Englishman went smartly through the motions of stand at ease, pulled a dirty handkerchief from his sleeve, and wiped his nose with the air of a man who is frightfully bored with a very uninteresting piece of acting. I would have liked to rush forward and shake hands with him, but I dared not. So I shouted 'Good boy, Dick!' He looked round quickly and, when he saw me, his face changed immediately, and with a cheery grin he said 'Wot cheer!' One of the officers then came forward and bawled at me, saying 'Nicht sprechen!' which I took as an order not to speak. He was a tall man, with a wizened face, which appealed to my sense of humor, and I could not help giving vent to this. I replied very quickly, so that none of the Germans who spoke English could understand—'All right, old frosty face!' At this he barked at me a bit more, and stalked off, muttering more curses on Englanders.
Soon after this, an escort of Uhlans was ordered to take us farther down the road to Laon. While they were preparing, my would-be friend, the Uhlan, endeavored to engage me in conversation again, telling me that we were to be taken to where his squadron of Uhlans was, and they would supply an escort for us to Laon. At the same time he warned me not to try to escape, or I would be shot immediately, and advised me to tell all the other Englishmen that I came across down the road, I said 'Thanks! I know what to expect when trying to escape, if not successful, and so do all British soldiers.'
At this he was silent for a moment, then said 'You know you English are very foolish to have made war on us, because in a few months we shall be in London.' I said nothing, but merely raised my eyebrows and looked at him from under my eyelids, just as a magistrate does when he looks over his spectacles at a prisoner in the dock. He understood the expression, but said nothing.
By this time the escort was ready to take us away. He then said 'Goodbye,' and advanced to shake hands; but I kept my hands in my pockets and, with a slight inclination of my head, said 'Good-bye,' and was marched off with the other two Englishmen out of the courtyard.
Soon after, an English aeroplane flew over, far out of range; but a whole squadron of Uhlans snatched up their rifles and fired at it furiously, madly gesticulating all the while. One or two of us were smiling at their efforts, when suddenly I became aware of a tall Uhlan officer by my side. He wore spectacles and, to my idea, he had a kindly face.
He said to me in perfect English 'For goodness sake, man, don't laugh! If they saw you laughing, they would shoot you without the slightest hesitation.' I took the cue; thanked him, and told the others what he had told me, and advised them to feign disinterestedness in the operations on our aeroplane. The officer, seeing this, nodded and walked away, and I could see by the expression of his face that he felt glad that he had told us and had done us a good turn.
In a few moments our aeroplane was out of sight, intact, and when the excitement had subsided that officer came back and chatted to us, telling us that he had spent a number of years in London, and had returned to Germany only a few months back. While he was chatting to us, we were startled by a loud report in the tower of the church, followed by some awful moaning. We were told afterwards by the officer who had been with us that an officer ascending the stairs of the tower saw someone coming down, and in the fading light of the evening took the person coming down the stairs to be a French spy, fired his revolver at him, and killed him on the spot. On the body being brought downstairs, the officer discovered that he had shot one of his own men who had been on lookout duty at the top of the church tower and was coming down to report. Needless to say, this did not affect us one scrap. A few minutes after that occurred, another thing happened, which made my blood run cold, and this I think I ought to relate.
I heard shrieks from women and children coming from the houses in the village. I looked to see the cause of this. The sight that met my eye was such that I shall never forget. There, running and screaming hither and thither from one house to another, were women and children of all ages: women carrying infants in their, arms, and others clutching at their skirts, pursued by hulking great Germans, laughing and roaring like mad beasts. Not one of them escaped; they were all caught by these beasts, and ruthlessly dragged into houses, protesting and crying piteously. The motive for this was quite plain to me, and my heart ached for those poor trapped creatures. Feeling that I was powerless, I turned my head away from that awful sight, and raged within myself on the Kultur of the Hun. I was never more thankful in my life for anything than when the Uhlan escort came to take me away, and when I got on the road out of earshot of those terrified women and children's screams. I shall never be able to obliterate that scene from my memory—I wish I could.
I have read in the papers, since my release from Germany, of some of the neutral Powers intervening for peace (and even some people at home) on behalf of the Germans. 'Peace for Germany,' when they are the perpetrators of such foul and dastardly deeds as I have just described and will describe? No, not yet. Let some of those who would ask for peace go through the North of France, Belgium, and into the prison camps in Germany. Let them see only half what I have seen. Let them converse with a few British prisoners of war, and witness the devastation, wrecked homesteads, cities, and towns in the occupied country, where some of the most beautiful buildings in the world stood, which are now razed to the ground. If these pacifists could only do this, they would sing another song, providing of course that they have a little sense left. The treatment meted out to me alone in Germany ought to raise the blood of anyone who possesses a grain of humanity. But that's a story I will relate in another page.
Our escort was six mounted Uhlans. We were seven. It seemed a pity they could not have spared another and made it man for man.
It was dark when we started off, and we arrived at Laon in about an hour, having to march like fury to keep pace with the horses. It was on this march that I felt the effects of that tree. Every moment I felt that my chin would touch my knees, so great was the pain in my back. What with that and my wounds, I suffered untold agony. Had it not been for two of my comrades, I could not have got along at all. Our escort made no allowance for anything. At the slightest sign of lagging, they would urge their horses on to us, or give us the benefit of the weight of the butt end of their lances or rifles on our heads and shoulders, I know one of our boys who is paralyzed down his left side through one of these blows.
When we reached Laon, we were taken to a church and turned into the vestry, where there were some more Britishers lying stretched across the floor asleep; and when the guard had locked the door, we were very soon in the same state. We just groped around in the dark for a space of flooring, and, having found it sank straight into blessed oblivion.
What a sleep I had! The next morning we were brought back to our senses at five o'clock by half a dozen Germans, armed to the teeth, barking like a pack of half-starved wolves. This, with the aid of a few cuffs and kicks, soon brought us back from 'Blighty,' where the majority of us had been during the night. We had all courted death pretty closely during the last few days, and, when one does that, one's thoughts generally fly to the place that holds those dearest to one, the brain reproducing the thoughts in one's sleep that it has been impressed by during the day. I may be wrong in this generally, but that is the way it impresses me.
After we had tidied up the vestry, we were allowed to go outside and have a wash. This was a luxury indeed, as most of us hadn't had a wash for over a week.
We were given about six ounces of bread each and some muddy-looking watery stuff masquerading as soup, which none of us could touch. The chief item in this soup appeared to be the horrid smell. I put mine as far from me as possible.
After we had finished this sumptuous repast, the key was turned upon us again, and we all fell to speculating as to what the Germans were going to do with us. Some thought we would be shot; one man was shot. This man had been wounded, and crawled into a farmhouse, where he was hidden by some French women, and, as his clothes were torn, the people gave him civilian clothes. When the Germans entered, they condemned him as a spy, although he tried to prove that he was not by his small book and pay book. They took him from our midst and shot him. Most of us thought that our troops might advance and that the Germans would leave us to the mercy of the bombardment of our own troops: and indeed it seemed as if that was going to happen, as our guns did fire on Laon that day.
The following day we got no food at all, and when we asked if we were going to get any, we were told—'No; we did not invite you, so we are not going to feed you.'
The following morning we were marched to the railway station. On our way there, we encountered thousands of German troops, and of course we were greeted with storms of abuse and hooting. Just as we neared the station, an automobile, containing four German officers, had drawn up to watch us go by. As we passed, I heard one of them say 'Ho! Ho! you English dogs! Where is your British pluck now? Professional soldiers who fight for money!' It was very hard to have to stand such as that, but we could not retaliate. I was more than glad when we reached the railway station. There seemed to be a certain amount of safety from insults and indignities there; but we soon found out to the contrary when we were ordered to take off our caps, greatcoats, and boots, and hand them over to the Germans. One poor fellow, who was wounded in the arm and head, protested, as he was feeling ill. In fact I appealed to an officer, telling him the man was very ill and had some fever; but all the sympathy he got was a punch in the face and a bash across the back with a rifle, and his greatcoat torn off him with the assistance of four hulking Germans.
Eventually we boarded the train, which consisted of cattle trucks about twenty-five feet long. Eighty of us were hounded into each of these British, French, and Belgian troops, as well as French and Belgian civilians. The British numbered about one hundred and fifty. Very soon we were steaming out of the station amidst more hooting and hissing and showers of missiles from the German troops.
We were three days reaching Cassel; that journey I shall never forget. Less than half of us could sit down or lie down at a time. The last occupants of these trucks must have been horses, judging by the smell. We received no food whatever from the Germans. All the food we did have was what the Belgian women threw to us, and we considered ourselves jolly lucky if we got one-third of what was thrown to us. Most of it missed fire, and the sentries benefited by it. We were not allowed out of the trucks for any purpose. No sanitary arrangements were made.
It was during this journey that I saw the awful devastation of which I have already spoken. Louvain, I think, was the worst of all. It was the most awful sight I have ever seen for wanton destruction. It appeared more like one huge scrap-heap of masonry. Not one whole house could be seen standing, and these scenes were to be witnessed at every town we stopped at. At every stop the Belgian people gathered round the station. They were not allowed near our trucks, but looked on us from behind the railway station railings.
I think I have remarked that we were not allowed out of our stinking cattle trucks during the whole journey, excepting the evening before we reached Cassel, on October 3, 1914, when we were turned out and marched into a wooden shed alongside the station, and each of us was served with a soup plate of cabbage and a thin slice of bread. While we operated on this sumptuous repast, our cattle trucks were swept out. I will leave you to imagine the state those trucks were in when, we left them, after so many men had occupied them for about seventy hours without being out. This, you will say, is a fine example of the Kultur of the Huns.
We got back into our trucks and continued our journey, arriving at Cassel about four in the morning. We were glad of the darkness, as it prevented us being seen by any of the townspeople who might have been about had it been daylight. But, notwithstanding the time and darkness, the inhabitants heard us marching through the town, the windows on all sides flew open and a generous display of sleeping costumes appeared and as we marched along we heard the oft-repeated remark—'Englander, Schweinhunde, Schweine!' accompanied with hoots and missiles.
Eventually, we reached the camp, which was then being built and only half completed. The ground was originally a potato field, and consequently in wet weather was one mass of sticky mud. We were left to stand in this mud for four hours. Then we were marched by parties of sixty into the wooden huts that were so far completed. These huts were divided into halves, each half accommodating about sixty men, and, being about forty feet by fifteen, the majority of us had to sleep on the floor. Fourteen only slept on a raised platform about four feet from the ground.
The first day in camp we received no food at all. The next day those who were lucky in the scramble received about twelve ounces of bread, which had to last two days.
About 9 A.M. we were all paraded in the main road of the camp, to await the midday soup which was issued at 11.20 A.M. This scene can well be imagined. About 6,000 British, French, Russian, and Belgian soldiers, prisoners of war, waiting in the bitter cold for half a pint of miserable potato soup! The same thing happened at 5.30 P.M. This issue was, if anything, inferior to the midday soup.
In this fashion we were fed for the first week. After that came a slight idea of system which gradually got better and better. This system wag proposed to the Germans by a British N.C.O. who, along with others of his regiment, arrived in camp a few days after I did. These poor fellows had fared even worse than we had on our capture. They were stripped of everything excepting trousers and shirt, and in most cases even boots. They were in a deplorable state when they arrived in camp. This N.C.O. spoke French, and with the aid of a French sergeant who spoke German, proposed that the soup should be drawn in bulk from the kitchen by two men of each hut. The Germans saw the sense of this, and, acting on this and a few more suggestions from him, a fairly good system was soon in a good going order.
We began with rising at 5 A.M. This was effected chiefly by bayonet jabs and blows from the rifle butts of the sentries, accompanied with the usual barkings.
At 5.30 A.M. we had coffee without sugar or milk, made from roasted acorns. With this each man received about six ounces of black bread, which had to last all day.
When the morning meal was finished, the huts were swilled out with cold water. This function had to be carried out, no matter how inclement the weather. I may add that during the first three or four months it was very rare we had a dry day. Therefore the barracks were never dry. To make this worse, we were not allowed any fires. For the first two months we had to sleep on the floor night after night, and consequently many of us suffered acutely from influenza and rheumatics. I knew quite healthy men stricken down with illness which proved fatal, through this.
When the swilling-out was done, we were all turned out of barracks and compelled to stay out in all conditions of weather till 11 A.M. and again at 12.45 to 5 P.M., and, being so scantily clothed, we suffered greatly from the cold.
At 11.30 A.M. soup was served. This was considered by us to be the chief meal of the day. You will pardon me, I know, for describing it as a meal, but I do so Because I" cannot find a more adequate word to fit the horrid stuff. You can tell that after so scanty a breakfast we felt the pangs of hunger long before 11.30 A.M., and we anxiously, longed and* looked for our two orderlies with the soup; which consisted of either, swedes, potatoes, cabbages, or "carrots boiled (sometimes), dished up with a liberal supply of warm water, nothing else whatever, not a sign of meat. I once remember a friend of mine finding a bone in his portion of soup. So unusual was this that he had it carved and kept it as a souvenir.
Each man received less than a pint of soup, and, needless to say, we could easily have disposed of four times the amount and then found room for a plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
As soon as the issue of soup was disposed of, the boys would go out scouting round the cook house to see if by any lucky chance there happened to be a can of extra soup. This did happen sometimes, but not often. Nevertheless, the boys always made tracks for the cook house as soon as they had finished their midday repast.
Try to imagine this scene, if you can—about 1,500 of the British, French, Russian, and Belgian prisoners all clamoring for this one can of soup. If we were lucky and there was some rabio (rabio, I believe, is French slang for extra), we were all lined up in single file alongside the cook house, where this soup was given out as far as it would go. Sometimes the German cooks took it into their heads to have a bit of amusement at the expense of their starving, ill-treated prisoners. They would allow perhaps a dozen or fifteen men to file up and receive their portion of rabio; then the next one would receive instead of rabio the benefit of a pretty powerful hose pipe of ice-cold water full in the face. But this treat was kept in reserve for Britishers. After that came the inevitable bayonet charge. What a chance for the Huns that was! One can just imagine the mass of prisoners, such as I have described, flying in all directions, endeavoring to escape the bayonet or rifle butt of the sentries, aided by the cooks, who entered the charge with long pieces of wood with which they belabored unmercifully any poor wretch that came within their reach.
Space forbids quotation of the sentries' use of boot and bayonet to stop the ill-clad prisoners' attempts to keep warm by playing football—the ball improvised from a Highlander's hose top stuffed with rags; the search—heavily punishable—for odd potatoes left in the ground, and wood to make the forbidden fire to cook–them with; 'Paddy's market,' and the sale to the well-to-do Belgian civil prisoners of anything, that would fetch a penny to buy food at the canteen. Perhaps you don't know what real hunger is. Well, if you don't, pray to God that you may always remain in ignorance. The deliberate starvation was only averted after March 1915 by the arrival of parcels from home or from Switzerland-—which began to come regularly when it was realized, that they were allowed to reach their destination. These often were shared by groups of prisoners. I remember the first parcel I received was one my wife had sent. It did not contain very much, as she was afraid the Germans would not give us parcels. It brought two two-pound loaves, a jar containing pork dripping, some tea, sugar, milk, and Oxo, I sat down and devoured a whole loaf and half the dripping. I managed to make some tea, and I had a right good feed that day! But a hungry man is a desperate man, and not only desperate were we, but sometimes half mad to get food, and as we could not get it by fair means, we got it by foul.
One of the most daring bits of work in connection with bread stealing was effected by a friend of mine whose nickname was 'Chopper.' Why he was christened this I cannot say. I believe he was given this sobriquet when a band boy in his regiment.
The bread was stored in an empty barrack which faced the main road of the camp. When the bread carts arrived, they were unloaded by Belgians, whose special duty this was. Englishmen were never employed on this work, because, I fancy, they lost too much bread if Tommy got on the job. But one afternoon Chopper procured a Belgian uniform, and disguised himself as a Belgian. Then he gave me instructions to bring some of our boys to the back of the bread store as soon as it was dark. He then dodged into the bread store and started stacking up the bread. While he was doing this, he cunningly left a hole in the stack facing the back window, big enough to secrete himself in. The unloading generally took about half an hour. Towards the finish he watched his opportunity and slipped into the hole and stacked up loaves of bread in front of him, so that the hole could not be seen by any chance. Very soon he heard the door locked. He then had to wait a couple of hours for the darkness to come on, but he passed his time away easily by eating as much bread as possible.
As soon as it was dark, I arrived on the scene with about twenty of the boys from our barracks. I tapped at the window, and up popped Chopper's face wreathed in smiles, and in about three minutes that bread store was deficient of fifty-five loaves. All the the boys in our barrack went to bed that night with a comfortable feeling below the belt.
If anything, the potato cart suffered more severely than the bread cart. The potato cart was of the same description as the bread cart, and arrived in camp twice a week. When the boys saw this cart coming along, they escorted it at a safe distance, occasionally darting up to it and grabbing a handful till their pockets were filled. This was carried on till the cart reached the cook house, where it was unloaded by Belgians. The Germans always favored the Belgians in such work: I suppose on account of most of them speaking the German language.
On one occasion, I was standing by the cook house watching the unloading operations, feeling frightfully hungry and desperate, wondering how I could manage to bag a few potatoes without the sentry seeing me. I waited my opportunity. I took out of my pocket an improvised knife made out of a piece of hoop iron, and seeing a Belgian getting his sack on his back, I said to the boys around me 'Get ready for a dive!' and with half an eye on the sentry, I slipped up behind the Belgian and slit the sack from top to bottom with my knife. Then the boys took up the offensive and dived. I shall never forget that scrimmage. I got my stocking cap filled and slipped away unobserved. When I got clear away, I looked round to see how the boys were faring. They were scrambling on the ground and getting the full benefit of whips, sticks, and bayonets, but they did not care a button for that, so long as they got a few potatoes. At any rate, very few of these potatoes reached the cook house.
There, were two particular kinds of punishment. The lesser of the two was standing to attention in the open air, in all kinds of weather, from one to five hours. This was awarded for very trivial offenses—such as looking too long at a sentry, being too near the barbed wire fences, or for being a minute late falling in on the Appel (counting parade). These counting parades were called two, three, and sometimes five times a day, and at each parade we fell in five deep, and we were counted again and again at each parade. It seemed as though we were only created for the German soldiers to practise their arithmetic. I was taken one day in December 1914, without any warning, and made to stand to attention for three hours. I inquired of an officer as to the nature of my offense and was told 'Oh, because you are an Englishman!'
The worst form of punishment was the tying to the stake, invented by that tyrant Major Bach of Senne Laager. This punishment was awarded when a prisoner was caught smoking, or washing his soup bowl at the wrong tap, or if we got caught in any of the charges on the potato or bread cart. The offender was taken without any form of trial and tied to a stake. The unfortunate prisoner would be compelled to stand on two bricks, a rope drawn round the neck and tied behind the pole. The hands and feet were secured in a like manner. Then the rope was drawn tightly across the chest. This done, the sentry would then kick the bricks away, thus letting the man's feet rest on the ground and causing the rope to bite into the flesh. The groans and yells a poor fellow would give vent to while in this position were too terrible to describe. Very often the man would faint or be on the point of choking, but when the sentries would see that, they would untie him, and throw buckets of water over him. When he recovered, he would be tied up again and complete his period. I myself was tied up in this fashion several times. I will relate my offense later on.
Another form of punishment, which was introduced in 1915, was being compelled to lie face downwards with the legs and arms stretched to the fullest extent in the mud, snow, or filth for a prescribed number of hours, ranging from two to six. These punishments were always awarded by an officer, and were arranged to extend over periods from two to ten days. But the sentries very often took the law into their own hands and gave vent to their own feelings when they happened to catch a wrongdoer.
The Russian prisoners were the chief prey of the German soldiers and non-commissioned officers. One afternoon I saw a Russian soldier filling his bowl with potato peelings from the swill tub which stood outside the cook house. A sentry caught sight of him, and rushed at him, and, with one awful sledge-hammer blow from his rifle butt, felled the unfortunate Russian to the ground, knocking him into a deep gutter, where the villain belabored him unmercifully. When the sentry had ceased, the Russian crawled out of the gutter, stood to. attention, and saluted that sentry. Then he slowly hobbled away with a grin on his face. I don't suppose that German was ever taken back more in his life than at that moment. The Russian stoicism had floored him.
Another instance of brutality was the bayoneting of a man of my barrack. It so happened that this man had not many months before returned with his battalion from India in order to go to France, and this day in particular he was in anticipation of an attack of ague and was in bed feeling very sick. A sentry came into the barrack in search of men for a working party. He was told by the chief of the barrack that this man was ill with ague; and although it was explained to him in German what ague was, he either would not or could not understand, and, after making several unsuccessful attempts to arouse the man, he drew his bayonet and thrust it into the man's buttock, legs, and back. I myself have a scar on my shoulder from a slash with the same bayonet for remonstrating with that sentry.
The sentries did not stop at wounding prisoners, they went so far as killing them. The first of these instances occurred three weeks before Christmas 1914. The actual date I cannot remember, and I did not actually see it, but I was told of it by two eyewitnesses immediately after it occurred.
About 8 A.M., one morning early in December 1914, a party of Britishers were being marched to work through the main gate of the camp. Behind this party was a Scots Guardsman, limping along, just getting over the effects of his wounds. One of the sentries who was marching the party evidently mistook the Guardsman for one of his party and, thinking he was lagging behind, immediately began to hurry him on. The Guardsman tried to make the German understand that he was wounded and did not belong to that party; but the sentry refused to believe him, and showered curses on him, trying to hustle him on; but it was no use, the poor fellow could hardly walk. The sentry tried several times to get him to join the party, without success. Then thinking, I suppose, that he had been baffled by the cunningness of the Guardsman, he fired point blank at him from a distance of two yards. The bullet passed through his heart and wounded a Belgian, who was standing about six yards away.
Another brutal murder was that of another Englishman, who was away at a place called Dudderstadt, working on the construction of a new bridge. This man refused to work. What actually happened to cause him to refuse, I do not know; but I do know that he was taken away from his comrades and told he was going to be sent back to his camp. He reached the hut where the working party slept with the intention of packing his few belongings, but the poor fellow was never given a chance to pack up. He was bullied and taunted by the sentry to rouse his temper, and when he showed spirit he was shot dead.
Another instance, which happened so late as June 1916, was when a Britisher was away for some time working with a party of fellow prisoners. One morning he felt ill, and requested to see a doctor. The sentry, whose duty it was to turn the men out for work, refused to listen to him, and endeavored to force him to turn out; but the man persisted in his request to see the doctor. The sentry went and told the under-officer who came in and commenced bullying the man, telling him he was not sick at all and that he must go to work. The man replied that he intended seeing the doctor, as he could not work, as he was too ill to do so. It was even explained by a good interpreter to the under-officer, but without effect. The bullying and threatening continued for some time. At last the under-officer said to him 'Are you going to work or not?' and on receiving a negative reply he pulled out his revolver, placed the muzzle just below the man's right ear, and without anymore hesitation pulled the trigger. The bullet lodged at the back of the man's throat. He was taken to two different hospitals, and as soon as the German nurses found out what had happened, and saw that the man was an Englishman, they would have nothing to do with him. Eventually, he was brought to the camp hospital, where it was also discovered that he had nine bayonet wounds in different parts of his body. How he received these, only he and the perpetrators could have told. The poor fellow could not tell us himself. He remained unconscious until he died—two days after he arrived in the camp hospital.
Many of our men were compelled to work in munition factories, salt mines, coal mines, etc. Two hundred and fifty men were sent from this camp to work in a salt mine. Most of them had never seen a mine in their lives, and many of them were afraid to go down, and refused. All those that refused to go down were driven into the cages at the point of the bayonet. This and other work made physical wrecks of sixty per cent of our men—not only because they were not used to that kind of work, but owing to the fact that their constitutions were terribly impaired by insufficient feeding.
On January 3, 1916, I was sent out to work along with seven other men.
We arrived at our destination late at night, and slept in a disused stable. The following morning, at 4.30 A.M., we were roused by the sentry, and were given half a pint of acorn coffee and a little black bread. At 5 A.M. we were taken into a long shed, and, when the lights were turned up, I found the shed to contain thousands of large empty shell cases. We were ordered to transfer these into another department. I was a whole minute in realizing that I was required to assist in making shells that would eventually be used against my own people. The sentry, seeing me hesitating, started to hustle me, but I would not move; and when he asked me if I intended to work, I replied 'No, not here.' He then drew his bayonet and threatened me with death, but I would not move.
The other men were looking on with anxious faces, and when the sentry ordered them to get on with the work, they all replied 'Nein.' At this he stalked out of the shed, and locked the door. He returned a little later, accompanied by two officers. They all came to me, and one of the officers addressed me in perfect English. He asked me why I would not work. I told him that I could not conscientiously assist in making munitions, but any other work not connected with war material I would willingly do. He then asked me if I was determined to stand firm, and if that was my final answer. I replied 'Yes, most certainly.' 'Very well, ten,' he said, 'you will soon alter your mind.' I replied 'Not in these trousers!' At that all the other fellows laughed, including the German officer, and, as he turned away, he said 'We'll see!'
Presently, two soldiers came and took me away to a prison, where they Confined me in an underground cell about six feet square, with, just a small ventilator at the top. The walls and roof were trickling with water and not a few frogs were hopping about the floor. I was left alone all that day. At about 5 P.M. the door was opened, and I was given a small piece of black bread and some water, and about two hours after a bundle of straw was thrown to me. This constituted my bed. I did not fall to sleep till about 4 A.M. the following morning. I was left to myself all day, my door only being opened once a day, and that was when I got my miserable allowance of black bread and water.
On January 7 (Sunday), at noon, I was taken out of my cell and turned into the yard, and was told to take exercise. I had been walking round the yard about half an hour when an officer came and called me to him. He asked me if I was not tired of the bread and water, and if I did not think it better for me to work. I merely shrugged my shoulders and made no reply. He said 'Oh, you English are stubborn, like the donkey,' then stalked away. He had not been gone many minutes, when two Germans came into the yard. They took me to the far end of the yard and proceeded to tie me to the stake, in the same method as I have described elsewhere, and I was left there till 5 P. M., when they took me down. My whole body was numb, and I had to be half carried back to my cell, where I was dropped on the floor and left there with my companions—the frogs.
During the following week, no one visited me excepting the warder, who brought me my scanty allowance of bread and water.
The following Sunday (January 14, 1916), at noon, I was again taken into the yard and tied to the stake, and after I had been in this position about an hour the officer came and asked me if I had any complaint to make. What with the pain I was suffering, and the rage I was in, I could not answer him, but merely shook my head. He clanged his sword on the ground, and walked away muttering 'Schweinhund.'
This treatment was carried on without any variations till March 4 (Sunday), the last time I was tied to the stake; but I was still kept on bread and water, but every fourth day the bread ration was doubled.
On May 27 (Sunday) a military doctor came to see me, and when he found that I could neither speak nor stand, he ordered me to be returned to the camp; but instead of going back to the camp I had left, I was taken to another one.
Quite a lot of English and French prisoners were sent as early as June 1915 to work behind the firing line in Russia, and Russians were sent to France to work on the fortification. Thousands of these poor wretches were sent to do this work from time to time. They were not only starved to death, but worked to death, at the end of the lash and bayonet. Hundreds of them died of utter starvation and exhaustion. Some were lucky enough to be returned to their respective camps, but this was only when they were absolutely no use to the Germans.
There were some who returned to the camp during the first half of 1916. I saw them coming through the gate one morning. What a sight!
I can truthfully say that never in my life have I seen such appalling wrecks of humanity. Some could just manage to crawl along, others had to be helped along by a few of their slightly stronger comrades. They all went straight to the hospital. When our boys heard of this, they made a collection of foodstuff and took it to the hospital to them. I myself carried some, as I wanted to see them. I thought I was fairly imperturbable, but what I saw in that hospital affected me more than I can tell. Poor gaunt creatures, just frames of bone, covered with a ghostly yellow skin. I remember once seeing Barnum and Bailey's freak 'The Living Skeleton,' but he was not so thin as most of these poor fellows. Their gratitude for the food that we gave them brought tears to my eyes; but many of them did not want any more food. Their last trumpet had sounded. God rest their souls. They were heroes.
I could go on and add page after page of things of this kind and even worse, but what use would it be? You would hardly believe me. But this is only a brief account of my captivity and life in German prison camps till August 1916, when I was lucky enough (for which I thank God) to be sent to Switzerland, as my health had broken down. When I reached there, it seemed as though I had assed from Hades to Elysium, so great was the contrast in the treatment we received from the Swiss people.
It was not till after I awoke from my first delicious sleep in Switzerland that I realized that my leaving Germany and its twenty-nine months of misery was a reality and not a dream.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald