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LETTERS FROM THE GREAT WAR
This is the account of his capture that my grandfather wrote for his Regimental History which was published in 1930. He based it on the diary he kept through 1918.
2/3rd East Lancashire Field Ambulance
The Story of a 3rd Line Territorial Unit,
The following account of the experiences of a Prisoner of War has been kindly written by Private F. Gent. It throws interesting light on an aspect of the war most of us luckily escaped.
As described in a previous chapter, upwards of twenty NCOs and men of our Unit were taken Prisoners of War at the Advanced Dressing Station, Templeux, situated between Bernes and Peronne. On the morning of March 21st, 1918, an intense bombardment was set up by the enemy, and it was soon very evident that something of no mere importance was about to happen. A thick mist lay over the surrounding country, making the work we were doing a matter of the utmost difficulty. At this time we were working in support trenches and quite close to the front line. As we groped about in the mist, gas shells were coming over in great and ever increasing numbers. Well I recall a young Infantry lad, limping badly, crying out, 'The place is swarming with Jerries!' It was terribly true. The overwhelming numbers of Germans had, by sheer weight of men and guns, proved that the tenacity and courage of British troops was of little avail when our line was held by a much lessened force.
In our work of succouring the wounded we chanced to let on a rudely-built dugout and had hardly entered the hole when shouts were heard above. Intuitively we were aware that the voices we heard were those of the 'Jerries,' and at any moment we fully expected bombs to be hurled into our midst, but by some stroke of good fortune the worst that happened was two or three shots that hurt no one. After a hurried consultation the seven or eight of us decided to go up into the open and take our chance. On gaining the top of the dugout, the sight confronting us was eerie. Looming up like spectres in the mist were a score of grey forms, each pointing a bayonet at our defenceless bodies. Machine guns were rattling on all sides, and every moment we fully expected being mowed down. We were made to stand in a circle and a German NCO detailed a party of men to take charge of us. A tremendous bombardment now commenced&emdash;probably from our own guns&emdash;and the 'Jerries,' who had no great liking for our artillery hurried us under cover. We were searched, and afterwards, much to our relief, we were marched back through the lines of the advancing enemy.
It is only just to set on record that our guards, unlike many we met later, were kindly fellows. Not only did they hand over their water bottles, but they also defended us when passing troops sought to do us injury. Marching through thick mud for what at the time seemed endless hours, proved to be a tiring ordeal, but we managed to find some relief in our amazement at the severe losses experienced by the enemy in this final desperate attack on the Allied lines. We saw guns and men being rushed up with feverish haste. Regiment after regiment passed us on their way to the broken line. As showing the losses sustained, guns were being hauled up by ill-matched teams of horses and mules&emdash;in some cases we saw heavy cart horses harnessed to small mules. At one halt we beheld men cutting up horse flesh for the mid-day meal. On arrival at Estrees we passed into a large field wherein were hundreds of British prisoners, and here our escort left us. Here we were allowed a few hours rest, excepting those of us who were rounded up to assist in the unloading of ambulances. I was not an unwilling helper in this work, and I was gratified to have by my side Will Dibb and Alf McNulty. Later in the day most of our fellows were detailed for work in one of the German hospitals, and in the four days we remained we had probably more experience of hospital duties than we had received on our own side of the line. It was not satisfactory experience. Drugs, dressings, equipment, were all short and of poor quality. Our food consisted of horse meat stew, biscuits, and coffee.
On March 25th, the arrival of wounded ceased, probably because the Germans had opened up hospitals nearer to their advanced position. We were marched to Le Cateau and on arrival in the town had the doubtful honour of witnessing the Kaiser and little Willie, both resplendent in gay uniforms bedecked with medals, journeying to witness the progress of their troops. A handful of cigarettes was showered on us by Willie junior as the royal car passed by. After a short stay in Le Cateau we marched on to a town, far behind the line, Quesnoy, and entered a Prisoner of War Cage containing hundreds of prisoners. A raised platform was in each corner of the field, and on each platform a guard stood heavily armed beside a machine gun. Round the cage marched guards carrying guns spiked with saw-edged bayonets. The display of force was totally unnecessary, as all the British prisoners were unarmed, weary and hungry. Our plight was pitiable. Darkness came on, and after a few scores of men had been housed in barns, the great majority of us were left to bear the discomfort of a night in the cold and never ceasing rain. The following day we had practically nothing to eat and for eight hours we stood about waiting for a train to take us to somewhere in Germany. Through all the tiresome waiting we were splendidly kept in good spirits by Pte. Charlton.
At 11.30 PM, by Charlton's watch, we moved by train, travelling forty in each truck, and five days later we arrived in Germany at a place called Haltern. Several men died from exposure on the journey. In the internment camp we were again searched and questioned closely, but we received little food, indeed meal times were generally occasions for baths, medical inspections, inoculations, and vaccinations. A large number of Russian prisoners occupied the camp with us, and deaths amongst the Russians were of daily occurrence. Much to our annoyance, overcoats were withdrawn.
Drawing the veil over several weeks following, all of which time we were all in a starved and wretched condition, there arrived a day at the end of April when I was marched by an armed guard through the village street of Rheindahlen. I was being taken to a farm. At the time I was mad with hunger and badly in need of a shave. My clothes were covered with mud, but when I reached the farm I endeavoured to create a good impression, and this I did by respectfully removing my hat when I stood before my new employer. My coming had been expected, for a meal had been prepared for me, and I sat down and ate as much as it was safe to consume at one sitting.
I settled down to work on this farm all right, but I never managed to do full justice to the job because I suffered from being unable to speak the language of the farmer. The loneliness of my position and the absence of letters from England were tremendous sorrows, both of which grew bigger and bigger as the weeks rolled away. I found the work very hard, probably because I had never been accustomed to labouring on farms. At every turn I was followed by a guard. One day the fellow lied to the farmer that I had been asleep in one of the fields. Meals were served twice daily, but I never managed to get as much as I wanted, and I am not ashamed to confess that I 'borrowed' a good many eggs. After a few weeks I had become adept in swallowing raw eggs and discreetly hiding the shells.
About the middle of June I was taken away from the farm. At a place near Coln I joined a number of other British prisoners who were working in a Brickette works. Here I was rejoiced to find McNulty in the party. Adjoining the Brickette works was a coal mine and I soon discovered that not only had I been transferred to this place as a punishment for supposed disobedience on the farm, but I was to work in the mine. If it was a punishment, I much preferred my new job, for not only was the food better, but Sundays were rest days. I found many friends in this camp, amongst them being Canadians and French, and one of the latter gave to me a worn shirt and an old razor, both wonderfully acceptable.
The camp contained a number of prisoners who had been here for a long time and we soon discovered that they regularly received parcels of food from their friends in England and elsewhere. Why no parcels were coming through to us was a continual source of worry. The summer went on its way and the rations grew worse and worse. Occasionally we saw the mid-day meal being carried in to the commandant's quarters and we knew from what we saw that he was worse off for food than the prisoners whose rations were augmented by food parcels received from their home folks.
At the end of July a peculiar kind of sickness broke out in the camp. Over 300 men were down the first day and many, especially Russians, went under. During the time the sickness raged it was wonderful how in the camp, which had no medical man, the men looked after each other. Food parcels were pooled and those who were the less ill looked after the very bad cases. After about three weeks the fever (?) abated, but the toll in life had been very great.
My first parcel of food arrived about the time of the armistice and it was welcome. Strange as it may seem, we knew nothing about the ending of hostilities until about three weeks after the armistice terms had been signed. Our first intimation of the event was comical. One morning, instead of being wakened for work at 6 AM, as usual, we were allowed to rise at our own convenience. On going outside our huts, no guards were in evidence. The gates of the camp were wide open and the Commandant told us that we could go. We went!
The Cages at Le Quesnoy&emdash;written on a scrap of a Christmas card from Mabel
We arrived at Le Quesnoy from Le Cateau at 2 PM, March 27th, under guard of Lancers, after a tiring march of twenty-odd kilometres. It was a typical march day with bitter west winds. We were marched to the cages, just barbed wire enclosures about one hundred yards square in a bleak, desolate spot, and left there. Very soon we were frozen after the heat of the travelling and had to keep running or walking about to keep warm. We got a bowl of soup at 4.30 PM. At dusk a driving rain started and the Germans fell us in and packed us in one or two barns, sheds etc., the only bit of humanity they showed us at this place. I was lucky and slept in an old room on a tiled floor. Immediately dawn arrived we were turned into the cage again and were given some coffee, the usual, very weak and without milk or sugar, and some dry black bread. We remained there all that day, which was Good Friday, and tried all ways to escape the wind; many of the men, South African Scottish Black Watch, wore kilts and had no overcoat. Luckily I had my coat but had foolishly discarded both vest and cardigan the night before capture. A few who had blankets hung them on the barbed wire on the windward side and huddled together behind it; others scraped holes in the ground and piled the earth into a parapet to break the force of the wind and rain. Alf McNulty and I got hold of a shovel and made a hole about four feet wide and two feet deep and made a ridge round against the wind and managed to get snatches of rest, a few minutes at a time, from marching round the cage. By dusk to-night we were getting exhausted, though we had two more bowls of soup that day. We hoped against hope for the sheds again, but time went on and they left us all night in the cage. How nobody was frozen to death by morning is a miracle. I kept walking the whole night and could hardly stand by morning. The coffee and dry bread received as another day wore on somehow and we began to wonder if we'd ever leave the cage alive, when at 3 PM on the 29th we were told we were going. We crowded round the gate and at 4 PM were marched out across the fields on [ road?]. By this time it was raining heavily. We gathered from our guards that the train had not arrived. The rain continued and hour after hour passed with no train, until our condition was getting terrible, we'd had nothing to eat since eleven o'clock in the morning and it was now about 8 PM. Men began to drop into the wet soil of the ploughed fields at the side of the road, and the taciturn guards had to keep ordering them up. Things grew worse and the men began to get out of hand, refusing to rise and swearing at the guards; worse could have happened but no one had the strength. The guard changed several times while we stood, drenched and stiff with cold and later [here there is a section missing] the guard was doubled. It was not till 11.30 PM that we moved again off the bit of muddy road and it was after midnight when our party of forty entered a cattle truck en route for Germany, after a wait of nine hours. We threw off overcoats and boots and dropped in our wet things, and slept till morning. The next meal was some barley stew at 11 AM, 30th, which put us right. We slept practically the whole of the time in the truck, and it speaks well for our constitution that few of us felt ill effects, though two men afterwards died in hospital as a result of exposure, and some were unable to leave the train when we arrived at Haltern.