From Boatsheds to Battlefields 80 Food Parcels From Home 1916-1918

Written for publication by Bernard Meredith Leffler from Wendover Farm Pretoria:

How Great War Prisoners-of-War lived on

Parcels from Home

In two and a half years of captivity, I never saw an eatable meal issued by the German authorities. once a day a thin liquid called coffee was issued. This abomination was made from ground acorns barley meal and beet molasses and contained neither milk nor sugar.

Twice a day great evil-smelling tubs of hogwash were drawn, the contents a soup of horseflesh, yellow maize meal, prunes and dried apples. For a change sugar-beet ensilage with chopped carrots and turnips, or most a beastly mess of putrid fish-roe soup with mashed potatoes.

Kitchen Limburg

The kitchen at Limberg Camp

In Winter thirteen pounds, in Summer eighteen pounds of War bread was issued per man per month – a doughy mass of rye, potato and sawdust. Thrown against the wall it stuck there.

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Until our whereabouts was known to the British War Office we devoured huge quantities of these mixtures, all thin soup. When the tubs were carried to our quarters we rushed them, fought over them and sometimes fell into them to have one’s clothes instantly wrung out into basins and drunk. We bartered our clothes to the French for biscuits – braces 5, a kilt 50, a shirt 10 – all depending on condition and amount of vermin.

Once we began to get our parcels the German rations were handed over to the Russians,  Serbians, Romanians and Montenegrins who died off wholesale, some from the food and some from want of it.

Eight funerals a day was the average in Sprottau but as we had never less than 40,000  Russians, 10,000 French and a few thousand other nationalities the Germans complained that prisoners-of-war were very tough and blamed the unsatisfactory death rate on the Order of St John of Jerusalem, the British Red Cross, Sir Edward Grey and Jannie Smuts.

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Immediately the War began, Funds were started to make captivity a little bearable – as the realisation came of the plight of the war prisoners in Germany immense efforts were made to relieve conditions.

Relatives, friends, Clubs, newspapers, Regiments, ships all began sending parcels of foodstuffs to Germany. Popular figures received as many as forty food parcels in a mail, mostly bread gone mouldy in transit, eggs broke, homemade jam oozed from broken cardboard boxes, great cakes ruined by the eggs and jam.

Women packing food parcels for prisoners-of-war at the Australian Red Cross premises at 16 Regent Street in the City of Westminster, London, January 1917.
Packing food parcels for prisoners of war at the Australian Red Cross premises in Regent Street, London, January 1917. The organisation sent 395,695 food parcels and 36,339 clothing parcels to Allied PoWs in Germany and Turkey during the First World War.

In December 1916, the Order of St John of Jerusalem in conjunction with the British Red Cross took over and from then on all parcels were packed in properly organised depots, guarantees were given to the German Government as to the nature of the contents and day after day sealed trucks crossed the German border bearing standard packets to Dülmen, Sprottau, Holtzminden and a hundred other prisoner-of-war camps.

Kaserne B at Holzminden, with prisoners and guards

At the camps, the truck seals were broken by British or French NCOs under the supervision of a German Sergeant Major, the packets taken to an office and then issued to those in camp whilst the rest were sent by parcel post to those working on farms, in factories or mines.

Image result for food parcels checked in german POW camps ww1German censors reading through both incoming and outgoing mail at the Döberitz POW camp.

After December 1916 every British prisoner-of-war received two hundred and eighty-one loaves of bread a month from whichever neutral country was nearest his camp.

From Britain he received either 6 – 101 lbs or 4 to 15 lbs cardboard boxes per month containing:

A.   1 tin bully beef, 1 cake of soap, 1 packet tea, 1 packet bacon, 1 tin jam, 1 bar Mexican chocolate and cigarettes.

B.   1 tin McConachie’s rations, 1 packet Quaker Oats, 1 tin cocoa, 1 tin butter, I tin marmalade, 1 packet sugar, tobacco.

C.   1 tin pork and beans, 1 tin coffee, 1 tin condensed milk, 1 tin herrings in tomato sauce, biscuits, jam

D.  1 tin tripe and onions, 1 tin butter, 1 tin cooking fat, 1 shaving soap, 1 tin cigarettes and 1 tin pudding.

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By forming small messes, buying stolen onions, potatoes and sugar from men coming in from farm and factory work and exchanging with the French who were wonderfully supplied with parcels; we always managed to live really well to the amazement of our German sentries and NCO’s who daily saw that another million tons of British shipping had been ‘versunkt‘.

Because there was so little of it, food played a very important part in a POW’s life. The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva provided food parcels to POWs from those countries which were signatories to the 1929 Geneva Convention.  Here men at Stalag 383 at Hohenfels in Germany prepare their lunch using food from parcels.

 

In two years I never lost a parcel and in addition to the food parcels we had monthly tobacco and cigarette parcels and every three months a complete clothing parcel –  uniform, boots, gym shoes, two shirts, two singlets, cardigan, towels, neckerchief and once a year a great coat. This issue was received directly from the British War Office.

All prisoners engaged in civilian employment were paid at current rates, farm hands a penny a day. On repatriation, we were paid out in full as regards army pay.

Working on farms, in factories, mines and other civilian employment prisoners-of-war received civilian rations; 2lbs sugar per month, bread as in the camps, a fairly liberal allowance of potatoes and as much sauerkraut as the stomach could hold. About 1lb of meat per man per week was boiled up in the sauerkraut and potatoes.

Image result for british prisoners of war ww1 working on farms in germanyA group of British PoWs in Germany, transporting hay for the troops’ straw beds

Except for bread and sugar, all foodstuffs were issued as soup. No fats of any description were given except on farms where we shared the family meals, usually contributing to them from our parcels.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 77 There’s a Long Long Trail Awaiting

End of 76th Entry: Those of us able to walk, about two hundred, began the long, long trail to the German prison camps.

Due to lost pages, the story continues mid-sentence:

…an hour off was allowed during which a good meal of cabbage – pure cabbage – cabbage all alone but plenty of it was issued. From one to four we worked in a great silo digging out all the refuse beet of the past year. The beet was buried for a year and when dug up, under the most filthy conditions, is dried and given to animals and prisoners-of-war. At 4 p.m. came coffee, bread and half an hour’s rest after which another truckload of beet was loaded.

The first evening somehow I just broke down. To think of perhaps spending years in pure undiluted slavery with no word of Mollie or anyone I loved and no news of the outer world seemed unbearable.

From the manners of the Germans, it seemed that our people had been held up. Rumania we knew was being smashed, and the Russian Offensive had been halted. All seemed black and hopeless.

The factory lay next to the line to the Eastern and Rumanian fronts. Day after day we could see train after train filled with guns going through to the East. The German troops appeared magnificent material in the highest spirits, their troop trains embowered in green stuff and a sickening host of doubts and fears began to fill my mind.

Image result for german troop trains going east ww1

After a few days, I began to feel better. The hard work, nourishing food and the keen fresh winds from the Carpathians pulled me up a lot and our treatment was fairly decent until one morning a hundred more British prisoners marched in.

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That same afternoon trouble started. For some reason, the afternoon bread ration was withheld and we refused to go to work without it. Our leader, a great hefty South African we called ‘Dusty’ argued with the Unter Officier in charge.

The latter drew his bayonet, the guards threatened us with their rifles and I thought that in another minute the world would see a shambles. ‘Dusty’ struck it grandly though and as the  German roared at him Dusty bellowed back. It was a contest of willpower and noise but Dusty whose life had been spent with his back against the wall won and we got our bread. 

With the new arrivals work started in earnest. Some of the guards were brutes, one half-witted – the old happy week seemed to be far away in the past. We got cabbage soup three times a day, the sentries got freer with their rifle butts and the weather became worse and worse.

A few packets and letters began to arrive amongst them the first I’d had from Mollie since my capture. We managed to exist but it was wicked work waiting for news. Still with the arrival of letters and parcels contact had been regained with the outside world. Some thoughtful people slipped newspapers into packets in all sorts of ways so we, therefore, had a little news through and knew that all was well in “Blighty“.

Conditions got worse and worse in the factory and I got an attack of my old Rhodesian friend, Malaria. Having to remain at work I soon fell to pieces and all but bade adieu to my miseries. When I collapsed I was returned to the lager as useless. On my return, I found only seven Lance Corporals there besides a couple of sick men. The remainder of three hundred men were working in factories or stone quarries.

The feldwebel/sergeant who had been so fond of sword exercise was still in charge but a changed man and the few Englishmen in camp he treated like brothers. Parcels were arriving plentifully and all were in the best of health and spirits.

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The day after my return from the Sugar Factory I saw the camp doctor and was recommended by him for ‘light duty’. A few really happy weeks now passed for the dozen Englishmen in the lager were all, more or less, men who were of the right stamp and determined to make themselves comfortable.

 

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