From Boatsheds to Battlefields 81 November 1918 in Poland

Published in The Star newspaper, Johannesburg 

Two and a half years behind barbed wire or working under armed sentries – nearly four thousand comrades in the lager cemetery – but the War is over today Thank God.

Forty-five thousand Russian Comrades soldiers of the Tsar are prisoners since the Steamroller met Hindenberg in East Prussia.

The Russian invasion of East Prussia in August 1914 was going well until German Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Eric Ludendorff took command.
The Russian invasion of East Prussia in August 1914 was going well until German Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Eric Ludendorff took command.

Ten thousand Frenchmen – captives from Maubeuge and Lille.

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A thousand British – Mons, the Somme and the March Offensive 1918.

British troops preparing for the Somme Offensive in 1916British troops preparing for the Somme Offensive in 1916

We know the Armistice begins today but there is little joy amongst the troops.

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Over the vast lager lies a cloud of foreboding. The sentries truculent yet hangdog – looking slouch at their posts. The Kommandanteur German Officers stand in knots every one of them armed to the teeth.

In the underground cellars which serve as Barracks the prisoners of war discuss the situation with ill-concealed uneasiness.

Today is peace on the Western Front but today is war in German Poland.

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The Regency Council with officers of the Polish armed forces.

Last night came tidings of conscripted men of the German Navy and Polish sailors landing from a Zeppelin to organise a revolution in the town adjoining the lager. What part would be that of the prisoners, the prisoners’ wonder?

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On the ramparts and surrounding the camp machine guns stand post. Half the soldiers are Polish and the Tsar’s troops have sworn to help them.

The French will break for the Austrian Frontier when the storm bursts – each man for himself and that devil help the hindmost or any German families in their way.

“We’ll keep together mates,” says Jack the President of the British Welfare Committee he is a naval rating captured at Antwerp.

“Aye! Wait and see as Asquith says,” rumbles Ben Finette, ex London cabby, Army Reservist, captured at Mons – “Colour Sergeant will take charge – we form platoons – and if anyone touches us we are together for a rush on the sentries – and fight our way to the town for arms.”

Down the Hindenburg Strasser gallop two soldiers white bands around their arms. “Revolutionaries” – fifty thousand prisoners are pouring from their barracks – the sentries deserting their posts are making for the group of officers tearing the badges of Imperial Germany off as they run.

Two foaming horses are pulled on their haunches, sharp commands barked, – an Officer draws his sword – down he goes on a saw-edged bayonet through his chest. Oberst Lieutenant Baron van Wacholz, Commandant of Sprottau breaks his sword across his knee – the Officers are disarmed, stripped of their badges, bustled and roughly handled.

Ten thousand madly dancing Frenchman are singing the ‘Marseilles’, forty thousand Russians ‘God the Terrible‘ and from a thousand British throats comes ‘The Home Fires‘.

Goodbye to Germany,

Farewell to Sprootau

It’s a long long way to Dear Old Blighty

But we’ll get Right There

Marching to the British Camp, the Council of Soldiers and Workers “Brother English we come to proclaim a New World” says the leader.

A Bantam shouts “Are we downhearted?” A thousand British throats answer “No”.

 

 

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 57 Legion of Frontiersmen Recruits Wanted

End of 56th Entry: That summed up the situation Mr Osmond telling the three Rhodesians that during the day their best course was to go into town and investigate conditions before attempting to decide on their future policy.

After a good sleep and hearty breakfast, the trio proceeded to Cape Town where Mick, arranging to meet his companions later, began a round of interviews.

Calling at the Castle he endeavoured to enlist in a Defence Force Unit. The Colonel, an old family friend took his details but had no authority to enlist anyone – so fared Mick in half a dozen other attempts – calling at the Drill Hall he found a British Battalion just arrived from the North. Here he was informed that recruits were being accepted and was told to report at 9am the following morning.

Mick turned away feeling as though on the brink of a precipice. He intended going overseas and here was his chance, but he felt incredibly lonely at the thought of going as a private soldier in a battalion of utter strangers, felt too, the Colonial’s instinctive prejudice against the stern discipline of a regular line battalion and craved to be with mounted men of his own type.

Shrugging his shoulders Mick went off to be attracted by the painted words “Legion of Frontiersmen” over a doorway and beside the door “Recruits Wanted” calling in Mick interviewed a hard-faced citizen who after taking his particulars – Cadet training – four years Bush life – excellent education etc. ushered him into an inner office where half a dozen tougher citizens were grouped around a table. Introducing Mick the hard-faced man retired and a grizzled old veteran put the Rhodesian through a searching catechism.

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“All, right Son, we’ll enlist you in the Legion,” he said at length – “As yet we have not been officially recognised, but we’re expecting a cable any minute accepting our services as a unit to act in any capacity, mounted, infantry or special services. Parade at 5 p.m.” Filling in and signing a form, Mick felt infinitely better.

A couple of days went past. Mick put in some hard drill with a crowd that reminded him of the Anglican prayer for “All sorts and conditions of men.” but no acceptance came of the Legion’s offer of service which had been communicated to both the Imperial and Union governments. Mick inwardly grinning at the thought wondered if both Governments considered letting loose the crowd he had met on a civilized nation was contrary to the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Meanwhile, the South African Labour Party were enlisting men on behalf of the departing Imperial battalions. Mick’s agreement with the Legion allowed him to join any fighting unit in the interval before the services of the Legion were accepted. After he had passed without apparently being any nearer the firing line, Mick with Taffy, (the third having joined the Garrison Artillery),  put his name down for the Essex Regiment and came home with an armlet which in bold blood red the words Labour Legion were emblazoned on a white background.

It was September 1914. Michael Osmonds’ parents, relatives and friends belonged to the old world of ancient families to whom their order was their religion. Labour men were classified anarchists, nihilists, vagabonds and rogues and even Mick himself when out of sight of the Labour Party’s recruiting table took off the fatal armlet, and gazed upon it  with deep suspicion mixed with feelings that he had committed sacrilege, sold himself to the Evil One, and become a member of a Secret Society. 

Putting the armlet in an inside pocket Mick proceeded to have a drink then went home wondering how he was to break the news. He felt that had he simply enlisted as a private soldier in a British battalion the family would not have offered the slightest opposition, only have sympathized with him and regretted his being companionless in his venture. To, however, join via a back door such as the Labour Legion would convince him that he had lost his reason.

“Wonder why the blazers I did,” he remarked to himself “I wish that I’d joined up with that last regiment –  I’ve a damn good mind to push off to the Docks and work my passage over.” This determination was greatly strengthened by the reception his step met with at home – a reception which more than fulfilled his expectations.

Now, most of Mick’s spare time since arriving from Rhodesia had been divided between his fianceé and the Transport Office. Here he with various friends became an absolute pest in their endeavours to find acceptance of their services in the transport conveys.

On Mick’s plunge into the Labour Legion Mr Osmond aroused himself to find a loophole of escape for his son – armed with letters of introduction, Mick interviewed various influential men, then once again turned his face towards this Transport Office and sending in a letter to the Commanding Officer he waited a while, was asked to follow an orderly into the Presence and after being asked a few questions came out wreathed in smiles.

He was engaged as a conductor of Transport at 7/6 per diem and rations. A uniform would be issued if required, on the Repayment system. Duties were to commence immediately.

For three days Mick lived next to the Dock gates working on unpacking and fitting harness, trucked a few mules and generally having an easy time. From Ordnance stores, he was issued with Bedford cord riding breeches, brown boots and leggings, a slouch hat and khaki tunic with stiff cardboard lined green collar and cuffs. He also drew a big Webly Revolver with ammunition, so felt himself a last to be a member of the armed forces of the Crown.

Image result for webley revolver 1914

Meanwhile Mick’s love affair came to an end – in many ways still only a schoolboy all Mick’s thoughts and attention concentrated on his new life – he hoped the German West business would be over in a week or two and that then he would get a chance to get Home with either or South African or Rhodesian Expeditionary Force or with some chums.

Three days after receiving his appointment Mick was ordered to proceed early next morning to the Maitland main transport depot, as one of a detail of conductors who would take charge of a large number of transport waggons and animals. On receiving the animals the conductors would drive them to the docks, ship them and proceed to one of the Theatres of War.

Next day the detail of six transport conductors and one head conductor proceeded out to the Remount Camp on the Cape Flats some six miles from Cape Town where they were issued with horses – with lively curiosity they then rode to the Transport Camp and to their disgust took over one thousand three hundred and twenty sad looking donkeys together with a hundred and fifty Cape Coloured men to act as drivers and leaders.

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Mick had drawn a really good grey horse with a beautiful action. The horse seemed to have been a pet as it was particularly well cared for, especially considering it to have been issued from a great heard of Remount horses running loose in open paddocks.

The Rhodesian, therefore, felt that drive from Maitland to the Cape Town Docks as one of the greatest events in this life. The huge grey drove of donkeys herded by shouting Coloured men, himself with half a dozen others in picturesque army dress riding around the drove heavy revolvers slung over their shoulders, short handled 25ft lashed stockwhips in their hands all made his mind bring back boyhood memories of wild Argentine Cowboys driving up the mobs of mules, horses and cattle from the Docks in the now distant Boer War days.

Then he had been one of the onlookers watching with lively curiosity and interest what appeared denizens from another world. Now he felt that hundreds watched him with the same feelings.

“Damn shame we’ve got donkeys,” he thought “Jove it would have been thrilling driving a thousand mules or horses through Cape Town.”.

At the Docks, animals were shipped into an old cargo steamer. A northerly gale was blowing with a heavy see running outside the Breakwater, and Mick grinned as he looked at his fellow conductors all of whom were typical Bush countrymen. From these men, his eyes wandered to the gay chatting coloured folk bidding farewell to numerous relations of either sex, all colours, shapes and sizes. Guitars, banjos, concertinas and fiddles were wailing, tears flowing mixed with laughter as the brown people all their feelings, surface ones, revelled in the emotions of the moment.

The Queensland had already loaded sixty transport waggons each of which would be pulled by twenty-two donkeys. Immediately the donkeys and men had been shipped hawsers were cast off, the tugs busily hauled her into the fairway and with the threshing screw, the tramp began her voyage.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 54 War Time Raiders

End of 53rd Entry: Now and again a pile of newspapers reached him all full of the Wars between Montenegro, Greece, Serbia, and Turkey.

Then one day Mick woke with a rotten headache which increased as the day wore on – his body got hot and cold by turns shivering fits set in with violent spasms of vomiting. Mick fought against it but malaria needs quinine to stop its progress and the camp was bare of the vital ally.

A couple of evenings later a native passing a farmhouse near the siding casually told the owner that the new white man down the river was dying. A B.S.A. trooper happened to be at the farm. He and the owner did the nine miles in record time driving a couple of natives before them. At Mick’s camp, the hut was deserted though round a campfire Mick’s boys were singing happily. 

On being questioned they reported that their master had been very sick for a couple of days. “No! Nobody had gone in to see how he was – he hadn’t called anybody and the cook was away on a holiday.”

The trooper sent them scuttling round to hunt for signs of their master and soon a shout from the river announced that he was found. Evidently maddened for want of water, poor Mick had crawled down for a drink. He was in a mighty bad way so wasting no time the white men had a couple of poles, a blanket fastened between and four boys sent trotting off to the siding with the patient.

Fortunately, as they arrived a train came in on it’s way to Salisbury and a few hours later Mick was safely in the hospital.

Mick was pretty tough so within a few days unlimited quinine, careful nursing, warmth and cheerful pretty nurses had him on his feet again.

On his return, Mick promptly forsook his old camp transferring with bag and baggage to his new half-completed home. This he soon completed and settled down once more healthy, content and happy.

An adjoining farm was taken up giving Mick pleasant neighbours. The manager of a large ranch rode over – turned out to be a near relation of his old Constantia employer, and began to regularly send his horse for Mick to ride over to the ranch for weekends.

One day Mick feeling off-colour sent a boy over to Tom Godfrey asking for quinine – the boy returned with quinine, a newspaper and a note.

Dear Mick,
Herewith the quinine and half a bottle of brandy, all I can spare.  Also the pup. I suppose you’ve heard that the British Army has arrived in Belgium. We should hear tomorrow how it shapes against the Germans. The Belgians seem to have more guts than one would have thought. Everybody around here is clamouring for the formation of a Rhodesian force and the South Africans have already had a scrap or two in German West.
Yours,
Tom

Mick dazed, read and re-read the note, opened the papers and saw the staring headlines.

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For a while, he thought he was mad. What was the war about? It was three weeks since he had seen either a newspaper or white man and there wasn’t a war cloud insight. Now apparently Britain, France and Belgium were scrapping with Germany.

Wasting no time Mick ran the nine miles to the siding. Here he found the place in a ferment.  Dozens of hard frontiersman seemed to have come out of the wilds.

Prospectors, traders, farmers, hunters, miners and transport riders – some were Reservists waiting for the train, others ex-Army officers of regular and irregular forces – many like himself had only just heard that there was a war on and were clamouring for details – everybody seemed mad to get to the war before it finished.

Men clamoured for volunteers to look after their mining prospects, farms, and trading stores. Partners tossed as to whom should go and whom should stay.

A meeting was held at which nearly every man put down his name as willing to serve overseas, in Africa or for Home Defence and an urgent application wired to the Administrator calling upon him to immediately form a Rhodesian regiment to be placed at the disposal of the British War office.

Mick volunteered for overseas, then set off back to the farm.  Arrived there he arranged the work for the next few days and left for Salisbury. In the town he found a restless angry population swollen by the addition of men from outside all clamouring for the Government to act.

The authorities, however, seemed as much in the dark as the man in the street. The Union down South had mobilised and was pouring troops into German West Africa, but apparently, the British War office had forgotten Rhodesia’s existence. The Mounted Police left to seize the narrow strip of German territory next to the Victoria Falls.

Rumours came that in the North the Germans were sweeping all before them in Nyasaland and British East Africa. Stories came of black armies invading the Congo, of the Germans having promised their black troops all the white women captured.

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A man with an evil reputation began quietly enlisting picked men from the Bush into a regiment to dash over the Portuguese border looting the country. It was argued that it didn’t matter which side Portugal joined, and if forced onto the enemy’s her colonies and African Seaports would form most valuable acquisitions to Rhodesia and the Union.

It was rumoured that a well-known Jewish speculator was backing the enterprise, that truckloads of horses for the Raiders had already left the Free State. Each man possessed his own rifle so all that remained to do once the horses arrived was to cross the Border.

Mick’s gold-digging Uncle driven from the Alluvial Fields over a threat of prosecution in connection with the distillation of rice spirit in a home-made still with a rifle barrel as worm, had gone prospecting and elephant poaching in North Eastern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. 

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He had returned destitute but cheerful, and for a week stayed with Mick. Now he was one of the leading spirits amongst the Raiders and through his influence, Mick was enlisted in one of the troops of a squadron.

However, some of the filibusters waxed eloquent over their whiskey which resulted in a stern threat from the Administration that any unauthorised raids would be treated as piratical and immediate steps were taken to prevent any possibility of this organised one from materializing.

Mick interviewed his employers begging to be released from his duty and advanced money to take him to England but was told not to be a fool. The War would be over long before he got there while in any case, it was a war of regular armies, not one for untrained men or Irregular forces.

A question arising from the text:

What does “with a rifle barrel as worm” mean?