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.

Image result for red cross food parcels ww1

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 78 The Irish Regiment Arrives

End of 77th Entry: 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.

Pages missing…….

…seeing him lying in a pool of blood for nearly an hour. Another guard who tried to bandage Mac was knocked down by his Corporal. As soon as the old man was well enough he was tried and sentenced to, I think, fifteen years penal servitude.

The American Ambassador visited the camp about this time and took up the case and, after the war I heard that for the next two years Mac was ‘cushy’ travelling around the country being court-marshalled, appealing against his sentence; being tried again, appealing etc. He gradually got his sentence reduced to five years but the Armistice came just before the final trial so Mac actually never did more than a few years imprisonment.

My teaching billet was quite a good thing. The Russian students were a jolly crowd all cadets of great families and though none spoke English all were excellent French, German, Polish and Latin scholars. It was my job at first establishing a medium of instruction. We started by my using broken German and scraps of Latin.

Very very slowly at first, we began to make progress and in a surprisingly short time they could read and understand fairly well and began to attempt conversations and compositions. For this work I received a light breakfast every morning and a free pass over the lager. I also began to learn the inner workings of the camp and to find that the Russian and French Committees by bribery simply controlled the camp.

Everything was getting unprocurable in Germany now and huge prices were offered for everything we received in our parcels. Soap appeared to be the most needed, twenty Marks and more readily offered for one pound of ordinary Sunlight soap. By selling a little we were able to buy knives, plates, forks etc. and began to make ourselves quite comfortable.Image result for sunlight soap 1916

One afternoon to our surprise we saw a great body of new English prisoners marching in. There were regimental Sergeant Majors, Company Sergeant Majors, Staff Sergeants, Sergeants, Corporals and one or two lonely privates besides a tall turbaned Indian. From the look of the men without needing the confirmation of their clothing and baggage, we could see that they were all Mons men and experience of the Regular Army at Dulmen made most feel anything but glad to welcome them.post-12337-1276167345.jpg PoW Camp at Dulmen

The Old Hands knew too much and were too clanny. However, most of them turned out a first-class crowd though there were a few exceptions. Our new comrades were from Sagan lager some thirty miles away and all had been through cruel hard times.

Amongst them being survivors of Wittenberg and the less known but every bit as bad as Schniedemuhl Camp.

Contemporary map c1913 showing Schneidemuhl and larger area

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Edit: At this time Schneidemuhl was the base of 149 Infantry Regiment. The stats for Schneidemuhl POWs as of October 1918 were as follows: French: Officers 1 ORs 4890 Russian: Officers 5 ORs 33536 Belgian: Officers 0 ORs 61 British: Officers 0 ORs 2722 Serbian: Officers 0 ORs 17 Romanian: Officers 0 ORs 5 Italian: Officers 0 ORs 369 Portuguese: Officers 0 ORs 52 Civilians: 82 I can only assume that Canadian and Australian numbers were included with the British which are actually listed as ‘Englander’.

For the past few months, however, Fortune had smiled and they arrived loaded with food, clothing and a portable organ with various other musical instruments. Sentries, Prisoners and all had stopped at every ‘pub’ on the way and to those who knew Germany, this means a good many “Gaast Huizen” in a thirty-mile walk.

First of all the Sentries departed for the “lock up” and then our little sword loving Feldwebel tackled the prisoners – but he had to deal with fellow Sergeant Majors and men who knew the language and their rights and privileges.

In a few minutes, our little terrier was frantic with rage. He sorted them out at last and stuck a couple at attention for punishment. The others were alloted to different Barracks a whole block being cleared of Russians and turned into a purely English camp.

The majority of the men belonged to the Royal Irish Regiment and were as happy-go-lucky a lot as anyone could wish to meet. Amongst the arrivals were one of the 1st Life Guards and the Indian already mentioned.

No sooner where the Old Hands in the Barracks than they started a concert and it quite jarred seeing men actually enjoying life for we were then only beginning to realise that the War might last for years and had not forced ourselves to face the prospect of years of captivity and to take life as it came.

The bulk of the newcomers were Irish Catholics who after being captured had spent an easy time in Limburg Camp been visited by Sir Rodger Casement and learning the history of Ireland.

Irish Pow at mass Limburg

Fritz and spent endless time and money in attempting to seduce them from their allegiance to Britain’s King promising to form an Irish Brigade for service in Ireland only.

As with all Irishman serving in the King’s Army the men treated this sort of propaganda as a huge joke. Fritz was led on to believe that every man’s one wish was to join up against England but before definitely committing themselves all kinds of grievous doubts and fears had to be dispelled.

Fritz became weary of sending Celtic professors and historians to teach Irelands’ wrongs, besides finding the job an expensive one. The Irish Catholic’s on receiving it issued an ultimatum, manhandled Casement, who was in charge of the propaganda work, laughed at the Hun and cheerfully departed to the coal mines.

The day below as the workers assembled to come up one prisoner with a “Cheerio Mates!” smashed his lamp against the wall – fire damp was so thick the casualty list with high.

This ended the experiment and after a sojourn in Sagan, many of the men were transported to Sprottau.