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 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.