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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.