“I wonder if the people at home ever realise that the prisoners in Germany number amongst their ranks some of the greatest heroes of this war.” Captain Horace Gilliland, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (taken prisoner at Ypres 1914; escaped Germany 1917)
The number of British officers and other ranks who were taken prisoner by Germany and her Allies in the First World War is in the region of 171,720; substantial numbers of British troops were captured in the closing months of the war, my father being one of them. More than 12,000 PoWs died in captivity. Conditions in many of the camps were harsh and by 1918 food was in very short supply. Many prisoners faced starvation, disease,boredom and mental anguish. Many tried to escape, some successfully; on capture they attempted to escape again.
On repatriation following the Armistice in November 1918 few spoke of their experiences; the shame of surrender was best left buried in the past. Besides, who at home in Britain had any idea what they had been through? Many former prisoners of war were left without any effective official support and had to undertake their own recovery as best they could with the help of family and friends.
The German Prisoner of War Camp at Ruhleben
The Ruhleben Prisoner of War Camp was created in November 1914 around a horse racing circuit in Spandau close to Berlin; it contained mostly British civilians who happened to be in Germany when the war broke out. Some of these civilians were on holiday but many held professional posts in Germany and a large number of teachers, academics and skilled people found themselves interned because of their British nationality. It is highly unlikely that a front line soldier like my father would have been sent there.
‘Fellow prisoners told John that there was a sort of gallows humour at Ruhleben. Rather like when three or four English people meet they form a queue, in this place of adversity the other side of life emerged.’ (‘Two Trees’-Chapter Nine)
I decided to use Ruhleben in the novel ‘Two Trees’ because it demonstrated the British at their best when faced with adversity; the camp was highly organised and while life was extremely tough the place became something of an educational campus with many languages, academic disciplines and skills being taught by some prisoners to their fellow internees. Areas of the camp were given British names, dramatic and musical shows were organised and even elections were held (see below).
Diet in the Camps
‘John’s fellow inmates often told him that there were many dinner times but few dinners.’ (‘Two Trees’ – Chapter Nine)
The diet in the camps was very poor. Many British prisoners were able to register with the Red Cross and subsequently received food parcels from home (see below). These parcels proved to be a real lifeline especially from 1916 onwards when the Allied Blockade of German ports denied Germany access to imported food. A very common feature of the prisoner of war behind German lines was that he was invariably hungry.
Not all prisoners were registered with the Red Cross and at times the process of registration took months to inform families in Britain whether their loved ones were alive and where they were interned. Consequently such prisoners did not receive food parcels and had to rely on either handouts from fellow Tommies or on the German rations. These rations often consisted of nothing more than potato skins and thin soup. This is the situation that John Brownleader finds himself in during his three months of incarceration in ‘Two Trees’.
Disease and Illness in the Camps
‘John just hoped that he could keep things together, defeat this fever and return home….but he was not certain that his health would hold up though.’ (‘Two Trees’ – Chapter Nine)
It was not surprising that poor food and inadequate diet led to illness and disease amongst the prisoners and their German guards, this was especially the case in the late summer and autumn of 1918 as the domestic German economy and war effort began to collapse. Typhus and influenza were particularly prevalent and large numbers were affected and the diseases claimed many lives. My father’s poor physical and psychological condition was not at all uncommon amongst those who were still held captive by the Germans at the end of the war.
Prisoners began to be released and repatriated following the Armistice on November 11th 1918. My father returned home on December 4th; he is listed in the War Office Daily List of December 14th (published in the Weekly Casualty List of December 17th 1918) as having returned to England. In Two Trees, John Brownleader returns to Wednesbury on December 4th 1918.
My father was a total wreck when he finally arrived home; my grandparents had to strip off his lice infested clothes which were then burned in the bakery oven. Father had lost a considerable amount of weight and was psychologically damaged; the alphabet dice that Hannah and George use to teach John how to read again in ‘Two Trees’ actually existed in reality. It took at least two years before my father made any form of recovery.
Letter from George V to former POWs
On returning to England each former prisoner of war received a ciphered letter from George V welcoming them home. My father’s copy is shown below and is quoted in ‘Two Trees’ ChapterThirty Five.
“The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries & hardships, which you have endured with so much patience and courage.
During these many months of trial, the early rescue of our gallant Officers & Men from the cruelties of their captivity has been uppermost in our thoughts.
We are thankful that this longed for day has arrived, & that back in the old Country you will be able once more to enjoy the happiness of a home & to see good days amongst those who anxiously look for your return.
George R ”
(Source: GJG archive)
The War Behind The Wire – John Lewis-Stempel (2014 Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Prisoners of the Kaiser – Richard van Emden (2000 Pen & Sword)