In early November 1918 German revolutionary soldiers beneath a red flag visited Springhirsch POW camp. They threw the gates open and invited the prisoners to leave.
The Regimental Sergeant Majors in the camp visited the bunkhouses and reminded the men that the war was not yet finished and it was not safe outside the wire. In the event of the German guards leaving the camp, the men were to remain in the compound.
Jerry L. Cpl. told us the armistice was accepted and it’s great excitement here
Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 7 November 1918
On 8 November confirmation came that the armistice had been signed. The Regimental Sergeant Majors’ prediction came to pass: the sentries disappeared and one of the German officers shot himself.
All prisoners in the punishment cells were released. There was no restriction on the men’s movements, and no lights-out. Soon the only parades were head-counts.
Exercise drills ceased but football games were played daily. Camp concerts, cancelled previously by the Commandant in a fit of pique, began again. The band played The King publicly for the first time. The men sang, no doubt boisterously and to the discomfort of the remaining German soldiers.
On 11 November the men had the terms of the armistice read to them. Rumours were soon circulating that the men would be marching out, two companies at a time, for Holland and a ship back to Blighty.
The concert held on 17 November was the last, as the men expected to move out within the week. There were rumours of ships waiting in Hamburg harbour to transport the POWs home.
Jerry meals very much better now than when we much needed it
Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 10 November 1918
In anticipation of leaving the camp, food rations were dispersed more liberally. The commissary stores were being run down; men were less frugal with the contents of their Red Cross parcels.
Then word came that there would be no move out until the end of November. This caused unrest in the camp. Some NCOs absconded. Rumour had it that these men were arrested in Hamburg, attempting to stow away on ships bringing food into Germany.
[The POWs] in their wild desire to return to England had become quite unmanageable
Ferdinand Hansen An open letter to an English officer and incidentally to the English people
On 30 November British officers visited the camp and addressed the men at the request of the camp commandant. The men were told to be patient, that every effort was being made to return them to England as soon as possible.
Did Andy Duncan step outside the camp while waiting for orders to move out? Other POWs did, enjoying a kind of freedom by exploring the nearby towns and villages of Kaltenkirchen, Lentföhrden and Barmstedt.
A lot of the men go to Hamburg; they get the money by selling soap, cocoa, tea, etc.
Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 6 December 1918
On 8 December Andy would have learned of a planned move out in the next ten days. After all the rumours and false starts would this really be his last week in Springhirsch camp?
NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, A.S. National Archives of Australia.
1918 157 Company Sergeant Major Andrew Steward Duncan 10th Battalion. Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing, Enquiry Bureau files, 1914-18 War 1DRL/0428.
1918 ‘Back from Germany: Prisoners’ Stories of Life in Captivity’. The Scotsman 27 December, p.2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://archive.scotsman.com
Hansen, F. 1921. An open letter to an English officer and incidentally to the English people. 4th ed. Hamburg, Germany: Overseas Publishing Co.
Mead, A.E. Private Papers of A E Mead Imperial War Museum collection 17232.
Milner, L. 1993. Leeds Pals. South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Military.
Featured image: END OF THE WAR. GERMANY SIGNS ARMISTICE. (1918, 12 November) Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), p. 2. Newspaper article found in Trove and reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.