ARMISTICE EXPECTED IN A FEW DAYS. (1918, 8 November) Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), p. 4. Newspaper article found in Trove and reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
ARMISTICE EXPECTED IN A FEW DAYS. (1918, 8 November) Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), p. 4. Newspaper article found in Trove and reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
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“Rumours of the war are good”

While prisoners held deep inside Germany may not have had any indication that the war was coming to an end, the Springhirsch men heard rumours regularly. Prisoner arrivals, visiting priests, newspapers stolen while on fatigues to the train station, and a friendly German guard all provided the men with scuttlebutt about the progress of the war.

When Andy Duncan arrived at Springhirsch in August 1918 new rumours were being whispered almost weekly.

By the start of October war news was coming in with increasing speed and accuracy. The men were trying not to get their hopes up.

We heard very good news today, if it’s all true. The Allies have captured the whole of the Belgian coast […] Germany has asked for an armistice as they are beaten.

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 22 October 1918

On 1 November a German guard told the prisoners that the war would be over “for sure” within the month. It was not long before the prison guards formed a revolutionary Soldiers Council and assumed joint control of the camp with the commandant.

The Soldiers’ Council […] decreed that Warrant Officer Matz be given his walking papers, because, as we are informed, he had long been obnoxious to the men

Ferdinand Hansen An open letter to an English officer and incidentally to the English people

It is tempting to think that Warrant Officer Matz is the camp interpreter who was a key antagonist of the prisoners.

The signs were that the war would be over any day, but when would the news come, and how would the men get home?

Sources

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.

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.

Van Emden, R. 2009. Prisoners of the Kaiser: The last POWs of the Great War. South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Military.

Punishment

At Springhirsch POW camp punishments were wide-ranging and often capriciously decided –

Men were sent on fatigues to fetch the guards’ food supplies from the railway station. Without horses they had to push the van for miles to Lentföhrden. Along the way they took any opportunity to scrounge vegetables from roadside farms and pocket food from the German supplies. Men caught stealing guards’ bread had their own bread ration withheld for four days.

The Commandant stopped the issue of Red Cross packets because no prisoners would volunteer to fetch bread from the station. The men were made to parade, seemingly until volunteers stepped forward. Finally 50 men volunteered, but the men did not move until the Commandant agreed to start issuing packets again.

“Strafe parades” were called with short notice, sometimes twice a day. The men had to parade and display their towels, blankets or mattresses. If it rained during the parade the men returned to their bunks with sodden bedding.

Even the relatively inconsequential penalties were part of a constant effort to break the prisoners down –

The Sergeant Majors were shut out of their bunkhouse for a day for not removing a stove as ordered.

In late August 1918 all cricket and football was stopped because too many windows had been broken. The Germans demanded that the prisoners pay for the damage – not just for the broken windows adjacent to the sports area, but for all broken windows throughout the camp.

The games soon resumed. Two weeks later a football game was stopped and the ball confiscated, seemingly because the prisoners were enjoying themselves too much. The guards claimed that the shouting and laughing were upsetting the camp’s neighbours. Sergeant A.E. Mead noted drily that there were only two houses within a mile of the camp.

The prisoners had formed a band and purchased instruments. The Commandant asked the band to play in the camp square, but the band refused. The Commandant cancelled the evening concert as a consequence.

It seems that as numbers in the camp grew, arrest and confinement in the punishment cells became more common. Perhaps this was a way of managing the shortage of beds in the crowded bunkhouses.

Men were given 14 or 21 days ‘in the jug’ for standing or sitting during morning exercise, or for making a fire for cooking or warmth.

The German camp interpreter was singled out as a key antagonist, someone who would find any excuse to put a man in the cells on bread and water.

Sources

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: Football game at a Prisoner of War (POW) camp at Springhirsch, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Australian War Memorial collection PO3236.279

“Jerry’s food seems quite poor by comparison”

…The camp was insanitary and, as a matter of fact, had been condemned before they were sent to it. They had not, however, much complaint to make regarding the treatment they received there, because their German guards were afraid of them: but they could not look at the food they got when they could get instead anything from home. ‘Back from Germany’ Aberdeen Evening Express 27 December 1918, page 4

While there is some truth in the newspaper description of Springhirsch, we can also detect the exaggeration and bravado of freed prisoners of war. These men wanted to show that they had not failed in their duty or dishonoured their country by being taken prisoner; that in the camps they did not capitulate. Not all Springhirsch prisoners’ experiences were the same when it came to food rations. For the men reliant on Jerry food there was plenty to complain about.

Breakfast

Breakfast at 7am was bread and ersatz coffee – or just coffee if the bread had not arrived from the train station, or a man had eaten his ration when it was issued the evening before.

Dinner

The 4pm meal was the main meal of the day. It was often some combination of vegetables and rye or barley meal. Depending on how much water was added it could have been a broth or a porridge. The vegetables were generally poorly cooked and might have been green, rotting, or gritty with sand. Sauerkraut was served regularly, and just as regularly thrown into the swill trough by many prisoners. There may have been a little horsemeat or some other indeterminate meat added, perhaps tasting of disinfectant.

Tea

The evening meal was usually a soup of some kind. A ration of a tablespoon or so of cheese was issued before lights out. Extra cheese was issued from August to prevent diarrhoea.

Parcels from home

Sergeant A.E. Mead’s diary mentions the Old Hands, men who had been in Springhirsch since well before the German Spring Offensive of March 1918. These men received regular Red Cross and private parcels; for the most part they could live on the contents of their parcels and so did not draw their Jerry rations.

It makes us very hungry to see the old hands cooking nice things such as sausages and bacon, macaroni, chips and potatoes, tins of fish such as herrings and roes. Jerry’s food seems quite poor by comparison

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 15 August 1918

New arrivals had to wait for the Red Cross to catch up with their whereabouts before they could expect any mail. The men might receive packets of clothing, groceries, biscuits or tobacco from the Red Cross or home front auxiliaries, and private mail from family.

Australia. Australian Red Cross Society workers packing food parcels for Australians held in prisoner of war camps. Australian War Memorial collection H11793
Australia. Australian Red Cross Society workers packing food parcels for Australians held in prisoner of war camps.
Australian War Memorial collection H11793
Parcels did not arrive regularly at Springhirsch. When they did, not all men received them. While Andy waited for mail he might have shared a Commandant-issued emergency parcel to tide him over. The Sergeant Majors had their own bunkhouse and own mess, so even though Andy was a new arrival his meals would have been supplemented at least by shared parcels. From Andy’s letters home it is clear he did not like having to rely on the charity of others. By late August packets were arriving late or not at all.

It is very aggravating to see the fellows who are lucky enough to get parcels eating all the nice things and we have to be content with pigs’ food. Still we keep on hoping and our turn will come.

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 26 August 1918

By September the arrival of parcels had slowed to a trickle. Even many of the Old Hands were on Jerry rations again. This situation was to continue until the end of the war.

Sources

Mead, A.E. Private Papers of A E Mead Imperial War Museum collection 17232.

NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, A.S. National Archives of Australia.

Smart, J., 2013. CAPTURING CAPTIVITY: Australian Prisoners of the Great War. 

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.

Featured image: Hanover, Germany. c. 1917. German orderlies inspecting Red Cross Society food parcels for Allied prisoners of war. Australian War Memorial collection H113925

Strafe camp

He has been in three German camps – Dulmen, Parchim and Springhirsch – the last being a strafe camp for N.C.O.’s who refused to work. While at Parchim the Germans tried to force British N.C.O.’s by all means possible to work, but the Cambrai men stuck together and eventually were sent to Springhirsch near the Kiel Canal, where they were joined by several hundred more, who were captured in March, 1918.

The return of Sergeant S. Mugford, prisoner of war.

1918 ‘Local and District News’ Western Times, Exeter, Devon, England. 14 January 1919, p. 5. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.findmypast.co.uk 

 

“Living conditions here, unspeakably disgusting”

By August 1918 Andy had been moved twice more.

After three months in Limburg I went to Parchim and from there was sent to Springhesch [Springhirsch]. The latter is a “strafe” camp for N.C.O.s. Living conditions here, unspeakably disgusting.

“Strafe” was army slang for “punish” and strafe camps were designed to punish NCOs who would not volunteer for work. After the war the Aberdeen Daily Journal reported that Springhirsch NCOs

 … were specially interesting because of the fact that theirs was a strafe camp for “non-com.’s” who persisted in the right to be exempt from work. Some of the “non-com.’s” stated that they had been originally in different camps but were concentrated at Springhurst because of their refusal. The camp was insanitary, and, as a matter of fact had been condemned before they were sent to it.

The previous Russian internees had been relocated and the camp closed because of the appalling conditions, but it was reopened “for the benefit of the British NCO’s”.

Springhirsch camp was in the Province of Schleswig-Holstein, north of Hamburg near Kaltenkirchen. Prisoners’ recollections of the camp in the second half of 1918 were that it was cold, wet and windy. Fellow prisoner Sergeant A.E. Mead noted that there was scarcely a day without rain. Thunderstorms and heavy downpours were common. As winter neared icy winds would blow across the plain from the North Sea or the Baltic Sea, leaving each prisoner shivering beneath his two threadbare blankets. On 15 August Andy wrote from Springhirsch

Was taken prisoner in a raid on 1/3/18. I was sent to Dulmen where I met most of the men captured on the Somme offensive. From Dulmen was sent along with other N.C.O’s to Limburg, from there to Parchim and then on to this place which is an N.C.O’s Camp called Springhirsch. I was not wounded badly enough to go into hospital, only a few scats from bursting shells – they soon healed up and at the present time I am quite well, only a bit below my normal weight but I will soon pick that up now that the food packets have started to come along. Have also received my uniform and underclothing.

Red Cross parcels were finally reaching him. He probably had his German-issue blue POW uniform by this time.

Cottbus, Germany. c. 1918. Formal group portrait of Australian prisoners of war (POW). The men are wearing a mixture of Australian Army uniform and a darker uniform and peaked hats issued by the Germans. They have been permitted to continue wearing their rank stripes, rising sun badges and awards. Australian War Memorial collection P02318.001
Cottbus, Germany. c. 1918. Formal group portrait of Australian prisoners of war (POW). The men are wearing a mixture of Australian Army uniform and a darker uniform and peaked hats issued by the Germans. They have been permitted to continue wearing their rank stripes, rising sun badges and awards.
Australian War Memorial collection P02318.001

Sources

NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. National Archives of Australia.

1918 1st Australian Division 1 February to 7 March 1918. Statements made by prisoners of war [10th Battalion, No 157 CSM A S Duncan, No 2287 Private P M Berthelsen, No 2622 Private W B Crispe, No 5846 Private J Munday, No 5420 Private S T Noble, No 2958 Private J M Searle] AWM30 B5.37. Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

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: Repatriated Prisoners Reach Leith’. Aberdeen Daily Journal 9 April, p.4. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.findmypast.co.uk

1918 ‘Back from Germany: Prisoners’ Stories of Life in Captivity’. The Scotsman 27 December, p.2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://archive.scotsman.com

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.

‘Principal POW camps in Germany’The Long, Long Trail: the British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918.

‘Slang used in the trenches’Digger History: an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Services.

Featured image: Detail from historical map of Provinz Schleswig-Holstein 1905. Source: Bibliothek allgemeinen und praktischen Wissens für Militäranwärter Band I, 1905 / Deutsches Verlaghaus Bong & Co Berlin * Leipzig * Wien * Stuttgart. [ONLINE] Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

“I am just about as low as it is possible to be”

Four months after being captured Andy was still surviving on starvation rations in Limburg POW camp.

July l.- Just a few more lines now that I have the opportunity again. I am hoping that this will find you in the very best of health, as this leaves me as well as can be expected under my present circumstances. I hope you are not worrying over me being here. I know it is bad enough being here, but it is ever so much better than having about six feet of earth to myself somewhere in Flanders or France. Don’t you think so? There is a good chance of me returning when the war is over.

This last 10 days we have had nothing but rain here, but to-day it is much better, and the sun has come out again and we are likely to have some good weather. The amount of wet weather we have had lately is not likely to do the crops any good.

It is four months to-day since I was taken prisoner, and up to the present time have not received any of the bread and grocery parcels that the Red Cross send out to every prisoner of war. I hope it won’t be very long before my parcels start to arrive, as I am just about as low as it is possible to be without breaking down altogether, and I don’t want that to happen, as I don’t think it would be possible to get up again if once I did break down.

I have written a card to Mrs. Stark in Broken Hill. Of course, I could not say much on a card, and I told her that she would be able to get the news, such as I can send you. I hope you have received all my other letters, as I am patiently waiting for a letter from you, as I have not had a letter since I was captured. I wonder what they have done with your letters which would arrive in the battalion after I was captured. As I have not received any of them, I was wondering if you have had them returned to you. Please let me know when you reply to this, and when writing letters to me always put my address on the top of the letter as well as on the envelope, as it greatly assists the censor.

In any parcel you are sending to me, please enclose plenty of chocolate, and in your next parcel please enclose some needles and plenty of cotton, also a few packets of cigarettes, or I will make my own if you would send some cigarette paper and packets or tins of light tobacco. I could do with a cake or two of soap in each parcel. I think I have said all this time, so I will now close, hoping to hear from you soon. I remain your ever-loving husband – Andy. Kind regards to all at home.

The cigarettes and soap that Andy requested were highly prized in the camps by prisoners and guards alike. Tobacco could distract a prisoner from his hunger, and soap could be used to purchase food or favours from the guards.

Of all scarce articles in Deutsch land, soap was the scarcest. The lice made our days and nights miserable in the extreme and though we stripped every time a chance occurred, it seemed impossible even to keep them down.

from Prisoners of the Kaiser: The last POWs of the Great War by Richard Van Emden

While a Prisoner of War Andy set himself the daily routine of marching in uniform around the camp. He marched to keep himself from breaking down, but also to encourage other POWs who might be wavering in their resolve.

Sources

NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. National Archives of Australia.

1918 ‘FROM AN AUSTRALIAN IN GERMANY.’Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), 9 November, p. 10

Featured image: Distributing Red Cross parcels to allied POWs at Kriegsgefstammlager (camp) at Limburg, Germany.
Australian War Memorial collection P03236.004