“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

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“I have not had a word of any kind from any one”

'Australians and the War.’ (6 April 1918), The Age, p. 14. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
‘Australians and the War.’ (6 April 1918), The Age, p. 14. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Andy was at Dülmen POW camp for only three weeks, not long enough to start receiving Red Cross parcels of food and clothing. Around the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing he was transferred to Limburg camp.

Andy wrote to Jane

June 1.- Once more I have the pleasure of writing a few lines, and I hope this will find you all in the very best of health, as this leaves me as well as can be expected under my present conditions. I hope you have received my other letters, and that you have sent the money through the Red Cross which I asked you to send, as at present I have no money and nothing else, and I have to depend on the other prisoners. I have also to do the same as regards soap and anything else I want, but I hope to be able to repay them when I get some money from you, which I hope wont be long in coming along now. I am just about tired of waiting for word, as I have not had a word of any kind from any one since I was captured, which is just three months ago today; I am also waiting patiently for some of the Red Cross parcels to come along to me. I hope you have written to Mrs. Stark and all the others, and told them where I am; also not being able to write to everyone. I am longing for a letter very much, and I don’t care how soon one comes or who it is from, but I would rather have one from you.

I hope when you do write that you will give me all the news possible, but of course I cannot expect to get any word from you for another two or three months yet. Hoping this will find you in the very best of health. I remain your ever-loving husband. – Andy.

'FOR THE EMPIRE.’ (29 June 1918), Riponshire Advocate, p. 2. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
‘FOR THE EMPIRE.’ (29 June 1918), Riponshire Advocate, p. 2. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Sources

NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. 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.

Featured image: Detail from historical map of Provinz Westfalen 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.

Prisoner of War

Towards the end of March 1918  Andy was moved from Courtrai to Dendermonde.

Here there were 280 of us in a room that could not properly accommodate 50. It was a frightful experience and we suffered it for 13 days.

He may have had a threadbare blanket, but no bedding and no place to sleep.

In early April the captured men were marched to the station to entrain for Germany.

Perhaps Andy’s trip into Germany followed a common transport route for POWs: to Brussels, through Liege, Aachen and Dusseldorf, before arriving at Dülmen camp. The journey took several days, the men crammed into cattle cars that bumped and shunted along. Every few hours the train would lurch into a station. At some stations they were able to leave the train and stretch their legs. At others they could only catch a glimpse of the town by pressing their faces to the ventilation grates.

During the journey the men might have received meagre rations of bread or barley water, or they might have attempted to barter parts of their uniform for food. Trading boots and braces could get a man half a loaf of bread.

Arriving at the Dülmen camp, Andy was finally processed as a prisoner of war. He lined up with the men to be counted. Some were asked if they were willing to work on farms or in factories. Andy seems to have refused. Under the Hague Convention officers and non-commissioned officers were not required to work, but with Germany suffering quite severely under the Allies’ naval blockade, and a shortage of working men at home, the country relied on POW labour. NCO prisoners were often ‘encouraged’ to volunteer through beatings and other ill treatment.

Andy Duncan's prisoner registration at Dülmen P.O.W. camp. http://grandeguerre.icrc.org
Andy Duncan’s prisoner registration at Dülmen P.O.W. camp.
http://grandeguerre.icrc.org

Following the head-count Andy was assigned to a NCO bunkhouse. After the suffocating confines at Dendermonde and the crowded train journey, a bunk with a blanket and a straw mattress must have been very welcome. Then Andy would have proceeded to the camp baths, had his hair clipped short and his clothes fumigated. Returning to his bunkhouse he probably took the first opportunity to write to Jane and let her know he was still alive.

The confirmation that Andy was a prisoner of war seems to have come a few weeks later in a postcard from another soldier to Jane. On 28 April his Statement of Service was noted “Now reported prisoner of war in German hands”, but his prison camp was not known. Until Andy’s whereabouts were established he would not receive Red Cross parcels. He would have to survive on camp rations and live in the clothes in which he was captured, probably lice-ridden despite the camp fumigation. He must have been desperately hungry.

No matter where men were, food meant little more than starvation rations. Typically, each man would receive a mug of ersatz coffee made from burnt barley or acorns, and a thin slice of black bread, adulterated with sawdust. At lunch he might have soup of varying quality, but generally it was little more than the water in which guards had boiled their own meals, with odd pieces of vegetable floating around.

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

Prisoner's meals, Dülmen P.O.W. camp. The top photograph shows the large containers of food being carried from the kitchens and the lower photograph shows the serving of food to the POWs. Australian War Memorial Collection P03236.274
Prisoners’ meals, Dülmen POW camp. The top photograph shows the large containers of food being carried from the kitchens and the lower photograph shows the serving of food to the POWs.
Australian War Memorial Collection P03236.274

Sources

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

‘Minden PoW camp’. 2013. Great War Forum.

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

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

1914-1918 Prisoners of the First World War ICRC Historical Archives.

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: POWs at Dülmen camp, Germany. Australian War Memorial collection P01981.059

Captured

Hollebeke, Flanders. 1 March 1918. CSM A.S. Duncan missing presumed captured.

The night was very dark; conditions “very favourable to the enemy”.

At 9:49pm D Company came under heavy shelling.  During the barrage a German raiding party of an estimated 133 men advanced through No Man’s Land and crossed the battalion’s front line.

Andy was at D Company Headquarters when the barrage began. In 1919 he recalled

Our position was a succession of improved shell holes. This was the Company front. Coy Headquarters was in an old pill-box which was practically in front of what constituted our front line. We had all our posts out. It was practically while we were in the process of taking over from the 13th, that the enemy raided us in force. I was at Coy. Hdqrs., where also were a Captain of the 13th Battalion my O.C., Major Henwood, and one signaller. The enemy put up a heavy barrage on the Company front with ‘pineapples’ and minenwerfers. A runner came in and told us that the enemy were making an attack. My O.C. gave instructions for the S.O.S. to be fired. I fired it at about 10.30 or 11pm. Just as our own artillery barrage opened up, the Germans reached Coy. Hdqrs. A man appeared at the door of Coy Hdqrs and called on us to surrender. Major Henwood shot him. This man it ultimately appeared was the officer in charge of the raiders. Immediately a number of bombs landed in the pill-box. They put the lights out and wounded one man. The enemy immediately after the throwing of bombs, appeared in force around the pill-box. We were compelled to come out. Our officers agreed that as things were we had no chance.

Captured were Major H.N. Henwood, Sergeant Major A.S. Duncan, Private P.M. Berthelsen, Private W.B. Crispe, Private S.T. Noble, Private W.S. Bell, Private Thomas and Private R. Daley. Major Henwood was killed during the raid, although accounts of what happened differed widely. Andy recalled that, after the Australians came out of the pill-box

Our barrage was still on and Major Henwood was just outside the pill-box and while I was talking to him, was killed. That is, he was killed as far as I could tell.

The Germans moved us away from the neighbourhood of the pill-box into a shell hole. There were 7 of us, 4 of whom were wounded, one very badly. In the shell hole a German orderly dressed the wounded men, using our own first field dressings. The Germans were apparently waiting for our barrage to lift.

Eventually the Germans and their prisoners moved to No Man’s Land, heading back to the German lines. Suddenly flares lit up the area and a shell exploded in their midst. CSM Duncan, Private Crispe and Private Thomas received minor shrapnel wounds. In the confusion, Private Daley, Private Thomas and Private Bell managed to escape.

Andy was taken back to the German lines and separated from the other men.

I was kept for about an hour in the enemy trenches, the others being sent away. I was subjected to a vigorous cross-examination concerning our lines and dispositions. Straightway from the line I was marched to Ingelmunster. There I saw the three unwounded men who had been captured with me. At Ingelmunster I was again interrogated before being removed to Courtrai [Kortrijk]. I was here for about 17 days, kept in a cell, being daily interrogated.

Perhaps it was at Ingelmunster that Andy shared a cell with a German spy. The spy claimed to be a fellow Australian, but Andy saw through him: “I fed him a lot of bullshit”.

Ingelmunster was a collecting and interrogation station for recently captured prisoners, but for some reason the Germans did not process him as a prisoner of war. Andy became concerned about his captors’ motives for moving him to Courtrai.

Family stories that have been handed down probably relate to the Courtrai interrogations:

The Germans took Andy to a deserted farm house where he was held alone and interrogated for some time. During interrogation he was made to stand barefoot. A German soldier held a rifle by the barrel, the rifle stock hovering a distance above Andy’s toes. Andy would be asked a question. If his response was unsatisfactory, the rifle stock would be dropped and smash his toes. The interrogation left Andy with crushed, mangled toes and no toenails for the rest of his life.

Andy believed that his captors had no intention of taking him to a P.O.W. camp; rather they were planning to kill him once the interrogation was finished. This would be a simple matter for the Germans, as Andy was not yet officially registered as a Prisoner of War and no-one knew where he was.

Andy looked for some way to improve his situation. He knew that a railway line ran by the farm house and that trains passed regularly. He asked his guards to let him exercise in the farmyard once a day. He hoped that if he could get himself noticed by passengers on a passing train, someone might question why a solitary Australian soldier was walking around a Belgian farm behind the lines and not in a P.O.W. camp.

He was permitted to exercise outside and as luck would have it a Red Cross worker travelling by train did notice him and made enquiries. Soon after Andy was sent to a P.O.W. camp.

Writing of Australian soldiers captured on the Somme, a German officer observed

a few prisoners who had already fought on Gallipoli were of good military bearing, although the majority, who had arrived as reinforcements, left a rather lamentable impression.

from Pozieres: The Anzac Story by Scott Bennett

It seems that Andy maintained his military bearing and presence of mind during the interrogations.

 

Sources

AWM4 23/27/29 – March 1918. Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-18 War. Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Bennett, S. 2011. Pozieres: The Anzac Story. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

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 2622 Private Walter Bagnold Crispe 10th Battalion. Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing, Enquiry Bureau files, 1914-18 War 1DRL/0428.

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.

WO/161/96/136, 1128-1134. Statement by Lieutenant F.J. Ortweiler. The National Archives of the UK, Kew, Surrey, England.

Featured image: Hollebeke, 1918

 

Return to Flanders

Andy disembarked in Le Havre on 13 October 1917. He would have had a slow, stop-start trip to rejoin his battalion in Flanders. Constant rain and artillery bombardment had created a quagmire that made transport almost impossible. The few roads that were passable were targets for the enemy’s shrapnel and high explosive shells.

Blocks in the traffic were inevitable and constant. At times as far as the eye could see the main arteries of communication would be blocked … Whole teams of wagons were killed, to be dragged out of the way and the vehicle pushed into the mud, to allow the living to pass.

History of the 10th Battalion A.I.F.

Idiot Corner, Ypres, 5 November 1917. Men and pack mules rounding Idiot Corner, on Westhoek Ridge, in Belgium, moving up to the front line. To follow the duckboard and corduroy track was to be seen silhouetted against the skyline, both from the Australian position and that of the enemy - before he was driven from Broodseinde Ridge. But passage over any part other than the top of the ridge was impossible owing to mud. At this point many transports and guns were wrecked by the constant shellfire, and others were lost in the morass. One vehicle actually sank out of sight in the ooze a little to the right of the picture. Australian War Memorial collection E01480
Idiot Corner, Ypres, 5 November 1917.
Australian War Memorial collection E01480

Andy reached his unit in the mud and the mire near Passchendaele on 16 October. Many of the faces he had last seen at Pozières were missing; dead or disappeared, perhaps prisoners of war. He arrived at the tail-end of the 3rd Battle of Ypres [Ieper], just missing the actions at Polygon Wood and the disastrous diversionary raid at Celtic Wood.

The entrance to the General Staff Office at the Headquarters of the 3rd Australian Division in the Ramparts, at Ypres, during the Broodseinde and Passchendaele operations. Australian War Memorial Collection E01184
The entrance to the General Staff Office at the Headquarters of the 3rd Australian Division in the Ramparts, at Ypres, during the Broodseinde and Passchendaele operations.
Australian War Memorial collection E01184

The activities of the 10th Battalion for the next few months reflected the nature of the war on the Western Front: small movements of just a few miles back and forth through rain, mud and icy weather; periods of action interspersed with relative quiet.

On 10 November Andy left Ypres with the battalion for the Boulogne area. After a month of training, rest and recovery, the battalion marched East and into the line at Messines [Mesen]. The weather was very cold. Flooded mine craters froze over.

In this area (though not always the same sector) the battalion remained until the beginning of April – sometimes out, but more often in the forward zone – and, though the sector was a quiet one, the fatigues which were long and tiring gave little rest for either officers or men.

History of the 10th Battalion A.I.F.

Andy was in the line until Christmas, when the battalion was relieved and came out to Wulverghem Camp, a few miles away. The men could not celebrate Christmas as they were still in a forward area, but spending Christmas day warm and dry would have been a welcome present.

The battalion remained in the Messines area for all of January, moving a short way north into the trenches at Wytschaete [Wijtschate] on 23 January. Andy spent a very quiet week here before the battalion moved to Aldershot Camp, where they finally celebrated Christmas on 16 February. Despite the relative quiet of the sector, there was the odd ‘stand to’ alarm raised, and the men would have to be ready for battle with 20 minutes’ notice.

A dugout in the ruins of Wytschaete in January 1918.
A dugout in the ruins of Wytschaete in January 1918.
Australian War Memorial collection E01593

On 23 February 1918 Non-commissioned officers of the 10th Battalion posed for a group photograph at Neuve Eglise [Nieuwkerke].

Group portrait of NCOs of the 10th Battalion, 23 February 1918. Australian War Memorial collection E01781
Group portrait of NCOs of the 10th Battalion, 23 February 1918.
Australian War Memorial collection E01781
Enlargement. CSM A.S. Duncan, centre.  Seated in front of Andy on the left of frame is  Corporal Reginald Roy Inwood, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Polygon Wood in September 1917. Andy and Reg were both 'original' 1914 Anzacs from Broken  Hill.
Enlargement. CSM A.S. Duncan, centre.
Seated in front of Andy on the left of frame is Corporal Reginald Roy Inwood, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Polygon Wood in September 1917. Andy and Roy were both original 1914 Anzacs from Broken Hill.

Less than a week after this photo was taken Andy would be back in the trenches, where he would experience something for which he had never trained or prepared. His war was about to take a very different turn.

Sources

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

First World War Embarkation Rolls. Australian War Memorial collection.

Limb, A, 1919. History of the 10th Battalion A.I.F.. 1st ed. London; Melbourne: Cassell and Co.

Lock, C.B.L., 1936. The Fighting 10th: a South Australian centenary souvenir of the 10th Battalion, A.I.F., 1914-1919. Webb & Son, Adelaide. Reprinted in 2000 by The Naval & Military Press in association with The Imperial War Museum

Featured image: A view, in silhouette, of Australian artillery limbers loaded with ammunition proceeding along the Ypres Road. Australian War Memorial collection E00829

Interlude

Pop, you died long before I was born. Although I never knew you, I will remember you.

You were wounded in the Gallipoli landing. The hot shrapnel that sliced into your back nearly killed you, but you survived. Other soldiers were repatriated to Australia for lesser wounds, but you were sent back to Gallipoli. Was it then that you learned your brother Hugh had been killed at Cape Helles? With lost and delayed mail you may not have known for some time.

You fought at Gallipoli until the evacuation. Then you were sent to France. The industrialised warfare and the scale of destruction were like nothing you had ever seen.

You took part in the capture of Pozières on 23 July 1916. The next evening the Germans started a massive artillery bombardment and you were injured for a second time. You don’t remember what happened. Perhaps you were buried by that exploding shell. Your leg wound was nothing compared to the shell shock that gripped you.

You were shipped to England to recover, but you couldn’t shake feelings of dread, the churning stomach, the lack of appetite, the bad dreams. You hoped to be sent home to Australia, to the wife you had married just four months before the war. After all, most shell shock cases were given a military discharge, weren’t they?

But you weren’t sent home. You were moved from one hospital to another, then to convalescent accommodation. Your hopes of a trip back to Australia lessened with each new day you spent in England.

On 23 March 1917 you returned to active duty. You surely knew that it was exactly eight months since your battalion had stormed Pozières.

You were posted to the A.I.F. training units on Salisbury Plains. It must have been a relief not to be sent back to the Somme. You had the job of training reinforcements just arrived from Australia, of preparing them for the horrors of the Western Front. Were you one of those tough-as-nails Regimental Sergeant Majors? Did you push your men harder because you knew what they were about to face?

Then, on 19 September 1917, you received orders to rejoin your original unit in France. For over a year you had been in England, hearing accounts of the battles of the Western Front, seeing injured men come through the training camps to be rehabilitated and sent back to the front. Now it was your turn. Did you fight a feeling of returning dread as you read your orders, or were you fatalistic about what was to come?