“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

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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 

 

“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

“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