“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.

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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

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