…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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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