Return to England

Andy Duncan finally left Springhirsch POW camp on 15 December 1918. It had been five long weeks since the Armistice was signed.

The men paraded at 8:30am ready to march to the train station, but there was no move out due some difficulty with the train. They were told to parade again in the afternoon, that there might be a train at 5pm.

Marching orders came at 4pm and the men set out eagerly. A large crowd of local women and children had gathered at the camp gates, hoping for a farewell hand-out of biscuits and food parcels. The men obliged as best they could.

Arriving at the station they met further delay: there was no train. How did Andy feel, confronted with another day of false starts? How did he manage the anxious and desperate men in his charge?

The train finally arrived. At 7pm the ex-POWs were loaded onto trucks for an uncomfortable overnight trip to the port of Warnemünde on the Baltic Sea.

From Warnemünde they sailed for Aarhus in Denmark. It was a good voyage on calm seas, with plenty of food to eat.

On 17 December the men arrived in Aarhus to cheering and songs of welcome from the locals. As the ships for transport to England had not yet arrived, the men entrained and travelled to Viborg and the Hald lazaret (hospital camp). Ironically, after being freed from Springhirsch they were confined initially to the hospital, quarantined due to the 1918 influenza epidemic.

On arrival we were shown to our billets; nice rooms with beds and nice white sheets which looked too good for us in our state. After we went to dinner and had some kind of porridge and stew after it, with beer, very sweet. In the afternoon we had a nice bath, then tea and got to bed very soon after as we got very little sleep since leaving our prison camp

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 17 December 1918

Viborg Lazarette at Hald, Denmark
Hald lazaret near Viborg, Denmark

Andy stayed at Hald for 6 days. At about 7am on 23 December he left Hald and entrained again for the trip back to Aarhus. A large number of locals turned out at Viborg station to farewell the men, giving them cigarettes.

At Aarhus Andy boarded the S.S. Primula. Mid-morning the ship set sail for England, cautiously navigating its way through the Baltic Sea minefields. This time the sea was rough, and a number of men spent the voyage with their heads in buckets.

As the Primula passed the coast of Norway the men were given a medical inspection and clothes. Late on Christmas night the ship arrived at the Firth of Forth and the following morning Andy disembarked at Leith.

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.

‘Henry Thomas Fowler (1882-1947) – a Life’. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thedanishscheme.co.uk  [Accessed 06 April 2014].

Jones, M.A. 2009. The Danish Scheme: The repatriation of British Prisoners of War through Denmark at the end of the First World War. MA dissertation, University of Birmingham.

‘Marauders of the Sea, German Armed Merchant Raiders During World War I’. Ahoy – Mac’s Web Log [Accessed 09 June 2013].

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

‘POW’s and repatriation’. Great War Forum.  [Accessed 09 June 2013].

Featured image: Returned prisoners of war on the boat at Hull, just prior to disembarkation c1919. Australian War Memorial collection D00178

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Armistice – but not freedom

In early November 1918 German revolutionary soldiers beneath a red flag visited Springhirsch POW camp. They threw the gates open and invited the prisoners to leave.

The Regimental Sergeant Majors in the camp visited the bunkhouses and reminded the men that the war was not yet finished and it was not safe outside the wire. In the event of the German guards leaving the camp, the men were to remain in the compound.

Jerry L. Cpl. told us the armistice was accepted and it’s great excitement here

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 7 November 1918

On 8 November confirmation came that the armistice had been signed. The Regimental Sergeant Majors’ prediction came to pass: the sentries disappeared and one of the German officers shot himself.

All prisoners in the punishment cells were released. There was no restriction on the men’s movements, and no lights-out. Soon the only parades were head-counts.

Exercise drills ceased but football games were played daily. Camp concerts, cancelled previously by the Commandant in a fit of pique, began again. The band played The King publicly for the first time. The men sang, no doubt boisterously and to the discomfort of the remaining German soldiers.

On 11 November the men had the terms of the armistice read to them. Rumours were soon circulating that the men would be marching out, two companies at a time, for Holland and a ship back to Blighty.

The concert held on 17 November was the last, as the men expected to move out within the week. There were rumours of ships waiting in Hamburg harbour to transport the POWs home.

Jerry meals very much better now than when we much needed it

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 10 November 1918

In anticipation of leaving the camp, food rations were dispersed more liberally. The commissary stores were being run down; men were less frugal with the contents of their Red Cross parcels.

Then word came that there would be no move out until the end of November. This caused unrest in the camp. Some NCOs absconded. Rumour had it that these men were arrested in Hamburg, attempting to stow away on ships bringing food into Germany.

[The POWs] in their wild desire to return to England had become quite unmanageable

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

On 30 November British officers visited the camp and addressed the men at the request of the camp commandant. The men were told to be patient, that every effort was being made to return them to England as soon as possible.

Did Andy Duncan step outside the camp while waiting for orders to move out? Other POWs did, enjoying a kind of freedom by exploring the nearby towns and villages of Kaltenkirchen, Lentföhrden and Barmstedt.

A lot of the men go to Hamburg; they get the money by selling soap, cocoa, tea, etc.

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 6 December 1918

On 8 December Andy would have learned of a planned move out in the next ten days. After all the rumours and false starts would this really be his last week in Springhirsch camp?

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.

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

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.

Milner, L. 1993. Leeds Pals. South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Military.

Featured image: END OF THE WAR. GERMANY SIGNS ARMISTICE. (1918, 12 November) Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), p. 2. Newspaper article found in Trove and reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

“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.