Prisoner of War.
I was a prisoner in the First World was and was captured on the Somme on the morning of October 16/1916. we had made an attack in an attempt to recapture the Regina Trench which had changed hands many times. Leaving our jumping off trench just before dawn, we advanced into No-man's-land until we came to a tape which had been previously laid by our engineers. Our instructions were to lie on the ground at the tape; our artillery would then open up a barrage on the German trench; as soon as the barrage lifted we were to attack.
We advanced as instructed but apparently our artillery made such a mess of the trench in front of us that we passed right over it and finally came to a sunken road. The Germans offered very little resistance but many of our men were killed by bursting shells. The few Germans encountered were sent back as prisoners. As daybreak was approaching we decided to look for some sort of cover and located a [junk?] hole into which five of us sought shelter. We had lost sight of our comrades and had no idea where we were. Fritz soon enlightened us by sending a bombing party from each end of the road. To stay in our present position would have meant capture or death, as one bomb would have wiped out the five of us, so we decided to make a dash for some shell hole. It was the last dash for two of the boys, I never saw them again.
I succeeded in reaching a large shell hole and found six of our boys already in it. The situation was bad enough but to make matters worse it began to rain. The mud got into the bolts of our rifles causing them to jam, in fact we had to hammer the bolts back with the handle of our entrenchment tools. By this time we were completely surrounded. I fired at a bomber in the act of throwing a bomb. As I fired one of our chaps, standing at my side, was struck in the temple and dropped to the bottom of the shell hole. It was suicide to put your head above the top of the shell hole, so we decided to lay low until dark and then to try to find our way back to our own lines. I was taking the identification disk from the chap who was killed when the Germans discovered us.
The officer in charge spoke very good English. He ordered us to drop our arms and equipment and come out of the shell hole. Our captors marched us back of the lines to what had once been a village. We passed many dead Germans on the way. Many of our captors spoke English and gave us cigarettes and biscuits. Twenty six of us were captured. We marched all that day; just before dusk we stopped at a French village. Here we received a slice of black bread and a bowl of soup, then billeted in a barn for the night. Some of the French civilians gave us bread and eggs. The next morning we marched off again in chare of an escort of Ulans. These were typical Huns. We marched four abreast and that evening passed through a little village. Many of the French houses were surrounded by stone walls. As we passed one of these walls a woman rushed out from a doorway and handed me a round loaf of bread. Her sudden appearance caused the horse of one of the Ulans, who was riding behind me, to shy. Without hesitation he drew his lance and made a vicious stab at the woman but fortunately she escaped through the doorway.
We marched for several days and finally arrived at Cambria. Here we were billeted in what had been a French barracks. We were all taken, one at a time, before a German officer who tried in vain to gain some information about our tanks. The barracks were in a filthy condition; we slept on straw matresses on the floor. The soup they gave us was not bad and we were gradually getting used to the German bread.
Our work was roadmaking. The German guard was a very decent chap; he had traveled extensively and spoke very good English. He allowed us to pick up any food the French civilians would leave for us and saw that it was evenly divided. We were covered wit lice so every spare moment was spent trying to kill as many as possible. We spent about three weeks at Cambria. One morning we were shipped aboard a train for Germany. We had reservations in a box car and stopped only once for a bowl of soup. This was the best soup I ate in captivity. Finally we arrived at a large concentration camp, here our clothing was fumigated, our hair clipped and we received a good bath. Our first meal consisted of a slice of black bread and a bowl of some kind of gruel, which we called sand stone.
The following morning we were paraded before the commandant of the camp. He informed us through an interpreter that we were now under the martial law of Germany and that it was very strict but if we obeyed we had nothing to fear. We were then taken for medical examination and inoculation. We received four inoculations. Near the camp was a large bog, we were put to work irrigating it and preparing the soil to grow vegetables. The work was not very hard but the food we received was very poor. Already we were feeling the pangs of hunger. Some of the older prisoners stationed at the camp were receiving parcels from home. It was torture to see them eat. Our diet consisted chiefly of carrot soup, made of carrots, salt and lots of water. This was neither satisfying or nourishing. Occasionally we were able to steal a turnip which we smuggled into the camp and toasted over the fire, eating them raw gave us cramps.
One day we received a case of canned goods, which was sent by the Red Cross for the newly captured prisoners. Everyone was overjoyed; at last we would have a change from carrots, for one meal at any rate. A committee was appointed to distribute the canned goods, which, when opened, contained corn beef, salmon and several cans of food from neutral countries. We did not know the contents of these cans. There was just one can for each man. The committee decided the fairest way to distribute would be to number each can, put corresponding numbers in a hat and draw for them. I drew a can of food from Holland. My mouth watered as I anticipated the feed of meat or fish. Imagine my disappointment when I opened the can and discovered I had drawn a can of carrots. It happened to be the only can of carrots in the lot. I can laugh when I think of it to-day but believe me I felt far from laughing then.
We stayed at this camp for about three weeks and then one morning we were taken to the Railroad Depot and boarded a train for some unknown destination. In the late afternoon we arrived at the town of Bokum. We knew then that we were destined to work in the coal mines. Some of the boys were sent on the night shift immediately; the rest were to go out on the following morning. We were given our issue of bread for the following day and were not long in disposing of it. A little later word was received that we were to go to another mining town and a guard came around with a basket to take back the bread ration. This was one time we received an extra bread ration.
The following morning we boarded the train again and arrived at the town of Barop in Westphlia, about twelve miles from Essen. I cannot say anything about the town as I never saw anything of it. There were three mines here, each with coke ovens, and by-product plant. The prison camp was built near a large building, which before the war was used as a hotel for miners. A bout two thousand prisoners, including British, French, Belgium, and Russian, were at this camp. The quarters were large wooden shacks filled with tiers of bunks; four bunks in a block with enough space to walk around. In the centre was a large heater. There was no recreation room, the only place we had to sit down was in our bunks. A small shack out side the building, containing a stove, was used by anyone who had anything to cook. we were only allowed in the dining room long enough to drink our soup. We each received a suit of overalls made of paper, a pair of shoes with wooden soles and paper uppers, and a paper cap. The work was hard loading coal, stone or pushing boxes. Any coal miner knows that this kind of work needs plenty of nourishing food. Our ration consisted of about one pound of black bread, coffee substitute without milk or sugar and soup made of turnips, salt and water. This was the regular menu for the two years I was in the camp with the exception of the first Xmas Day; as a special treat we received three boiled potatoes without turkey and trimmings. It is surprising on how little a human being can exist. The bread issue was given out in the evening for the following day and was devoured as soon as received. The day shift having eaten their bread the previous night went out to do an eight hour shift the following morning fortified with a drink of coffee substitute. This was all we had unless a German miner took pity on us and gave us part of his meagre lunch which consisted of a couple slices of black bread and some kind of fat and coffee. The old German I worked with, although getting very little himself, always gave me one slice of his bread. Lunch time was the only bright spot in the day. I worked at the Kaiser Frederick mine. The work under-ground was carried on by Germans too old or too young for military service and prisoners. Most of the work at the bank head was done by girls and women. It was hard work pushing those large coal boxes. One woman engaged at this work had an infant baby that was brought to the bank head by one of the older children to be nursed.
The Germans with whom we worked were responsible for our safety and although they worked us hard, they would not let us go into any dangerous place. We soon learned a little German, in fact we learned just what we wanted to know. It paid to be dumb sometimes. The miners were very ignorant about Canada. They had an idea that Canadians were all Indians. They were confident of winning the war and had great faith in their submarines starving England into submission. They were short of food, potatoes and turnips were practically all they lived on. It was surprising the number of by-products they made from these vegetables. There was practically no fats of any kind. Life in a prison camp was much the same every day. Awakened by the guard at six, given our drink of morning coffee, marched to the mine where we changed our working clothes and then marched back to the camp, tired and starving. Arriving at the camp we received our bread issue and bowl of turnip soup. We had no thing then to do but think of food until the following morning. Food, we could not seem to take our minds off it and that seemed to make us more hungry. We had no tobacco or cigs, only chewing tobacco purchased at the canteen; this by the way was the only thing we were allowed to buy. Many of the prisoners captured before us were receiving parcels fro the Red Cross. It was bad enough to be hungry but it added to the misery to see someone else eating. All parcels from the Red Cross were first sent to a concentration camp. There they were sorted and shipped to the various camps.
Each week a list was posted at our camp showing the names of those whose parcels would be sent in the next shipment. Each week for five months I anxiously scanned this list only to walk away broken hearted. The chap sleeping in the next bunk to me was in the same predicament as myself and we had agreed to pool our parcels when they arrived and share everything. We also decided to celebrate the arrival of the first parcel by having one glorius feast regardless of the consequences. One day one of the old prisoners who had first received some parcels took pity on me. He had received some bacon in his parcel; if I would try it, I could share it with him. What a feed: bacon and white bread dipped in the fat and tea with milk and sugar. The fat bacon was too rich for my stomack and for many years after the small of bacon frying would turn me sick.
After months of waiting, I was overjoyed to see my name on the parcel list; my partners name was also there. We were each listed for a parcel. Horses were very scarce so our guard called for volunteers to haul the truck from the Depot. My partner and I, who happened to be on night shift, were among the volunteers. We hauled the load to camp and anxiously waited for the censor to distribute them. Words cannot describe exactly how we felt when we saw the contents. The parcels were exactly alike and contained a game of dominoes, checkers, and bingo. Our Colonel's wife had sent them to pass the weary hours away. Although this was a terrible disappointment, we knew that our whereabouts were known. Soon after our Red Cross parcels began to arrive and I want to state right here, we would not be living today if we had not received Red Cross parcels. I kept a record of all parcels and still have it among my souvenirs. These parcels contained food, clothing and tobacco. Of course it was impossible to send us all the food necessary to keep us physically fit, but we were able to have one good meal each day.
In all fairness to the German civilians, I would like to state that although they were hungry themselves they never interfered with Red Cross parcels. Very few of the Russians received parcels and they contracted a disease that caused their bodies to swell. You could press your finger into the flesh and the imprint would remain just as if you stuck your finger int a piece of putty. Some of our men captured earlier in the war were affected the same way.
We were allowed to write one letter and two post cards a month. A little excitement was caused one night when one of the boys attempted to commit suicide by cutting his throat. He was taken from the camp and we never heard what happened to him. There was no doctor in the camp, if a prisoner was too sick to work he was taken to a small building contained about twelve beds and was treated by a French Red Cross man. A military doctor would visit the camp on rare occasions and visit the sick. After his examination the usual precription was work. I injured my hand and was taken to a hospital run by some Christian Brothers and had the hand put in a splint. Only on one oter occasion did I see outside the camp. That was to attend the funeral of one of our boys, killed in the mine. He was buried in the local graveyard and all the prisoners not working attended the funeral. This was the only time I saw a clergyman during the two years in Germany. Committees were appointed from the different mines to look after the prisoners interests. I was on the Kizar Fredrick committee. We obtained permission to stage two concerts and a boxing contest. We also had two picture shows one was "The Hound of the Baskervilles". These shows were held in the dining hall and were greatly enjoyed by prisoners and guards alike.
For our work we received a mark a day; this was prison money and just about as valuable as stage money in as much as it was only good in the camp. There was nothing we could purchase with the exception of a soft drink and a mixture made from potatoes called morning drink. We mixed this with water, made little cakes and baked them on the top of the stove. We made some pecular dishes. Sometimes we received oatmeal and soup powder in our parcels. The little sugar we received was too precious to put on porridge so we flavoured it with soup powder or an oxo cube. We had one Jew with us who had never eaten bacon but hunger is no respecter of ordinances; having nothing else to eat he tried it and became very fond of it, so fond in fact that he would trade canned goods for a piece of bacon. There was keen competition between him and an Australian prisoner also with a fondness for bacon. The Red Cross kept us well supplied with clothes, uniforms, underwear and shoes. On Sunday we were all dressed up with no place to go. It was a monotonous existance, I have often been told how lucky I was to have been captured. I spent eleven months at Ypres and the Somme and as bad as that was I would take it anytime in preference to slow starvation.
A few tried to escape but were always captured as we were so far from the border. Around 1918 food was very scarce. The civilians too were suffering from hunger. In spite of the newspapers they began to suspect that their submarines were not doing so good; for example the papers would come out with the headlines "England Finished." Only enough food for four days. "Perhaps that same day a shipment of parcels would come in for the prisoners. Some of the boys would tell the Germans what they had received in their parcels. I saw about five hundred miners lined up at the mine to receive two salt herring each. They looked like a lot of walking ghosts. They seemed to be broken both in mind and in spirit and did not talk to us about the war now. Most of the horses were taken from the mine and were replaced with gasoline motors to haul the coal. The first day they were used we had an early shift. The driver and the coupler were overcome with the fumes, when discovered they were nearly all in.
We were beginning to think that the war would never end when at last came that never to be forgotten day Nov. 11/1918. Our Jew, with a fondness for bacon, first broke the news. He could read and speak German. He had obtained a newspaper giving all the terms of the Armistice. I only remember one, the one that stated that all prisoners must be released immediately. No one slept in the camp that night, we talked of home and above all, of what we were going to eat. We also decided that we had done our last days work for the Germans. The following morning the guard came as uaual to take us to work, when we refused he made no effort to force us. At another time, he would have driven us out with the butt of his rifle. After awhile he returned with an officer and an interpreter. He told us that if we would go to work until transportation could be arranged for us we would receive the same soup and pay as the German civilians were getting. One of the boys acted as spokesman for all of us. It would not be polite here to tell what he told the officer to do with his soup. He left to report to the Commandant and in a few minutes was back again and threatened that if we did not go to work immediately; he would call the marines and drive us out with machine guns. He received the same reply in regard to the marines as he received for the soup. They left us alone after this.
We spent all week awaiting transportation and were finally placed on a train bound for Holland. We arrived at Enshede and were billeted at a large cotton factory which had just been completed at the outbreak of war, but was never operated. We slept on matresses on the floor and were fed more soup, but it was good soup. We were given our freedom, I guess there was no danger of us sneaking back into Germany. Our next move was to Rotherdam, there we were outfitted with Khaki uniforms and embarked on a boat for England. The English people gave us a worthy reception and made our stay in that country as pleasant as possible. We spent two months in England and then set sail for Halifax and Home.
After spending two months in England, I and a number of others were discharged A-1 although I suffered for a good many years with stomack trouble in fact for many months I was too embarrased to go into any public place. The stomack condition affected my nerves, I could not keep my hands and head from shaking and the muscles of my face from twitching. I mention this because statistics show the mortality rate of prisoners of the last war after returning home was very high. Many were unable to obtain merited pensions because of official red tape. They could not obtain medical records of any disabilities suffered in Germany.
Soon I hope our boys will be coming back from the miseries of prison camps again. Let us not forget them and their problems when this war is over and let us support the Red Cross to the limit for what it has done for all prisoners of war.
Pte Thomas R. Richards
Reg 478554 D. Company.
Royal Canadian Regt.