Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Captured Germans (British POW Camps in the First World War)
Reviewed by James Patton

Captured Germans 
(British POW Camps in the First World War)

by Norman Nicol
Pen and Sword Military Books, 2017

German Prisoners Before Transport to England

I selected Captured Germans to review because I knew absolutely nothing about the subject. Having grown up in the shadow of WWII, my childhood reading included the POW classics such as The Trojan Horse, The Great Escape, The Colditz Story, Maybe I'm Dead and The One That Got Away, to name some. I learned that the POW experience in WWI Britain was different. The camps were not nearly as big, many were country houses, schools, or old factories, and the populations numbered in the dozens rather than thousands.

The Preface is worth a read. Nicol relates how he got started on this project by trying to research a photograph of three German officers in the doorway of a building that turned out to be mislabeled.

Eventually he goes on to wax philosophical: "It is a dark side of history, and for reasons that have never been fully resolved, many of the locations used to intern civilians and combatants during the First World War have been lost in time." There is no one document that records every location that was used. The intention of Nicol's project was to record where these camps were.

It was never the intention to make comparisons how each country apportioned its benevolence … nor was there any intention … to judge how Britain treated those in internment, but one can never compile a document such as this without emotive issues being touched on. Without this, I was informed by an academic, my work would have no intrinsic value, as it would not contribute to the great historical debate. If my endeavours have not added anything to the 'academic argument', it will not cause me to have sleepless nights.

The 20-page introduction is a gem. Nicol begins with a fascinating recap of the history of POWs, a subject that I knew nothing about. He then explains how the detention scheme was organized in the UK and how it evolved from totally unprepared to highly complex. By 1918 there were 521 "camps" throughout the country, and this doesn't begin to tell the story, as there were hundreds of parties of POWs detached for farm or construction labor who were billeted in groups of a dozen or so in small communities. Last, Nicol gets into the statistics, of special interest to an analytically oriented person like me.

The rest of the book is a compilation, admittedly not complete, of the locations where Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Turkish, and Irish nationalists were interned in the UK. This list runs for 358 pages, and while a lot of it is just location data, there are some stories about the history of a site as well. One in particular that stuck with me involved three German officers who escaped and somehow managed to arrange to be picked up by a U-boat, only to have the navy botch the job.

Finally, Captured Germans is a reference book, useful to those who want to locate these sites, perhaps even visit them, but not suitable for a long weekend's read.

James Patton

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