by D. Thomas Curtin, The Land of Deepening Shadows, 1917
One day the world will be flooded with some of the most dramatic, horrible, and romantic of narratives—the life-stories of the British soldiers captured in the early days of the war, their gross ill-treatment, their escapes, and attempts at escape. I claim to be the only unofficial neutral with any large amount of eye-witness, hand-to-hand knowledge of those poor men in Germany.
One of the most difficult tasks I assumed during the war was the personal and unconducted investigation of British prisoners of war. The visitor is only allowed to talk with prisoners when visiting camps under the supervision of a guide. My tramps on foot all over Germany gave me valuable information on this as on other matters.
My task was facilitated by the German policy of showing the hated British captives to as many people as possible; thus the 30,000 men have been scattered into at least 600 prison camps. In the depleted state of the German Army it is not easy to find efficient guards for so many establishments. Prisoners are constantly being moved about. They are conveyed ostentatiously and shown at railway stations en route, where until recently they were allowed to be spat upon by the public, and were given coffee into which the public were allowed to spit. These are but a few of the slights and abominations heaped upon them. Much of it is quite unprintable.
Many a night did I lie awake in Berlin cogitating how to get into touch with some of these men. I learned something on a previous visit in 1914, when I saw the British prisoners at one of the camps. At that time it was impossible to get into conversation with them. They were efficiently and continually guarded by comparatively active soldiers.
On this occasion I came across my first British prisoner quite by accident, and, as so often happens in life, difficult problems settle themselves automatically. In nothing that I write shall I give any indication of the whereabouts of the sixty prisoners with whom I conversed privately, but there can be no harm in my mentioning the whereabouts of my public visit, which took place in one of the regular neutral "Cook's Tours" of the prisoners in Germany.
The strain of my work in so suspicious a place as Berlin, the constant care required to guard one's expressions, and the anxiety as to whether one was being watched or not get on the nerves sometimes, and one Sunday I determined to take a day off and go into the country with another neutral friend. There, by accident, I came across my first private specimen of Tommy in Germany.
We were looking about for a decent Gasthaus in which to get something to eat when we saw a notice high up in large type on a wall outside an old farmhouse building, which read—
Jeder Verkehr der Zivilbevölkerung mit den Kriegsgefangenen ist STRENG VERBOTEN.
"Any intercourse of the civil population with the prisoners of war is strictly forbidden."
These notices, which threaten the civilian population with heavy penalties if they exchange any words with the prisoners, are familiar all over Germany, but I did not expect to find them in that small village.
My neutral friend thought it would make a nice photograph if I would stand under the notice, which I did after a cautious survey showed that the coast was clear.
As I did so a Russian came out of the barn and said, in rather bad German, "Going to have your photograph taken!" I replied, in German, "Yes."
He heard me speaking English to my friend, and then, looking up and down the street each way to see if we were being watched, he addressed me in English with a strong Cockney accent.
"You speak English, then?" I said.
"I am English," he replied. "I'm an English prisoner."
"Then what are you doing in a Russian uniform?"
"It is the only thing I could get when my own clothes wore out." Keeping a careful eye up and down the street, he told us his story. He was one of the old Expeditionary Force; was taken at Mons with five bullet wounds in him, and, after a series of unpublishable humiliations, had been drafted from camp to camp until he had arrived at this little village, where, in view of the German policy of letting all the population see an Englishman, he was the representative of his race in that community. "The local M.P." he called himself, in his humorous way.
Robinson Crusoe on his island was not more ignorant of the truth about the great world than that man, for, while he had learnt a few daily expressions in German, he was unable to read it. The only information he could gather was from the French, Belgian, and Russian prisoners with him, and some he got by bribing one of the Landsturm Guards with a little margarine or sugar out of his parcel from England. He was full of the battle of Mons and how badly he and his comrades in Germany felt at the way they had been left unsupported there.
None the less, though alone, with no Englishman for miles, living almost entirely on his parcels, absolutely cut off from the real facts of the war, hearing little but lies, he was as calmly confident of the ultimate victory of the Allies as I am. I asked him if he heard from home.
"Yes," he said, "now and then, but the folks tell me nothing and I can tell them nothing. If you get back to England you tell the people there not to believe a word that comes from English prisoners. Those who write favourably do so because they have to. Every truthful letter is burned by the military censor. Tell the people to arrange the parcels better and see that every man gets a parcel at least once a week—not send five parcels to one man and no parcels to some poor bloke like me who is alone. How is the war going on, guv'nor?" he asked. I gave him my views. "I think it's going badly for the Germans—not by what they tell me here or what I gets in that awful Continental Times paper, but from what I notice in the people round about, and the officers who visit us. The people are not so abusive to the English as they used to be. The superior officers do not treat us like dogs, as they did, and as for the Landsturmers—well, look at old Heinrich here."
At that moment a heavy, shabby old Landsturm soldier came round the corner, and the Cockney prisoner treated him almost as though he were a performing bear.
"You're all right, ain't you, Heiny, so long as I give you a bit of sugar now and then?" he said to his decrepit old guardian in his German gibberish.
This state of affairs was a revelation to me, but I was soon to find that if the British prisoners are weary of their captivity their old German guardians are much more weary of their task. These high-spirited British lads, whom two years of cruelty have not cowed, are an intense puzzle to the German authorities.
"You see," remarked a very decent German official connected with the military censorship department, "every one of these Britishers is different. Every one of them sticks up for what he calls his 'rights': many of them decline to work on Sunday, and short of taking them out on Sunday morning at the point of the bayonet we cannot get them to do it. We have to be careful, too, with these Englishmen now. As a man of the world, you will realise that though our general public here do not know that the English have captured many Germans lately, and the fact is never mentioned in the communiqués, we have had a hint from Headquarters that the British prisoners may one day balance ours, and that hardship for these verfluchte Engländer may result in hardship for our men in England."
That incident was long ago. It is important to relate that since the beginning of the battle of the Somme there is, if I was correctly informed, a marked improvement in the condition of English prisoners all over Germany—not as regards food supplied by the authorities, because the food squeeze naturally affects the prisoners as it does their guardians, but in other ways.
In addition to the British capturing numbers of German hostages on the Somme to hold against the treatment of their men in Germany, I think I may claim without undue pride that much good work has been done by the American Ambassador and his staff of attaches, who work as sedulously on behalf of the prisoners as though those prisoners had been American. The German authorities hate and respect publicity and force in matters not to their liking, and Mr. Gerard's fearlessness in reports of conditions and urgent pleas for improvement have been of great service. All the threats and bluster of Germany have failed to cow him. To continue my narrative of the Cockney soldier in Russian uniform. So many Englishmen are in Russian uniform, Belgian uniform, French uniform, or a mix-up uniform that there is no possibility of my Cockney Russian being recognised by the authorities, and the photograph which my neutral friend took of him and me was taken under the very eyes of his Landsturmer.
"Heiny," said the Russian Cockney, "is fed up with the war. Aren't you, old Heiny? During the last few weeks a fresh call for more men has cleared the district of everything on two legs. We have had to work fourteen hours a day, and I wonder what my mates at home would think of 3s. pay for ten days' work?"
I was able to comfort him by giving him some cigars, and a great deal of really true and good news about the war, all of which he repeated to Landsturmer Heinrich. I suggested that this might be unwise. "Not a bit of it," he said. "Lots of these old Germans are only too anxious to hear bad news, because they think that bad news will bring the thing to a stop."
How true that remark was I knew from my minute investigations. The incident was closed by the distant appearance of a Feldwebel (sergeant-major). My Cockney vanished, and Heinrich patrolled onward.
This particular incident is not typical of the life of a British prisoner in Germany, but it is indicative of the position many of the 30,000 prisoners have taken up by reason of their strong individuality and extraordinary cheerfulness and confidence. My impression of them is of alert, resourceful men (their escapes have been wonderful)—men who never know when they are beaten. If Britain has sufficient of these people she cannot possibly lose the war.
The world does not need reminders such as that of Wittenberg or of such singularly accurate narratives as several in Blackwood's magazine to know what has happened to British prisoners in Germany.
It is common knowledge throughout the German Empire that the most loathsome tasks of the war in connection with every camp or cage are given to the British. They have had to clean the latrines of negro prisoners, and were in some cases forced to work with implements which would make their task the more disgusting. One man told me that his lunch was served to him where he was working, and when he protested he was told to eat it there, or go without.
Conversations that I have had here in London about prisoners give me the impression that the British public does not exactly apprehend what a prisoner stands for in German eyes.
First, he is a hostage. If he be an officer his exact social value is estimated by the authorities in Berlin, who have a complete card index of all their officer prisoners, showing to what British families they belong and whether they have social or political connections in Britain. Thus when someone in England mistakenly, and before sufficient German prisoners were in their hands, treated certain submarine marauders differently from other prisoners, the German Government speedily referred to this card-index, picked out a number of officers with connections in the House of Lords and House of Commons, and treated them as convicts.
The other German view of the prisoner is his cash value as a labourer. I invite my readers to realise the enormous pecuniary worth of the two million prisoner slaves now reclaiming swamps, tilling the soil, building roads and railways, and working in factories for their German taskmasters.
The most numerous body of prisoners in Germany are the Russians. They are to be seen everywhere. In some cases they have greater freedom than any other prisoners, and often, in isolated cases, travel unguarded by rail or tramway to and from their work. If they are not provided with good Russian uniforms, in which, of course, they would not be able to escape, they are made conspicuous by a wide stripe down the trouser or on the back. They are easy, docile, physically strong, and accustomed to a lower grade of food than any other prisoners, except the Serbs.
The British, of course, are much the smallest number in Germany, but much the most highly prized for hate propaganda purposes.
"More difficult to manage," said one Unteroffizier to me, "than the whole of the rest of our two million." It is, indeed, a fact that the 30,000 British prisoners, though the worst treated, are the gayest, most outspoken, and rebellious against tyranny of the whole collection.
There is, however, a brighter side to prison life in Germany, I am happy to record. A number of really excellent camps have been arranged to which neutral visitors are taken. When I told the German Foreign Office that I would like to see the good side of prison life, I was given permission by the Kriegsministerium (War Office) to visit the great camp at Soltau with its 31,000 inmates with Halil Halid Bey (formerly Turkish Consul in Berlin) and Herr Müller (interested in Germany's Far Eastern developments).
Five hours away from Berlin, on the monotonous Lüneberger Heide (Lüneberg Heath), has sprung up this great town with the speed of a boom mining town in Colorado.
On arrival at the little old town of Soltau we were met by a military automobile and driven out on a road made by the prisoners to the largest collection of huts I have ever seen.
There is nothing wrong that I could detect in the camp, and I should say that the 200 British prisoners there are as well treated as any in Germany. The Commandant seems to be a good fellow. His task of ruling so great an assemblage of men is a large and difficult one, rendered the easier by the good spirit engendered by his tact and kindness.
I had confirmation of my own views of him later, when I came across a Belgian who had escaped from Germany, and who had been in this camp. He said—"The little captain at Soltau was a good fellow, and if I am with the force that releases the prisoners there after we get into Germany, I will do my best to see that he gets extra good treatment."
Our inspection occupied six hours. Halil Halid Bey, who talks English perfectly, and looks like an Irishman, was taken for an American by the prisoners. In fact, one Belgian, believing him to be an American official, rushed up to him and with arms outstretched pleaded: "Do you save poor Belgians, too, as well as British?"
The physical comfort of the prisoners is well looked after in the neat and perfectly clean dormitories. The men were packed rather closely, I thought, but not more than on board ship.
One became almost dazed in passing through these miles of huts, arranged in blocks like the streets of an American town.
We visited the hospital, which was as good as many civilian hospitals in other countries. There I heard the first complaint, from a little red-headed Irishman, his voice wheezing with asthma, whose grievance was not against the camp itself, but against a medical order which had reversed what he called his promise to be sent to Switzerland. He raised his voice without any fear, as our little group, accompanied by the Commandant and the interpreter, went round, and I was allowed to speak to him freely. I am not a medical man, but I should think his was a case for release. His lungs were obviously in a bad state.
We were also accompanied by an English sergeant, one Saxton—a magnificent type of the old Army, so many of whom are eating out their days in Germany. He spoke freely and frankly about the arrangements, and had no complaint to make except the food shortage and the quality of the food.
The British section reminded one now and then of England. Portraits of wives, children, and sweethearts were over the beds; there was no lack of footballs, and the British and Belgians play football practically every day after the daily work of reclaiming the land, erecting new huts, making new roads, and looking after the farms and market gardens has been accomplished.
An attempt has been made to raise certain kinds of live stock, such as pigs, poultry, and Belgian hares—a large kind of rabbit. There were a few pet dogs about—one had been trained by a Belgian to perform tricks equal to any of those displayed at variety theatres.
Apparently there is no lack of amusement. I visited the cinematograph theatre, and the operator asked, "What would you like to see—something funny?" He showed us a rather familiar old film. The reels are those that have been passed out of service of the German moving picture shows. In the large theatre, which would hold, I should think, seven hundred to a thousand people, there was a good acrobatic act and the performing dog, to which I have referred, with an orchestra of twenty-five instruments, almost all prisoners, but a couple of German Landsturmers helped out. The guarding of the prisoners is effected by plenty of barbed wire and a comparatively small number of oldish Landsturmers.
A special cruelty of the Germans towards prisoners is the provision of a lying newspaper in French for the Frenchmen, called the ‘Gazette des Ardennes’. The ‘Gazette des Ardennes’ publishes every imaginable kind of lie about the French and French Army, with garbled quotations from English newspapers, and particularly ‘The Times’, calculated to disturb the relations of the French and English prisoners in Germany. For the British there is a paper in English which is quite as bad, to which I have already referred, called the ‘Continental Times’, doled out three times a week. The ‘Continental Times’ is, I regret to say, largely written by renegade Englishmen in Berlin employed by the German Government, notably Aubrey Stanhope, who for well-known reasons was unable to enter England at the outbreak of war, and so remains and must remain in Germany, where, for a very humble pittance, he conducts this campaign against his own country.
For the Russians a special prevaricating sheet, called the ‘Russki Visnilc’, is issued. All these newspapers pretend to print the official French, British, and Russian communiqués.
For a long time the effect on the British prisoners was bad, but little by little events revealed to them that the ‘Continental Times’, which makes a speciality of attacks on the English Press, was anti-British.
The arrival of letters and parcels is, of course, the great event for the prisoners, and, so far as the large camps are concerned, I do not think that there are now any British prisoners unprovided with parcels. It is the isolated and scattered men, moved often from place to place for exhibition purposes, who miss parcels.
Soltau, although a model camp, is bleak and dreary and isolated. At the outset cases of typhus occurred there, and in a neat, secluded corner of the camp long lines of wooden crosses tell the tale of sadness. The first cross marked a Russian from faraway Vilna, the next a Tommy from London. East had met West in the bleak and silent graveyard on the heather. Close to them slept a soldier from some obscure village in Normandy, and beside him lay a Belgian, whose life had been the penalty of his country's determination to defend her neutrality. Here in the heart of Germany the Allies were united even in death.
As I made the long journey back to Berlin I reflected with some content on the good things I had seen at Soltau, and I felt convinced that the men in charge of the camp do everything within their power to make the life of the prisoners happy. But as the train pounded along in the darkness I seemed to see a face before me which I could not banish. It was the face of a Belgian, kneeling at the altar in the Catholic chapel, his eyes riveted on his Saviour on the Cross, his whole being tense in fervent supplication, his lips quivering in prayer. My companions had gone, but I was held spellbound, feeling "How long! How long!" was the anguish of his mind. He must have been a man who had a home and loved it, and his whole expression told unmistakably that he was imploring for strength to hold out till the end in that dreary, cheerless region of brown and grey.
His captors had given him a chapel, to be sure, but why was he in Germany at all?
Soltau and other camps are satisfactory—but there are others, many others, such as unvisited punishment camps. The average Britisher in confinement in Germany is under the care of an oldish guard, such as Heiny of the Landsturm, but the immediate authority is often a man of the notorious Unteroffizier type, whose cruelty to the German private is well known, and whose treatment of the most hated enemy can be imagined.
The petty forms of tyranny meted out to German soldiers such as making a man walk for hours up and down stairs in order to fill a bath with a wineglass; making him shine and soil, then again shine and soil hour after hour a pair of boots; making him chew and swallow his own socks, have been described in suppressed German books.
I believe that publicity, rigorous blockade and big shells are the only arguments that have any effect on the Prussians at present. It is publicity and the fear of opinion of certain neutrals that has produced such camps as Soltau. It is difficult for the comfortable sit-at-homes to visualise the condition of men who have been in the enemy atmosphere of hate for a long period. All the British soldiers whom I met in Germany were captured in the early part of the war, when their shell-less Army had to face machine-guns and high explosives often with the shield of their own breasts, and a rifle.
Herded like cattle, many of the wounded dying, they travelled eastwards to be subject to the insults and vilifications of the German population. That they should retain their cheery confidence in surroundings and among a people so ferociously hostile, so entirely un-British, so devoid of chivalry or sporting instinct, is a monument to the character of their race.
Source: Tony Langley's War in a Different Light