OUR FIRST WORLD WAR
In part 52 of his personal testimony series, Peter Hart reaches September 1918, when Allied soldiers are battling to overrun the Hindenberg Line, while some of their compatriots remain in captivity. Peter is tracing the experiences of 20 people who lived
Edmund was born in Formby, Merseyside to a fairly well-off family. After studying chemistry, he joined the 19th King’s Liverpool Regiment with his brother. His battalion moved to the western front in November 1915 where he served until 1918. Corporal Williams was taken prisoner during the 1918 German Spring Offensive. By September he was being held in the Merseburg prisoner of war camp in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Conditions were harsh. Merseburg was almost Shakespearean – the blasted heath, a bit of high gravelly ground that was no use to anybody. It had the watchtowers, the machine guns and a large wooden entrance. Long wooden huts stretching in lines across the heath. The huts were plain, nasty, black and big. They were furnished with homemade folding wooden beds. We had two very thin, measly and not too clean blankets.
Those who had been taken prisoner with their greatcoats were lucky – I had nothing but my tunic until we got our prison clothes sent through! There was a stove in one side for which there was no fuel and windows along the side. There were only a few of us there compared to the large number of French and Russians.
At the end of the hutment line was a big parade ground from which all the grass had gone, walled in on one side with the German guards’ quarters and at the bottom a long line of latrines – a long shed with a deep pit where the Germans could send their soil carts and take away manure for the land. There was a bar to sit on and a bar in the middle to hold your back – that was your communal toilet seat 50– 60 yards long! The diet was unprepossessing, though the monotonous bare minimum of food offered by the Germans was supplemented by Red Cross parcels. There was some chocolate, tinned meat, tinned jam, but they also very ill-advisedly sent us tinned cabbage! Thereby hangs a tale, for the labels from the tins of jam fitted exactly the tinned cabbage! So, some enterprising people substituted the labels, for the black market! For chocolate, if you knew your way about it, you could have had the Empress of Germany!
“Those who had been taken prisoner with their greatcoats were lucky – I had nothing but my tunic”