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

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Ed­mund Wil­liams IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS BY JAMES AL­BON

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”

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