Grandad was Great War prisoner
THE collapse of the German Empire in November 1918 brought about the end of four years of bitter fighting. For the millions of men in uniform it meant that chance to return to hearth and home and loved ones left behind. But for the tens of thousands of British soldiers held prisoner in Germany the relief was even greater.
Joseph Gibbons was a Great War prisoner of war and details of his story have been passed on to us by David Worley of Perton.
David writes, “Joseph Henry Gibbons was my wife Maureen’s grandfather. He was born in 1896 in Wednesbury and in the 1901 census is recorded as living off the Portway Road at 15 Brickiln Croft.
“At the age of 16, in the 1911 census, he lived in Darlaston, at 17 Great Croft Street, with his sister Eliza and brother-in-law William Toovey and their family.
“I believe he was one of many children and his father may have married twice. Joseph apparently lived with brothers and sisters until he joined the army, underage, we believe, before WWI began.
“He served in the South Staffs Regiment as Lance Corporal J.H. Gibbons 14083422 and he fought at the Battle of the Somme. He had “half his foot blown off” and was captured at some time but I’m not sure if it was that battle or later.
“He received the three WWI campaign medals, the 1914 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, affectionately called Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. The three medals were primarily awarded to the Old Contemptibles of the BEF.
When the war ended he returned to his family in Wednesbury. He married Mary Norton in 1919 and lived in the Portway Road area for a number of years. Eventually, they were rehoused to a four bedroomed house in Smith Avenue when the houses in the Dangerfield Lane area were built. When their large family grew up, Joseph and Mary moved to a smaller house along Dangerfield Lane. After working to the age of 70, Joseph died in the late 1960s.”
At the end of the war around 2.4 million men were held in prison camps across Germany. The vast majority of them were Russian, the breakdown of their numbers being 1,434,529 Russians, 535,411 Frenchmen, 185,329 Britons, 147,986 Romanians, 133,287 Italians, 46,019 Belgians, 28,746 Serbs, 7,457 Portuguese, 2,457 Americans, 107 Japanese and 5 Montenegrins.
The British prisoners were repatriated relatively quickly, the first ex-captives reaching Calais on November 15, 1918. By February 1919 all non-russian prisoners held in Germany had been repatriated.
The British POW all received a facsimile of a letter written in the king’s own hand and David and Maureen still have the letter Joseph received, albeit in a fragile state. It reads:
“The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries and hardships which you have endured with so much patience and courage.
“During these many months of trial, the early rescue of our gallant officers and men from the cruelties of their captivity has been uppermost in our thoughts.
“We are thankful that this longed for day has arrived and that back in the old country you will be able once more to enjoy the happiness of a home and to see good days among those who anxiously look for your return. George RI.”
Those held in prison camps in Germany often faced severe food shortages, as the Allies’ blockade meant the Germans had difficulties in feeding their own fighting men. They were often put to heavy labour as well, to shore up the German war effort. Years kept in hard conditions resulted in many prisoners returning home in poor health and suffering for the rest of their lives.
Letter Joseph Gibbons received from King George V on his release as a POW
Right: Joseph Gibbons (left) in later life