|These are the personal experiences of my father, Baron Richardson
Racey, during the First World War. He was twenty-four years of age when he
served with the Canadian army in the vicinity of Ypres in 1915. He was captured
by the Germans, and was sent to a succession of Prisoner-of-War camps in
Germany. He, together with three of his fellow prisoners, escaped and made
their way across the River Ems to Holland. Through most of this time, he
was able to keep a diary, from which he later reconstructed events recorded
in his original typewritten 35-page manuscript. The diary does not appear
to have survived, but the manuscript did. I transcribed it in this document
in June, 2002, over 8 decades after the events my father describes. In the
interest of clarity, I have very minimally edited my fathers work,
but in every detail this is an accurate transcription.
Richard Racey, June 2002
The Regiment arrived in the neighbourhood of Ypres about the 17th of April-rotten night, pouring rain and pitch dark, and I remember we lost our way just outside of St. Julien. Nobody had the faintest notion of where we were going, so No. 3 Company solemnly sat down at the crossroads waiting like "Mr. Micawber" for something to turn up. Finally somebody came along who claimed he knew the road we ought to take, and away we started; the road was awful, nothing but shell holes into which everybody in turn fell into and the language was a treat to hear, although we had to curse under our breath as we had orders to "shut up."
After finally plodding along for about an hour we arrived at the reserve dugouts where No. 3 Company was to take up residence for the next few days. The dugouts themselves were the limit, not room for a man to sit up, and once you got in you had to stop in. The first man who got in went in, in full kit and got jammed' couldn't move either way and of course everybody trying to push in made the situation worse and the air was blue for a few minutes. Finally we got the wretched man out half smothered and started in minus our equipment. No lights were allowed and there we stopped all night.
In the morning we took stock of our surroundings and very uncompromising they looked. We were not supposed to move outside our dugouts at all during the day except in case of extreme necessity and if we did we had to crawl. Under no circumstances were we allowed to stand upright, as Fritz had so far been unable to locate the reserve dugouts. He shelled pretty thoroughly all round but he never got any shells within 50 yards of our happy home.
Next night we were set to work constructing new dugouts in the field behind, as the ones we were in were not fit to house pigs, let alone man. We were then in a lot better condition in our new dugouts, lots of room to sit up and move around.
The ground was a huge graveyard and we were continually unearthing dead Germans. One chap dug up a bugler and somebody got the bugle as a souvenir and very quickly buried the squarehead again, I can assure you.
We suffered quite a lot from thirst as it was impossible to drink the water around there and we had to send a fatigue party each night with bottles to the Battalion water cart at St. Julien.
Kept pretty busy all night bringing up rations and ammunition which had to be carted along from St. Julien, about a mile distant.
Fritz kept shelling us every morning and afternoon but luckily did not cause any casualties. No fires of any kind were allowed so had to do without our beloved tea all the time we were there. The cook wagon at St. Julien had hot stew but by the time it arrived was stone cold with about an inch of grease on top and nobody but those with very strong "stummicks" could tackle it.
The last night I was feeling very seedy and went down to Battalion H.Q. dressing station and spent the night there. Next day they shelled St. Julien and we had several casualties and the dressing station was crowded. I went to sleep with a dead man at my feet; had to curl up my legs to avoid kicking him. One shell smashed part of the cookhouse and I expected every minute to see the house go up, but it escaped.
They arrested several Belgian families who were too near the firing line; felt very sorry for the poor devils especially one poor old woman, over eighty who was trudging along beside the cart containing all their worldly possessions, or at any rate all they could carry away. Two of the younger men were suspected of being spies and were taken to Brigade H.Q. for examination. I never heard what happened to them.
Next night we were relieved by the 5th Royals and I got my pack carried with the officers' baggage to my great relief, as I was still feeling very seedy. We were billeted on a farm outside the village of St. Jean and spent a peaceful night and got some home and Canadian mail.
Next morning Whitley Symonds and myself got cleaned up and started out to visit Ypres about a half a mile distant. We discovered a very cute little estaminet where they sold very good wine and had a very good time with a pretty Belgian girl, inflicting our best French on her. After that we visited all that remained of the beautiful old Cloth Hall, practically nothing at all left of it except one part of the aisle. We then discovered a very decent little restaurant and made a capital lunch. About 3 we started back for our billets stopping again at the estaminet for another glimpse of the "Angel." We had hardly started a bottle of wine when a "Jack Johnson" landed a few doors further and the Angel and family promptly beat it to a cellar opposite. We followed shortly afterward in the direction of St. Jean and by this time they were sending more J.J's into the town and all of the civilians were in a state of absolute panic. One old dame got her arms round my neck and I had a hard job to shake her off and assure her the Germans were not coming.
On the outskirts of Ypres it was evident that something serious was up. Batteries of artillery were going hell for leather towards St. Julien and civilian population rushing about in an hysterical state, French soldiers came stumbling along half choked, couldn't talk at all.
We started out to try and find our billet - no easy job, as there seemed to be dozens of farms scattered around and they all seemed alike but we finally struck "home," got up the stairs and into our equipment and then joined our Company, whom we found in a trench in the field opposite, waiting for instructions.
Bullets were flying around quite freely then, but no one was hit. We finally got orders to move off. The nearer we got to St. Julien the more exciting things looked, the sky was full of white smoke clouds from bursting shrapnel shells, horses were galloping about aimlessly.
Then we began to see hundreds of little figures running from the first line of trenches; several German aeroplanes hovered over there and every now and again they would drop a red light which would be followed by four shrapnel shells from the German batteries and also by a yellow gas shell. All we could get out of the French was the "les Allemands vient avec le gaz asphixiant" and then they would burst into a fit of the most awful choking and cough and stagger on a few more yards, lie down and then go on for a few more yards
Several farms around were alight and shells dropping all round them and you could hear the big fellows thundering overhead bound for Ypres. When they exploded they sent up a huge cloud of black smoke, followed by a loud crash and the whole building went up.
We arrived in front of Brigade H.Q. and our platoon occupied a trench full of Turcos and a few of the 5th Royals and there we stopped for about fifteen minutes hastily improving the trench. Then we were moved a little to the left and ordered to dig ourselves in, which we did in record time, no need to tell anybody to "get a hustle on" as was usual when doing it for practice, all of us were transformed into the busiest little moles and terriers you could wish for.
I had just completed my little hole when they wanted three of us to go out and reconnoitre the position in front. The Sergeant Major informed us that there was only one gun to hold the whole position and we could not use that until we found out who was in front of us. Whitby, Boyd Symonds and myself started out for our platoon and got about two hundred yards off and heard sounds in front of us immediately in front of a small wood. We lay in a ditch and listened hard and finally decided that there were Germans in front of us and started back. Whitley and Symonds were about 40 yards or so ahead of me and I was following them up, when I was halted and challenged in the French language and I like a damned fool thinking there were a stray party of French told them in broken French and English who I was, but got the shock of my young life when about a dozen spiked helmets jumped at me before I could say Jack Robinson; one grabbed my rifle, another my bayonet and the rest tugged off my equipment and there was I. They searched me thoroughly and then started asking question in German and broken French, none of which I could understand and any I did, pretended not to, giving them to understand I was lost and didn't know "nothink"; as they finally march me off back to their lines to a small farm house full of Germans.
Here I was ushered before one of their N.C.O.'s a most formidable looking gentleman, with a huge long black beard and the Inevitable spiked helmet, who went through my pockets and clothes very thoroughly and quite expected to find a supply of dumdum bullets somewhere on me, but much to his disappointment he found nothing. Then the guard told him I had a knife which I must have lost somehow, anyway he searched again evidently thinking I had it hidden, but finally gave it up as a bad job. After looking at my letters and the contents of my pocket he handed them all back to me, to my great surprise.
There was an old Belgian woman and her child in the room, both looked terrified out of their wits; expect they had good cause, poor devils. After that I was taken out and locked in an outhouse with two badly wounded and gassed Algerians, who groaned, choked and coughed all night, one I think died later on, anyhow they were both in a bad way. After about an hour the door was opened and a lieutenant entered and I had a long chat with him; spoke English very well. He asked me how many Canadians there were and I told him 100,000, shades of Ananias, and quite a lot more truthful and useful information. He seemed very pleased with the progress they had made and expected to be in Ypres the next day. He then took his departure and left me alone again with the Algerians and my own thoughts for company, which were not cheerful ones.
There were a couple of German batteries behind the farm who fired incessantly all night. I was nearly deaf from them and the concussion from our own bursting shells; expected every moment to be blown into the next World.
Then a heavy musketry and machine gun fire started up which I heard afterward was an attempt to repel a bayonet charge by our 10th and 16th Battalions, but was not successful, our men cleared them out of the wood, the squareheads running like rabbits, but unfortunately our men were too keen, they not only took the wood but went through it and got badly cut up, in fact almost annihilated by the concentrated machine gun fire from the German reserve trenches.
About three in the morning another Canadian was hustled into the barn, and had a bullet through his cheek and another through his hat. Heaven how glad I was to see him could have wept for joy at meeting a friendly face.
We then were taken out of the barn and formed up with some more Canadians, including two wounded officers, about a dozen in all and with a good hearty kick as a send off started off for our next destination. The guards seemed only to have a very hazy idea of where they were going and we wandered about some time across country and finally struck a road, marched a while along it and discovered it was the wrong one and away we went cross country again.
The French dead were very numerous mostly badly smashed up by shell wounds; they looked particularly ghastly in the early morning light. It struck me very forcibly what a hellish thing War was. A lovely spring morning, everything looking lovely, and then you would stumble across a mangled heap of human beings, or least all that remained of them, some perhaps showing no wounds at all but lying as if they were asleep; others hunched up into all kinds of strange shapes; one man perhaps minus a head another with his legs smashed to pulpwood, some just an unrecognizable mass of mangled flesh.
We jumped across old trenches full of abandoned rifles and equipment into "No man's land" where bodies lay which had been there for months, some almost skeletons with grinning ghastly looking skulls, looking up at you; others killed more recently.
We met a great many small parties of Germans, some of whom could speak English and we exchanged a few words with them. We halted at a German Red Cross Station where we got a mug of coffee and I met Sergeant Hardwicks, looking the picture of dejection, but otherwise sound and unwounded. After a rest of about a quarter of an hour we started off again, when I discovered I had lost my pouch, at which I was most upset as I had had it since the day I started to smoke a pipe; however it was gone, probably lost it at the dressing station. Passing through the Belgian villages we had a damned rough time from the troops collected there. They would all dash out of their billets to get a sight of the Englanders. As long as they confined their attention to solemnly gazing and making " complimentary" remarks, which we could not understand but nevertheless could make a very good guess at their meaning, swines and pig dogs being the chief terms of endearment, it was all right; but they evidently thought the chance was too good to be missed and we got kicked black and blue, spat upon and other playful antics peculiar to the German soldier. Of course any Belgians whom we passed looked sympathetic but did not dare to express any feelings at all; one young chap working by the road with a gang of others under German sentries, tried to give us a block of chocolate but the Germans saw him and knocked him over with the butt end of his rifle, poor devil.
We finally arrived at a large village called Staden, where we were locked up in the Church, which we found full of Algerians and a small knot of English in one corner, surrounded by Germans who were engaged in their usual pastime of kicking the man who is down. Well, we joined this merry throng and came in for some attention. One "pleasant faced" Teuton gave me his undivided attention, telling me in broken English what we were let in for when we should arrive in Germany - a very cheerful prospect. Just a few seconds before a German chaplain had been telling us not to worry as we would be "well cared for in Germany." I might mention however the soldier had the "right dope" as subsequent events in my German career proved. After a while an officer came along and cleared the soldiers out for which we heartily thanked the fates. We were then on view to the officers, anything from a Sub to a General. On the whole the officers were a decided improvement on the men, asked lots of questions and took a great many photographs. I finally crawled into a "confessional" box and went to sleep.
The officers were a very smart looking lot, looked thorough soldiers. One old General came up to me and politely asked me for my R.M.R. [Royal Montreal Regiment] badges for a souvenir and as I could not very well refuse, off they had to come. Another general asked me who my Commanding Officer was and I replied that I had forgotten, at which he smiled and took a book from his pocket and read me the names of every Commanding Officer and Second in Command of the Canadian Division, remarking that that would refresh my memory.
About 10 a.m. Friday they formed us up in fours and told us to be ready to march out of the Church. Well, the scene that followed always reminds me of the scene in the "Only Way" in which the French aristocrats march out one by one to be met by a howl from the mob as each one appeared. It was about the same with us; they let the Turco's and Algerians pretty much in peace and were waiting for the swinehund Englanders to come out. When they did finally appear I shall never forget the cold shudder that went down my spine at the ferocious howl that went up from the assembled German troops, who were packed tight, some of them leaning out of windows, in fact Germans were hanging from any point or place they could get a sight of us.
With my usual luck I was again on the outside of a four and went through the mill again, the whole distance of a few hundred yards from the Church to the train and started off to a place called Roulers, about twenty minutes run and [they] then kicked [us] out of the train and marched [us] to the market square, where we found a bunch more Canadian and thousands of Algerians "on view." The square was packed with soldiers but they were not allowed to come near us for which we thanked our lucky stars. We stood in the square for some time and a German General gave his beloved troops a lecture from the balcony of the town hall.
The Belgian people would stand far back in the upper rooms and wave to us and threw us kisses and oranges; rather nice to feel that "somebody loved us" anyway. Finally we were marched off in charge of infantry and Uhlans to the station. The German police, in green uniforms and carrying sword and revolver, kept the civilians from getting near us and brutally knocked out of the way any woman or man who attempted to get near us. Of all the brutal overbearing brutes these police were the worst I ever saw or expect to see again.
We arrived at the station and all the English and Canadians had managed to keep together but here German officers thoroughly mixed us up with the Algerians, picking out several particularly choice specimens to journey down with the officers - "go mit your black comrades" they and we were told. We were then herded into cattle cars, about sixty to a car, each man receiving a savage kick as he climbed into the car. It was quite a relief to be locked in and out of sight of the damned Huns. The next forty-eight hours were a regular nightmare, we were so tightly packed we could neither sit down or lie down, and to add to our pleasures several of the Algerians had diarrhoea and were sick from the effects of the gas. I leave the condition of the car to the imagination. We made one stop and all had to get out of our "Pullman" and after a wait of about ten minutes and we were packed up again and resumed our journey.
We arrived on Sunday morning, April 25th, at our first camp, Meschede, in the province of Westphalia. After disembarking we were lined up and given a little lecture to the effect that we were to remember that we were Prisoners of War and any offence we might commit would be punished severely, etc. , etc.
We were then marched off through the town where we met the good Germans just coming out of Church, of course feeling very pious and in excellent form to greet the Englanders. The Highlanders came in for a lot of attention especially from the ladies who were extremely curious about the dress of our kilted friends. One good dame asking one chap if the women in Scotland wore pants, to which he replied that most of his female relations did and he expect the other Scotch ladies did likewise. After enduring the complimentary comments of the good people of Meschede for about half an hour, much to our relief and more especially to the Highlanders' we started on our way to the camp about a mile distant.
Arrived at the camp, which seemed to consist mostly of French and Russians, we were put into huts, each man drawing a pillow filled with wood shavings and one blanket, or at least what was supposed to be a piece of material which looked as if it had been picked up in some rag shop. After that we got a basin of black bean soup and of all the meals I have ever eaten I enjoyed that basin of soup as it was, with the exception of a piece of black bread in the Church at Staden, the first thing I had eaten since Thursday afternoon and this was Sunday morning.
The Germans refused to issue us with any spoons so we had to gobble up the soup the best way we could without, and for about [a week?] we got no eating utensils of any kind. Finally we did get them through the good offices of the Sergeant of the Guard, who I might say was a very good sort and had an English wife who was living in England. He really did all in his power to make things as comfortable as he could for us, although there was not very much that lay in his province to do; but he was one of the nicest Germans I met.
For the first week or so we used to be called everything insulting the German language contained, but after a while they got tired of cursing at us as it apparently had no effect on us, and used to look at us in a sort of sullen way with occasional outbursts of "Teutonic Hate."
As time progressed they looked on us as a matter of course and bar the outbursts aforesaid they treated us the same as the prisoners of other nationalities, with the exception of the Russians, who share the honour of being with us the worst hated of their many enemies. The routine of the work was as follows: six o'clock reveille was blown which was shortly followed by the guards coming in and with no gentle hand rolling out of bed anyone who felt at all dreamily inclined. Then two men for every twenty men were dispatched to the cookhouse to draw "breakfast" which consisted of black acorn coffee, no sugar or milk, and with nothing to eat at all. Shortly after we had swallowed this mixture more guards arrived and we were formed up and counted and detailed off for the various camp work.
The Englanders did all the "fatigue" work of the camp as far as numbers permitted, there were only a hundred of us, and the "unter offiziers" had strict orders that we were to get all the very dirtiest and unpleasant jobs that needed doing, so we mostly got sanitary and garbage emptying jobs to keep us busy from worrying over the fact that we were "kriegefangers." We usually worked till about 11:30 a.m. when we were dismissed for midday "Essen." This consisted of soup made out of black beans and potatoes or dried fish and potatoes, or sauerkraut and potatoes, and they usually rung the changes on these three. Occasionally we found a small chunk of some kind of meat; nobody could discover what it was but anyhow it was eaten and no questions asked - only too thankful to get it.
Half an hour after filling our bellies with this swill we were as hungry as ever, as it consisted mostly of water; it was, as can be imagined, not very satisfying to a starving man. After dinner we were again formed up for work which usually consisted of carrying parcels from the station to the camp, very tiring work as the camp was built on a hill and we were kept sweating up and down hill all afternoon. If there were no parcels to be carried we were carrying buckets of water up and down hill to the cookhouses or wheeling heavy barrows of camp refuse to the incinerators just outside the camp grounds, until we were about ready to drop from weakness.
At 4:30 work was finished for the day and supper was "served," This usually consisted of a salt herring, absolutely raw, and we were not allowed the use of the fire to cook them, as you had either to go without or eat them raw. Sometimes we got a piece of cheese, which with the exception of a very few nobody could eat. Each man got a small hollow circle of the alleged cheese which was covered with some yellow substance the smell of which would knock a carthorse over.
On Sundays we usually got a small piece of coarse sausage about the size of a cent and about an inch long. Occasionally we got a basin of thin porridge, which was considered a great luxury and looked forward to by all. We each got half a loaf of bread which had to last four days and worked out at a slice of bread a day, and heavens the temptation to take at least one good meal by eating the lot. Great self-restraint had to be exercised unless you went breadless for the next three days.
I shall never forget the day on which I managed to buy from a Frenchman a whole half loaf of this black potato bread and never have I enjoyed a meal like it before or since - the feeling of having something solid inside of me. Men who had money were able to buy sausage, margarine, honey at the canteen. I had about ten francs which all went on food. After the cash was spent, a brisk trade was done selling uniforms, boots, etc., to the French, who wanted them for souvenirs. I sold everything I had and was dressed in rags, and very soon everyone else was the same, the bargain included some kind of article to replace the uniform sold. A tunic would fetch anything from five to ten marks and boots up to twenty marks. I sold my hat, tunic, watch but hung on to my boots, as heaven only knew how long they would have to last before I got another pair.
The evenings we had pretty much to ourselves and could roam anywhere within the camp area. The camp itself was situated on the side of a hill and surrounded by other hills, very wooded, the scenery was really beautiful and seemed to make us realize our position more - a sort of caged up feeling.
We were surrounded by a high wooden fence about 8 feet in height and of course the usual barbed wire on top. At each corner and in the middle of this fence a high watchtower was built, from which position the guard could get a view of the entire camp; sentries patrolled round both outside and inside this fence. A battery of guns was placed in position about 150 yards from camp, a gun crew always on duty day and night; the guns [were] trained on the camp, so on the whole they had us pretty safely caged.
The camp at evening must have looked a most cosmopolitan sort of gathering, every sort of uniform were there from Russian, Cossacks, Belgians, French, Montenegrins and a sprinkling of Britishers. We were, as the latest arrivals with the latest war news, the centres of attraction and each Englishman was surrounded by a large group of Frenchmen and Russians all endeavouring to hear how the war was going. Any who could speak English translated what he had to tell to his comrades. I met an awfully decent Frenchman who could speak English and we got quite pally. He gave me some underclothes which I needed in the worst way as the ones I had on were getting a trifle "gamy" to say the least of them. He also gave me some tea which rejoiced my heart, and really was a thoroughly good sort.
He wrote to his sister who lived in England, making her write Mother to say I was safe as the Germans would not let us write at all and quite a fortnight elapsed before they sent us a card to write our people. This delay was just spite as the French told us they were allowed to write the day after they arrived. The first card I sent simply said "I am a prisoner" and well, the second one was filled up with requests for grub. Grub was our main topic of conversation. You could bet your boots if you saw a party of Englishmen talking together the subject was GRUB with a capital G, either describing with full details the last large juicy steak they had had, or the last Christmas dinner. It was simply impossible to get away from the subject till we got hungrier and hungrier and finally we could stand it no longer and would dash out and get our bread ration and carve off a thin slice to try and satisfy our eternal craving for food. I had an awful craving for sweets, simply could not get enough of them. Would go down to the canteen and buy a pound of sugar and come back and eat it up and still the craving would remain. I used to dream of maple sugar and buckwheat cakes and used to plan the feeds I would have when I finally did get my freedom, but buckwheat cakes were always on the menu I planned. We could buy tobacco, rank stuff it was, and also cigars which were very cheap 10 or 15 pfgs [pfennigs] each and quite good, the Germans smoked them all day, either those or their big hook pipes.
The various rumors that were floating around were legion and even the wildest were eagerly discussed. Italy was not in the war then and I will never forget the sort of tense anxiety which we all felt as to which side she would come in on. The Germans used to distribute a paper in French printed by them in the captured French provinces which of course published all the good German news, but from which nevertheless we could get a general idea of how things were progressing, and great rejoicings we indulged in when Italy finally declared war. It was only a matter of weeks when we should be free.
We were always very optimistic and a man was considered a rank pessimist who ventured to suggest that the War would last six moths, while as for a year "why Germany could never last that time"; as for Austria, who was absolutely "all in". How funny all our theories seem now, but it is just as well we had them as they kept our spirits up.
We looked forward to the day we should hear from home and I shall never forget the first English mail, everybody just hanging on to the man calling out the lucky ones who had a letter. I was not one of the lucky ones and I felt almost ready to go out and blub like a baby when my name was not called. However, I was all the more delighted to get a short note from Mother a few days later which was read, re-read and then read again. The next excitement was parcels and the envy with which the lucky men were regarded who had one. One chap especially got a beauty containing everything possible in the way of "eats." His father was an "old soldier" and had a pretty good idea of what would be most welcome. I am afraid one of the ten commandments, which exhorts you "not to covet your neighbour's goods" was broken very often.
I always remember one chap - a big "Westerner" whose name was down for a parcel, and he spent the night looking forward to the "feed" he was going to get next day. Nobody who has not been a prisoner of war can possibly imagine what it feels like to have your name on a list for parcels when you're next door to starving. Well anyway he went down to get his parcel which was a very small one, in itself a disappointment, but he figured out it contained chewing tobacco, opened it and found it contained a prayer book and a bundle of tracts. I only wish the good dame who sent it could have heard the language which was floating around that barracks - one long stream of heart felt profanity; but anyhow it was enough to make St. Peter himself 'let himself go." To receive parcels and letters were our entire ambitions and letters I think came easily first in popularity; I know I looked forward to them most. I was greatly down in the dumps to hear Tom was still reported "missing" but did not give up hope.
We were allowed to write a card every week and a letter twice a month, but several of my cards and letters never arrived. I happened to be emptying a waste paper basket outside the Commandant's office and found a letter and a card torn up. That explained why a lot of letters "never arrived" - the dirty swine. We told the sergeant of the guard about it and he promised to make enquiries but of course we got no satisfaction.
The next incident in our life was inoculation and vaccination. We were inoculated three times against typhoid and three times against cholera and vaccinated. Some of the doctors seemed quite decent men but one chap was a perfect brute and took special pains to make as vicious a stab as possible, at the same time remarking "Ach! You English Swine." The Algerians were simply terrified of this inoculation and would hide under the mattresses and jump out of the windows in order to avoid it; they were being hauled from under mattresses and blankets yelling and protesting to the doctors who thought it was a huge joke.
The Algerians were a funny crowd, just like a crowd of kids - used to spend the whole day tossing for "sous" and quarrelling amongst themselves. They were a most picturesque looking crowd of ruffians of various shades and colours, light coffee coloured to jet black. The Negroes amongst them used to wear their hair shaved off with the exception of a little circle of hair at the top of their heads, which gave them a most weird appearance. I got quite friendly with one or two of them and we had several long chats. They were finally moved to another camp where we heard they were asked to fight with the Turks, but we never saw them again and were quite sorry to see them go, as they were an endless source of amusement to us.
Our days were [all] very much the same. I worked at various jobs, from mixing mortar, carrying wood, fetching parcels from the station, peeling potatoes, emptying swill barrels to an occasional trip to the village to get wood.
The people of the town did not bother us much, the kids running after us with the information that "England was Kaput" which their favourite expression.
There was a barrack in camp used as a Church and Mass was held every day and twice on Sunday when a German priest came. On week days the service was taken by a French priest and I used frequently to go. It seemed to do me a lot of good to hear the familiar service, in spite of the fact that the barrack always had a good number of Germans with fixed bayonets amongst us.
Sometimes I used to get the most awful attacks of the "blues" but on the whole managed to keep fairly cheerful. The early morning used to be the worst; waking up to the sound of the German reveille which will always I think stick in my memory as the most dismal and depressing sound. Even now as I whistle it I can always recall my feelings of utter depression of the first few days of my imprisonment.
At first I got frightfully fat - a sort of unhealthy flabby kind of fatness - and suddenly it all fell away and I got just the opposite, just skin and bones. A lot of other chaps were the same way.
The next event of importance was a big inspection by some big-wig of the German Army, when we were all divided into groups according to our occupations. Any men who were educated at all were formed into groups with a placard in front of them "Intellectuals." It really was the funniest sight to see the fat Germans strutting around and placing men in different groups - "Intellectuals" and "Unintellectuals" and the German general and his staff looking us over, the Commander of the camp looking like a hen with a brood of chickens.
Some of the men were funny sights, especially one chap called Armstrong in the 13th Battalion. He had sold all his clothes except his kilt and he wore a battered soft cap, a French tunic with the blue sleeves cut away and new sleeves made of an old blanket sewn on, a pair of old boots and his kilt, which was too small for him. He was a huge boy, at least very tall, quite 6 feet 3 inches and very thin and he looked a scream. In fact we all looked like a lot of scarecrows, most of us having sold everything we possessed to buy grub.
The French were in the German bad-books just then as they had been sending the German prisoners to work in Morocco and the Germans were very wild about this. They sent all the "Intellectuals" of the French away to drain marshland in North Germany as a reprisal, and I lost all my French friends much to my disgust and never saw them again. They [the Germans] picked out men who [had] never had any experience of manual labour and left behind all those who belonged to the "working class," and carefully gave each "Intellectual" an extra post card to write home to tell his people why they were being sent away.
All kinds of weird games were played - mostly "kid" games. One was especially popular. One player was blind-folded and tied to a stake in the middle of a circle while another man with a notched stick made a scratching sound; it was the object of the blind-folded man to catch the other - sounds very silly bit it caused endless amusement and was sure to attract a crowd of onlookers.
The parade ground was quite a sight, almost every kind of uniform being there and quite funny to see, say a Russian and an Englishman talking together, neither able to speak a word of each other's language, but endeavouring to make each other understand what he was talking about by signs and a mixture of all languages. My French chum and I used to walk around together and talk over any subject on the face of the earth, but nearly always came back the one subject, the war, and when it would be over. I was a pretty sad boy when he was moved to another camp.
About July 1915 we suddenly got orders to move bag and baggage, not very much in my case. I was able to take everything I owned in the world in a small biscuit tin. The move was received with rather mixed feelings. We had sort of got used to the camp and did not look forward to going to another which might be worse, but on the other hand it broke the awful monotony. Anyway we moved, marching down to the station into 4th class carriages. Country was looking lovely, Westphalia certainly is a beautiful place as far as scenery goes. I enjoyed the railway journey thoroughly. We arrived without adventure at Giessen, a very large town. We had to go through the town to the camp which was about two miles away. The people did not bother us at all beyond staring and we were quite used to that.
The camp was a very large one, larger than Meschede, I should judge, and laid out in streets; [it] seemed very clean and not built on a hill the same way as Meschede was. We were all divided up into the various compounds and met a large number of Canadians and of course had lots to talk over. Several of Tom's platoon were prisoners and I enquired of everyone connected with the 7th Battalion and met both chaps who were on either side of him. One chap bound up a slight scratch he had on the side of the head, caused by a shrapnel splinter, nothing serious. We did not see him after the Regiment got the order to retire and in spite of enquiries nobody seems to have seen him again; he was last seen shooting away over the parapet.
I met several 14th men, Jack Brown, Nantel, Cunningham, Bill Common and others. The great bulk of Canadians had apparently been sent to Giessen.
The work was at first not so hard as at Meschede and we used to drill instead, sometimes drilled by our own N.C.O.'s and at other times by a German who used to shout away in German, nobody having the faintest idea of what he was jawing about, but it used to please him. I suppose they used to take special delight in making us salute them, held regular saluting parades and made us salute in the German style, absolutely stiff arms close by side and only using the right hand salute. How we used to hate them. Later on we worked just outside the camp mixing cement and otherwise assisting in the construction of a new guards' barracks. It was rather better than moping around camp, but we used to endeavour to dodge this work on principle.
I got picked out one day for a farm working party and was sent out with about a dozen others from our Company, forty more from another to a farm about forty miles away - I've forgotten the name of the place. Here we were housed in a small "pub" and dispatched every day to work on the various farms around and fed by the farmer. The farmer I worked for seemed decent enough, only had two other Germans who appeared half-witted and about a score of Polish Girls who certainly can work and appeared as strong as oxes; big flat-chested women, hardly distinguishable from a man except for the skirt and tightly braided hair, but work!!!!! We used to follow the binder and "stalk" the wheat, putting it up into bundles ready for carting away. The food was comparatively speaking good, lots of potatoes and a fair-sized piece of fat pork for dinner, bread and jam and more spuds for supper and coffee.
During work we were practically unguarded and could easily have escaped, but having neither map nor compass and not having the faintest notion of what part of Germany we were in, it was not much good. It was really great to be away from the restriction and monotony of the camp and the guards, [and] free from the supervision of their officers. [The farmers] were quite decent and our little fellow used to tell us to let him know if we had any complaint to make regarding grub and he would fix it. I think the few days on that farm were the best I spent in Germany. We had great discussion as to whether it was right for us to work for the Germans, indirectly, it's true, but nevertheless helping them with our food supply. Half a dozen of us talked it over and decided to strike. We argued from all points of view and finally came to the conclusion and with great regret on my part we told the guard we wished to be sent back to camp. He was absolutely thunderstruck, couldn't make head or tail of us, and asked us if [the] food was not good or why we wanted to quit. Well, of course we could not speak German and he no English, so he never understood why it was we wished to return to camp.
He used to come in and gaze sorrowfully and reproachfully at us, murmuring "strafen Barracken brot mit wasser" and go away shaking his head and going over the awful time that was in store for us when we got back to camp. They wired for a guard to take us back to durance vile at Giessen and we departed next day feeling very sad at leaving our farm but felt very self-righteous and thoroughly despising the rest of the gang for preferring the "soft job" to returning to camp and the unknown terrors there.
At that time the Germans did not force you to work at the point of the bayonet, but had we known the gentle persuasive way they had of making prisoners work, I think perhaps we would have stayed on the farm. At that time we were labouring under the delusion that the Huns could not force us to do anything but camp fatigues. The various "barrack room lawyers" were busy spouting Hague Conventions about prison labour and that it was quite illegal to make us do other work. We subsequently discovered this was quite wrong and our Hun friends intended to make prisoners work at any job they were ordered [to], whether willing or not. However we found that out later.
We left the farm, and the last we saw of our late guard, he was slowly and sorrowfully shaking his head over our "damn foolishness" as I suppose he considered it. He never knew our reasons and I suppose put it down to cussedness on the part of the "Schweinhund Englanders" and a conspiracy to bring him back to camp, for of course it was a soft snap for guards who of course did nothing ate the fat of the land so to speak. We went, not without serious misgivings about our future and the welcome awaiting us on our return as "nichts arbeiters" or "won't works" as we were called.
On arrival at Giessen we were paraded before the Sergeant Major who raved and tore his hair, working himself into a great rage. He called us everything he could think of, finally shutting up when his vocabulary was exhausted. He then consigned us to the "Strafe Barrack" and away we went to that delightful residence. Here we were searched; all tobacco, cigarettes and food supplies taken away, and finally handed over to the O.C. [Officer Commanding] of the "Strafe Barracks." He was a huge Prussian, a prison warden in civil life so we heard, but a typical bully. He went by the name of "Mutiny" and his assistant "Shrapnel"; his other satellite we used to call "Sherlock Holmes."
The punishment consisted of sitting absolutely still on a stool all day or else standing at attention. No parcels or books were allowed. It was run exactly like a kindergarten school, and anybody caught talking was put in the corner. It really was a scream, but the Germans took it all so seriously and quite considered they were giving us particular hell, but to anybody blessed with any sense of humor at all the place kept him in endless laughter. After spending a few days like that they sent us out to dig a huge trench and after it was dug, [to] fill it in again. I believe the idea was that we were searching for old Roman remains, anyway, anything we found had to be presented to a long-haired Professor, who directed operations. We brought up an old bone from the camp one day, buried it and then solemnly dug it up again and presented it to the Sergeant Major. Well, it was enough to make a cat laugh to see the old Professor and the guards holding a pow-wow over this old bone. They finally carted it away in a little black bag.
We got a good view of the German troops being trained in trench digging and open order drill, goose-stepping as well as other field exercises, and otherwise going through the hoop.
At noon we were marched back to barracks and sat on stools for the rest of the day till 8 p.m. Nearly everybody after dinner would try and get a nap, and you would see nothing but a lot of nodding heads. It used to be "Mutiny's" chief form of amusement to creep up to someone with his head well forward and pour a jug of cold water down his neck, at which he and his satellites would break into peals of laughter. At night when he and his fellow guards departed for the night, a few of us would hop out of the window and crawl through the barbed wire to our own compound, load up with our parcels and have a regular night feast.
The chief excitement of the day was when the officer in charge of the "Strafe Barrack" made his rounds. We would all be drawn up and stood at attention, anyone blinking an eye-lid was rewarded with three days cells, bread and water diet. The officer was a scream; he would come in, draw his sword and revolver, brandish them around and give us a lecture at the top of his voice. When he was out of breath he would depart, fully convinced he had put the fear of the Lord in every Englander's breast. Prisoners who had made attempts at escape were sent to "Strafe Barracks" after their term of dark cells, by way of a "finishing-off course," I suppose. I used to make a point of sitting next [to] them and gained a lot of useful tips from them, which subsequently proved very valuable.
Every time we wanted to go to the lavatory you had to ask Mutiny's gracious permission and as he did not understand a word of English, the usual request went somewhat like this: "Please Mutiny you old fool, can I go out for a smoke" - "Ja. Ja," He would reply, at the same time searching our pockets for cigarettes, and we usually had one somewhere on us, but he never was sharp enough to find them - anyway I never saw anybody caught. Ten minutes later he would make a lightning trip to the lavatory and the place was full of smoke - you could hardly see for it. Our other guard earned his nickname "Sherlock Holmes" through this. He would come in and stand there a minute and say "Ach so rauchen hier" and look very wise, but was never quite quick enough to catch anyone with a cigarette in his mouth. They used to do their damndest to catch someone in the act of smoking as they could then give them three days cells and it was a complete mystery how we got our cigarettes as they had searched us and it was "verboten" to leave the "Strafe Barrack" to go to our own compound, and when a thing was "strong verboten" it never entered their thick heads that we would dare disobey and have the cheek to get out of the window. If a thing was "verboten" it was "verboten" and that's all there was to it.
Another case showing the mental attitude of a German towards a thing "verboten" occurred later on. On release from "Strafe Barrack" we were all paraded and any man who spoke German was ordered to step out of the ranks. A few did so, but two men who spoke it fluently, in fact had been to a German university, did not come out. A few days later these two escaped and were recaptured and during the enquiry that followed, it came out that they spoke German. The officer was questioned and asked how it was that these men were not reported as speaking German. He replied that there must have been a mistake and these men could not speak German, as he had ordered all men to step out of ranks who spoke German and these men had not come forward, therefore it was quite impossible for them to have any knowledge of German. He simply could not understand a man being ordered to do something by a German officer and not obeying without question.
Of course with a German perhaps this might be the case, but he did not know much of the men of the 1st Canadian Contingent and Canadians were always a mystery to the German officer. One German officer remarked that we did not seem to know what military discipline meant.
After our three weeks were up, much to our relief as life was beginning to get a bit irksome, we were returned to our regular company. I sprained my ankle and hobbled around with a stick long after it was cured and thus escaped being sent on further working parties, but finally got so fed up doing nothing that I "cured" my ankle and used to go out on the old job on the guards' barracks. I made several trips to the town of Giessen, usually pulling a handcart full of mortar or something or other - used to like seeing people even if they were Germans. The town was very quiet, absolutely no young men out of a uniform of some kind or other, and old men and women. There was a large military hospital and outside of a few jeers from the wounded "Bosches" the people did not take much notice of us, anyway did not bother us at all.
We saw several drafts being sent to the front, a band playing them to the station. The troops were covered with flowers and seemed in good spirits and not a bad looking body of men - their helmets gave them quite a smart appearance, and the officers were particularly "dapper." They certainly got a very rough time of it during training, their N.C.O.'s knocking them around at the slightest provocation. I often wonder what the average Canadian Tommy would do if he got half the rough time the German recruits were subjected to. Giessen was a concentration area of an Army Corps and we saw the raw recruit come in and the finished article turned out. One of our chaps did a sentence of cells next to a German who had lived in the States, but had been roped into the Army on the outbreak of War, and what that German hadn't got to say in the way of cursing Germany and all things German, wasn't worth saying.
Eating, sleeping, working, and bridge was our daily life - [that] and walking up and down the barbed wire enclosure till we got fed up with the monotony of it.
Parcels came in quite frequently, so did letters, and these two ranked foremost in our existence, especially letters, which were the excitement of the day. Would sit down with a pipe and letters and dream of the time we would finally get out and the feeds we would have. Spent Xmas at Giessen and did not fare too badly in the way of "eats." Had canned turkey and plum pudding, raisins, chocolates, nuts and "chocolate liqueurs" and even crackers. The Germans did not give us anything in the way of grub but let us have an extra card with "Xmas Greetings" on it. There was quite a little "firewater" floating around, brought in by a guard and sold at "war time" prices. The fellows would pay anything for a bottle of whiskey and the guards used to do a big business, but it was very risky as they got "it in the neck" if they happened to be caught. A great number of the boys were "blind to the world" before the Xmas festivities were over. Stayed in Giessen till the New Year then we were moved to another camp, Cellelager, in Hanover. Everybody did their best to avoid going, as from all accounts Cellelager was a very bad camp, but go, most of us had to, with the exception of men who had jobs around camp.
Arrived in Gellelager in the early morning and it certainly did look a dismal place. In fact all that part of North Germany seemed to be swampy and flat. We stayed at Bremen for about half an hour and saw lots of soldiers and sailors going and coming on leave. The guards from the camp met us and marched us to the camp, lighting the way with flaring torches which gave an additional gloomy aspect to the country around, which seemed to be all swamp [through which] a road having been made. We were all laden with our worldly goods, which seemed to weigh tons and were all thankful when we arrived at the outskirts of the camp just as the dismal German reveille was sounding. Shall never forget the attack of blues I had - even Giessen seemed a "home" compared with our new abode.
The first thing we got on arrival was a course of "disinfecting." All our clothes were put through a disinfecting process; we got our hair clipped and [had] a hot bath, then were then dispatched to barracks. [These] were smaller than the ones at Giessen. The camp was huge one and very few stayed there permanently. it being more in the nature of a concentration camp, from which "working parties" and "Kommandos" were sent out. They had thousands of "Russkis" there, quite a few Cossacks-great big men with bearskin caps and huge beards.
We did no work, except a few fatigues and could spend our time wandering around camp at will. The food was I think better than at Giessen - anyway the "soup" was thicker. The canteen too seemed well stocked, cheese and sausages could be bought by the wealthy. Met a few more of the "boys" some of whom had been there since capture. Spent about a week at this camp and then dispatched to a branch camp Vehnemoor Cellelage, on the outskirts of Oldenburg. I shan't forget that march in a hurry. Had enough kit for two men - 3 blankets, all our clothes, and what parcels [we] could manage to carry away with us, and the camp was about ten miles distant from the station. Finally arrived more dead than alive, ate a basin of fish soup and crawled to bed on the hard boards.
If the first view of Cellelager looked bad, Vehnemoor was ten times worse, built right on a swamp. Just one other house in sight. Ankle deep in mud, the water the colour of "beer." The barracks filthy, the sleeping accommodation rotten, having to sleep in tiers of three - three hundred or so in a barrack built for 100. In the morning things looked no better, nothing but miles and miles of swamp as far as you could see. It certainly was a cheerful sight.
This camp was commanded by a lieutenant and a feldwebel or Sergeant Major, as second in command. Next morning we were all paraded and formed into squads of twenty and each given a spade and then marched off on the moor to work. The moor had been marked off in squares of about a hundred yards and we were then set to work to dig it up, a given quantity being set for the day's work, and we had to stay until we finished it or until it became too dark. Every encouragement was given to work hard and we were told that just as soon as a squad finished its allotted work it would be marched back to barracks. So of course everybody set to work with a will to endeavour to get the work over and back to barracks, some even finishing about two o'clock, but only to find next day that the daily task had been increased so after that the motto was "take things easy." The Germans took this as a huge joke, first of all promising those who finished first a rest and afterwards increasing the work to be done.
We were over our ankles in water all the time and a number of the boys laid up with rheumatism. The nearest town to the camp was Oldenburg and a party was dispatched every week to bring up parcels. These were brought up by canal; about a dozen prisoners and about four guards were sent down and it usually took the day, as it was about 24 kilometres there and back. [On the return] we had to pull a heavily loaded barge; besides parcels we used to bring up any camp stores that might be needed, so were usually "all in" by the time we reached camp.
Saturday afternoon was devoted to cleaning up camp, scrubbing out barracks and getting our weekly bath, which was certainly needed and much enjoyed by all. Sunday we did no work at all, but had an inspection at eleven by the Commandant who used to have us all paraded before him and [he would] harangue us for perhaps half and hour in German, working himself up into a perfect frenzy, usually over the state of the barracks which he said was like a "schweinerie" or pig sty. He used to use this word so often that he was christened "Schweinerei" by the "Krieggefangeners." He was also very fond of taking salutes and always after the Sunday morning parade he would have a grand march past of all the prisoners, the O.C. of each squad of twenty saluting and the rest of the squad marched German fashion, hands stiffly by the side and eyes right, as we marched by him, and he would solemnly salute, his chest puffed out, mostly I believe for the effect it produced on the villagers around, who used to stand and gape at this exhibition of the power and might of Germany. The rest of Sunday we could do as we liked, either walking up and down the few yards of grounds around the barracks, or sleeping, playing cards of anything you fancied.
The second day we arrived four Canadians escaped, Edwards, Symonds, and two other chaps - out the barbed wire practically under the nose of the Hun sentry and made a clean getaway, but were captured a few days later and brought back to camp. I did not get a chance to see them as they were moved to another camp, from which they again escaped and set [out] across the Dutch frontier successfully. It was at this camp I first seriously thought of escaping and started in to save grub. I discovered a Russian who had two compasses and after about a week's coaxing and bargaining, rather difficult, we could neither speak each other's language, we finally came to terms, and I gave him 15 marks in cash and several shirts and suits of underwear, so I managed to get hold of the most necessary article for our escape.
The next thing I did was to steal a small file from the workshop outside of the camp. One of the chaps had got hold of a small German time-table and had in it a small railway map, which he gave me. I wrote home for an oilskin coat and a pair of water-wings to be sent to me These arrived OK.
Previous to my getting a compass from my Russian friend I had written home a post card, asking for my geometrical instrument to be sent, also an article mentioned on Page 26 of Munsey's magazine, which together with Quaker Oats made an excellent breakfast. The article on Page 26 of Munsey's was a map of Italy and by geometrical instruments I meant of course, a compass, but mother was advised not to send them for fear I should get into very serious trouble. I sent this card to a Mrs. West in England, who immediately jumped to the conclusion that I had gone a trifle weak in the head but Elspeth [B.R.'s sister] immediately twigged [to] what I wanted, but followed the advice of same d.f. [damn female?] or other and did not send them, although I got the water wings sent, but by another friend.
I made a practice of interviewing every prisoner of war who had made an unsuccessful attempt at escape, to find out his experiences and reason for the recapture. They were usually due to the same cause - an over-eagerness to get across the frontier, which led them to expose themselves needlessly in the daytime and in spots where it was absolutely essential to keep hidden. Another point which nearly all the men I spoke to agreed upon, was not to attempt to cross the frontier in a larger party than two. Even if you left camp with more than that number, always to break up into parties of two for the final dash across the line. A chap called John E. Clarke,,an old Rugby boy, was busy saving up food for our attempt and we only waited for a suitable opportunity which never seemed to come when were all prepared for it, and always seemed to come when we were not, as for instance, on one trip Clarke made to Oldenburg the guards all got so gloriously drunk, the prisoners of war had to drag them back to camp in the barge. The next trip to Oldenburg we both managed to get on it, but the guards were changed and never took a drink and on top of this had a suspicion that Clarke and I contemplated an attempt at escape, owing to the large amount of food we were carrying. They were just waiting for us to make the attempt. For this information we had to thank a chap who could speak German, and who had overheard the guards conversing amongst themselves, so it was extremely lucky for us we did not attempt to "beat it."
Soon after the trip to Oldenburg we got a new job, being taken off the digging up the Moor and attached to a peat manufacturing machine, back-breaking work, and we usually returned to barracks so thoroughly done up that we only had energy enough to creep into our barracks and go to sleep. Two Frenchmen escaped from the moor-digging squads and the guards had search parties all over the moors for them, but I don't know whether they were recaptured or not. Two Russians escaped but were recaptured later while crossing the River Ems.
Just before Easter 1916 I was picked out to go to another camp about twenty odd miles away, but twenty miles nearer the Dutch frontier, so on Easter Tuesday we started out by barge, about fifty of us, taking it in turns to tow the barge. On the way we passed several POW camps and at one camp I will always remember the sight of about twenty "Englanders" being driven out to work, the guards having long whips besides their rifles and lashing out at any men who lagged behind. It was enough to make your blood boil to see men treated like a lot of cattle, just because they were unfortunate enough to be prisoners of war and in their power.
We arrived at our new place towards evening. An old factory building of some kind and occupied by about fifty Russians who were the most pitiable objects I had ever laid eyes on, their clothes in rags, no boots, just wooden sabots with no socks and straw stuck in them. Pale, lifeless-looking specimens of man, just existing from day to day. It appeared that they had been in this camp for two years living on practically a starvation diet and having to work like slaves all day. They had even to put grass in their soup in order to thicken it and dozens of them had died the previous summer simply from lack of nourishing food and overwork, and I quite believe it, as the ones who were living looked more dead than alive.
We were met by a good cursing from the German corporal in charge of this camp, so things looked pretty ripe for a very enjoyable visit at Schwansburg Bei Friesoythe. The first thing I did was to choose a berth by the side of a window where I could watch the guard. The next day we started in to work, the guards rushing into the barracks at six a.m. shouting "Raus, Raus, austand" at the same time energetically thumping the men with the butts of their rifles or at other times coming in with sticks and hammering one and all indiscriminately till everybody was up and coffee fetched. At six-thirty we were counted and marched off to work, the guards, the big fat swine, being pushed along on a small trolley line on a hand-car. The work was bout 2 ½ or 3 kilometres away, a large potato farm, owned by a big fat German farmer, and our work was superintended by another German civvy, who was strongly inoculated with hate of all "Englanders."
The work consisted of planting potatoes and carrying sacks of potatoes around, back-breaking work. We got no parcels for over one month and had to exist entirely on [the] German diet, and by the time we finished at night we were hardly able to drag one foot after another. Unfortunately, owing to the fact that no parcels of food arrived I had to break into the store of food, which I had set aside for our escaping adventure; and before parcels arrived it had all gone and so had to start in to save all over again. The guards seemed to get more brutal every day and would kick and hammer anyone whom they thought was not quite working hard enough. [When] one chap was too ill to get out of bed, they waited until the rest of the gang were out on the parade ground. [Then] the "unter officer" and two of his guards went in, the unter officer armed with a stick and the guards with their rifles, and flogged the poor devil out of bed all the time he was dressing, until he got on to the parade ground and [they] made him join the working gang.
After out parcels arrived Harry Ramsey and myself started to save in real earnest and meant to get away just as soon as we had collected enough food to carry us through. Two the chaps escaped, Lovell and a Montenegrin named Adzich, but were recaptured while crossing the Ems and marched back triumphantly by the guards and put into dark cells for twenty-one days. We used to smuggle them in food and cigarettes. I was caught at it once, but got off with dire threats of what would happen to the next man caught smuggling in food. The whole existence at the Kommando was slavery, pure and simple. You worked from practically sunrise to sunset on just enough food to keep body and soul together. The German foreman used to bring out his wife at lunch time to see "the swine eat" as we heard him telling her. I only hope it is my good fortune to meet that selfsame Civvy later on in America or somewhere and get him alone in the backwoods, and have the pleasure of cutting him in small pieces inch by inch.
About the middle of July, Harry and I had saved as much food as we could and were ready, only waiting for a suitable opportunity. Adzich and Lovell had joined us again and when they found out that we contemplated an attempt at escape wanted to join us. So it was agreed upon for the four of us to get away, but to part company at the River Ems and attempt the frontier crossing in two parties. We were all ready for the attempt about the beginning of July 1916. And only waiting for the chance. We had two plans to get away from the camp. One was to get away on Sunday afternoon when the guards were usually very sleepy and slack. There was a deep ditch behind the cookhouse and we proposed getting into this ditch crawling along it on our stomachs, right on to the moor. We finally decided to give us this plan in favour of one that would get us away at night, as two might have attempted the daylight scheme, but it was rather risky with four.
We slept in our clothes every night for about a week, waiting for a suitable night for the great attempt. The night of the 13th of July was an ideal one for our little "show," pouring rain and pitch dark. We carefully watched the sentry on night duty and found he usually made a halt at the guardroom every round he made, so it was a case of a "getaway" between rounds. We had to be awfully quiet as the guardroom was in the next room and any noise could be easily heard. We each wore three pairs of heavy socks over our boots to deaden all noise. The order of getting out was arranged as follows: Adzich to go first, Ramsay second, myself third, and Lovell to bring up the rear. Upon getting out of the barrack we were each to make independently for a shepherd's hut about half a mile away on the moor and there await the arrival of the other three, unless of course we heard shots fired denoting that our escape was discovered. The last half an hour was a very anxious one and every sound we made as we carefully groped our way to the back, seemed magnified a hundred times and the snores and heavy breathing of the rest of the barracks made things very leery and weird.
At the back of the barracks there was a small outhouse, two boards of which we had removed; a man was just able to squeeze through, climb on top of the outhouse outside and from the outhouse drop to the ground, a distance of about seven feet. On the ground we then had to get through some barbed wire. Once through that, a quick dart across the courtyard and into a field of hay, wriggling through the hay on to the moor. Adzich got out OK and seemed to our highly strung nerves to be making an awful row, but he got out and away safely. Ramsay followed and then it was my turn. I got out all right, climbed on to the roof but in jumping off caught on the barbed wire-and for a few seconds, which seemed an eternity, was hung up by the seat of my trousers on the wire. I finally managed to wriggle free, leaving the best part of the seat of my trousers on the line, but it was an awful moment and the noise of the tearing cloth and the rattling of the wire seemed like the rattling of dish pans and I felt the guards must surely hear, but, however, nothing happened and I got across the yard without further mishap and into the hayfield, wriggled through it and on the to moor. There I was about to stand up without fear of being seen, and joined the others at the shepherd's hut from where we [once again] started off.
It was pouring rain but we were all in the best of spirits and trudged on. We crossed the fields we had been working on and made for a small hill we could see in the distance, at least we could see it in the daytime and we knew the direction it was in. The first night we crossed a small river by a bridge, also a railway line and then straight across the moor. We walked steadily until about 4 a.m., until we came to a large hayfield and as there were signs of dawn in the sky we decided to camp there for the day, as it looked about the best cover.
I must have dozed for a couple of hours, for when I woke it was daylight, and heavens how cold I was, my teeth were chattering and Harry was the same, so we snuggled close to each other for warmth and spread my oilskin coat over us to dry and keep us dry as possible, but we were sodden right through to the skin. We had breakfast then, bully beef and biscuits and felt a bit better, although I felt as if I was in a sort of dream and would wake up to find myself back in our filthy barrack. We did not dare to sit up at all, as we could hear the Germans working in the fields around us - and horror on horror they were cutting the hay. Thank heavens they did not reach us but it was a far from comfortable position for us. As soon as it was properly dark we got up and stretched our legs and buckled on our haversacks and started off again. Our way still lay across the moorland and we figured on reaching the hill by morning. We marched in single file, fell in ditches and helped each other out and jumped small running streams, tumbled and picked ourselves up again and finally arrived at the hill, and we then advanced very cautiously as the village was quite close to the hill.
We had the choice of two hiding places-a very small field of corn or the woods; we finally decided on the woods as the field was overlooked by a small cottage and we might be seen from the upper windows. We carefully crossed the road and into the wood which made an ideal hiding place. You could remain there for a month undetected, as the wood consisted of small fir trees close together and a heavy undergrowth. Our life, however, was made miserable by mosquitoes of which pest there were swarms. We smoked ourselves stupid in our endeavor to get some peace from the brutes. It still continued to rain and the trees were simply dripping water in steady streams. I looked in my diary and found it was my birthday and we sat down to the strangest birthday party I expect I shall ever experience. Instead of cake we ate some "fudge" which had been sent me from a friend of mine in Toronto.
We were fairly close to the main road and could hear the Germans talking to each other as they passed in carts or on foot, but we felt a great deal more secure than on the previous day. The day seemed endless but finally night came and we waited till the dogs stopped barking and all was quiet in the village and started off again. We followed the road for a while, creeping past any cottages or houses; not even a dog barked - expect they had been converted into sausage. After leaving the hill we attempted to go cross-country, but had to come back again to the wood and decided to walk right through the village. It was rather weird, the feeling of going through the sleeping village, marching in single file, each armed with a thick club, which we had [cut] out for ourselves the previous day. I was frankly relieved when we passed the last house and [were] out on the moor again. We stopped at intervals to reset our course by our little compass. Nothing eventful happened and we struck a big field of barley which we decided would be our next hiding place. We were quite near a small manufacturing town but had no idea of the name of it. Horses and cattle in the fields would give us the scare of our lives. We would be crossing a field when suddenly something would jump up in front of us and career wildly around the field and your heart would be in your mouth until you realized what it was, and the relief would be intense.
We went through one fairly large wood, almost a forest and to our great joy on leaving the forest saw a roadway in front of us which we knew from our small map was only a few kilometres from the River Ems. We crossed it safely and arrived at a large main road which we also crossed and hid for the day in a field of wheat. The next night we arrived at the river and decided to stop the next day there and not attempt the problem of crossing the river until the following night. We hid in a wood, rather a poor hiding place this time but the best that offered. We had rather a narrow squeak there as a couple of men and dogs were out rabbit shooting and came perilously near our hiding place, but they did not stumble on us. Our food had practically run out and we ate a meal consisting of two Oxo cubes and a few mouldy crumbs, and smoked our pipes and made plans for the crossing next night.
When night came we all went down to the river to see how things were and started in to make plans to get across. It was a pitch dark night and pouring rain, so we figured on any German patrols being safely in cover somewhere or other. From all accounts of prisoners recaptured, there was a patrol on either side of the river bank, a line of sentries fifty to one hundred yards apart; about four or five kilometres nearer the frontier was another patrol with dogs practically on the frontier itself. We stole two gates from a field near a farm, took them off their hinges and cut down his wire fence to use as a rope and set to work on the construction of a raft. Ramsay knew quite a lot about carpentering and Lovell helped, while Adzich and I pulled down some more of the farmer's fence to enlarge the raft, and by the time we had finished had quite a raft made.
I, being the smallest and lightest of the party, undressed and got on it to test it and much to our disgust found it would only hold one man-and even then he would be partly submerged. So we tied up the raft and commenced a further search for a boat along the river bank, but with no success, so had to come back to the raft as our only means of getting across. Adzich could not swim a stroke as the plan Harry Ramsay and I wanted to follow was to put Adzich on the water wings and the three of us swim across with him and the raft with our clothes on it. We undressed and just as we are about to start and when clothed with nothing but a smile Lovell suddenly claimed he was subject to "cramps" and that he could not swim across without the wings but that for Ramsay and myself to swim over with the raft and he would follow on the water wings afterwards, coming back with the empty raft for 'Adzich. Well, it being decidedly chilly standing around in our bare skins at 1 a.m. in the pouring rain arguing about how were to get across, Lovell's latest whim was agreed to. I know my teeth were beginning to chatter and I wanted action of some kind.
Harry and I started in for the other side which looked very weird and mysterious and the water was darn cold. We arrived OK and in the hurry of getting out of the water upset our clothes in the river. Luckily we had them attached to raft by a piece of puttee and we fished them out, decidedly damp and unattractive looking. Lovell arrived on the wings and started back with the empty raft for Adzich and we put on our dripping clothes and sat down to wait for their return. The next thing we heard and saw was a man running along the river bank waving his hands and shouting, and it turned out to be Lovell who had lost the raft in midstream, swam over to Adzich on the wings and swam back to our side on the wings, leaving Adzich on the other side. After getting some sort of sense into the fellow, Harry and I got hold of the water wings to blow them up again, with the idea of swimming across with them for Adzich, but found the wings done for, a hole in one of the bladders-so there we were, three of us [on] one side and Adzich on the other and no way of getting him and his clothes across with us.
We had a first-class row on the river bank with Lovell, who wanted us to accompany him to the next bridge and walk across, which simply meant in other words to give ourselves up to the guard at the bridge, which we did not see why we should do, on account of Lovell mixing things up and being responsible for the situation. As it was we could not see why we should be the goats anyway. After mutual "compliments" had passed between us, Lovell started along the bank at the same time keeping up a conversation with Adzich on the other bank at the top of his voice. How in the name of heaven we were not captured I don't know. We sat down behind some bushes expecting every minute to be jumped upon by some Teuton gentleman in a spiked helmet, and feeling cold and wet our clothes dripping, the rain descending in torrents, no prospect of grub and our teeth chattering with cold. We did not see Lovell and Adzich again till we got to Holland. Lovell had by a stroke of luck discovered a boat about a quarter of a mile away and got Adzich across.
To resume our adventures, as the morning came we went further into the little wood and hid in a swamp. We were only a few feet away from the road and the river. I'll never forget that day, it seemed endless. It poured steadily all day and we were just about lying in water. Luckily we had tobacco and matches in a waterproof tin and we could smoke. I wish some of the old cranks from the W.C.T.U. could spend a day under the same conditions - they'd all be cured of their anti-tobacco prejudices P.D.Q. Harry went to sleep for a while and I amused myself by keeping the long black slugs from crawling over him. Had to wake him up as he was snoring away, making a devil of a row, and some Germans were in the field behind us, a few feet away, a girl and two men. We could hear them talking and laughing to each other - just a few bushes between us. Big steamers were travelling up and down the river all day.
The day seemed endless and night came at last and the prospect of stretching our legs and getting warm by exercise looked good to us, and away we started. We travelled due West, being able to use the stars as a guide. We passed one small village on the moor, but heard or saw no one, except for the tinkling bells of the cattle, everything and everybody sound asleep. We stuck to the moor entirely. In some spots we had to wade in water up to our knees, very hard travelling. Soon after passing the village we struck the worst swamp of all, [and] had to be very careful, but got through it OK. We attempted to go through one wood but had to give it up as it was too pitch dark, and we retraced our steps for a while and went round it. We were now all eyes and ears as we were commencing the last and most risky part of the whole business being near the frontier, but of course not knowing how near, and we had to watch every step. We located one guardhouse, got close enough to see one of the sentries lighting his pipe, and crawled safely by. Our next attempt at crawling past a "patrol" flat on our stomachs turned out to be somewhat of a comedy. We saw a line of figures about a hundred yards away and we could swear they were moving towards us and some we fancied parallel with us, so there we lay on our faces, motionless, and later on gradually wriggling along snake fashion a few yards at a time. We must have kept this up for an hour or so; finally the moon came out from under a cloud and we discovered our "patrol" was nothing else but blocks of peat piled up about the height of a man. We had quite a laugh but [felt] quite relieved as well, but the semidarkness plays tricks with your eyesight and we could have sworn the figures moved.
We had travelled pretty steadily all night but had wasted so much time dodging our "peat Patrol" that when the moor ended and a large field of rye was in front of us, we decided to call a halt and camp for a day. The next day was a lovely one, hot sunshine and we both took off our soaking wet clothes and spread them out as much as possible to dry. Our "inner man" was beginning to cause us great inconvenience, also the lack of water, and we attempted to get as much moisture as possible from sucking the unripe rye wheat - damned unsatisfactory way of getting a drink. However I still had my trusty old pipe and Harry his eternal "shag" and cigarette papers, so we smoked all day. Our clothes were partially dry and very comfortable it was to get into them after living in wet and sticky things for 8 days or so. Finally the long-looked for night arrived and we knew it was a case of being either killed, captured or Free, before the next night arrived.
We stood up cautiously in our field of rye and carefully checked our position by compass and made sure we had got the absolute Westerly direction, although it was easier as we had the stars to guide us and a moonlight night, which had its disadvantages, but which worked both ways. We could see others as well as they us. After leaving the field we struck across country coming to a small canal, which we crossed on our hands and knees after having carefully watched for any sign of a German sentry. We then came to a narrow country road which we crept along well in the shadow of the high hedge on one side of it, until we came to a cross road, here we halted and lay down as we heard voices and presently men shouting to one another and also colored lights going up and down along what we took to be another road directly opposite us.
We were not in a very sheltered position as we were just lying in the shade of the hedge, so we crossed the road and lay in a shallow ditch and none too soon, as we had hardly got there when I heard voices and footsteps approach and gave Harry a nudge and a whisper to keep still and believe me we were both as quite as mice. My only fear was that they would hear my old heart pounding against my ribs, but the German patrol passed by us, both whispering to each other and with their rifles slung, but to our intense relief without grabbing us, which they could have done by just stooping down had they seen us. I can still feel the sort of cold chill that went down my spine during those few seconds.
After this patrol had passed we lay quiet for a few minutes and the only sound we could hear was the shouts of the sentries to each other and a sort of subdued baying of dogs, which must have been kept in the house we could dimly see on the other side of the road a little further on. After waiting about 5 minutes we decided to cross the field in front of us and make our way across to where we had seen lights which we figured must be the frontier. We then dropped our coats and sticks and crawled over the bank into the field which was just meadowland with no shelter, and commenced to wriggle our way across, slow anxious work as the moon was shining brightly and we expected to be seen any second. We got about half way across this field when Harry stopped, gave me a kick and pointed to some mounds we had just crawled up and I noticed they were newly filled in graves, decidedly cheering sight to two half-starving prisoners of war on the borders of Germany.
We had hardly passed these graves when we hard three rifle or revolver shots in quick succession, followed by a blood-curdling yell and then dead silence. We halted for a second and I happened to glance to the right and I saw sentry dashing out from the corner of a field and coming in our direction. Soon after Harry saw him and up we both got and ran like hell for the house in the other corner of the field. I got caught for one second in a barbed wire fence but tore myself free and gained the shelter of the garden of the house and [we] both lay still again. Thinking it over afterwards I am inclined to think that it was some other poor devil they were after and got, but I don't know - things happened so quickly anyway, sentries were running up and down the other side of the garden hedge and after a while Harry took a cautious glance over and fairly groaned at me "for God's sake Dick look over the hedge." I did so and here were two Zeppelins or small sized air ships anchored, evidently kept for observation on the Dutch frontier. Anyhow it was decidedly no place for two homeloving Englanders to be hanging around, so we crawled along the hedge and across flower gardens to the other side of the garden and arrived at the gate. I cautiously crept forward and looked out, only to see a sentry outside and the shadow of another across the road.
There happened to be a sort of shrubbery across the other side of the garden and we crawled into it, safe for a minute or two we hoped. Sentries passed up and down all night and we decided that our chances of escaping looked about as good as a snowdrop in hell, and our chances of filling one of those graves we had passed, were most promising. When morning came on we took stock of our surroundings and discovered that the very house whose grounds we were hiding in, was an aircraft headquarters of some description. They had a sort of wooden platform on the roof with a gun mounted on it and all the glass from the upper windows had been removed, so altogether we were not awfully optimistic and after talking things over we came to the conclusion that if we remained much longer where we were it was a damned certainly that we would be captured and the probabilities were that we would be shot without much ceremony. So we agreed that when the civilians started to move around we would move too and walk out of the gate.
After a while about 6 or 7 in the morning, people seemed to be moving outside and we did not see a sentry. We got up and walked outside following about thirty yards behind two Germans carrying dinner pails. We then decided it would look more natural if we were smoking so we both lit up and followed these civvies. Everybody seemed to stare very intently at us, especially two or three women from the cottages we passed, but we met no sentries and we had branched off on to another road, which we had no idea where it led to. Passed several Germans who grunted good-morning to us and one old man stopped and growled something to me In German. I hadn't the faintest idea of what it was he was saying as I growled "Ja, Ja" and passed on and he appeared satisfied.
Two more awful looking scarecrows you can hardly imagine - nine days beard, no wash, sleeping anywhere in mud had made our clothes in an awful state and they had also been torn by barbed wire. Altogether we must have presented a very pretty spectacle on a nice summer morning. We kept on going mechanically forward and always with the inclination to be looking back. Once we saw some figures on bicycles following us and our hearts were in our mouths for fear they might be sentries, but they were harmless civilians who grunted good-morning. Finally after following the canal we came across a crowd of workmen round some sort of automatic digging machine. They gave us the "once over" but said nothing and we passed on but decided to take the next turning to a less frequented thoroughfare.
We came to a turning shortly and went straight ahead, coming to a railway crossing and to our horror was a soldier in full kit coming down the railway tracks with a civvy, so we decided to walk straight ahead with no appearance of attempting to avoid anything and we got away with it for they never said a word to us. So on we plodded feeling as hungry as the very devil and this was the beginning of the fourth day since we had had anything to eat and we were getting desperate.
We passes a bakery shop and the spelling of the word bakery did not seem quite German, but however it never dawned on us we were actually out of Germany. However, a few yards further on we came to a wood where we sat down and I happened to pick up a half sheet of newspaper and found it to be Dutch, so Harry and I decided it was time to find out definitely where we were. We waited a while and presently an old farmer driving some cows came along the road and we stepped out of our hiding place and asked him in German whether we were in Germany or Holland and he replied "Nederland." Well he must have thought he had a couple of lunatics to deal with as we commenced an impromptu dance on the roadway. After we had finally quieted down we remembered that a good meal was quite in order and we broached the subject by signs and a little German and he took us in tow up to his farm, where his wife immediately got us two thick slices of delicious brown bread to start on and went in to cook us bacon and potatoes and make coffee. God, shall I ever forget that meal with the village who had collected around to watch the animals feed.
It isn't clear from my father's records where he was sent following his escape. However, it seems to have been the policy at the time not to send escaped POWs back to the front, possibly because they might have been coerced into the funnelling of information to the enemy. He decided instead to join the fledgling air arm, but before he could undertake any serious training, the war ended.
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Copyright © Richard Racey, July, 2002.
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