Special Articles

In the Prison Camps of the Kaiser

The Experiences of a Canadian Prisoner of War

Captain Gilbert Nobbs November 1 1917
Special Articles

In the Prison Camps of the Kaiser

The Experiences of a Canadian Prisoner of War

Captain Gilbert Nobbs November 1 1917

EDITOR’S NOTE — The article following consists of selections from a complete narrative of his experience at the front by Captain Nobbs, which is appearing in book form. The author, who is totally blind, was released by the German military authorities some months ago.

"ENGLISHMAN! Kamarade!" Had I the strength I should probably have screamed with joy, for that was my impulse at hearing a human voice. A second later and my feeling was to shrink from discovery. Surrender? Was it then to come to this, after all?

I did not answer; it was not necessary.

He must have heard me shout; he must know where I am. I was unarmed and helpless; what need to answer such a call? He would probably seek me, and I should be found without need to foul my lips with an answer.

And then I felt that it was not my life that was being saved, but a lingering death avoided by a murderous, but quick despatch. Well, perhaps it was better it should come that way.

Presently I heard some one crawling towards me. A few pebbles rolled down the slope, and there was silence again. I felt that he was looking down at me. Again a shuffle, and a quantity of loose earth rolled down the slope, and he was sliding down towards me.

The supreme moment had arrived. Would it be a bullet or a bayonet thrust; and where would it strike me?

I lay perfectly still. He seemed to be bending over me undecidedly. I thought he might believe me dead and go away without finishing me off, to seek the cause of the shout elsewhere.

I raised myself on my elbow and moved my face towards him. Then, to my astonishment he put his arms around my body and raised me up. What strange wonder was this? He put my arm around his neck, and with his own arm around my body, he raised me to my feet. But I could not stand. Then, placing both arms firmly around me, he dragged me out of the shell-holes. I felt myself being dragged several yards, and then he stopped.

I heard many voices talking below me. What would happen next? Then several hands caught hold of me, and I was lifted into a trench.

Some one gave an order, and I was dragged along the trench and around a corner. More voices seemed to come from still farther below. Some one picked hold of my feet, and I was carried down several steps. I was in a dugout.

It seemed warm and cosy. There were officers around me. Here must be the company commander whom I had driven away two days before. Now he could take his revenge. What mercy could I hope from him?

A voice asked me a question in English. But by this time I had collapsed completely. I tried to speak, but no sound would come from my throat. My head seemed to be an enormous size; my jaw would not move. I felt some one examine my tunic and my pockets. No, there were no papers there. I heard some one say, “Hauptmann.” Then more talking.

A cigarette was put in my mouth. I held it between my swollen lips, but could not inhale. A sharp command was given, and once more I was lifted up on to some one’s back, and was being dragged down a long communication trench.

I was able presently to realize that I was in a dressing-station, for I was laid on a stretcher. Some one bent over me, evidently a medical officer.

My throat was parched. Oh, how thirsty I was! He was saying something to me in English in a very kindly manner. He opened a bottle of Seltzer water, and, lifting me up, placed it to my lips. I held out my hand for more. Bottle after bottle of Seltzer water was opened, and I drank one after the other. In my haziness I seemed to be wondering how they came to be supplied with such quantities of Seltzer water so close up to the front line.

He opened up my tunic and rubbed something on my chest. I heard him say, very gently:

“Injection against tetanus. It won't hurt you”; and then I felt a very slight pin prick. He laid me down again. My head was throbbing.

How hot and stuffy it was! I heard some groans, voices were speaking in a low tone. I again heard the word, “Hauptmann.”

Of the days which followed I have only a hazy recollection. My brain and body sustained during the period of danger and strain, collapsed completely, and during the next six days I had only occasional periods of sensibility.

I can, therefore, only recall the facts between the time of my being picked up and my arrival at Hanover, six days later, in a disjointed manner.

Telling only of incidents, which stand out here and there in my memory, it must be borne in mind that during the operations of September the 8th and 9th I had felt the weight of my responsibility; and the great shock caused by my wound and the two days’ exposure and suffering that followed, imposed a great strain upon my system, and reaction had now set in.

My wound had received no attention, and my right eye was hopelessly mutilated. The optic nerve of my left eye was damaged beyond repair, and the eye itself was obscured by an enormous swelling. My sense of smell was gone, and my cheeks, nose, and mouth were swollen and numbed to a painful degree.

I had lost power in my lower jaw, which would barely move. My nerves were completely shattered, and the mere touch of a hand would make me shrink with fright.

I had lost my voice, and during the occasional periods of sensibility, I could only speak in a startled whisper, while my brain in hideous delirium would constantly take me back to the scenes through which I had just passed.

I remember my stretcher being lifted and being placed in a horse-drawn ambulance with several others. Before leaving the M.O. gave me a bottle of water, and so great was my thirst that for several days I kept this tightly gripped in my hand, and would not part with it except to get it refilled.

I have a hazy idea of being transferred from one ambulance to another, and several journeys. The ground was very rough, and the shaking of the wagon seemed to cause great pain to other occupants. The bumping to my own head compelled me to raise it from the pillow and resist the jolts by resting it on my hand.

Where I spent Monday night I do not know, but on Tuesday night I found myself in what must have been a small hospital in a town I do not remember.

It seemed to me that I was in a sort of basement of a private house, and that a man and woman were watching over me, exhibiting very great kindness and compassion.

I seemed to awaken from my stupor, and remember some snatches of conversation, as they bent over me, for they could both speak a little English.

Blood and clay were still caked on my face and hair; and my uniform was sticky with blood and grime. Oh, how I wished I could take it off and be put into clean clothes and a bed!

The man was taking off my boots.

“Dese very goot boots, yah?”

I assented in a whisper.

“You have dem give you, yah?”

“No,” I whispered, “bought them myself.”

“Where do you buy such goot boots?”


"Ah, yah. I thought you would not get such goot boots for nothings. Look after dem well; we don't get goot boots like dat here."

I whispered to him:

“What is that noise?”

“Ah, it is a pity. Ze English zey have been firing ze long-range guns here, big guns. Zay carry twenty-seven miles. Ve moved dis hospital two times, yah.”

The woman came up to my stretcher with a basin of soup. I shall never forget that basin of soup. It was probably very ordinary soup, but when I tasted the first spoonful I devoured it ravenously, for all this time I had not realized that I was suffering from starvation. For the past three days not an atom of food had passed my lips, and for two days previous to that an occasional bite of bread and cheese was my only ration. Even now I was not destined to receive the nourishment my body craved for; for one basin of soup per day was all I received during the remainder of that week.

STILL grasping my bottle of water under my blanket, I was removed next morning and placed in a freight truck with two others, one a sergeant in the Guards, and the other a private in the—, London Regiment. We were locked in the truck, and kept there for many hours without food or conveniences of any kind, and finally arrived at St. Quentin.

Some one removed the blanket from my face and examined my shoulder-strap. I heard him, say “Hauptmann,” and after that I seemed to be treated with some consideration.

I did not understand a single word of German, and the repetition of this word puzzled me. It must have been some connection with my rank. I would try it on the next person who came near me and see what happened.

I had not long to wait, for by and by the stretchers were lifted and were carried into the hospital at St. Quentin. I was placed alongside a large number of others, and the place created a very unpleasant impression of the attention I was likely to receive.

The place seemed like Bedlam. All round me I heard the groans and cries of the wounded. How long would I be left here unattended? How I longed to have my clothes removed! And what of my wound—how much longer must I go before it was attended to? And what was happening to it all this time?

I heard some voices near me speaking in German. Now was the time I would test that magic word, and see what would happen. Removing the blankets from my face, and lifting my arm to attract attention, I whispered hoarsely:


Some one stooped down over me, examined my shoulder-strap, and said, “Huhzo!” He then gave an order, and my stretcher was again picked up, and I was carried upstairs to a room reserved for officers.

That “Open Sesame" served me in good stead on several occasions.

But the hospital at St. Quentin was a horrible place. There was a Frenchman in the ward who was raving mad, and between his yells and shrieks of laughter, the moaning of the wounded, and the fitful awakenings from my own delirium I spent a most unhappy time. I think I must have been there about two days, and on the morning after my arrival I was sensible for a while.

Adjoining the ward, and only separated by an open doorway, was the operating-room, where first operations were taking place hurriedly. The scene was something I can never forget. One by one we were being taken in, and the shrieks of pain which followed were too shocking for description. To hear strong men howl with pain is agonizing enough; but to hear them shriek, and for those shrieks to fall upon the ears of nerve-broken men awaiting their turn just outside the open door was terrifying, appalling.

As the shrieks subsided into weakened groans the stretcher would come back into the ward, and the next man be moved in; and so we waited in an agony of suspense, horror, and dread as nearer and nearer we came to our turn.

I do not wish to harrow my readers’ feelings any more by describing how I felt when my stretcher was at last lifted and I was laid on the operating table. I could not see the bloodiness of my surroundings, but I murmured to myself, as I had occasion to do on subsequent and similar occasions:

“Thank God I’m blind.”

THE diet in hospital can hardly be described as suitable for invalids. At the same time it was substantial as compared with what is received in prison camps. For breakfast we received coffee, with two very small, crusty rolls, each about the size of a tangerine orange; each roll cut in half, and a slight suspicion of jam placed between; for déjeuner one cup of coffee, one roll, and some very strong cheese, quite unfit to eat. The dinner was usually quite good, consisting of soup, a little meat and vegetables, and stewed apples or gooseberries. At 3 o’clock a cup of coffee and a small roll; at 6 o’clock supper, consisting of tea without milk, strong cheese, or German sausage or brawn, and a slice of bread.

For this diet we paid eighty marks per month.

An officer receives pay from the German Government on the following scale: lieutenant, sixty marks per month; captain, one hundred marks per month. The German Government recover the payments from the English Government, and it is charged against the officers’ pay in England.

No food is supplied free to officers either in hospital or camp; and they cannot purchase anything beyond the regular issue.

With the exception of the dinner, I found the food of very little use to me for the first week or two, as having lost the power in my jaw, and being unable to open it more than half an inch, I couldn’t tackle the rolls, and what couldn’t be eaten had to be left; there was no substitute.

There was another diet, in which the coffee was replaced by hot milk, which would have been very desirable, except that the dinner consisted of some filthy substance, which was very unpalatable.

For the first week, therefore, I had practically only one meal a day, the dinner; but afterwards by dint of changing from one diet to another I managed to get the dinner of No. 1 diet, and the milk of No. 2.

There was a canteen in the hospital where cigarettes, chocolates, biscuits, and eggs were offered for sale.

The biscuits were never in stock; the chocolate though high in price, was so thin that there was nothing of it; and the cigarettes were unsmokable.

It was a sorry day when we could get no more eggs. We used to depend upon the eggs for supper; for the cheese was uneatable, the brawn suspicious, and the sausage like boiled linoleum. German sausage at the best of time is open to argument; but German sausage in a country which has been blockaded for two and a half years is worthy of serious thought.

The surgical attention was good, though the Russian prisoners who assisted were apt to be rough; and as neither the German doctor nor his Russian assistant could understand each other, and the wounded could understand neither, nor be understood in turn, the situation was sometimes difficult.

The doctor visited each bed at 8 a.m. every morning to inquire the condition of the wounded; but whatever you had to say—which, of course, he did not understand—the reply was always: “Goot, Goot.”

On one occasion we saw flags flying over the city, and that evening for supper we were given a hard-boiled egg. We were told it was the Empress’s birthday. We made anxious inquiries as to when the Kaiser and the Crown Prince would have a birthday.

A few days after I arrived at Hanover, my right eye was removed, and the following day the doctor told me, through an interpreter, that I should be sent back to England. I asked when I should be sent, and was told in three or four weeks.

It was about this time that I began to develop an unsatiable appetite for sweet things. I have found that many have had the same experience, after a period of privation following upon their wounds. I would buy up all the jam, chocolate, and toffy I could lay my hands on, which came in parcels to other prisoners. When I wrote home for parcels to be sent to me, I hardly mentioned food, which afterwards became so necessary, but asked for sweet stuff.

But what I needed more urgently than anything else was money. When I was picked up the only cash I had on me was two francs, and this I exchanged for a mark and sixty pfennigs, which, with five marks I was able to borrow, kept me going for a while. But it was soon gone, and I found myself without a sou, and no pay due for six weeks.

About ten days after I arrived at Hanover I was able to sit out in the garden, and from then on I began to mend.

WHEN I first became aware that there was a probability of my being exchanged I set to work to gather what information I could.

I came into contact with a good many private soldiers, and in conversation with them I became deeply interested in the commercial value of prisoners of war; for it appeared to me clearly evident that in a country where there were over a million prisoners, possibilities were unlimited; and the German authorities appeared, with businesslike organization, to be taking the fullest advantage of their opportunities.

The unprecedented scale upon which prisoners have been made during the present war has opened up a problem unique in the annals of history. The more prisoners you take the more mouths you have to feed; and the greater becomes the man power necessary for their supervision. With the ever-increasing number of prisoners the problem grows in enormity, and can either develop into embarrassing proportions, or by scientific handling can be turned to advantage.

In England for over two years we have herded our prisoners behind bayonets and barbed wire. The financial resources of the country have been poured out to feed idle hands, supplying food without repayment, at a time when the food and labor problems of the nation are becoming its most serious problems.

For over two years we have allowed the question to slide into obscurity, until today in our own country the only part of the community which has no anxiety or participation in the problem of living and daily sustenance is the German prisoner in our midst; and yet to-day a large part of what should be our fighting power is kept from the firing-line to supply the needs of the nation and feed the mouths of our idle prisoners.

It has never occurred to us, or if it has we have ignored it, that without contravening the law of nations, prisoners can be made to feed themselves, and be employed in any industry, provided they are not put to work connected with the war.

It has never occurred to us that we have in our midst many of the trade secrets of a country which for generations has been our rival in commerce.

It has never occurred to us that Germany has in her midst men who hold the trade secrets of our empire, and is learning them day by day by the employment of our men in her industries.

If we neglect this problem any longer we may find that when the world resumes its normal trade activity Germany, on this point at any rate, will have scored a commercial victory.

The nations of the world are at war. But the armies of to-day are civilian armies, comprising men of industrial and commercial education, and the prisoners of to-day are men of commercial and industrial value.

Our adversaries have been quick to recognize this. We seem to be still imbued with the idea that the German soldier in our midst is simply a fighting machine!

So he is. But when the time came for the civilian to take up arms and supplement the professional fighting force, there fell into our hands an industrial fighting machine in the guise of a military prisoner.

We have the impression that a military prisoner is an individual whose one desire is to escape and jump at our throats; and that the safety of the nation compels us to stand over him with a bayonet and regard his every movement with suspicion.

Yes, I do not deny that a very large number of prisoners in our midst would be glad to get back to their homeland, especially if there was no further prospect of having to face the British in the firing-line. But keep a man idle for months behind barbed wire, like an animal in a cage, and you encourage his desire to escape far more than if you diverted his mind by industrial employment.

Have we not a barbed wire supplied by nature completely surrounding our country? Are we not on an island?

I had many opportunities of talking with our men in Germany and of gaining information as to the manner in which the German authorities were taking advantage of the problem we avoid, or occupy our time in idle discussion.

I WILL take one concrete example. In Hameln Lager the commandant has charge of 50,000 prisoners, of which 30,000 are “living out”! They are working out in commandos on the farms, in the factories, in the workshops; in large batches, small batches, and even singly.

I met one man who had been employed alone in a wheelwright’s shop. He was a wheelwright by trade. How many wheelwrights’ shops are there in England which could do to-day with one of the wheelwrights we are keeping idle behind barbed wire?

What information did that man’s employer gain by the way the work was done? How simple the method of obtaining the labor; simply go to the labor bureau attached to the imprisonment camp nearest to your workshop, and ask for a wheelwright. You keep your industry going, and thus, in the only practical way keep open the job for the man who is called to the colors.

The employer pays the man no wages, but the local trade-union rate of wage is paid to the commandant who supplies him. Thirty thousand prisoners from a single camp contributing to the industry of the nation, and the wages of 30,000 prisoners contributing to the cost of the war. The prisoner receives through the commandant 30 pfennigs (3d.) per day, and is glad of the employment.

A very large number of prisoners are employed as agricultural laborers, and it is quite reasonable to suppose that all the food supplied to the prisoners, such as it is, is grown by prisoner labor.

I was told by men who had worked on farms that they were compelled to work from 4 in the morning until 9 at night. In some cases only one or two were employed on small farms.

I asked those men why they did not embrace the opportunity to make their escape. But they said that while the work was hard they preferred it; as they lived with the farmer, who treated them well if they worked well. They ate at the farmer’s table, and had no non-commissioned officers to bully them; whereas, if they attempted to escape and were caught they would be sent to work in the mines or other equally unpopular task.

ONE cannot speak with these British Tommies and hear of their hardships without feeling a profound admiration for their indomitable spirit. You can take a British soldier prisoner, send him far from the protection of his country, but he is British wherever he goes and his courage and resourcefulness cannot be broken.

Whenever I met a man who had been a prisoner since the beginning of the war, I made a point of getting his story to ascertain the truth about the barbarities I had read of.

There was no mistaking these men. I could not see them, but I seemed instinctively to recognize, and whether it was my imagination or not I cannot tell; but their manner seemed distinctive and they spoke like men who had suffered much and were harboring a just grievance, and lived for the day when they would revenge themselves. As one man put it to me:

“If we ever see a German in England when we get back we will kill him.” These men were taken at Mons; captured, most of them, by sacrificing themselves in rear-guard fighting to save the main British army.

These men have been in captivity for two and a half years.

THE statements which follow, and which were made to me while I was a prisoner of war in Germany, are not from picked soldiers who happened to have sensational stories. They were the only men whom I met who were prisoners in the early days.

Being blind myself, I could not, of course, see the men I was speaking to, but their tone impressed me very much as being men who had suffered in silence.

It was necessary for me to study very carefully what they said and impress it on my memory; and I have committed their statements to writing immediately on my release, for to carry written statements over the frontier was entirely out of the question.

I have put down nothing which was not told to me; neither have I tried to embellish or enlarge upon the statements made, or frame the words of the men in any way that might give an exaggerated impression of what occurred.

It is quite possible, however, that one or two incidents which I have reported from one man may be part of the story of one of the others. But it can be taken as an absolute fact that, taken as a whole, the statements are a true recital of these men’s own description of their experience.

The men were in no way excited. I obtained the information when chatting in the ordinary way over a pipe of tobacco, whenever the men had an opportunity of coming to my room to have a chat.


“I was captured during the retreat in August, 1914.

“My company was left behind as a rear-guard, to enable the rest of the battalion to get away. Our trench was only about two feet deep. Although the Germans were coming on very fast and in enormous numbers, we were not allowed to retire.

“The Germans charged us three times. We lost all our officers, and although we kept on fighting they came on in such large numbers it must have been the main body, for they were all round us, and most of the fellows were killed or wounded.

“They had their revenge on us, too, when they got us, for the German soldiers who were told to look after us did terrible things. They took us one by one and made us run the gauntlet.

“I was bruised all over when I got through, and so were the other fellows.

“One chap when he was running the gauntlet was struck in the face by the butt of a rifle; his nose was smashed and his face covered with blood, and he fell to the ground insensible. They threw him in a ditch, because they thought he was dead; but he was able to crawl out next morning.

“It was awful, that first night, and they didn’t know what to do with us. They made us stand the whole night through in a loose wire entanglement, so that we couldn’t walk about or sit down; and it rained like anything all night long.

“Then we were put in cattle trucks and sent into Germany, and for the first two days they did not give us any food or water.

“On the second day we stopped at a station and a woman came towards us with a large can of soup, and we thought we were going to be fed; but she brought it right up to us, and said: ‘Ugh, dirty Englanders,’ and poured it on to the line.

“I was taken to Soltau Lager; and the food they gave us consisted of a cup of acorn coffee in the morning and a small piece of black bread, which had to last all day, and wouldn’t make more than two good slices.

“For dinner we got a basin of very thin potato soup; sometimes we got a potato in it, and sometimes we didn’t. For supper we got a cup of coffee, and we were supposed to make the bread do for both breakfast and supper.

“The prisoners were sent out from Soltau in working parties to farmers, factories, and coal mines and salt mines. The salt mines were dreaded most, and fellows who had been working there for two or three months looked dreadful. In fact, they could not keep up there longer than that; they got too ill.

“I was sent into a salt mine myself. The hours are not long, because it is impossible to stay down many hours at a time, and we were generally brought up about one o’clock. They did not keep me in the mine long, because they found I was of no use for the work.

“It’s not so bad on the farms, although you have to work from about 4 o’clock till 8 or 9 at night But the food is better, as you generally live at the farmer’s table, and have the same as he does.

“When prisoners are sent in working parties, the employers have to pay the German Government the same wages he usually pays a man, and the prisoners receive from the German Government 30 pfennigs (about 3d.) per day.”

“Did the American Consul ever visit the lager?” I asked.

“Yes, but only once when I was there.”

“Were you free to make any complaints to him if you wished?”

“Two of the fellows did; but they got punished for it.

“Before he visited the lager a notice was put up that the Commandant did not consider there was any reason for complaint, and any man making a complaint would be given 14 days’ imprisonment

“When he called we were drawn up on parade in four companies, and stood to attention, while he passed down the line, asking if there were any complaints.

“By his side was the Commandant and another German officer.”


“I came out with the original Expeditionary Force, and was in the retreat from Mons, but was not captured until October, 1914.

“The German soldiers who captured me treated me quite well. They gave me some of their rations, and allowed me to attend to our wounded.

“I had just bandaged up the leg of a man in the Cheshire Regiment, who had half his foot blown off, when all the prisoners were ordered to the rear.

"A German officer came up and ordered us both to get back; but I pointed out that the Cheshire man was too badly wounded to be moved without help. He ordered me to undo the bandage, and when he saw the condition of the wound, he drew his revolver and shot him dead. He then ordered me to get back.

“We were then sent into Germany, and when we stopped at the railway stations school children were paraded on the platform and threw things at us.

“We were given nothing to eat, and at one station we appealed to a clergyman, who spoke English; but he said that only German soldiers should be fed, and turned away.

“I was sent to Hameln Lager. I was several times sent out with working parties, and we were sometimes treated very roughly, especially when there was only an under officer in charge of us.

“The job I liked best was working for a farmer. Sometimes you get hold of a decent chap, who will treat you well, if you suit him. The work is hard and the hours very long, but you live with the family, and food is much better than what you get in camp; especially as some of the farmers have food concealed.

“The under officers are very rough, and stop at nothing.

“There was a notice up in the lager which said that no man has any right to refuse to work, and that only the laws of the Imperial German Government were recognized; and if any man refused to do what he was told, the guards had authority to use their rifles.”

“Did they ever use them?” I asked.

“I never saw them myself; but a man came into the lager one day who said that just before he was moved one of the men was being badgered about by his guards, until he at last turned round and knocked one down. The guards immediately ran their bayonets into him, and he died next day.

“The American Consul visited our camp shortly afterwards, and this man told him about it, and was informed the matter was already known, and was being investigated. I do not know if anything came of it.

“Another little trick which they used to employ to force men to work in the mines and other places was to take them out one by one under an armed guard. The rest of us would hear a shot fired, and then they would take another; a shot would be fired, and so on. But we soon got on to that, because we found it was a fake.

“About 100 men were taken away from the lager in the early part of the war to work in a factory, but when they found it was a munition factory they refused to work. They were each sentenced to twelve or fifteen months’ imprisonment. I know this for a fact, because I have spoken to the men. They were very badly treated, and one of them is in hospital to-day, insane.”


“I was at Soltau Lager for a long time before we came here. We used to get one loaf of black bread a day (2 lbs.) between 10 men. The only food we got was some sort of coffee for breakfast, and the same for supper. For dinner we had a basin of soup, which was almost undrinkable, some thin washy stuff; occasionally we got some potatoes.

“In the early part of the war there were about 60 of our fellows sent to work in a munition factory. But when they got there and saw what they had to do, they refused. They were threatened with all kinds of things to make them work, and then they were lined up against a wall, and a number of German soldiers stood in front of them, and told them that if they didn’t work, they would be shot. Then they made a show of loading, and brought their rifles up to the shoulders. When our men still refused they were taken into a building and locked up two or three in a room; and left there for 3 or 4 days without food or water or convenience of any kind.”

I asked Private — if he was quite sure of this statement and the length of time, as the men would be reduced to a state of absolute starvation.

“I am quite sure about it,” he said, “and as for the men being starved, I can only tell you that they were found curled up on the floor, gnawing at their finger-nails.

“When the Commandant let them out he said he was going to send them back to their lager, as he admired their pluck, and didn’t think Englishmen had so much in them.”