Sixteen Months in Germany
What a Canadian Prisoner Saw and Heard in Enemy Territory John Evans
I WAS in Germany as a prisoner of war from June, 1916, to September, 1917, and during the greater part of that time I worked in the coal mines of Westphalia. I rubbed shoulders with the German civilians who worked the mines and in time acquired sufficient intimacy with them and with their language to learn what they thought, what they liked and disliked, what they hoped and feared. The impression I brought away with me was that of a people repressed and mutinous, half-starved, overworked, longing for peace and hoping to see a universal strike that would sweep governments and kings into the discard; a people who muttered in groups but responded almost docilely to the voice of authority, who had given up hope of German victory, but still had enough national spirit left to enthuse over stories of German success. My experience was entirely with the mining class and I cannot say whether the feeling prevailing there was general throughout the German Empire. I feel sure, however, that among the poorer classes, at least, the conditions I found in Westphalia must be general.
The German laboring man is really interested to-day in one subject only—food! A peck of potatoes is more important to him than a victory on the Western front.
My story starts with the third battle of Ypres. The 4th Canadian Mounted
Rifles were in the front line of Zillebeke and we had been pretty severely pounded. The morning of June the second dawned clear and beautiful after a night of hideous anxiety and alarms ; and about 5.30 I turned in for a little sleep with four other fellows who made up the machine gun crew with me. Lance-Corporal Wedgewood, who was in charge of the gun, elected to remain up and clean it. I had just nicely fallen off to sleep when it seemed as though the whole crust of the earth was torn asunder. I wakened to find myself buried under loose earth and sand bags. By a miracle I was not hurt and I finally managed to burrow out. A shell, I found, had blown up our dugout. Two of the crew were killed, but the fourth man had shared my luck. He was without a scratch.
“We’re in for it,” said Wedgewood. “They’ll keep this up for a while and then they’ll come over. We must get the gun
The gun had been buried by the explosion, but we managed to get it out and were cleaning it up again when another trench mortar shell came over. Itdestroyed all our ammunition but 300 rounds. Then the bombardment started in earnest. Shells rained on us like hail stones. The German artillery started a barrage behind us that looked almost like a wall of flame;
so we knew that there was no hope whatever of help reaching us.
Our men dropped off one by one. The walls of our trench were battered to greasy sand heaps. The dead lay everywhere. Pretty soon only Wedgewood and myself were left.
“They’ve cleaned us out now. The whole battalion’s gone,” said Wedgewood. As far as we could see along the line there was nothing left, not even trenches—just churned up earth and mutilated bodies. The gallant Fourth had stood its ground in the face of probably the worst hell that had yet visited the Canadian lines and had been wiped out!
SO we decided to get over to the next machine gun where there might be more ammunition. Taking what was left of our own, we started off down the line, scrambling over dead bodies and dashing through machine gun fire at places where no protection was left. We finally reached the next gun. Not a man was left alive there and the ammunition had been blown up.
We decided to keep on to the next gun, but after going fifty yards or so we reached the end of things. Beyond that point the trenches had been absolutely leveled out and there were few signs even of the unfortunate fellows who had held that section. They had been buried away
from sight. Wedgewood and I were alone —and the time for the German charge was getting near.
It wasn’t long before a trench mortar shell buried us to our waists. We managed to pull ourselves out and crept back a little farther. Here we were joined by two other survivors. We had no idea where they had come from and they were too far gone to bother about explanations. One of them said he had been buried four times. He was dirt and blood from head to foot and so weak that he could only lie in the loose earth and gasp. The other man suggested that we go back and take our chances with the barrage. Wedgewood looked at me and said something, but in that tumult of sound I could not catch what it was. I judged he was asking me what I thought and shook my head. He smiled back at me. We decided to stick it
We got back to the second gun and found that about eight yards of trench was left. We climbed in and waited. The bombardment was so heavy at this time that nearly all of our fellow's who survived or were captured were deaf for months. This I heard afterwards from prisoners. At the same time I learned that roll call after the battle showed only 59 men left in the battalion. The C.M.R.’s had paid for their devotion in holding the
It was not long before one of our party was finished by a piece of shrapnel, the poor fellow who had been buried four times. It was just as well. I was wounded in the back with a splinter from a shell which broke overhead and then another got me in the knee. I bled freely, but luckily neither wound was serious. About 1.30 we saw a star shell go up over the German lines.
“Coming!” cried Wedgewood and jumped to the gun.
The Germans were about seventy-five yards off when we got the gun trained on them. We gave them our 300 rounds and did considerable damage, but the oncoming line was barely checked. It wavered a little and the front line crumpled up, but the rest came on.
What followed does not remain very clearly in my mind. We started back, the three of us. Every move was agony for me.
We did not go far, however. Some of the Germans had got around us and we ran right into four of them. We doubled back and found ourselves completely surrounded. A ring of steel and fierce, pitiless eyes! I expected would butcher us, and then. The got. however, was a series of kicks as we were marched through the lines in the German communication trenches. I tripped up one German who had aimed a kick at me and would probably have been clubbed to death had not an officer come along and ordered my assailant off.
This is to be a story of
what I found in Germany so I shall hurry over the events which immediately followed our capture.
We were given quick treatment at a dressing station and escorted with other prisoners back to Menin by Uhlans. The wounded were made to get along as best they could. We passed through several small towns where the Belgian people tried to give us food. The Uhlans rode along and thrust them back with their lances in the most cold-blooded way. We reached Menin about 10 o’clock that night and were given black bread and coffee— or something that passed by that name. The night was spent in a horse stable with guards all around us with fixed bayonets. The next day we were lined up before a group of German officers at w’hat I imagined must be military headquarters. They asked us questions about the numbers and disposition of the British forces, and we lied extravagantly in our answers. They knew we were lying and gave us up finally. Leaving headquarters that night in cattle trucks we sang “Tipperary” as loud as our weakened condition would permit.
During the next day and a half we had one meal, a bowl of soup. It was weak and nauseating. We took it gratefully, however, for we were nearly starved by this time.
TjMNALLY we arrived at Duimen camp, A where I was kept two months and where the treatment was not unduly rigorous. The food was bad, of course, and very, very scanty. For breakfast we had black bread and coffee, for dinner soup (I can shudder at the thought of turnip soup still) and sometimes a bit of dog meat, for supper a gritty, tasteless porridge which we called “sand storm.” We used to sit around with our bowls of this concoction and extract a grim comfort from the hope that some day Kaiser Bill would be in captivity, and we might be able to send him in a meal of “sand storm.”
While I was at Duimen we had quite a few visitors and one day who should come in but Mr. Gerard, the American Ambassador. He looked us over with very apparent concern and asked us a number of questions. “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked, as he was leaving.
“See if you can get them to give us more food,” spoke up one of us.
“I shall speak to the camp commander about it,” said Mr.
I do not doubt that he did so —but there was no change in the menu, and no increase in the quantities served. Visitors were never permitted to visit us at the place we were finallv shipped to—that torture place known as Kommando 47 and referred to among prisoners as the “Black Hole of Germany.” I want to make it clear that prisoners as a rule are not treated as badly as we were at Kommando 47.
However, after two months of it at Duimen we got word that we were to be sent to
work on a farm. It sounded good. We conjured up visions of open fields and fresh air and clean straw to sleep in and perhaps even real food to eat. They loaded fifty of us into one car and sent us off, and when we reached our farm we found it was a coal mine!
A S we tumbled off the train, stiff and -*A weary and disappointed, we were curiously regarded by a small group of people who quite patiently worked in the mines. They were a heavy-looking lot— oldish men with beards and dull, stolid women. They regarded us with sullen hostility, but there was no fire in their antagonism. Some of the men spat and muttered “Schweinhunds !” That was all.
We were marched off to the “Black Hole.” It was a large camp with large frame buildings which had been erected especially for the purpose. There was one building for the French prisoners, one for the Russians and one for the British and Canadian contingent. Barbed wire entanglements surrounded the camp and there were sentries with drawn bayonets everywhere.
We were greeted with considerable interest by the other prisoners. There were about two hundred of our own there and all of them seemed in bad shape. They had been subjected to the heaviest kind of work on the slenderest rations and were prettv well worn out.
“Hope you like coal mining as a steady thing,” said one of them to me. “I’ve had six months of it.”
“I’ll refuse to work,” I told him.
“No, you won’t,” he said. “I tried that. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Better knuckle under at the start. They’ll simply starve you."
I talked it over with the rest who had come up with me and we decided that this advice was sound. So, when we were lined up next day and told what was ahead of us, we made no protests. Some of us were selected for the mine and some were told off for coke making which, as we soon learned, was sheer unadulterated hell. I was selected for the coal mine and put in three days at it—three days of smarting eyes and burning lungs, of aching and weary muscles. Then my chum, Billv Flanagan, was buried under an avalanche of falling coal and killed. There were not proper safeguards in the mine and the same accident might occur again at any time. So we struck.
The officers took it coolly and as a matter of course. We were lined up and ordered to stand to attention. No food was served out and not even a glass of water was allowed us. We stood there for thirty-six hours. Man after man fainted from sheer exhaustion. When one of us dropped he was dragged out of the ranks to a corner where a bucket of water was thrown over him and, as soon as consciousness returned, he was yanked to his feet and forced to return to the line. All this time sentries marched up and down and if one of us moved we got a jab with the butt end of a gun. Every half hour an officer would come along and bark out at us:
“Are you for work ready now?”
Finally, we gave in. It was not until some of our fellows were on the verge of insanity, however. We stuck it out to a man and then gave in in a body.
After that things settled down into a steady and dull routine. We were routed out at 4 o’clock in the morning. The sentries would come in and beat the
butts of their rifles on the wooden floor and roar “ ’raus!” at the tops of their voices. If any sleep-sodden prisoners lingered a second, they were roughly hauled out and kicked into active obedience. Then a cup of black coffee was served out to us and at 5 o'clock were were marched to the mines. There was a dressing room at the mine where we stripped off our prisoners’ garb and donned working clothes. We stayed in the mines until 3.30 in the afternoon and the “staggers”—our pet name for the foremen—saw to it that we had a busy time of it. Then we changed back into our prison clothes and marched back to barracks where a bowl of turnip soup was given us and a half-pound of bread. We were supposed to save some of the bread to eat with our coffee in the morning. Our hunger was so great, however, that there was rarely any of the bread left in the morning. At 7 o’clock we received another bowl of turnip soup and were then supposed to go to bed.
If it had not been for the parcels that we received from friends at home and from the Red Cross we would certainly have starved. We were able to eke out our prison fare by carefully husbanding the food that came from the outside.
At first our intercourse with the German civilians in the mine was very limited. For the first few weeks I did not understand a word of German and I made no effort to get on friendly terms with them. I controlled my temper under the most aggravating forms of persecution as best I could. And in the meantime I studied them closely.
The men working in the mines when I first arrived were mostly middle-aged. Many were quite venerable in appearance and of little actual use. It seems an axiom
in Germany, however, that all must work. To do the people justice I don’t know that I heard any complaints on that score. They were willing enough to work and work hard; what they complained about was the lack of food. That was the burden of their conversation, always, food—bread, butter, potatoes, Schinken (ham) ! It was quite apparent that they were living on meagre rations and the situation grew steadily worse. The people that I worked with were in almost as bad a plight as we prisoners of war, in fact. In the course of a few months I could detect changes in them. There was one big and rather
florid fellow particularly. He was a husky specimen when I first saw him, weighing at least two hundred pounds. He would unquestionably have been in the army but for a lameness in one leg caused by an explosion in the mine some years before. I judged he had always been a hearty eater and it was almost pathetic to hear him talk of the good times and the good meals before the war. When I left he was still at the mine and had fallen away until he could not have weighed more than one hundred and sixty pounds. He had become dull, morose $nd without hope.
T T was not only lack of food from which A they suffered. Clothing was very scarce. I know that the clothing supplied to prisoners for work in the mine depreciated in quality very noticeably during my term at the “Black Hole.” In camp we wore blue serge suits supplied by the British Red Cross. At first the authorities took these suits and sewed in arrows of red cloth on sleeves and trousers and up the back. Later, instead of sewing in the red arrows they simply painted them on; and every few days we would have to go to have these symbols of servitude slapped on with a brush. One day in the mine I caught the sleeve of my coat on some projection and it ripped right up with a sound like tearing paper. A civilian working near me laughed.
“It’s half paper,” he said. “The only kind of clothes we can afford nowadays are almost as bad. I could tear the clothes I’m wearing to tatters — and they’re nearly new.”
Leather was almost unobtainable. Many of the people in the mine went barefoot and most of them came to work that way. I had a pair of good army boots that had been practically new when the Fourth
went up to Ypres and which served me all through my term of imprisonment. Those boots were coveted by every one in and about the mine from the highest “stagger” down. I have thought since it was strange that I was not held up and forcibly dispossessed of them. I had plenty of offers for them, running all the way up to 150 marks, but, knowing that I possessed a treasure, I refused to sell.
The German miners were quite as much at the mercy of the “staggers” as we were. Discipline was very rigid and they were “strafed” for any infraction of rules; that is, they were subjected to cuts in pay. Lateness, laziness or insubordination were punished by the deduction of so many marks from their weekly earnings and all on the say-so of the “stagger” in charge of the squad. The first few days I was puzzled at one custom. At a certain hour each day an official would come around and hand each civilian a slip. It was an important matter, apparently, for the men put great store on those slips. I asked one of my companions, a British Tommy, who had been in the mine for a year or more and had picked up quite a smattering of German, what it was all about.
“Bread ticket,” he explained. “If they don’t turn up for work they don’t get their bread tickets and have to go hungry. A simple system—and effective. Typical German government trick, eh?”
It was quite effective. It made regularity a necessity as well as a virtue. The same rule applied to the women who worked around the head of the mine, pushing carts and loading the coal. If they came to work they received their bread tickets ; if they failed to turn up, the little mouths at home would go unfed for
T OFTEN used to stop for a moment or 1 so on my way to or from the pit-head and watch these poor women at work. Some went barefoot, but the most of them wore wooden shoes. They appeared to be pretty much of one class, uneducated, dull and just about as ruggedly built as their men. They seemed quite capable of handling the heavy work given them. There were exceptions, however. Here and there among the grey-clad groups I could pick out women of a slenderer mould, women who seemed to suggest different associations. I made some enquiries later and found that quite a few women from neighboring towns, particularly from Recklinghausen, came out to the mines to work. Some of them were women of refinement and good education who had been compelled to turn to any class of work to feed their children. Their husbands and sons were at the front; perhaps they had already been killed.
I have often wished that the opportunity had presented itself of talking to some of these women. Their viewpoint would have been interesting, I think. But, of course, this was quite impossible. For one thing, the women about the mine were always very bitter towards the prisoners. We could get on more or less intimate terms with most of the men, but the women spat at us impartially, and called us “Schwein!” I can imagine that the bitterness of a woman of good position who had been forced to seek work in the mines because of the death or absence at the front of her husband would be very deep-seated toward us, the hated English, and perhaps also toward the German authorities.
I know this, that the food restrictions caused bitterness among all the mine workers. In the early days, when I had not picked up enough German to understand what was going on around us, I could tell that my fellow-workers were in a continual state of unrest. There were angry discussions whenever a group of them got together. For several days this became very marked.*
“There’s going to be trouble here,” my friend, the English Tommy, told me. “These people say their families are starving. They will strike one of these days, mark my words.”
THE very next day, as we marched up to work in the dull grey of the early morning, we found noisy crowds of men and women around the buildings at the mine. A ring of sentries had been placed all around.
“Strike’s on ! There’s a bread strike all through the mining country.” The news ran down the line of prisoners, starting I don’t know where. But it was right enough. We were delighted, of course, because it meant that we would have a holiday. The authorities did not dare to let us go into the mines with the civilians out; they were afraid we might wreck it. So we were marched back to camp and allowed to stay there until the strike was over. We did not have a chance on that account to see what was going on. Apparently, however, there was plenty of excitement.
The strike ended finally and the people came back to work jubilant. They had won their point, it seemed. Just what it was they had been granted I am not sure, but it had to do with the question of more food. The authorities had given in for two reasons as far as we could judge. The first was the dire need of coal which made any interruption of work at the mines a calamity. The second was the fact that food riots were occurring in many parts and it was deemed wise to placate the people.
BUT the triumph of the workers was not complete. The very next day we noticed signs plastered up in conspicuous places with the familiar word “Verboten” in bold type at the top. One of our fellows who could read German edged up close enough to see one of the placards.
“There won’t be any more strikes,” Jie informed us. “The authorities have made it illegal for more than four civilians to stand together at any time or talk together. Any infringement of the rule will be jail for them. That means no more meetings.”
There was much muttering in the mine that day, but it was done in groups of less than four, we noticed. I found afterwards, when I became sufficiently familiar with the language and with the miners themselves to talk with them, that they resented this order very bitterly. But they respected it. The German is very law-abiding.
I found that the active leaders in the strike shortly afterwards disappeared from the mine. Those who could possibly be passed for military service were drafted into the army. This was intended as an intimation to the rest that they must “be good” in future. The fear of being drafted for the army hung over them all like a thunder cloud which might burst at any moment. They knew what it meant and they feared it above every-
When I first arrived at the mine there
were quite a few able-bodied men and boys around 16 and 17 years of age at work there. Gradually they were weeded out for the army. When I left none were there but the oldest men and those who could not possibly qualify for any branch of the service. The dragnet had been of the finest variety. No fish had escaped.
IN the latter stages of my experience at the mine I was able to talk more or less freely with my fellow-workers. I had picked up quite a bit of German with the help of some of the other prisoners who had been there longer and who in one or two cases had spoken German before. A few of the Germans had for their part picked up a little English. There was one old fellow who had a son in the United States and who knew about as much English as I knew German and the two of us were able as a result to talk freely. If I did not know the “Deutsch” for what I wanted to say he generally could understand it in English. He was a creaky, rheumatic old codger with very bad eyes, but a genial disposition in spite of his many infirmities. He was very prone to terrific indictments of the German government, but at bottom he was intensely patriotic to the Fatherland. He hated England with a degree of hatred that caused him to splutter and get purple in the face whenever it was necessary to mention “the tight little island.” But he could find it in his heart to be decent to isolated specimens of Englishmen. I shall call him Fritz, though that was not his name.
I first got talking with Fritz one day when the papers had announced the repulse of a British attack on the Western front.
“It’s always the same. They are always attacking,” he was muttering. “Of course, it’s true that we repulse them. They are but English and they can’t break the German army. But how are we to win the war if it is always the English who attack?”
I made this much out of what he was saying. So I broke in with a question: “Do you still think Germany can win?” “No!” he fairly spat at me. “We can’t beat you now. But you can’t beat us! This war will go on until your pig-headed Lloyd George gives in.”
“Or,” I suggested, gently, “until your pig-headed Junker Government gives in.” “They never will!” he said a little proudly, but sadly, too. “Every man will be killed in the army—my two sons, all— and we will starve before it is all over!” I soon found that this impression was pretty general. They had given up hope of being able to score the big victory that was in every mind when the war started. What the outcome would be did not seem to be clear to them. All they knew was that the work meant misery for them and that, as far as they could see, this misery would continue on and on indefinitely. Stories of victory had lost their power to rouse the people, at any rate the people of the mines. They had lost confidence in the newspapers. This, of course, was never acknowledged to us, but it was plain to be seen that the stereotyped rubberstamped kind of official news that got into the papers did not begin to satisfy the people. Also there was a growing impatience with reference to the Royal family. Many’s the time I heard bitter anathemas heaped upon the Hohenzollern8 by lips that were limp and white from malnutrition. There was no love among the miners for the glitter and
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Sixteen Months in Germany
Continued from page 26
pomp of Potsdam. They were socialists, out and out. They hated war, they hated war-makers, they hated the English—and they were beginning to hate the war element in their own land.
THERE was much excitement among them when early in 1917 the news spread that unrestricted submarine warfare was to be resumed. Old Fritz came over to me with a newspaper in his hand and his eyes fairly popping with excite-
“This will end it!” he declared. “We are going to starve you out, you English. Submarines—that’s it!”
“You’ll bring America in,” I told him. “No, no!” he said, quite confidently. “The Yankees won’t come in. They are making too much money as it is. They won’t fight. See, here it is in the paper. It is stated clearly here that the United States will not fight.”
“Then you still believe what the newspapers say?”
Fritz did not answer. He was poring over the paper in the dull light of a lantern and chuckling to himself. I concluded that his open delight at the resumption of submarine warfare was due to two causes: The hepe that it would end the war soon and equally the belief that the “English pigs” would be made to suffer. Others around the mine dilated more on the latter side of it than on the prospects of peace. Any suggestion from us that the United States would come into the war was greeted with hoots of derision. They pooh-poohed the idea and scoffed at America as a military factor.
But when the news came that the United States had actually declared war, they were a very quiet lot. They stood around and discussed the situation quietly and, I thought, furtively. There was no bombast about them that day. I took the first opportunity to pump old. Fritz about the views of his companions.
“It is bad, bad,” he said, shaking his head dolefully.
“Then you are afraid of the Americans after all?” I said.
Fritz laughed, with a short, contemptuous note. “No, it is not that,” he said. “England will be starved out before the Americans can come in and then it will all be over. But—just between us, you and me—most of us here were intending to go to America after the war. We have had enough of wars and sufferings like this. We wanted to go to a land where we would be free from all this. But— now the United States won’t let us in after the war!"
This, I believe, was the feeling all through that mine at least. How general it was throughout the country I do not know. Certainly, however, these men had looked forward to spending the rest of their lives in America and President Wilson’s declaration of war came as a thunder clap to them.
Bitterness grew among them from that time on. At first the news of the sinking of ships created some degree of satisfaction, but the impression had been general that a few months would see the end of it all. As month after month passed and nothing developed they began to get restless and impatient. They could not un-
derstand it. Fritz confided to me several times that England must be on the verge of giving in and that the good news would come all of a sudden; but he did not seem very confident about it. Finally the idea prevailed that the submarines had failed as all the other much heralded coups had done in the past, and from that time on solid gloom was the order of things.
T T was about this time that I began to -*■ hear talk of strikes. The idea of a universal strike was a favorite one among them. They talked of a strike all over the world, the workers to arise and throw off their governments simultaneously and settle the war. When it was given out that an international conference was to be held at Stockholm there was great excitement and jubilation.
“It is coming, the great day!” said Fritz. “When the people, the workers, get together what must be the result? Peace—new things—no more capital and nobility to grind us down—”
“Do you think anything can come of this conference?” I asked him.
“Something must,” he said. “It is the last hope.”
I shall never forget the day that the papers announced the refusal of the English labor delegates to go to Stockholm. One excited miner struck me across the face with the open newspaper in his hand and hurled a jumble of objurgation at me. “Always, always the same!” he almost screamed. “The English block everything. They will not join and what good can come now of the conference? They will not be content and the war must go
I made my escape soon after that and so cannot say what effect the Russian peace parleys and the Italian retreat had on the people. Certainly it would put some new courage into them. Unless, however, something very tangible promising a quick peace develops, I feel sure that the temper of the people will relapse into the dangerous condition which prevailed at the time of which I write.
The last experience I had with civilians that are worth recording have to do with the food shortage which reached a crisis about the time my happy chance to escape occurred. Sometimes when the people took their bread tickets to the stores they found that supplies had been exhausted and that there were nothing to be obtained. Prices had gone sky high. Bacon, for instance, was 10 marks a pound—$2.50. A cake of soap cost 3*/2 marks. Cleanliness ceased to be a virtue and became a luxury. These prices are indicative of the whole range and it is not hard to see the struggle these poor mine people were having to keep alive at all.
At this time our parcels from England were coming along fairly regularly and I believe we were no worse off for food than the Germans themselves. Owing to the long shift we were compelled to do in the mines we fell into the habit of “hoarding” our food parcels and carrying a small lunch to the mines each day. These lunches had to be carefully secreted or the Germans would steal them. They could not understand how it was that starving England could send food abroad to us. The sight of these lunches helped to undermine their faith in the truth of the official information they read in the newspapers.
I do not know that revolution will come in Germany. I am convinced, however, that the lower classes at least would wel-
come it. They are heartily sick of the present order and long for a change. They are allowed to go to moving pictures, but the holding of musicales in their homes has been prohibited. This, but one of many small restrictions, has eaten to the very core of their content, and they aTe angry and mutinous.
THE lot of the prisoners of war at the mines is a hard one. It is in fact almost unendurable. We were supposed to receive four and a half marks (90 cents) a week for our labor, but there was continual “strafing” to reduce the amount. If we looked sideways at a “stagger” we were likely to receive a welt with a pick handle and a strafe of several marks. Sometimes we only received a mark or two for a week's work. Most of this we spent for soap. It was impossible to work in the mines and not become indescribably dirty and so soap became an absolute necessity.
I feel in duty bound to record one incident that redounds to the credit of at least one German and shows that there is still some conception of justice in that country, even where the detested “Tommies” are concerned. I had been more or less of a thorn in the side of the “staggers” all through and they watched me closely. One day three of them found me taking a rest in a worked-out end of the mine, and they proceeded at once to give me a severe beating. I sprang up and swung around a mining lamp that I happened to be holding, catching one of them in the side. They backed off then, but had me haled up that afternoon before the military authorities, who gave me six days “black”—that is, solitary confinement on bread and water When I came out I was handed over to the civil courts on a charge of assaulting civilians. They took me to stand my trial at Recklinghausen.
The judge was an elderly man with a rather kindly face and I thought there was a trace of concern in his eye as he looked me over. So, when the evidence against me had been put in, I decided to make an appeal to him. The charge against me was that I had hit one of the “staggers” in the face with my lantern and hurt him seriously. I spoke up in English.
“Your Honor, this is a court of justice. Are you prepared to give a British soldier the same chance as a German citizen?”
This was translated and the magistrate replied rather severely that, “certainly, I would have the same chance.”
Then I asked: “Is there anyone in rourt who knows anything about a miner’s lamp?”
A man came forward from the back who had worked in a mine and I asked him: “Would it be possible to hit a man in the face with a miner’s lamp without breaking his jaw or marking him up?” The man hesitated and then answered reluctantly, “No.”
The magistrate acquitted me at once.
WE lived under conditions of great discomfort in the camp. As I stated before all the British and colonial prisoners were kept in one building—250 of us in all. There were two stoves in the building in which coke was burned and in winter time the place was terribly cold. The walls at all seasons were so damp that pictures tacked up on them mildewed in a short time. Our bunks contained straw which was never replenished and
we all became infested with fleas. Some nights it was impossible to sleep on account of the activity of these pests. On account of the dampness and the cold we always slept in our clothes.
Discipline was rigorous and cruel. We were knocked around and given terms of solitary confinement and made to stand at attention for hours on the least provocation. It became more than flesh and blood could stand. One day seven of us got together and made a solemn compact to escape. We would keep at it, we decided, no matter what happened until we got away. Six of us are now safely at home. The seventh, my chum J. W. Nicholson, of Winnipeg, is still a prisoner. Poor Nick was the most determined and resourceful of the lot of us, I think. Together we saw the Dutch frontier a few yards ahead only to be caught as we made our last sprint for liberty. It was the hardest of luck that robbed us of our chance that time. Luck was with me later, and not with Nick.
I made four attempts to escape before I finally succeeded. The first time a group of us made a tunnel out under the barricade, starting beneath the flooring of the barracks. We crawled out at night and had put fifteen miles between us and the camp before we were finally caught. I got seven days’ “black” that time.
The second attempt was again by means of a tunnel. A close chum of mine, William Raesides, who had come over with the 8th C.M.R.’s, was my companion that time. We were caught after twenty miles and they gave us ten days’ “black.”
The third attempt was’made in company with my chum Nicholson, of Winnipeg, and we planned it out very carefully. Friends in England sent through suits of civilian clothes to us. We got a hint in advance that they were coming. The procedure with reference to the distribution of parcels was this: We would be summoned to headquarters where the parcels would be heaped up on a long table. The Kommandant would then have a prisoner call out the names on each parcel and a couple of soldiers would open the parcels for examination before handing them on. On the day I thought our suits were about due to arrive I pressed forward for the job of reading the addresses. They let me go ahead without any suspicion.
Sure enough there were parcels for us which looked sufficiently bulky and I was able to slip them unobserved to one of the other fellows. In that way we secured our civilian clothes.
The next day we dressed for the attempt by putting on our “civies” first and then drawing the prisoner’s uniform on over them. When we got to the mine we took off the uniform and slipped the mining clothes on over the others. We worked all day. Coming up from work in the late afternoon, Nick and I held back until every one else had gone. We went up alone in the hoist and tore off our mining clothes as we ascended, dropping each piece back into the pit as we discarded it. ,
It was fairly dark when we got out of the hoist and the guards did not pay much attention to us. There was a small building at the mine head where we prisoners washed and dressed after work and a separate exit for the civilians. Nick and I took the civilian exit and walked out into the street without any interference.
We could both speak enough German to pass so we boldly struck out for the Dutch border, which was 75 kilom. from Kommando 47, travelling only during the
night. We had a map that a miner had sold to us for a cake of soap and we guided our course carefully by it. We got to the border line without any trouble whatever.
The line, we knew, was very carefully guarded. There were three lines of sentries to be broken through, and on the last line they were stationed but fifty yards apart. It was, therefore, necessary to wait until night before making the attempt. We were caught through overconfidence due to a mistake in the map. Close to the line was a mile post indicating that a certain Dutch town was two miles west. Now the map indicated that this town was four miles within the Dutch border.
“We’re over!” we almost shouted when we saw that welcome mile post. Throwing caution aside we marched boldly forward right into a couple of sentries with fixed bayonets.
It was two weeks’ “black” they meted out to us that time. The Kommandant’s eyes snapped as he passed sentence. I knew he would have been much more strict on me as the three-time offender had it not been that the need for coal was so dire that labor, even the labor of a recalcitrant prisoner, was valuable.
“No prisoner has yet escaped from this Kommando!” he declared, “and none shall. Any further attempts will be punished with the utmost severity.”
NEVERTHELESS they took the precaution to break up my partnership with Nicholson, putting him on the night shift. I immediately went into partnership with Private W. M. Masters, of Toronto, and we planned to make our getaway by an entirely new method.
The building at the mine where we changed clothes before and after work was equipped with a bath room in one corner. It boasted a window with one iron bar intersecting. Outside the window was a bush and beyond that open country. A sentry was always posted outside the building, but he had three sides to watch and we knew that, if we could only move that bar, we could manage to elude the sentry. So we started to work on the bar.
I had found a bit of wire which I kept secreted about me and every night, after washing up, we would dig for a few minutes at the brickwork around the bar. It was slow, tedious and disappointing work. Gradually, however, we scooped the brick out around the bar and after nearly four months’ steady application we had it so loosened that a sharp tug would pull it out.
The next day Masters and I went into the bath room last and delayed our ablutions until the sentry’s round had taken him to the other side of the building. Then we wrenched the bar out, raised the window and wriggled through head first, breaking our fall in the bush outside. We got through without attracting attention and struck off at a rapid clip across country. In fact we ran as though the foul fiend himself were at our heels.
Close ahead was a stretch of swampy country and we plunged into it so precipitately that we very soon lost our way and wallowed around the better part of the night, sometimes up to our knees in the bog and suffering very severely from the cold and damp. Early in our flight the report of a gun from the camp warned us that our absence had been discovered. Perhaps our adventure in the swamp was what saved us from capture, for the roads
unquestionably were patrolled by cavalry that night. The Kommandant was keen to make good his boast that no prisoner would get away from him.
We found our way out of the swamp near morning, emerging on the western side. By the sale of more soap to miners we had acquired another map and a compass, so we had little difficulty in determining our whereabouts and settling our course for the border. For food we had each brought along ten biscuits, the result of several weeks’ hoarding. A biscuit is a hard and almost tasteless substance, but containing certain nutritious qualities. We had half a pound of food apiece and eighty-five miles to go!
THAT day we stayed on the edge of the swamp, never stirring for a moment from the shelter of a clump of bushes. One slept while the other watched. No one came near us and we heard no signs of our pursuers. Night came on most mercifully dark and we struck out along the roads at a smart clip.
We travelled all night, making probably twenty-five miles. It was necessary, we knew, to make the most of our strength in the earlier stages of the dash. As our food gave out we would be less capable of covering the groundSo we spurred ourselves on to renewed efforts and ate the miles up in a sort of frenzy.
“Got to keep it up,” we said to each other by way of encouragement. “It’s now or never.”
When we saw or heard anything ahead of us we immediately made for cover at the side of the road. Perhaps three persons passed us that night.
We took cover next day in a bit of wood, with a couple of farm houses within sight. No person came near us, however. We slept pretty much all day by turns and again struck out at night.
This kept up for four days and nights. We kept going as hard as our waning strength would permit and we were cautious in the extreme. Even at that we had several close shaves. One night we passed what looked like a potato patch, and the thought of a raw potato to break the monotony, and the inadequacy of dry biscuit, lured us off the road and into the patch. We had been told in the mine that a law had been passed permitting the owners of potato patches to fire on thieves and that in case the intruders were shot the owner would not be responsible. This eloquent bit of testimony to the scarcity of food in beleaguered Germany we had not altogether believed. It had hardly seemed possible that such a law could stand even in Germany. But we had convincing proof that such a law did exist. Masters had found a potato and was showing it to me with almost childish delight when the report of a rifle broke the silence. It came from the far side of the field. We turned and ran, Masters clutching his precious potato as though it were a lump of gold. Another shot followed us but we got to the road again in safety and hastily resumed our westward jaunt. There was no attempt at pursuit. The owner of the potato patch probably thought we were hungry neighbors.
We ate that potato between us and it tasted like everything good to us—porterhouse steak and mushrooms and apple pie! It was the only change we had during the whole journey from our meagre supply of biscuit We were extremely unfortunate in our foragings. Potatoes were
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Sixteen Months in Germany
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guarded like the mint and turnips simply hid themselves away when we went looking for them. Water was all we were able to obtain. A few mouthfuls of dry biscuit washed down with water was a meal to us.
Another time we were hiding in a bush when four women came along and passed within a few feet of us. They were looking for mushrooms and we could hear everything they said as they passed. One night a dog brought a man with a rifle on our tracks and he gave us a merry chase.
Our greatest difficulty was when we struck the Lippe River. Our first plan was to swim across, but we found that we had not the strength left for this feat We lost a day as a result. The second flight we found a scow tied up along the bank and got across that way.
FIGURE for yourself the plight we were in. We were slowly starving on our feet, we were wet through continuously and such sleep as we got was broken and fitful. Before we had been four days out we were reduced to gaunt, tattered, dirty scarecrows. We staggered as we walked and sometimes one of us would drop on the road through sheer weakness. Through it all we kept up our frenzy for speed and it was surprising how much ground we forced ourselves to cover in a night. And, no matter how much the pangs of hunger gnawed at us we conserved our fast dwindling supply of biscuit. Less than two biscuits a day was our limit!
Finally we reached a point that I recognized from my previous jaunt. It was about four miles from the border. This was in the latter part of the night and we had come quite a long distance. We were tired out.
“Will we go on and finish it to-night?” I asked Masters. “Perhaps it would be better to get a day’s rest and make the break to-morrow night.”
“Let’s toss,” suggested my companion. I nodded and he drew a coin from a pocket of his ragged prison garb.
“Heads we go, tails we stay over,” I
It fell tails, so we hunted out a wellwooded spot and settled down for a rest. We had two biscuits left between us. The next day we feasted royally and extravagantly on those two biscuits. We did not leave a crumb. No longer did we need to hoard our supplies, for the next night would tell the tale.
BY the greatest good fortune night came on dark and cloudy. Not a star showed in the sky. We started out early and crept cautiously on toward the border.
We came to the same mile post in time and I pointed it out to Masters.
“Here was where poor Nick and I went wrong,” I whispered. “We’ll give it a wide berth this time.”
So we crawled away off to the right, literally crawled on our hands and knees for over a quarter of a mile. At every sound we stopped and flattened out. Twice we saw sentries close at hand, but both times we got by safely. Finally we reached what we judged must be the last line of sentries. We had crawled across a ploughed field and had come to a road lined with trees ón both sides. Sentries were pacing up and down the road. We could hear and, at intervals, see them.
“It’s the border,” said Masters, in a hoarse whisper. “Once across there and —God! we’re free again!”
We waited until the nearest sentry had reached the far end of his beat and then we broke across. Doubled up like jackknives we went over that road as fast as we could make it and plunged through the trees on the other side. We were not detected; at any rate not a sound came from the sentries. We struck across fields with delirious speed and nothing cropped up to stop us. We reeled along like drunken men, laughing and gasping and sometimes reaching out for a mutual hand shake.
“Free! Free! Free!” was about all we could say. “No more work in the mines! No more German bosses! Real food!”
“Are you sure we’re over?” asked Masters at last, voicing a fear that still persisted in both our minds.
“Of course we are,” I said. “The sentries would have us by this time if we weren’t.”
Just then we struck a road and at once we got quite a scare. Marching up the road toward us was what looked like a white sheet I guess our nerves were badly shattered with what we had been through. At any rate that moving spash of white looked uncanny and awesome. I confess that stories of ghosts and banshees began to run through my mind and Masters owned up to the same feeling.
It was a scare of brief duration. The sheet soon resolved itself into two pris in white dresses walking up the road with a man. We scurried to the side of the road as soon as we made them out. Then I decided to test the matter of our whereabouts, and stepped out to accost them.
“Have you a match?” I asked in German.
The man did not understand me. Thoroughly convinced now, I cried out to Masters to come out. We were free!