The Black Hole of Germany

A Graphic Picture of Terrible Conditions in War Prison Camps

John Evans April 1 1918

The Black Hole of Germany

A Graphic Picture of Terrible Conditions in War Prison Camps

John Evans April 1 1918

"THE Black Hole of Germany” will be accorded a place in the history of the war. It is by this name that British prisoners, scattered all over the land of the Kaiser, refer to a prison camp that lies in the middle of the coal fields of Westphalia. The German military authorities designate it as Kommando 47 and probably consider it a model camp. It is here that the severity with which British prisoners of war are treated reaches its height. It is an inferno of rigid discipline, unrestrained brutality and scanty rations. To those unfortunates who have been there, the Black Hole will always stand as a monument to the worst sides of the German character.

It is my purpose in this article to chronicle unreservedly the life of the prisoner of war. I wish to make it clear, however, that the conditions under which we suffered at the Black Hole are not found in like degree at other camps. All camps have not officers who will stand prisoners at attention before coke ovens until their faces scorch and burn, or put them for weeks at a time in dead of winter into cells three feet by six without any heat. But even the best camps are bad enough.

Life at Kommando 47 began at 4 o’clock for those who worked in the mines and at 5 o’clock for the coke makers. I shall tell more presently about coke making which will explain why we considered the early rising squad the lucky ones. At that early hour the guards would come to the door and rout us out to our day of heavy labor. As I explained in a previous article, the work in the mines began at 5 o’clock and continued without cessation until 3.30 in the afternoon. We were then through for the day. A bowl of turnip soup at 7 o’clock and “lights out” at 9 were the two remaining official items in the daily routine.

There was little in the life of the prisoner of war but hard work and continued “strafing.” Any attempts at sport or entertainment were deliberately checked by the authorities and at best they were undertaken in a half-hearted way. The exercise ground was so small that it was always full to overflowing, and games were strictly impossible. In any case the detention cells were placed right in the middle of the grounds, so that there was no available space for sports. There was a certain amount of card playing in the evenings in the barracks given over to British and Canadian prisoners, but here again the matter of space was a distinct handicap. There were two hundred and fifty of us quartered in a space thirty feet by thirty. Most of the men found it necessary, if the weather were chill enough to keep them indoors, to spend the evenings in their flea-infested bunks. Competition for places around the two coke-burning stoves that heated the place was keen, and at times acrimonious. It finally developed into a matter of taking your turn.

The camp officers seemed to have one set purpose—to give the “Englanders” the worst of it in everything. They were by no means gentle with the French and Russians, but there was added venom and meanness in all their dealings with us. The French used to hold concerts right along and it served to keep them cheered up. But whenever the officers learned that we were planning something of the kind they would immediately find a pretext to stop it. Anything would serve. One of our number would run foul of some camp rule and by way of punishment the order would be given to stop the entertainment. Characteristically enough the order of prohibition would be delayed until the last moment. During the fourteen months that I spent in this camp the British were only allowed to hold three concerts.

The strain of the hard work and the monotony of it all told on the prisoners. They became moody and queer. It was not an uncommon occurrence to see a group sitting around and exchanging not a word—just sitting there, silent, brooding. I think most of the prisoners were mentally unhinged. Well, it was enough to upset the equilibrium of the strongest mind.

This condition was most pronounced among the men who had accepted the inevitability of the situation. Most of our fellows were convinced that escape was impossible and they allowed themselves to get into a low condition of mind as a result. They had lost all hope. A few of us were continually on the alert for chances to get away and this kept us stirred up. We had, at least, a shred of hope left.

Perhaps the most inhuman side of the treatment we received at the Black Hole was in the matter of the care of sick and wounded. The medical officer took it for granted that everyone who came to him was shamming. Unless it was possible to show a temperature or a serious wound or sore, the applicant was gruffly ordered back to work. I have seen some of my comrades hustled off to the mine or coke ovens who could hardly walk with rheumatism or who were nearly fainting from sheer exhaustion. Rheumatism was a common complaint, owing to the dampness of the barracks, but the prisoner who applied for exemption from work on that score was taught a painful lesson.

“Rheumatism?” the medical officer would say. “Good! It is soon cured.”

The patient would be ushered into a special room of the lazaret where a powerful electric battery was kept. If the part complained of was the arm, the pad would be applied to the arm and a current turned on powerful enough to make the unfortunate man scream with agony. It was kept up until the patient would beg and implore that the current be turned off.

“Good!” the officer would say. “That will cure the rheumatism. Back to work with you now and if the arm still bothers more electricity will be needed.”

A second treatment was never sought. Men crept off to work with stiffened joints that made the use of pick and shovel almost impossible rather than face the torture of that electrical ordeal.

I had very painful experiences with the medical officer myself. Once I developed an abscess under my arm, due, I suppose, to insufficient food and general weakness. I reported it, as it was almost impossible for me to work. The medical officer said gruffly that he would fix me up. He produced some variety of pump with a glass tube attached and placed the tube over the abscess. I protested that it had not yet come to a head, but the officer grunted and roughly applied the pressure.

I could see the flesh rise in the tube. The pain was so terrific that I cried out to him to stop. He went right ahead until the suction drew the blood through the skin. The red drops oozed out like beads of perspiration—but the abscess did not break. Finally he stopped the torture, convinced that he was wrong. I staggered to a window of the lazaret and collapsed, completely overcome with the pain. The officer proceeded to wash the tube without paying any heed to me at all.

Then he took a bucket of water and poured it over me as I lay on the floor. When I was sufficiently recovered to get to my feet the sore was bandaged and I was ordered to report for work.

Then there was the case of H--, one of the British prisoners. He got some infection in one of his fingers and reported it to the officer. The latter looked at it impatiently and refused to do anything for it. Shortly after blood-poisoning set in and poor H-- lost the finger.

After my third unsuccessful attempt to escape I was sentenced to fourteen days “black”—solitary confinement on bread and water. I had been brought back from the border in a very weak condition. A high fever was settling on me, the result of exposure and lack of food. I remember very little about the proceedings except that I was forced to stand up before the Kommandant while the room swam around me. I could see nothing and could just barely hear the sharp tones of the Kommandant as he pronounced sentence on me. It must have been apparent to every man in the room that I was sickening for something serious, but it made no difference in the carrying out of the sentence.

I was put into a damp cell, three feet by six and seven feet high. There was a mouldy, foul-smelling tick on the floor on to which I dropped like a log. The guards closed up the window so that not a ray of light came through and then went away. I stayed there alone for two weeks.

I was in a raging fever for the first few days and my memory is very hazy. I can remember that the guards came in at intervals and left hunks of black bread beside me, which, of course, I did not touch. I was frantic for water and eagerly drank all that they would bring. Whether I ever actually lapsed into delirium, I do not know.

At the end of the fourth day a couple of guards came in and rolled me off the tick with as much ceremony as if I were a bag of potatoes. Then they hauled it out and put another tick in its place. They left me on the floor. I was so weak that it took me a long time to roll back on the tick.

Fourteen days alone in a reeking hole and not a ray of light except when the guards opened the door! The fever worked itself out finally and left me so weak that I could hardly reach the pan of water on the floor beside me. Every day the guards brought in three-quarters of a pound of bread and every fourth day a bowl of turnip soup. Even when I got enough strength back to eat I gained little on that fare. They had to help me out when my turn was out. And I was ordered back to work at once!

The guards seemed to be at perfect liberty to use us as they liked. There was a young Scotchman named Mennie, a husky lad who literally writhed under the necessity of accepting the treatment. Once he flared out angrily at a guard who bad roughly shoved him out of the road. The guard raised his bayonet and thrust deliberately and savagely at Mennie's face. The point caught him in the cheek and ripped the flesh, leaving a gaping wound.

The guard laughed and walked on, flaunting his bayonet with its tip of scarlet. Poor Mennie carried an ugly scar as a result of the guard’s little pleasantry. Nothing came of the incident, of course.

The most flagrant case was the deliberate murder of one of our number. It occurred shortly after I arrived at the Black Hole and I can remember still the horror that it implanted in our minds. We lived after that in a state of continual apprehension, never knowing what might happen.

The murder occurred in the mine. Four of our fellows had found a worked-out gallery end and were enjoying a quiet little rest when one of the guards stumbled on them. He was an irascible fellow and he immediately charged at them with his bayonet, roaring imprecations. The four turned and ran with the guard after them. They came to an elevator shaft and found the hoist above with the cable stretching to the bottom of the shaft sixty feet below. Two of them got away by “shinning” down the cable. One of the other two—I won’t mention his name—was standing on the edge of the shaft intending to follow suit when the guard came up behind him. By this time the guard was beside himself with rage. He charged at the man standing on the edge of the shaft and deliberately clubbed him until he lost his balance and tumbled headfirst into the pit. His two comrades climbing down the cable, saw his body hurtle past them in the dark and then heard a dull thud beneath. The poor fellow was probably killed instantly. The fourth man got away. The guard who had spent his insane fury let him go unmolested.

There was an investigation, of course. The prisoners had decided to demand justice and they charged the guard with murder. The fourth man, who had seen it all, gave his evidence to prove that the guard had deliberately knocked his victim down the shaft. The guard was exonerated and the witness was sentenced to four months’ solitary imprisonment. I saw him when he came out — weak, wasted, with a look in his eyes that would have startled me if I had not seen a semblance of the same thing in the eyes of so many of the men around me.

I want to describe the detention system in fuller detail. There were 14 cells in all, making up what the authorities called a “rest house.” All the cells were the same size as the one in which I spent my terrible two weeks’ ordeal. Each cell had a tiny barred window which was sealed up if the prisoner had been sentenced to “black.” The place was never heated. If a man were unlucky enough to incur sentence during the winter he suffered unspeakably in those cold, cramped cells. It was a common trick of the authorities to put three men in a cell, generally an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian. Remember, the cells were three feet by six. When three men were herded into one of these holes, it meant that they had to sit huddled together, knee to knee, rubbing shoulders and saturating the air with different national odors.

Each day these were allowed a few minutes in the fresh air. A guard would come and take each man out in turn. This gave an opportunity to get washed. There were no sanitary conveniences in the cells.

Much has been written and told about the scantiness and the badness, nay, the putridity, of the food served to prisoners. No real conception of how bad it was can be gained, however, from a mere description of the fare. It is necessary to tell how it was prepared to get an idea of how it tasted.

We got the same fare always—black bread, turnip soup and coffee. On very rare occasions there was a bit of meat in the soup. It was not very desirable meat, being strong and highly odorous. We often wondered what it was. One day I found out.

I happened to be in the cook house. A French prisoner was engaged there around the big pots where the inevitable soup was being prepared. He was a sort of assistant chef. The smell arising from the pots was so nauseating that I thought at first of bolting out.

“That’ll be grand to eat,” I said to the French prisoner. “What in thunder are you cooking? Dead horse? Dog meat?”

“Exactly,” said the Frenchman. “Dog meat.”

He lifted the lid and the odor in the room became noticeably worse. Floating around in the thick, pulpy mass of turnips were—yes, parts of dog meat, unquestionably canine. I bolted out. It was more than I could stand even with a stomach inured to eating prison fare. We had meat in our turnip soup that day which I did not enjoy; but I did not say anything to the rest. Where ignorance assists digestion it is folly to be wise.

Before Christmas it was given out that, through the benignancy of the Kommandant, we would be given three days holidays from work. Unfortunately for me I was not to enjoy the rest. I had been charged with laziness in the mine by the staggers (foremen) and so was told off to assist in the cookhouse during the three days. The charge was a just one. I was incorrigibly slow in the mine. It went against the grain to produce coal to run the munition plants of the Kaiser and I had reduced the matter of non-producing to an exact science. The staggers knew this and were right on my heels all the time. Well. I lost my Christmas holiday.

During the whole of the three days I was kept busy peeling turnips. I was stationed in a corner of the cookhouse and the turnips were piled up in front of me. They were covered with mud and by the time I had been at work five minutes my hands were thoroughly grimy. I was not allowed to stop and wash, so the turnips left me pretty well mud-caked. They were immediately thrown into a big grinding machine and reduced to a pulp. This pulp, a mixture of turnip and mud, was put right into the pots and made into soup. No wonder we found our mouths full of sand after eating the soup.

When I first arrived at Kommando 47 there was a special dinner served on Sundays to all who could pay a mark. It consisted of potatoes, served with the turnip soup. After about two months, however, this great luxury was cut off, and the poor fellows in the camp have not tasted a potato since.

Of course, our sufferings in the matter of food were as nothing compared to what the Russians had to endure. We got our Red Cross parcels and managed to eke out an existence, but most of the poor Slavs had to live on the prison fare. It was terrible to see them, big and husky fellows falling away to mere skeletons. They would come over to our side and beg for food. We gave them all we could. Once some bread came through from Switzerland which had become blue and mouldy on the way. We hesitated at first about offering this to them, but the Russians seized it avidly. They soaked it in water and ate it ravenously.

Often, when they were marching off to work, men in the Russian lines would topple over. They were faint from lack of food.

We did our best for them and shared our food as liberally as we could. The French, however, exploited the simpleminded Slavs, selling them food at steep prices and trading with them. Sometimes a gaunt Russian would sell his boots for a tin of bully beef. This practice was pretty general among the French and created a certain amount of hard feeling between us.

It was not possible to get very close to the Russians nor to find out anything much about them. They were a dumb, passive lot, knowing no language but their own and quite devoid of intelligence for the most part. They did not cause the German guards any trouble. They worked until they dropped and accepted any form of ill-treatment with the stoical resignation of the Slav race. We knew this, however, that the Russians hated the Germans with a hatred more deep seated even than our own. It is a racial hatred that has its foundation in the old undying enmity of Slav for Teuton, the heritage of centuries of conflict. I cannot think that Russia will ever be able to live at peace under the dominance of Germany. The old enmity will bring the Slavs back to fight for their independence again.

I saw very few Belgian prisoners. There was a camp of civilian prisoners near us. They had been deported from Belgium and were kept as closely confined as we were, in a camp surrounded by barb-wire barricades and sentries with fixed bayonets. We seldom saw anything of these poor fellows, but word got to us somehow that they were on strike. They had been ordered to work in munition factories and had refused. They were being starved into submission.

We passed the Belgian camp on our way to and from work and we often wondered what was going on in that silent camp behind the closely guarded barricades.

“Poor devils,” said one of my chums to me one morning,” they are dying in there rather than make shells to be used against their own troops. Last night I saw two bodies carried out. They are being slowly starved!”

Others had seen the same grim testimony to the thoroughness of German methods. That was the only news we ever got out of the Belgian camp—but it told an eloquent story of what was occurring within.

Most of us worked in the coal mines, but some were selected to look after the coke ovens. Their task was to load the coke, as it came out of the ovens, into cars or trucks to be carried away. Each man had to load twenty tons a day. Close watch was kept. The hours were supposed to be from 6 in the morning until 6 at night, but any unfortunates who had not completed their allotted work by closing time had to keep at work right through until the full twenty tons had been loaded. Sometimes there would be a scarcity of cars. It made no difference to the prisoners, however. They had to wait until the cars came and then load the daily amount before they got off duty.

It was terrible work. The heat from the coke ovens was intense and by the end of the day the men would be absolutely played out. They would return to the camp so thoroughly fatigued that not even the activities of the fleas, which infested all of us and which bred in our bunks by the million, could disturb their sleep.

They were allowed every second Sunday off.

Sometimes the strain became so unbearable that the coke makers would go on strike and refuse to work. The method followed by the guards in such a case was perhaps the most callously brutal thing in all my experience. The men would be forced to stand at attention immediately in front of the oven doors. The heat pouring out would be so intense that their faces would become scorched and burned. They had to stand in this inferno sharply to attention. If a muscle sagged the butt end of a rifle or even the sharp point of a bayonet would bring the offender sharply up.

Men would faint after a few minutes of this. The guards would sluice the recumbent figures with buckets of water, drag the men to their feet and make them stand in the most exposed positions of the line. Flesh and blood could not stand it long. Maniacal laughter would break out, sharp cries of pain and frantic appeals to the mercy of the guards.

“Then back to work you go,” would be the ultimatum of the guards.

And back they would finally go—with drawn faces that would smart excruciatingly for days after and with a vertigo caused by the intense heat—back to complete their full twenty ton apiece that very day!

Work at the coke ovens soon reduced a man to a mere skeleton. It was the form of punishment that they held over all of us—a term at coke making.

I could go on, piling horror upon horror. Perhaps what I have told will suffice, however, to show why that camp set back in the desolate coal mining country of Westphalia is called the Black Hole of Germany. Perhaps also what I have told will show how necessary it is to wage this war to a victorious conclusion. A nation which will do the unspeakable things that I have witnessed must be beaten to its knees and taught that such crimes against God and man will no longer be tolerated.