Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Claude C. Benson war diary kept while a prisoner of war in Germany, 1917-1918
Claude E. Benson
‘Particulars of My Doings while a
Prisoner of War in Germany’
Account of Capture & subsequent Sufferings as a Prisoner of War in Germany
CORPORAL C. C. BENSON.
13th. Battalion A. I. F.
Left per Troopship "Shropshire" on 18th August 1915.
Particulars of My Doings while a Prisoner of War in Germany.
Only one duplicate was typed of this account which I have retained for my own reference
My Capture and subsequent sufferings
The morning of April 11th 1917 dawned with snow on the ground and about 4 a. m. orders were given to advance over the Hindenburg Line round Riencourt. We were exposed to heavy machine-gun fire and several of the men in the section I was commanding were hit, making it necessary to take cover in a shell hole for a short time. This was the first occasion on which tanks went into action with our division, the one in front of it getting a direct hit which put it out of action. Although orders had been given not to proceed beyond the tanks which were leading the attack, an officer upon being asked what to do, gave directions to go on and improve our position in the captured first line trench of the emeny. This being accomplished, we partook of our rations, meantime the emeny started to counter attack and bombed the communication trench running towards the village in the vicinity. Orders were given to clear the trench which involved hot fighting; after accounting for several of the enemy, further instructions came to put in two blocks and a machine-gun placed. All available bombs were passed round to defend a heavy counter attack on our right and to hand over our small arms and ammunition to the machine-gunners, In a short time it was found necessary to lead the remnant of my section into a roadway and take cover in a shell hole. Some of the men were hit through exposing themselves to the enemy’s fire by running instead of crawling to a place of safety. Remaining here for a long time, trying to keep part of a trench clear, we were surrounded by the Germans who told us to stop firing, and seeing it was useless sacrificing more lives, we surrendered and were taken to a village
10 miles behind the German lines. Here the wounded were attended to by a German sanitator who was assisted by some of the unwounded.
We remained at this collecting station for about six hours, when I,
with and ten others of a different battalion were removed in a motor wagon to another small village fifteen miles away; two guards taking charge of us gave me little chance of escaping in a snow storm we passed through en route. On our arrival some German officers questioned us separately about our battalion, and the treatment we received from these polite officers was good as they offered us cigarettes and told us to light up, and although having accepted their cigarettes, I thought it better not to smoke them as I had been taught to take no risks if taken prisoner, really doubting what the cigarettes might contain. The interview did not last more than fifteen minutes, when I was told to go out of the room, and met some of the other boys outside.
We were then taken to a church where we met some of our officers, and for two nights most of us had to sleep on chairs, but I
had found a very good resting place under the altar. During the stay here our ration consisted of bread and jam. Our leather cardigans, as well as our overcoats, were taken from us. Soon after we were removed to another collecting station, getting very little food, and after one night’s stay here a ration of bread was handed round and we were dispatched to Lille by train on our arrival a very strong German guard met us who seemed to delight in showing us to their own people and the helpless French civilians During our march from the railway station through the main streets
we looked from building to building, and then at the poor people with pity who were compelled to live under this so-called cultured Prussianism. One French girl who was touched at seeing prisoners of her Allies pass by, threw a biscuit to us from her window, whereupon a German military policeman, noticing this act, shook his fist at her and took the number of the house. I often thought of that woman and wondered what punishment she endured for her kindness.
Shortly after I noticed a Frenchman, under the influence of drink, throw his cap to one of our men who was without a covering to his head. Some of the military police, seeing this, took him into custody and marched him off, no doubt placing him in some dark cell where the Germans delight to put prisoners.
By this time our blood was up and it was very hard to watch this sort of treatment without endeavouring to do something to help these poor people. On passing through the city we were taken to Fort Mac Donald, and just as we were entering the fort yard it started to rain very hard, and we were purposely kept standing outside until we were wet through. Eventually permission was given to enter the fort yard and a German officer seated on a horse said in English, "Bring up the rations," but none came. He then roared out, "The guns of the men are loaded", evidently referring to the guards, "and any man trying to escape will be shot." Orders were then given to enter the fort and I was placed in a room with about 40 Englishmen, the door being locked, I could see in an instant it was a case of making the best of it.
We had to make ourselves comfortable on the tiled floor, no
beds or blankets were provided, and when the men wanted to go to the latrine they were told to use a cask placed at the end of the room. I shall never forget my first night in there: I was too wet to think of lying on the tiled floor, so I walked about until I was dry. Next morning we were given a slice of bread, and it was useless trying to save anything for the next meal which was composed of barley and water. No eating utensils were supplied, so we were compelled to eat our so called soup from our helmets. No water was given for us to wash in, and this kind of treatment had to be endured for seven days, after which we were taken from our room, mustered in the yard, given a portion of bread, one loaf being divided between three men, and then marched 30 kilos to Douai.
This march was very trying, some of the men rushed into the fields for stray sugarbeet or any vegetable leaves they could pick up on the roadside. When passing through one village, the Frenchwomen were excited at seeing English prisoners and rushed in amongst them and embraced them, and many French girls bravely faced the risk of severe punishment in giving slices of bread to the prisoners. On entering Douai I was very interested in its canals and walks with beautiful trees growing on each side. After passing these sights, we were taken to the French prison, numbered off and placed in cells, thirteen to a cell built for one only. On entering the cell we had the door locked on us and were told to be ready to go to work on the roads at 6 a.m. The sanitary arrangements of these cells were just as bad as at Lille, and for hours the men would kick at the door without obtaining any relief.
We had to lie on the wooden floor, without blankets or straw, and in the morning we were lined up and counted, then sent to work on the roads. For the first few weeks, in the morning only, one loaf of bread was given out for three men and one soup a day, which sometimes consisted of barley and sometimes sauerkraut, and if you were lucky you might score a bit of meat the size of a thimble.
As time went on our conditions got worse, being taken off the roadwork we were placed on ammunition dumps, all the while being under our own shell fire, building shelter sheds for troops. Although expecting better treatment, one morning our hopes were shattered as we were given a printed declaration to read dated May 1917, to the effect that "to Germany’s request to Great Britain to withdraw all prisoners of war not less than 30 kilos of the front line, Great Britain had failed to reply, therefore, we were considered prisoners of respite, and would be badly treated, get hard work, bad food, and have to work beside the Hun guns, get no straw to lie on, no blankets, long hours to work, without soap, without pay, and were requested to write to our people, or any one in authority in England and tell them "how we were being badly treated, and then surely Great Britain will do as Germany requests: then you will be sent to a camp in Germany where you will get good treatment."
On reading this I made up my mind to try and make the best of things until I was either released or managed to escape. By this time we were feeling the pangs of hunger, and on our way to and from work, men would pick up cigar or cigarette ends from the streets
and smoke them to try and satisfy the craving for food.
The French civilians would very often place bread in the road for us to pick up, but they had to be very careful not to let a German officer see them do it, and I have seen German guards, when food was placed in this way, kick it into the gutter to prevent prisoners getting it. One poor Frenchman, noticing one of us without a cap, took the risk of placing a cap in a little boy’s hand, directing him to give it to the Englishman without one, and the German guard let the boy do this and then deliberately snatched it from him and threw it into the canal. French people often asked the guard to allow them to give us a few slices of bread and rice; the guard would take this and promise to give it to us when we returned the prison, but it never reached us, as we learned afterwards that he either ate it himself, or sent it on to his frau.
We were one day given orders that anyone trying to take food from the French civilians would be severely punished, and the guards had strict instructions not to let us near the civilian population. When returning to our cells at night after a long day’s hard work, and very hungry, we would lie down and wait for our mangley soup to be dished up, and very often the German guard would offer us half a loaf of bread for a watch, and I have seen gold watches and rings go for less than a loaf of bread, anything to satisfy our hunger. We were becoming so weak for
the want of food that whenever we got the chance of gathering nettles, we would take them to the prison, make a fire as best we could from sticks gathered from the different jobs, which were concealed under our coats, boil the nettles and mix them with our watery soup, and this food
had to be taken in tins we collected from the roadside, and those not fortunate enough to possess a tin had to use their steel helmets and it was not until the last few weeks in Douai that enamel bowls were given to eat out of, and these were taken away from us before leaving that place. We have often been glad to eat birds killed through concussion of English shells.
One day I was taken to work near a German Aerodrome, and was within twelve yards of a Taube machine when the engines
thre were set going while waiting for the driver. Seeing nobody near, I was trying to judge how the thing worked, and my heart started to throb as I really thought for a moment I might be able to escape, but not knowing enough about machinery, I had to give up the idea.
One afternoon I was taken to clean out some offices in the prison after a heavy day’s work, and while doing this I came on a big French Flag, and the German in charge of me thought he was doing a noble thing by snatching it from me and tearing it into shreds. With all our hardships, at times while working near the fighting line we used to witness some very good sport between the British and German planes, as our pilots brought down German balloons and planes, and whenever the German planes were being defeated the guards in charge of us would not allow us to stop work to witness the battle, but would yelp
and at us as we would scold a bad dog.
At times our aeroplanes would be quite near the ground, and in spite of the guard, we would wave to them. On one occasion, I saw one of our planes brought down the by the Germans and for some days
they took especial delight in shewing us the plane with the dead flier who had not been removed for burial.
After some months of harsh treatment we were informed that we were no longer prisoners of respite, would enjoy the luxury of a bath, and
told we would be sent to a good camp in Germany, and we little thought how false was that statement.
Orders were given to pack up our belongings and be ready to leave the prison at 4 a.m. next morning, and before going to bed a loaf of bread was divided amongst three men and some soup for our breakfast. Afterwards we were ordered to fall in in the prison yard, and being counted were placed in charge of a strong guard, who marched us to a place in the heart of Douai where we met some more Englishmen who had been doing similar work as ourselves; some of these poor fellows wanted to know if our party had been as ill-treated as they had been. It was only necessary to look at us all to prove that we had all be treated alike, and one man told me how seven of his party had been killed through one of our shells landing in the middle of the billet where they were kept. Remaining at this place for about two hours, we were marched to Orchies, and on our way there, men fainted from weakness and in many cases the guards would kick those who fell and shout at them to get up. In passing through the village, the French people got very excited and in spite of the guards, they determined to give us bread by handing it to the men between the guards. Whenever the guards saw a French person appear in the door-way of a house they would rush at them, knocking them down
with the butt end of their rifle, and I saw one of the guards use his bayonet on a poor French woman who gave one of our party a biscuit, she struggled to her feet, put her hands to her face and went limping and crying into her house. I felt I would rather have died from starvation than see these women so ill treated, and wished the poor creatures would not try and help us. I never admired a woman’s pluck and spirit more than that of a French woman about 22 years of age. She noticed us coming up the road towards her house which stood some fifty yards back, and when she saw we were English, she rushed into the house and returned running towards us with a bag of biscuits, and as she came near the road, she shouted
in"English, sweeties". Before she got to the gate, a German guard rushed through to intercept her, and lifted his rifle to keep her back, when she raised the bag of biscuits and let it fall with all her force on his head. He then stood off and was about to give a swing with his rifle when the girl rushed in and wrenched it from his hand and threw it away. My heart was in my mouth and I wondered what would happen next when some Germans in charge of a transport sang out to the guard, who mumbled something in German, picked up his rifle and left her. The Corporal of the guard took down in his note book particulars of the instance, and told her it was forbidden to give the prisoners food.
Before entering Orchies a short rest was allowed for about 10 minutes, when orders were received to move on again. I noticed some poor fellows thoroughly exhausted who fell down in a faint, and the German guard trying to frighten them out of it by catching hold
of them and placing them on their feet. As they were too far gone to stand, they were left in charge of a guard to follow on later.
On our entrance into Orchies we were welcomed by the French population who could only stand on the foot-path, smile to us, touch their caps or nod their heads. The town having suffered
war severe bombardment in the beginning of the war was full of ruins, all the ruined buildings had been cleared of the debris, and only the bare walls were left standing, reminding me of an ancient city crumbling to ruins.
Being taken to a pottery where we had to remain several days, shavings were spread out on a concrete floor for us to sleep on. We began to wonder what they would do with us next, because on leaving Douai, we understood our destination was to be Germany, but we soon learnt that it was impossible to believe anything the Germans said; in fact, I always treated them with contempt, not wishing to give them the satisfaction of telling us a lot of lies. About the third day here, they informed me that I was in a party of a hundred men leaving at 4 a.m. next morning, I did not know where, but was given a portion of bread – the weight of a portion of bread would be about ½ lb. -
in the previous afternoon, and told to fall in sharp to time when called the next morning. A very strong guard was waiting for us, and it was not long before we got away from this insanitary camp.
We marched about
8eight hours with a spell of 10 ten minutes for rest every hour, and the German Corporal in charge of us promised all sorts of good treatment when we arrived at our destination, but I did not like putting much faith in what he said. Our destination
was Mortague, a village not far from St Amand, and on our arrival we were taken to a building right in the centre of the village, the front portion was one time used as a shop, and we passed through a passage to the rear of the building and entered a very large room, which, by the posters decorating the wall, was apparently once used by the French for amusements. This compartment was to be our barracks, and on going to the further end of the room, I came on a staircase leading to a large room, and off this room was a smaller one, with a door in front of the stairs leading into a small yard about 30 feet long, 15 feet wide.
Some of us were asked to go with the guard about
5five minutes walk to an old pottery and collect a few bales of shavings; another party was sent to another house to get a copper to cook our soups in, and the people occupying this house turned out to be the Mayor and his wife and children. One of the girls who was very much interested in us, brought us a biscuit each and the Mayor’s wife gave me a drink of milk just when my guard was busy. An arrangement argument ensued between the Mayor and the guard, who apparently had no right to come and demand a copper; the Mayor seemed to be very excited, and in the end I saw he did not mind the Englishmen having the use of it, because when the Germans got hold of anything they never returned it again.
On our arrival at the barrack we were allowed to rest one day, but the day following had to go out to
walkwork from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and at night had to lie down on our bit of shavings to sleep without blankets, and for weeks no proper covering was given, except what
I stood in, but later on, two small blankets were served out.
We were marched every day, Sundays included, to work on barges and sand-hills. It was our duty to throw sand or gravel from the barge to a platform on a line with the top of the deck, four men were usually placed in the barge to throw the sand on to the first platform, built of planks with a steel plate, and two men would throw it from the platform to the wharf, and the sand shovelled into a small truck by three prisoners who would then convey it to other prisoners about 100 yards away. Each truck was met by two prisoners who would then throw the sand, after being tipped on to the side of the line, to two other men who had to seeit was kept clear of the line. Now the hardest part of the work, which no doubt the German officers had well worked out, was when a man fell ill or was perhaps to weak to keep working, which disorganized the whole work, whereupon the German N.C.O. complained to the guards, saying they must keep the men going to time, and the guard would stand over a weak man and worry him until he fell exhausted or until the day’s work was finished. It was quite a common thing to see a guard knock a prisoner down for not being able to keep up with the others. I very often advised the boys when they were
too sick or too weak to move, just to lie down and stand a few kicks, as the guards willingly kicked a man when he was down, but if unable to frighten a man to work, they generally let him lie. If men could not do enough work to satisfy the guards, he would have to work with the Russians after we had finished, as they generally worked different hours to us. Whenever If a Russian fainted, I have seen the German Corporal in charge of them set his dog on to them. The French girls also had to work
on the sandhills beside us, and were frequently insulted by the guards. I have often jumped on to a barge from the wharf for bread offered by the barge people.
When we asked why the Russians were so badly treated, the Germans always said they were doing punishment. I soon discovered that the Englishman was never liked and was
always purposely put beside the Russian to work as a punishment.
After a few months of this work many of the men suffered from dysentery from which two men died, and after each death, the doctor would come in the barrack, walk round the room, just look at five or six men without examining them, and say they were for hospital; other men wished to speak to him, but he would not stay more than a minute, when he would turn and leave the room. After each death, the Germans allowed the French to send in some greens, or perhaps a few biscuits per man, just enough to make one wish for more. The only treatment for dysentery given by the Germans was ordering the patient off food for 24 hours, except tea, then they allowed some bread, and not until he was free from the complaint must soup be taken. Treatment of this kind seemed ridiculous as the men were already starving.
I shall never forget the little French girl in Mortagne who took the risk of handing me bread after I had taken the risk of passing the guard at night. As I could see the Germans wanted to starve us to death, I was determined to get out and look around for food. I managed to climb the fence just as the guard was enjoying a good smoke and the wind was rustling the trees which
prevented my movements being heard by him. On gaining the other side, I came across a little French girl who brought me some bread immediately, and told me to come again. Before I left this place she gave me her photo, and on it wrote, "My Pa has been a prisoner for three years; all I give you is from heart."
We had been some time without a bath, and were told we must go to St. Amand a distance of six miles, and starting early in the morning, we
generally arrived back in barracks about 4 p.m. On arrival at the baths we had to stand for some time before we were allowed inside the building, and during these long waits, men would catch a chill before undressing. We badly needed a bath, but under the circumstances we dreaded the thought of it. After passing through the warm shower, we had to go up some stairs to a cold room, where we waited anything up to one hour before our clothes went through the disinfection, then they were given to us very wet. As we had no means of drying them before putting them on, we had to march back to the barrack in wet clothes. On our way it was very common for men to take bad turns, as they had not enough energy to throw off a chill. Guards were left in charge of men falling out en route, and they arrived back in barracks all hours of the night.
Although our clothes had been disinfected, in a few days they were covered with vermin again. I always found a delight in transferring them from myself to the German officers and men by picking them off myself and flicking them on to these inhuman dogs.
The German guard often tried to frighten us by opening and closing the bolt of their rifles and pointing it at us, and it made them very
angry when we stood and laughed at them.
On night towards the end of November 1917, we were about to settle down the night, when the German Corporal told us to fall in, counted us and then gave the order to be ready to march off at 3 a.m. to Denain, a village beyond St. Amand. Two wagons were given for the sick, and only those who could not walk were allowed to ride, and the very thought of getting out of this hole for a better place kept us up.
Denain was a sort of collecting station, and here we met some hundreds of Englishmen who had come in from other works.
The order was given that in the evening we should board the train for Germany, but this was cancelled for about a week. In the meanwhile we were taken to St. Amand for another bath, and the guard had great trouble in getting us back, as men fell out every few minutes, either fainting or too weak to walk.
Just before leaving Denain some of us received a Red Cross Parcel, which did more harm than good, and the poor fellows without one were to be pitied.
In December 1917, we were taken to Friedrichsfeld in Germany, and on our way had very little food, a small bit of bread and two soups in three days. One night when entering a station the train ran into a dead end in the line, causing a lot of damage to some of the cars, and I noticed men being carried away on stretchers
and as some were killed. On arrival at Friedrichsfeld we were kept outside the camp while being searched, and any man possessing boots had to
hand them over to the Germans who gave a pair of wooden clogs in their place, and we had nothing else to wear until a pair of boots was received through the British Red Cross Society. On entering the camp we were put into barracks, being served with eating bowls, towels, blankets, overcoats etc. The next day we were examined by the doctor who ordered us to bed for ten days, but after two days in bed the whole of our barrack was punished through some slight accident one poor fellow had been just outside the barrack door which was observed by one of the officers. We all had to stand on a square of ice and snow for five hours. Fredichsfeld camp is about the most sanitary camp I have been in, the only objection to it being the severe discipline, as the Germans always tried to catch men to mete out punishment. I never came across anyone who liked dealing out punishment more than Fritz. Whenever the boys wanted to lie down on their bed before 6 p.m. they would have to be very careful not to be caught, otherwise it meant seven days in the cells. As soon as a German came on the scene the boys would give the alarm by singing out "Legs eleven", "Eyes down", or "Clickerty click".
I left this camp on 17th December 1917, and was sent on to Gustrow, three days journey, and passed through Aachen, Cologne, Bremen and Hamburg. We arrived in Gustrow camp 3 p.m. one afternoon feeling thoroughly done up after our long trip. On entering the camp a portion of black bread was served out, also blankets, and after being counted we were taken to our barracks and a watery soup given to us, called by the boys, by the name of "sandstone".
The camp of Gustrow was built by the prisoners and was started in 1914, being divided into the North Camp and South Camp. The North Camp was built on a rise in the ground for about one mile, and about two miles from the town of Gustrow; the barracks were built to accommodate about 60 men in 1915. The prisoners started the South Camp which is much better than the Northern portion, and the barracks are built with more convenience and of wood. Each barrack is divided in the centre with moveable wooden bunks, double-deckers, straw mattresses. At each end of the barrack there is a stove fitted. At Gustrow camp in the early days prisoners had to sleep in tents. The Englishmen as usual, came last in everything, and it was impossible for them to get medical attention. The Irish prisoners for a short time were separated from the Englishmen and given good treatment, but owing to their raiding a canteen, they were sent back to the English again. The sanitary arrangments of these camps as I saw them, was good at one time, but on account of the latrines and sulage pits being allowed to go without being cleaned out, there being no convenient place to dispose of the refuse, after about
18 eighteen months the spare ground around the camp became foul.
The Hospitals were very dirty. A man suffering from an infectious disease would be taken away, and his bed left untouched, and perhaps the same day another man would occupy the same bed, suffering only from some minor complaint: the idea of the Germans putting clean men into a filthy bed being done in the hopes of their contracting disease.
After being in this camp a week, I was searched and my pay-book was taken from me. I was always told by my officers, the one thing a soldier could do if taken a prisoner, was to keep his pay book. No so in Germany. They had asked me for my book quite a number of times, but I managed to keep it from them until one day when I was exchanging some mark notes into camp money they noticed the book on me. I was then taken and placed in a dark cell with other prisoners of different nationalities, and had to remain there for 7 days, during which time I spent Christmas and New Year’s Day, and nothing extra was given on these particular days. On entering the cell, I could see nothing before me, it was total darkness, and I soon found out that things were going to be very unpleasant. At 8 p.m. I was served with two short thin Blankets, and I had to make my bed, either on the part of an old bunk, or on the floor. I would not sleep on the floor as the Russians were continually spitting about the cell, and I soon discovered that the Russians were not particular as to the first principles of hygiene, and it is almost impossible to imagine the filthy condition of this place. We were awakened at 6 a.m., and handed our blankets to the guard. At 9.30 a.m. a portion of black bread weighing about half a pound, containing about 80% potatoes, was served out. I was not allowed any mid-day soup, only hot water, and the same for tea, and during the seven days I was given only one barley soup. The guards frequently examined the cell to see whether we were getting food from the prisoners who brought us our bread and water. At the end of the seven days, I was in
a very weak condition, and after being removed from the cells, I was put into a barrack where I asked to see the doctor, who, after examining me, sent me to hospital for three days.
While in the cells I endeavoured to maintain my spirits by singing songs and trying to talk with the Russians. One big Russian Pole had to do eighteen days cells through becoming fascinated with a fine looking German girl, and others were suffering punishment for taking sugar from the sugar factory.
By this time I was in receipt of twenty parcels of food from the British Red Cross Society, which had been allowed to accumulate for some time, and I soon began to improve in condition, except during the first week, when I nearly killed myself through overeating, causing my body and limbs to swell to an enormous size, and as I could not satisfy my craving for this food at first, I determined to ration myself, and shared my parcels with a young man who had not been fortunate in getting parcels through the Red Cross.
THE EXCHANGE BARRACK.
Soon after leaving the hospital, I happened to go into the Exchange Barrack, where I came across about 21 Englishmen who had been transferred from various hospitals in Hamburg, and L?beck, being placed in this particular barrack, and left in charge of a Belgian, who I found out, knew nothing about the dressing of gun-shot wounds, and these poor fellows were in a terrible condition as some of their wounds had not been dressed for
5 five days; : so I went and inter-
viewed the Inspector of the hospital, asking him if I might dress and look after the Englishmen in the Exchange Barrack, to which he gave his consent. I was not long in the barrack when I discovered that some of the British wounded were placed in the same beds that had been previously occupied by Russians suffering from consumption and all sorts of infectious diseases. I decided to have the place washed out and thoroughly disinfected, separating the Russians from the English, giving them strict orders to keep themselves clean, and for the British to prevent them coming near them. The next thing was to get the men washed and dressed, but I was unable to procure a bath tub. I had to take the patient, lay him on a table and wash him with hot water brought from the cook-house in a basin or bucket, either at 5 a.m. or 4 p.m. I found it hard to keep either a basin or bucket as the Russians used to pilfer them and sell them to men in the other barracks. After giving them a wash, I had to get a few Englishmen to help me in dressing the men as I found it impossible to lift them without assistance.
I remember one poor fellow, an Englishman, who had been wounded in three different places, with his knee-cap blown off and his leg in a splint. After being in my charge a few weeks, I noticed his wounded knee discharging more than it should, and upon a close examination of the wound, I discovered a piece of bone projecting from the side of the knee. I thought I must get the advice of the doctor, so immediately went to the hospital and interviewed him, and he came to see the patient. The first thing he asked
the patient, "Are you in pain?"
"No," he replied.
The doctor asked me why I had sent for him. Then I explained that the boy was frightened of him, and that his wounds were in a very bad condition, and I should very much like him to look at his knee. The doctor then ordered me to undo his bandage, and just glanced at his wound and said he would be back in a few minutes. He brought the chief doctor who also looked at the wound, and then directed me to take him to the hospital.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEEN THE EXCHANGE BARRACK AND THE HOSPITAL.
All the men, passed by the two doctors and the camp commandant for exchange to England, would be sent into the Exchange Barrack. Once sent into this barrack, they then belonged to the Transport Office to be sent on to Aachen for England, Mannheim or Constance for Switzerland, therefore, the hospital did not want to have anything more to do with them, and it was very hard to obtain the advice of a doctor. After remaining in the hospital for a while, my patient had a piece of bone removed about two and a half inches square, and was then sent back to me feeling much better, and eventually was sent to England. I learnt that after his arrival there, his leg had been amputated with good results.
I have had as many as eighty patients to look after at one time. I thought, when asking to take care of the English, I should be left to them, but I soon received orders to attend to whoever was sent into the Exchange Barrack. I was given the assistance of four men who could only remain with me until sent
out on a working transport, then four fresh men would take their place; this frequent changing was detrimental to the work, as it took some time to educate them in performing the necessary duties. I had always great trouble in procuring dressing material for my patients, and I was often given orders by the German N. C. O. not to use so much stuff in dressing them. God only knows what sort of a time the Englishmen would have had if I had depended entirely on the dressings supplied by the Germans. With a bit I received from the Germans, and what I got from the British Red Cross enabled me to keep the patients wounds clean until they were sent to England.
I am convinced that if it had not been for the thought of getting exchanged to England,
that quite fifty per cent of these boys would have died, as many of them did, from want of heart.
Very often I found it necessary to perform minor operations. For instance, a man would be sent to the Exchange Barrack, and while waiting to be transferred to England his wound would give him trouble, and upon examination, I discovered perhaps, an abseess or a splinter of bone not far from the surface. I then suggested that the patient should see the doctor, but in the majority of these cases, the patient would beg of me to try and fix them up myself. I would only operate when I was sure that by taking the risk the patient would not miss his exchange: because if the doctor was called to a man in this condition he would not touch him until he went to the hospital, in which case he would miss his transport and then have to wait for months before getting away. It was through doing this class of surgical work being reported by one of
my patients sent back to England that I had a case of surgical instruments sent out to me by the British Red Cross, whom the British prisoners must thank for all that has been done in keeping them going until their return home.
The patients in the Exchange Barracks were always well fed and enjoyed the privilege of having a fire for cooking their own food supplies. With the aid of the food-stuff sent through for invalids, and some of the parcels received by the patients from the British Red Cross, we managed to diet the men according to their various ailments.
A transport of wounded leaving the barrack would be searched the day before, and asked if they had any claims on the camp, given a sort of pass-port to the border where they would have to pass another commission before being exchanged. The patients were provided with a full rig out of clothing of a kind; it was an order that all men going out on exchange must have one complete outrig of dress, but in place of boots, clogs were served out. The soles of boots were made of wood, and the uppers bits of leather or paper.
One case I shall never forget of a boy who had lost both his legs. On the morning of his departure for exchange, a German officer asked the men if they had got everything, at the same time examining their clothing,
andwhen he came across this legless young man, and asked him if he had got his boots. The boy laughed, raised himself on both his hands, and pushed out his two stumps saying, "I dont want clogs on these", and although the German was highly amused, he insisted that the boy must not go without
clogs as it was an order that no man was to leave the camp without them.
On the day of departure to the border the men would be placed in a four wheeled Army Transport Wagon, with straw thrown on the bottom for the patients to lie on, and when this waggon was full the remainder were allowed stretchers. They were sent to the guard room just outside the entrance to the camp where they received a portion of bread, and then were taken to the Railway Station, a distance of about one mile, and in most cases the patients would be taken off the stretchers and placed on the hard wooden seats of a third class compartment without even a blanket – sometimes being forced to remain more than two days without their wounds being redressed. In cases where men have been very bad on the trip to Aachen, a distance of 500 miles travelling through Hamburg, Bremen and Cologne, I
have asked at these stations for the necessary dressings for the patients, but I was refused outright by the German Red Cross.
As they have apparently not yet learned the meaning of the Red Cross, I think it should be a Black Cross for them. They have always excused themselves on the ground that the British people were treating the German prisoners very badly. I told them that these men were going to England and would report immediately this inhuman conduct, and that they
(the Germans) were going the right way to have reprisals.
I was naturally anxious about these boys until they arrived at Aachen where they would have a good bed, but their wounds were seldom attended to until after they passed the last Commission
before crossing the border.
The Commission at Aachen was represented by one Dutch,
also a and one German doctor. I was often disgusted with the decision of these doctors as only a certain percentage were allowed to pass, and those who failed had to return to the camp on stretchers and crutches.
I shall never forget a batch of Germans who had just been repatriated and had only been in Germany 3 hours. I went up to one of them and asked if they had just come from England. He said, "Yes, I have come from Australia. I was sick there and was sent to England, and from England here"
"What sort of treatment did you receive from the Australians and the English," I asked.
"I was very well treated, and have the address of a number of people I intend writing to in Australia," he replied.
While I was in conversation with this fellow, I did not notice a German sailor behind me until he said, "I have been very badly treated in England." I looked him up and down, and noticed the name "Emden" on his cap. "Oh," I said "I see you are off the "Emden". Then I told him I was an Australian, and belonged to the Australian Army. I said, "Well you don’t look very bad on it."
"Oh", he replied, "we only received a bit of bread so big."
"Yes, and we prisoners in Germany only received about a quarter of what you got in England, and it won’t be long before you will see for yourself."
"Are you down for exchange," he asked.
"No", I said, "but just to give you an idea of how we are treated in Germany, in a few minutes a lot of fellows will be lined up in the yard opposite this window, and these poor fellows have come
from different camps in Germany to pass the last Commission before going to England, but have been refused by the doctors, therefore they have to go back to their camps." They seemed incredulous when they saw fellows a hundred times worse off than themselves, some on crutches, some on stretchers, and they asked the Hospital attendants what it meant.
HOSPITAL AT Gustrow
There is what is called the South Hospital and the North Hospital; the South was attached to a separate camp, divided by a main road. In this camp the Germans treated some of their own wounded, and they were kept apart from the prisoners. The Englishmen who were placed in the South Hospital always received better treatment then those in the North, as they had an English Interpreter who had been doing R.A.M.C. work there since 1914. This young fellow who belonged to the London Scottish Regiment, apparently had more concessions granted him by the Germans than any other Englishman. He was given a room in which to keep British Red Cross medical stuff, also invalid food.
Anyone wanting to go from the North Camp to the South Hospital had to get a special pass, and the same arrangement was necessary in going from the South to the North Hospital. Most of the operations were performed in the South Hospital, but in both North and South Hospitals the patients of the different nationalities were all mixed together in the wards.
The sanitary arrangements of the South Hospital were much better than the North, and the North Camp Hospital was much larger.
All the wards were washed out every Saturday, but no disinfectant was used either in the water or in the wards.
During the last six months of my internment, owing to the pressure for extra room, they had to take in about seven huts from the camp and turn them into wards for the North Hospital, and these were used particularly for minor cases.
It was a common thing for seven or eight dead men to be taken from a train bringing prisoners from the different fronts. Soon after the prisoners arrived from the front, they were given a bath and their clothes disinfected, then they were brought before two doctors to be classed for work. I have met many men of different nationalities who, rather than put up with bad treatment on the farms and in the factories, would purposely injure themselves in order to be returned to the camps. Men have also continually irritated their wounds so as to remain in hospital rather than go before the doctor to be classed for work.
Each month a Commission was held by the Commandant and two doctors for the examination of men marked out of hospital. Very often the doctor would give a man a working number, but the commandant would have the power to over rule the two doctors. I have seen cases where the doctor has marked a man for work, but the Commandant would not allow the man to work until the next Commission – but the Commandant would sometimes class a man for work when the two doctors had marked him for no work. I have seen men on crutches being sent to the basket factory to work.
Anyone in the camp who wanted to see the doctor would have to
give his card to the Barrack Chief, who would place his card on the doctors list to be examined next morning at 8.30 a.m. He would have to go into a crowded waiting room, strip, and wait until his name was called; : then he would step in front of the doctor, tell the interpreter his trouble, and after the doctor’s examination, he would be marked for hospital, or work. Often when the doctor was rushed with work, he would be very spiteful with the patients, and kick or strike men too weak almost to stand. German N.C.O.s would enter a ward, and instead of asking the patients to make way for them, they have struck them to the floor where they died immediately.
A big Russian Pole came to me with some of his toes off through frost bite, also two fingers, one
other finger being badly frost bitten. He wanted me to take it off at the second joint. I replied that I would take him to the doctor, but he said, "Deutsche doctor nicht good, English sanitator better," and he would not leave me until I took it off at the second joint. I bandaged it for him, and off he went quite pleased.
I have been called from the Exchange Barrack to go and attend men who were in a serious condition and unconscious, and when I inquired if anything had been injected, and found it to be the case, it always proved fatal. The injection was always done by a German doctor, and try as I might, I could never procure a sample of the stuff injected.
All the time I was in Gustrow I never saw a linen bandage or the usual wadding used. In every case paper bandages were used, and instead of wadding a wood wool. The paper bandages were just
like crepe paper that we use for making paper flowers, and the wood wadding was used in various qualities. They best quality was a very good substitute for wadding when used on minor cases, but when used on wounds where plugging was essential, or on large wounds when it became saturated with pus, it got very stiff, so that any movement of the body or limbs would cause the plugging to come out.
As far as I could judge, the German medicines were half strength, and they were short of instruments. It was a common thing for a British prisoner to wait sometimes for weeks before the operation could be performed: this delay being caused through the lack of things suitable for it to be done, and the German doctors would wait until such things came through from the British Red Cross.
Some of the English prisoners in hospital managed to get repatriated through sham fits. I would show them how to go through the different movements of a man in a fit, and when they thought they had a good opportunity of having one before the German N.C.O. I let them do it, and would rush and treat them accordingly. The N.C.O., seeing them as he thought in a fit, would report it to the doctor, and once this was done, the man would follow it up by having one every day, and in the finish he would get marked for repatriation.
I became greatly attached to a little Russian boy about nine years of age, who was brought from the Eastern front with a brigade of Russians. The little fellow was brought into the hospital suffering from some lung complaint, and for four weeks he was in great pain. The doctor would not give him any attention, so I tried
to give the poor, little fellow comfort, but he was too far gone: all he could do was to call for his Mother continually until he died. I do not know what reason the Germans had in bringing these little boys to the camp and they were just left running about there until I left.
With the Russian Brigade there were some nurses and other women who were taken to a separate part of the camp from ours, and a few days after the nurses were taken away.
A Russian Major, his wife and two children were given an old cook-house situate in our camp, to live in, where they remained for weeks until removed elsewhere. Once the German doctor was asked to see the Major’s wife who, I understood from a German N.C .O. was in a delicate condition.
The food served up to the patients was very little different to what the prisoners received in the camp, the only difference was the bread, which, in special cases was better and almost white, but nothing near the quality of our English white bread. The patients were given a substitute for tea and cocoa twice a day. These and other liquids given to the patients had a bad effect on their health.
Quietness in the wards was out of the question, as most of the prisoners wore clogs, and the continual passing of men from one part of the hospital to the other in these, gave little chance for a bad patient
getting to get rest.
It was a common thing for Englishmen to have their boots and packets stolen from them during the night, and when the culprit
had been traced, it generally turned out to be a Russian, who when caught, would be punished by the Germans. If a Russian did manage to get away with boots, he generally sold them to one of the German gaurd who willingly gave up to 150 marks for a new pair of English service boots.
It often happened that a patient was allowed to remain in hospital if he could give the German doctor or N.C.O., a bit of soap, cigarettes or cocoa. Now a Russian might not have anything to part with, but he would offer to mend the officers boots, or make a gun case, or picture frame or other fancy things. Apart from these fellows there was a Russian who used to bring stuff from the German doctor and offer it to the Englishmen for tea or other goods from their parcels, and when the English came across one of this kind, he would get a very rough handling, and very often return without his goods, or having obtained anything for them in exchange. The Russians in camp were the most wonderful thieves.
Women of bad repute often found their way into the camp by giving the guard a percentage of their takings, most of the things they wanted were chocolate or soap as money was refused.
THE CAMP OF Gustrow.
Gustrow and the country around is said to be one of the Ex-Kaiser’s favourite places, at one time being a forest. In 1914 when prisoners were sent here, they were compelled to live in tents and and to clear the ground for space to build a permanent camp. When
the camp was built and barbed wire placed around it, it was used for prisoners of different nationalities, As time went on the Germans started to put prisoners on farms and in the factories to work, and this sort of labour proved a very good thing to the Germans, and instead of seeing thousands
of men in these camps, only a few hundred men would be seen.
When a man was taken out on transport to a farm for instance, he would come under the command of a German N.C.O., whose duty it was to look after all the prisoners in one large area. Any complaints from the farmers or other employers about the prisoners would go straight to the N.C.O. in charge of that particular area, and some of these N.C.O.s after receiving a complaint from those employing the men, would ill-treat the prisoners making their lives almost unbearable. Men would run away from their jobs and come back to the camp, the punishment for which would be seven days close confinement in cells, and perhaps sent back on the same job. On some of these jobs, the British prisoners had a lot of trouble in getting their parcels, and when they did arrive, it
would be was discovered that they had been opened and some of the contents taken out..
There was a paper printed for the prisoners of war called the "Continental Times" containing articles in favour of the Germans, but most Englishmen looked upon it as a joke and called it the "Continental Liar".
"I am a Kriegsgefangener,
I wish that I were dead,
Its all through drinking sauer-kraut
And eating mouldy bread.
My bed is in the corner,
I sleep upon the floor,
My back is nearly broken,
My ribs are very sore.
I wake at four each morning with a fright,
When I hear that great big postern shout
When I go out to work all day and come home at night,
I sit beside the fire and read the "Continental Liar".
I don’t know what its all about,
I must have done some crime.
Oh, when the war is over and I settle down to rest,
If ever I meet a square head, I’ll smash his bally chest,
He will say "Mercy Komarade! for Deutschland is Kaput".
Men working in Gustrow camp,
such for example as at the post office and the handling of parcels, the staff is comprised mostly of British and French N.C.O.s who have a permanent barrack to themselves along with other men who are regularly engaged in doing other work in the camp. We had to attend three parades each day, and during the parades in winter, we used to see some funny things. Hundreds of Russians and Italians were lined up in fives to be counted for bread, and if they were not on parade in the morning, they would miss their bread. As soon as the Germans had counted them, they were split up into parties to do work about the camp for the day. It was amusing to watch some of the Russians sneaking off when the Germans were not looking. We would wait until the Russian trying to sneak off, was
quite near the barrack, which was about thirty yards away, and then sing out at the top of our voices, "Rusky", which drew the attention of the German N.C.O. who would see Rusky just disappearing round the corner of the barrack, when he would give chase, but Rusky was nearly always successful in dodging the N.C.O. If caught, he would be given seven days imprisonment.
The Russians tried all ways and means to dodge work in the camp, and it was surprising to see large numbers hobbling about with sticks, to make the Germans think they were cripples. Some of them used to come to me and ask me to put bandages on them, and when they fell in on parade, they would go to the German officer in charge, show him the bandage and say, "Rusky Kaput," meaning "Rusky’s done." They came so often that I used to say, "Come on Ruskie, you want "Nicht Arbeit Bandage". Rusky would laugh, and sometimes offer me money.
I saw a German N.C.O. while on one of these parades, take out his bayonet and strike with it amongst a lot of men for not forming up in line as he wished them to do.
Occasionally a Russian would try and hang himself
with thin rope we [indecipherable] in the hospital and Italians would try and cut their throats. I remember being asked to attend an Italian prisoner who had cut his throat, and after dressing it, I was removing some of his clothes when I discovered that he had tried to disembowel himself. We had a thin rope in the Hospital with which a Russian hanged himself.
One great drawback in this camp was that we had no recreation or even reading rooms. Just before I escaped, a Commissioner came from Switzerland to inspect the camp, whom I understood was to be
sent by the French Government, and the day before he made his inspection, a barrack was specially cleared out and arranged as a reading room until after the Commission when it was again turned into a sleeping room for the prisoners.
The food given to prisoners in the camp was not fit for pigs. Some days it would be all mangolds, another day, potatoes with a bit of meat with the fat extracted, and sometimes barley or black peas, and the cooking was mostly done by the Russians. Had it not been for the food sent us by the British Red Cross, thousands of English prisoners would have died. While we received our parcels it was possible for us to do without the German food provided, anyway, we drew our rations and gave them to the Italians.
The Russians would manage to scrape along by procuring some wood, and exchanging it to the British for portions of black bread as they did not want gilt, "Rusky Kaput", as they would express themselves, meaning that they had nothing, and always wanted to deal in portions of bread, biscuits, soap or tea. They used to steal potatoes from the cook-house or get them from the guards and exchange them for black bread. One Russian trying to steal potatoes from a garden near the cook-house, was shot dead by the German guard, and a mob of Russians waiting on him a few days afterwards and killed him with clubs. Shortly after, one of the German guard while pilfering potatoes was shot by the guard on duty who mistook him for a Russian.
Some of these Russians were harmless, but we came across one who was playing into the Germans hands. When he came into the
hut with a bag of potatoes, one of us would ask him to let us see them, and while in the act of examining them, some of the lads would whip a sack over his head from the rear, twist him round and push him out of the door, and by the time he freed himself, the man with the potatoes had disappeared.
Most of the Russians I came in contact with seemed to have a great liking for the English. I remember just before I left the camp there was a political representative from Russia sent to speak to the Russians in the camp and they were all on parade to be inspected by this person. He said, "I see you are all looking well." An old Siberian who was a cripple on crutches stepped forward and said, "Can you say that I am looking well?" I have been in the Exchange Barrack for months, waiting to be exchanged, and nearly every month I see batches of English, French and Belgians going away, and still I remain."
"Oh," said the political agent, "you are getting better food here than in Russia, it will be better for you to remain here in Germany and work."
The Russians shouted, "You are Deutsche nicht Rusky".
Again the old Siberian spoke, "You say we are well treated here in Germany. We are treated worse than any other nationality. Nay, Russland good for Ruskie, Deutschland nicht good.".
I often talked with this poor old Siberian, and asked him what he did in civil life. He said he was a Capitalist as he had a farm, twelve cows, a wife and eight children.
The Russians were very fond of jokes. A young man who was with me in the Exchange Barrack was waiting to be sent to the border.
A Russian came in with a watch to exchange for a tin of dripping when this lad said, "Yes, Rusky sculker" meaning "how much". "Nicht gilt Komarade, dripping" and offered the Russians a tin of cabbage telling him it was dripping. The Russian handed over the watch, and he took what he thought was dripping. About three hours after, in came Rusky with the opened tin of cabbage saying, England Komarade nicht good." The Russians in the barrack gathered round and laughed at their mate, and in the finish the Rusky with the tin of cabbage had to laugh as well, but he was given something more for his watch, and in the end went away quite satisfied.
The Russians, particularly the German Jews, were fond of gambling, and I have seen them sitting up all night playing cards. They had to be very careful not to let the German guard catch them, and after 10 p.m. they put a wedge of wood under the door. As soon as they heard the door tried by the Germans come to raid them, they would make a straight line for bed. It was most amusing to watch them and see the expression on their faces, some of them with their hooked noses just over the blankets, and the white of their eyes showing, watching and waiting to see who would be dragged out of bed for punishment, and often they would pull out the wrong men.
On one occasion a fire broke out in a shed near the hospital The Germans could not find out for certain the cause of it, but a poor Italian who happened to be near the shed at the time had to take the blame for it and do time in the cells.
One day my mate and I wondered how we could make some money out of the Germans, and came to the conclusion that it would be
a good thing if we could save the tea we had used from our Red Cross parcels, dry it and sell it to the German guards. We did this and sold it for about eight or ten marks for a quarter pound packet, which realized about thirty shillings per pound in English money. The business became so good that we were enabled to exchange it for eggs, and got as many as ten eggs for a quarter pound packet. If the German guard came back to complain, we told him that we should report the matter to the German officer that he was doing business with us, because guards caught carrying on business with the prisoners would be arrested and put in cells, and after finishing their time would most likely be sent to the front. As the guard was frequently changed, the business always flourished.
One German under officer bought some of this tea from a Russian, and noticed a lot of dirt mixed in it. He took it to a French clerk in the hospital, held the tea in the palm of his hand and said, "Look, that goes to prove England is just as badly off as we are. I shall keep this tea and show it to my friends".
Another Russian had managed to get a little dripping, and procured a tin which he nearly filled with sand, putting a layer of this dripping over the top of the sand, and managed to sell it to, a German guard for twelve marks.
Another plan resorted to when wanting to procure certain articles from the Germans, was to alter the labels on the different tinned foods, such as tinned beef or butter, and put these labels on tins of vegetables, disposing of them as meat. Some fowls used to wander about the camp, belonging to the inspector of
the barracks. Some of the lads thought they were justified in making use of them, and waiting their chance, would coax the fowl into the huts by means of bread crumbs, and once there they never came out alive. One young fellow who had apparently
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never seen a fowl cooked as soon as he had caught the bird and taken off its head put it into a pot of water with its feathers on to cook it.
The electric light in some of the barracks was very poor, but we managed to obtain wire and globes from the German stores, tapped the main wire running into the hut and fixed on fifteen extra points, and whenever a German officer appeared, a warning would be given to those who had their lights going, to switch it off. The words of warning being "Eyes down", "Legs-eleven", or "Clickety click."
THE CONDITIONS OF GERMANY
After I had been in charge of the Exchange Barrack for a while I was sent on different transports taking wounded Englishmen to Aachen for repatriation, and since Christmas 1917, had three trips through Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne and Aachen.
These trips were not without interest and often by giving the guard, who had charge of me a few biscuits he would escort me round about these cities which gave me a good change of seeing what German people were like in war time. One was struck with the quietness of these great cities and the only traffic noticeable was mainly for Military purposes. The people went about looking dejected, and it was not difficult to read their faces
and to see that they were disappointed over the result of this long war.
It was possible to walk around these cities for miles and see nothing but empty shop windows, except for a few vegetables. It was a sure sign that Germany was on the verge of starvation; the
country was not quite so bad as the cities because the farmers were able to grow their own food stuff. Whenever farmers knew there was a Stock Inspector about it was quite a common thing for them to endeavour to hide part of their stock. Pigs were put into cellars, or perhaps a man owning a number of cows or horses would arrange with another farmer to take half until the inspector had gone away; others would bribe the inspector in order to prevent their stock from being commandeered. Most of the farms were worked by prisoners. Frequently German girls would marry Russians and after a time the Russian would shave off his beard and run away, and when caught would not know his name. He would be taken to the camp, given a name and sent out to work again. In one sense I was sorry for the German women who were looked down upon by their men folk and had to stand to attention to an officer;
and I never saw a woman take first place in anything, but always the men.
German women have told Englishmen working on some of the farms they would like to do more for them, but dare not because if caught they would be severely punished. Whole families are often found living in one room.
For a cake of soap many were prepared to break down all bounds of morality. While traveling on the train passengers were invariably anxious to enter into conversations concerning Essen’s food supplies; perhaps a person had some from Lubeck, or some other place, and met someone from Hamburg, they would immediately make enquiries as to the difference in the food arrangements.
As I was once returning to camp after taking a transport of
exchanged men to Aachen, a lady with her little daughter entered the same compartment we occupied. She smiled at me which I thought funny. I said to the Belgian who happened to be with me, "That woman smiled at me, I will see what she has to say for herself." "Oh," said the Belgian "let’s have something to eat first," as we had been traveling some time.
When we had finished, I managed to get near the lady who said to me "You are English", to which I replied "Yes.". She said "I have a son at the front. I do hope he will soon be taken a prisoner". I said, "Do you think he will be well treated?" she said "By all accounts. You know England is going to win this war." I was surprised at her expressing herself like this, and the German guard and some civilians said "No, Germany is going to win." Her reply to them was "How can you say that; I have just been watching what these boys have been eating. They have been eating foodstuff which we have not been able to procure in Germany for the last two years." Another time I was taken to the Barracks in Hamburg when a German N.C.O. in charge of the guard asked me, how I liked being there. I said "I would much rather be on the other side." He replied "If you were there you would have to go to the front." I told him that I was a soldier, and would rather be at the front than in Germany.
"Oh", he said, "they are starving in England". I told him he was much mistaken and they had plenty to eat in England. He said "We have good reports that the people are hungry in England." "Now", I said, "you know by the food our Red Cross send us that England cannot be short." Again he replied, "I understand your peo-
ple are depriving themselves of food to send it over to you." "Well", I said, "could Germany send her men interned in England the same as our people send us? You have no tea, cocoa, jam, dripping, beef or biscuits," which silenced him completely.
Another time, a fine looking German woman and her little son travelled in the same compartment, she was very talkative and her son played with us and arriving at a station I had to go to another compartment in which we travelled all night.
Next morning I noticed a little boy and a woman waving to me as the train left the station. For the moment I had forgotten these fellow passengers on the train, but when it occurred to me who they were, I thought, well Germany, some of your people are beginning to realize that we British are not the swine you were led to believe. I often had children coming up to me asking for an English biscuit. While on a transport of wounded prisoners being taken to Aachen we were attached to the rear of a train taking German soldiers to the front who had been on leave. Wherever these men received food, which on three occasions while we were with them, it twice consisted of potatoes and cabbage in greasy water, a portion of bread, a small piece of sausage with most of the fat extracted, there was always a crowd of little children, men and women,
who lived living near the line, who stood waiting with buckets and cans to get what was left of the vegetable soup.
I have often been asked by the guard if I could spare a little black bread for their Frau, but I could not give them what I wanted myself. Women would go from the city into the country to get potatoes from the farms and there would be such a rush for the last
already overcrowded train that many would be left behind. When returning from Aachen after being down with a transport, I had to wait nearly all night for a train at Bremen to continue my journey to Gustrow, so I, in company with one guard went to the little waiting room where we found a table and a form on one side of it against the wall. On the other side were chairs. I lay down on the chairs and was almost asleep when a young German girl about seventeen came in and lay on the form next to the wall. I saw she was cold and shivering and waited to see if the Guard would place his overcoat over her. He took no notice and soon fell asleep. I thought I would let her see how a Britisher treated a girl in such circumstances and threw my coat over her, and shall never forget the surprised look when she saw who had made her comfortable for the night.
Many German guards were compelled to wear paper trousers and it was quite common to see girls in paper dresses.
It is really wonderful what the Germans can substitute, in fact, it seems a land of substitutes and prostitutes.
MY ESCAPE AND HOW I ACCOMPLISHED IT.
Ever since I was taken prisoner, it was always in my mind that I must try and escape. I little thought when I asked permission to look after the wounded in the Exchange barrack what it meant for me, and after being in charge of this barrack for some time I was ordered to take a transport of wounded to Aachen to pass the last Commission before going over to England, via Holland. I was informed by the Guard, that if I paid his expenses instead of having to
stay at the Hospital we could put up at a hotel in Aachen.
We handed over the wounded men to the hospital then left for a hotel until after the Commission, which generally took two days. While in this hotel, I came in contact with a young German civilian, who by his appearance was fit to be a soldier in the German Army. I asked him why he was not a German soldier, and he replied "I do not like soldiering and have false papers." I thought he might like to do a bit of smuggling, and was just getting on to the subject when three German Military police came in, and on observing me, they said, "Oh! Englander here; it is forbidden". I was then taken back to the Hospital and in due course returned to Gustrow. The next transport I had a Belgian to assist me, but I did not put much faith in him, as so many Belgians in the camp were proving themselves traitors to their country by offering to do police duty in Belgium under German orders. On our arrival at Aachen we decided to take the guards to a hotel, but were only accompanied by one guard as the second one had gone to visit some people in the City. When we arrived at the hotel the Belgian said in a half joking way, "I would like to run away from this d…….d old guard. "Yes," I said, "shake hands on it, we will try, and when an Englishman shakes hands on a thing like that, you must see it through."
"We then decided that when the girl was showing us to our room to sleep in, we would ask her to put us in a different room to the guard. As the girl led the way up the stairs the Belgian managed to speak to her, but the guard noticing this tried to pass me on the stairs so that he might hear what was being said. It was my
business to keep him back, so I bumped him back with my bag at the same time making plenty of noise with my feet on the staircase. On being shown to our room the girl said "the two prisoners will sleep here, and you guard will sleep in a room further down." "But," said the guard "I must sleep with my prisoners." I told him that he could not sleep with me, the Belgian telling him the same thing also as the beds were too small. "All right", he said, and went off to his room, and after waiting a few minutes I got the Belgian to go and ask him for a match to see if he was in bed. He was well under the blankets. We then looked out of the window to find our bearings and then stealthily made our way downstairs to try the doors leading to the street, when somebody came in, so we had to return quickly to our room; afterwards we went downstairs four times during the night, but found the doors locked. Returning to our bedroom we tied the sheets together; they could not be relied on, therefore we had to give up the idea of escaping this time, and eventually returned to the Camp.
I then made a compact with the Belgian, that if he was sent on the next transport with me, we must not return to the camp without making a great attempt to escape, either by jumping off the train, or running away, no matter where we were, and to do this we must make preparation beforehand.
I procured some civilian clothes from sailors who had been captured and taken on board the raider, "Wolf", who were landed at Kiel, and were sent on to Gustrow camp. I exchanged good clothing for any sort of civilian’s clothes and procured an ordinary over-
coat, trousers and cap, also a compass and map. When the time came for me to dress the wounds of those marked for the next transport to Aachen, I placed 350 marks between wadding on one man’s head, the cap was put between wadding, and placed on another case, which I said had a bed sore and the trousers were placed in a similar way on another man. The overcoat was put under a young fellow who had a fractured leg and arm, a stretcher case. As we were being inspected on our way out of the camp, the German Officer looked at me and said "Promenade to Aachen?" I said, "Yes." He then asked me if I had any incriminating papers in my pack. I threw it on to the ground for him to inspect it, when he said, "Go on, it is all right." Some of my fellow N.C.O’s in the camp helped me with the wounded to the station, amongst them being Warrant Officer Kennedy, of Sydney, who was taken aboard the raider "Wolf," on his way back to duty in German New Guinea. He was at that time senior N.C.O. in the Camp They all wished me luck, knowing that I was determined to attempt an escape on this journey. On our way to Aachen three guards took charge of us, and when we came to Hamburg, one of them said he had some relatives there and would like to visit them while we went on to our destination, and he would rejoin us on our return, if he thought we would not try and run away. We assured him it would be all right and he need not fear, so off he went to his people. At one point of the journey we were about five hundred yards from the Holland border and I had both my feet on the footboard to jump off the train, when I thought, if I leave the wounded prisoners they would have a terrible time from the guards when they discovered that
we had jumped the train, so I decided to stick to them until we saw them safely at the hospital. On arrival at Aachen the Belgian had to go with the wounded in company of one guard, while I went with the other guard to arrange the rooms at the hotel. Here I waited for him to come until 2 a.m. and came to the conclusion that he had failed me at the last moment. At 7 a.m. a runner came from the hospital to the hotel with a note to the guard in charge of me to bring me straight back to the hospital.
I was taken before the head doctor, who said, I was forbidden to remain in the town of Aachen, and I must stay in the hospital until it was time for me to go back to the camp, and then ordered me to go to my room on the top floor. On the staircase I met the Belgian who informed me it was impossible to join me at the hotel as they would not hear of it. I then told him we must try and get out of this place. It looked almost impossible as there were guards on every landing, at the front door of the hospital and in the yard in the rear. Hearing there were some English officers waiting to pass the Commission I thought I might get some news from them about the frontier, and after listening to what I intended doing, they wished me luck, being unable to give me the information I wanted. I decided to try and bribe the corporal of the guard by offering him a tin of dripping and a packet of biscuits, if he would allow the Belgian and myself out into the town for a few hours to visit some Belgian friends, and he agreed to let us out about 8 p.m. but just as it was nearing the time for us to go two German Sanitators
observed us talking to the Corporal of the Guard, and as we could not get rid of them the German Corporal got the wind up and refused to let us go. We retired for that night, and next day we watched the Guards, thinking out the best way to get out of hospital, and decided to try and get out without having anything to do with the Guard.
It was arranged that the Belgian should wait for me at the bottom of the stairs at a door leading into the back yard, and as the Germans took very little notice of the Belgian, that made it easier for him to get downstairs. When I started to go downstairs, I was stopped and told to go and dress some Indians who had passed the Commission which had only just started. I dressed one of them and then slipped out of the ward unobserved, went up to my room, put on the civilian overcoat, putting my cap and a pair of trousers in the pockets, with my prisoner of war overcoat over it. I thought there was a chance of getting to the bottom of the stairs without being interrupted, but as I got near the bottom I came across a German officer who looked at me and said, "Ah, going for a promenade?" I replied "No, I have a bad cold coming on me, would you get me a few Aspirins." He gave a grin and said he would see me later. I then went back to my room, took both overcoats off and placed the civilian overcoat on a young fellow’s shoulders who had a fractured arm in a sling and told him to go to the bottom of the stairs, where he would find the Belgian, and wait for me near the door and when I came down just hand me the overcoat. Giving him time to get down I followed myself and found the way clear. I snatched the overcoat from the boy, and tried the door leading to the yard which was
unlocked; I stepped out into the Yard, the Belgian following. We passed a few yards in front of the guard room and went about twenty paces towards an iron fence, about eight feet high, over which we climbed. We made our way for the top of the hill just out of Aachen, and on our way I threw my prisoner of war cap away, donning the cloth cap and put on the civilian trousers over the others. The Belgian ripped the braid off his trousers which was tacked on before he left the camp. On reaching the top of the hill we examined our map and compass to get our bearings and discovered we were going into Belgium instead of Holland. Being quite near a tram running into Aachen we decided to go into the town and find a tram running towards Vaals, a place quite near to the border. We asked a lady in the town where we could get on the tram for Vaals, but she would not answer us and walked quickly away, so we decided not to ask anyone else, but find out for ourselves.
Traveling about half way to Vaals on the tram, we then walked along the dark side of the road and passed quite close to three different sets of guards and were not challenged. At last we came near a guard right in the middle of the road, and concluded he was the man who examined the passes, so we took a right turn into a field, passed through some barbed wire fences coming on to cabbage patches through which we commenced to crawl as we had an idea that we must be quite near the border. As we crawled we noticed a little hill on our left and something like a guard box on our right, so went between the hill and what turned out to be a guard box, and as we approached it we heard a dog in making a low growl. These dogs are specially trained to give warning when anybody approaches. It
was now raining. We passed over a sand track quite near to the box used by the guard. We crawled on for about five hundred yards when we came on the first hedge marked on our map, and as we came to another hedge a flare went up from Aachen, to warn the border guards that some prisoners had escaped. We lay low for a short time as the sky was lit up. We had not crawled much further when I got camp in my legs. I tried hard to pull myself along, but it was impossible, so we decided to walk the rest of the way. We must have crawled about two thousand yards and it was close to 3 a.m. After going a short distance we observed a house on our left with a light in it. We kept near the house as we thought it would be an unlikely place for the Guard to be so near a light. After passing this house we noticed something like a hedge in front of us and walked up to it to find it was a sunken sand way track, about twelve feet deep. We lay down on the ground and looked down the track and saw some guards, so waited our chance, and then scrambled across. On gaining the opposite said of this track we proceeded for about twenty years when we came across a stream of water, and to cross this we had to go up to our waists. On the other side was some thick undergrowth with barbed wire amongst it. This took us some time to get through and after freeing ourselves of this wire the Belgian said, "We are saved." I replied, "Do not make too sure of it yet", and just then we noticed some electric torches flashing about one hundred yards away. We flanked them, and in doing so had to pass through a hedge, and then made for some tall trees which appeared to be on the side of the road, but on our way towards these trees we noticed something
more in front of us so lay prone on the ground and crawled up to this object to discover it was an old cow. On reaching the trees we got on to a straight road and as we walked along it we noticed some patrols riding bicycles, but it was too dark to see what uniform they wore, but one noticeable feature was, that they were riding bicycles with rubber tyres, because in Germany one seldom saw a bicycle with rubber, as they have spring tyres. We walked down this road for about five miles when we came on a border post; it was not light enough to discern the colours on the post as our matches had got wet in crossing the stream, so we were without a light. We examined the names on some of the shops which looked different to the names on the shops in Germany.
We had not gone far before we came on a road running off this main road to the left, so we turned down it, and had not gone far when we came across a Holland soldier riding a bicycle, and my heart gave a throb of delight as I began to realize that we were free, when a young civilian came out of a yard, and I asked him if this was Holland. He put up his hand and said, "This is all Holland." I said "Come over here and shake hands; you are the best fellow I have struck for a long time."
I then asked him where I could see an English Consul; he took us to a station about ten minutes’ walk where we were advised to see the Consul at Maastricht.
On arrival there we were pulled up by a Holland policeman who asked where we came from. I said, "I am an English civilian and have just come across from Germany and want to see the English
Consul." He said "You are a soldier," I said, "No, No." He then let us go on to the Consulate, where we were presented to the Consul, who arranged for us to go from the Belgian Consulate to an outfitter to be rigged out in new and dry clothes, and were afterwards taken to a hotel being entertained by the Belgian Consul. Later on we received instructions to go by train at 6 a.m. next morning for Rotterdam, where I had to call on the English Consul General. On arrival at the Station in Rotterdam I had hardly alighted from the train when a Holland policeman grabbed me, and asked for my passports. I told him I was an English civilian and wanted to be shown to the English Consul, and after putting to me similar questions when the Maastricht policeman persisted in asking, he let us go on to the Consul General.
On arrival at the Consulate, I was told I must go into quarantine for a fortnight, but I told then to cut that part of the business out as I wanted to get to England as soon as possible; they said they would do what they could in the matter. I was taken to the doctor, and after being examined he told me I was fit
and so I returned to the Consulate, afterwards being taken to a hotel, there to wait orders from the Consul. Shortly after my passport was sent to me, and soon I was on board the S.S. Kilkenny bound for dear old England.
On arrival in London I was taken through to barracks were I had orders to remain until I was wanted at the War Office.
I shall never forget my delight when I saw the conditions in London, and the hospitable treatment I received from all my friends. After what I had experienced in Germany, I said with all my heart, "I thank God I belong to the British Empire".
[Notes on two postcards sent to Mrs C Benson from Cpt C.Benson.]
Mecklenburg (Head Camp) germany
Mrs C. Benson
2332 Cpl Claude Benson 13th Batt A.I.F. 23/1/18
My Dear Wife – Hoping this card finds you enjoying the best of health. We are enjoying a few days fine weather. God be with you all. Love to you, ever you affectionate Husband
Mrs C. Benson
11 Bellevue Street
2332 Cpl C. Benson 13th Batt A.I.F. 16/1/1918
My Dear Wife. Your welcome letter and P.C. dated 10/10/17 glad to hear you are well. I also had a letter from Lottie with order for 5/- and more to come when she knows I have received the first. I would very much like you to meet her, I will ask her to call on you, plenty of ice & snow about. God be with you & may your prayers be answered your Faithful Husband Claude.
[Two photographs - no. "55a" has written on it "C.C. Benson – Feb. 1918 taken at Gustrow". The second photograph is numbered "55(b)"
[The back of a postcard with the words "Best Wishes from your Faithful Husband Claude 29/7/18"
[The back of the postcard referred to on page 60 also the back of another postcard with the notation "The Cookhouse at Gustrow".]
[The backs of two postcards]
The Prisoners Camp at Gustrow – postmarked "Gustrow"
Arrival of Red Cross Parcels at Gustrow – 6 1/4 x 3A
[It has two postmarks]
[indecipherable] Photographie Gustrow M
[Photograph with the number "57" on it.]
[The back of the postcard reproduced on the previous page.]
[ Monument to commemorate deceased prisoners of war of various nationalities who died in the Concentration Camp at Gustrow – Made of Sandstone paid for & erected by Prisoners of War. Work Executed by some of the Prisoners. ]
[Transcribed by Rosemary Cox and Patricia Ryan for the State Library of New South Wales]