Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Choat war narrative, 1916-1918 / Wesley P. Choat
April 5th 19.
The Principal Librarian
I beg to submit a full account of my experiences covering 17 month imprisonment in eight different prison camps & working parties in Germany.
This account was written up whilst I was convalescing on my return to Australia & it contains full details of two escapes.
You will readily understand that it was impossible for me to keep any diary or memorand because prisoners were frequently searched; but I have given a truthful record of my own experience as a prisoner of war.
I enlisted on July 12th 1915 at Adelaide (two of my brothers also enlisted there, the same week they were both killed in action the same day that I was taken prisoner)
I was a private in the 32nd Batt. – sailed from Pt. Adelaide Nov. 19th 1915, trained six months in Egypt (Canal Zone) then sent on to France.
In action at Frommelles took our objective but were eventually cut off & made a prisoner with about 300 others English & Australian soldiers.
After my escape from Germany to Holland where I was forced to remain 5 weeks before getting to England where again I was kept 4 months before being shipped to Australia & home.
I shall be glad if you will purchase the record for your archives.
Wesley P. Choat
"A Bold Bid for Blighty’
I. To meet the dirty Hun
II. My first stunt
111. A Prisoner of War
IV. Various experiences with the Huns
V. We leave camp to earn our vegetable soup
VI. A startling discovery. A good & kind hearted German
VII. Hurrah! The great day arrives & with it parcels
VII. An escape or Bid for freedom
IX Bang! A gun shot. Are we spotted
X. Our failure realised & Return to prison
XI Fire. Fire. Another chance to escape .But not for….
XII. Planning My next stunt
XIII A Serious disaster. the sentry pinches our chart
XIV. At last our reward & goal. Freedom
XV. Incidents in Holland & journey to "Blighty"
This little book is not written, or summarized from various reports published at different times of treatment of our boys in Hunland , but is what actually befell me during my few years as a soldier of the A.I.F.
In the early months of 1915 I & two of my brothers, who were both killed the same day I was taken prisoner, one older & the other younger than myself, enlisted for service abroad & after several months of training & camp life, ultimately found ourselves all in the same company of the 32nd Batt.
My training & voyage across to Egypt was identicle with that of our bonny boys who went to that dirty, flea, lice & fly infested country so will skip over it, commencing my varied experiences from the time we left the Arabian desert for quiet picturesque France & the awful Huns that were doing their utmost to overrun France & outrage all humanity in the worst possible ways.
"To Meet the Huns"
Our training in Egypt was thorough and severe, yet in the face of all that some impertinent writer had the audacity to send home reports that the Australian Boys were "resting in Egypt". Yes, and some of the boys are still resting there in consequence, but their history has been transmitted to paper by a far more practised pen than mine.
The allotted span for our stay in Egypt, this sandy, lice and fly infested country, being at last finished, we were then advised we had to meet the German Hun in Europe, and all were eager to get there to see for themselves how "Fritz" proved himself in battle. Having all our accoutrements packed, we were given the usual Egyptian Troop train journey to our port of embarkation. The journey was done at night in open wagons, but when twenty or more men and their equipment are dumped in a truck, there is no more "open" space about it, but we fully realised that this train ride was more comfortable to us than a march would have been, as anybody who has marched in Egypt will testify.
At Alexandria we found our ship all ready and waiting. We embarked on the transport full of hope and expectations, and an awful feeling of contempt for the land we had just left. The most exciting occurrence on board was in connection with our rations, which by no means allowed of any waste at all, and seldom proved sufficient to satisfy demands. Our journey was accomplished without any serious mishap. We were marched straight off the boat at the French Port, Marseilles, and into a train, which started us on our way to the great adventure about an hour later. At Marseilles we saw our first German soldiers, who were working as prisoners on the wharf. They appeared all big able bodied and strong men.
The change of scenery in La Belle France was like healing ointment to our sunbaked faces and dust filled eyes. It seemed a veritable paradise, and it was hard to realise that in this land of seeming peace and picturesque beauty, one of the most fearful wars of all time was raging in the ruthless and devastating manner of "Hun" frightfulness. Life in France was infinitely better than in the land of sun and flies. This was due to the fact that everything is better organised, and means of transport were not so difficult. Our first pleasant surprise was when the Quartermaster issued to us "butter" (real "butter") to eat with our bread and biscuit, and we could get leave to visit the neighbouring villages and purchase fruit. I was even able to get several pounds of strawberries, and best of all those beautiful, most delicious, currant loaves, which we had not seen for so long, much less tasted.
It was here we first witnessed Aerial Duels, which to us were most fascinating, more so if one could distinguish and follow their curves, dives and plunges, especially if our boys were holding the winning hand. I have often see groups of boys either sitting or standing watching a duel from start to finish, and when one could see our victorious machines returning as gracefully as the prettiest butterfly, it naturally gave us one and all a greater sense of security, to know that our boys could go up and watch any enemy movements and disperse his massing preparations. The thrilling and soul inspiring sights of
guns with their teams, the ammunition supplies following at intervals, and then the rolling columns of khaki clad men in almost endless succession, a nation under arms, provided an ever varying and endless source of surprise to young Australians, and we knew that our goal was reached – we were to meet the Hun.
"My First Stunt"
It was very evident to us that a push of some description was in the making, in fact our papers told us as much, and that we were drawing near the time when we would take the offensive and do the "hopping over stunt". When things were considered to be in readiness, every unit from the long naval guns down to the humble hard working infantry man, and our objectives had been shown to us in Plans and described in every detail, the signal was given to "hop over". Of this I must not say much, except we had some splendid shooting, took the first line, and dug ourselves in about a hundred yards beyond. The digging in did not go very deep as when we were about a foot in depth we found water, we had to make a barricade. Those of us who had reached so far held on, and made as much cover as possible, and were complimenting ourselves on a good success for the first advance, when the order came "We are surrounded, every man for himself!". Although surprised, we formed up and tried to charge back to our lines, but a piece of shrapnel, whether from friend or foe I could not say, was stopped by my nose, the force of which toppled me into a nearby shell hole and robbed me of my senses for some time. On coming to consciousness all was quiet, or comparatively quiet, but "Fritz" was around gathering up the living, and then the awful realisation came over me "I am a Prisoner of War". The thought alone was enough to try the strongest nerve, and by what I saw and had heard, I fully expected to be killed outright or worked to death behind the lines. My feelings were made even more miserable by the fact that I was the only man then living in that sector, and began to think "my number" surely was up, but on getting into their communication trench I found, to my immense relief, there were others of my comrades in the same plight, and on reaching the road to which this trench led, I met more of our boys, about twenty in all. We were then marched to the first field dressing Station, where the worst of wounds were dressed, and in any cases of men unable to walk, they were sent direct to hospital. On reaching this station I found three hundred in all "Tommies" and "Aussies". From here we were placed under a mounted guard and taken right through Lille, where we were greeted at almost every window by a camera, anxious to get a good photo of the first batch of "Aussies" The sight of us, battle worn, muddy with clots of blood all over us, had a very depressing effect on the French population, and it was a very frequent and depressing sight to see an elderly woman dressed in black sobbing and crying over our apparent failure. Another common experience was when some French lady, was probably depriving herself and family of needed food, would venture as close as possible, and attempt to hand to some of us a piece of their
black war bread, but as soon as a Sentry noticed, he would turn his horse in her direction, flourishing his lance, and use very lurid language.
"A Prisoner of War"
Our destination was the Civilian Prison of Lille, where we were kept two days, or until Fritz had captured enough Prisoners to warrant a train, the required number being 500. The food given us here, it was rumoured, was provided by the French Civilians, but for that I could not vouch.
We left Lille at 6 o’clock in the evening to entrain for a German Concentration Camp, travelling at night in closed Goods Wagons with doors locked, and very little ventilation. Next morning we were treated to a so-called cup of coffee, whose only redeeming feature was that it was warm and wet for our parched throats. Our coffee drunk, we again entrained and travelled until 4 p.m. when we were let out and given a bowl of soup, our first food for 24 hours, which needless to say was appreciated as though we had beenfor weeks without anything at all. Once more we entrained and travelled until daybreak, when we were taken out at a station and given another cup of "Coffee", and marched to our camp at Dulmen. Passing through the village the first sight that met my eyes was a Haberdashery Shop, but not a white object was on view, nothing but crepe and mourning, a very depressing and suggestive sight indeed. It seemed to fit with our feelings exactly, and gave us the impression at once that Germany was much more war weary than the Allies.
The Camp was 7 kilometres or 4 3/4 miles away, and for hungry and depressed men it seemed more like 70 kilometres, but we eventually reached it, and the first thing I heard was a good old Australia "Coo-ee" sent out to greet us by one who had been captured from one of our raiding parties. I think every Australian amongst us who heard it felt an increase in hope to know that at least one of our boys was there and been able to live.
The gates open, we were marched into the receiving compound where we were counted and re-counted, and searched for any Diaries or photos of Military movements we might have, but as soon as we saw what was being done to those in the lead, as many of us who could entered the latrines and destroy our long treasured and valued Diaries, photos and letters. All being searched we were brought "Coffee" and given two slices of dry black bread which we ate ravenously. This meal made our spirits rise considerably as we expected to get the same amount at each meal [indecipherable] the interpreter "Stiffy" as we nicknamed him, called us to order and announced the awful fact that we had "eaten our daily ration of bread" and should have kept a little of it for dinner.. Imagine if you can our feeling of remorse, and the sudden pang and tightening inwardly, making us realise even more what an awful and helpless position we were in, being prisoners of the inhuman merciless hun.
After "Stiffy" was satisfied that he had the correct number.
of Prisoners, and had obtained all the information possible, we were taken through fumigating rooms and given a bath.. The orderlies of course were all prisoners, principally French, and made the water as warm as possible, and even managed to get a little soap for the first few to go through. Soap is one of Germany’s scarce commodities, all the fat and grease having been converted to food stuffs, largely for Margarine. We afterwards learnt that for a small piece of soap a German, if he thought no one else would get to hear of it, would grant one almost any favour in his power
An Introduction to War Prisoners
Fumigation and baths over, we were allotted our huts. These were built principally of wood, and contained double decked stretchers, consisting of a wooden frame covered with cocoanut matting for sleeping purposes, each frame containing space for two men, and accommodating 120 men of all Nationalities to a hut.
By this time our most serious thought was of our dinner, and what it would prove to be. Previous to entering the huts, we were paraded by the quartermaster and issued with a bowl, spoon and two blankets, these latter could be used as pocket handkerchiefs without any trouble at all, and the spoons were dirtier & more rusty than our entrenching tools we had lost.
Dinner was brought to us by two of the boys who undertook orderly duty and so avoid working for "Fritz". It was an awful thing to realise one was powerless to "carry on", and in addition came the heart breaking order that you must work for the enemy against whom one would naturally rather fight, and if any of the boys could get a chance of working for brothers in distress, of course they would jump at the chance, and so relieve their conscience by the fact that they at least were not doing anything to benefit "the Hun".
Our dinner consisted of water and a few pieces of mangelwurzel, mainly water, but anything was welcome that promised to satisfy hunger, and we drank it. For tea we received another dish of the same condiments, or a drink of tea or so-called cocoa. That was our first day’s rations, and it made us wonder and speculate as to how long we would exist on such rations: but in the same compound as we were there were quite a number of French Prisoners who were already receiving parcels from home, and they would share with us some of their German rations. I have often stood and watched Portugese Prisoners eating their watery soup in the hope that they would not eat it all, and was glad enough to eat anything of any description that they did not require themselves, a sure sign when a man is in dire straights for something to eat.
The British Prisoners also would send us as much of their Hun rations as they could possibly spare, but amongst 500 it was not a great deal, and one would often "fall in" in the queue to see the last drop given out just before he got there. Of course under these
conditions we soon became weak and exhausted, and noticed each other getting quieter and more melancholy as time went on. The big men and the young ones seemed to go down first. The small wiry men held out best of all.
We were given a post card each to enable us to write to our people and let them know we were still in the land of the living and as "Stiffy" advised us, we wrote in one corner "Please send Parcels". We learnt we would be allowed to write four cards and two letters per month, but of course without money we could not buy these things. "Fritz" issued us one and only one, and had it not been for a good "Samaritan" in my Barracks named Moody of the 31st Batt., who had managed to stick to some money and had bought letters and post cards, and shared them amongst us each week, we should not have been able to write until we should have earned some money ourselves.
Those of us who were able to procure writing material addressed our next cards to the "British Red Cross" being advised to do so by some of the "Tommies" who had been "through the Mill", but they only got as far as the Censor, who stopped them going, and returned them to us three weeks later to impress on us the fact that it was forbidden to write directly for assistance.
"Various Experiences with the Huns"
As time passed we became gradually worse off, and pawned our boots braces rings and watches to Frenchmen for some of their biscuits, many of the boys parting in this way with some of their most valued possessions, for perhaps 12 or 20 biscuits – biscuits that in Egypt we had so scorned, - and in many cases wasted. Other men who could not do without smoking would obtain tobacco for their trinkets, and make cigarettes from paper of any description, pocket testaments being in great demand for cigarette papers.
Twice a week for tea we were issued a salt herring. Most us ate it just as it was, but others collected paper and made a small fire and tried to cook it, but by this time we had lost any "faddishness’" we may have had, and were only too glad to eat, - eat anything. Once a week we got some concoction they called "cheese", but it looked like curdled milk and caraway seeds. Of this we might, if lucky, get a tablespoonful, and if one was quick enough in going round to the French Barracks, he would occasionally get their issue as well. One day we were formed up and told we were all to be inoculated and vaccinated. Well, this news filled us with great misgivings, and some thought it better to try and dodge it, as no one knew what kid of vaccine they might use, but it ended in some dodging all five inoculations, and others having one, two, three or four. Whatever it was they used, it did not tend to make us more cheerful or strong physically.
On parade one day (of course we were all paraded three times daily and counted and given any orders or information), it was announced that the British Sergeant Major in charge would send across to us a number of parcels. When these arrived it worked out at one parcel per ten men, but even this little bit of solid tasty food was greatly appreciated, and gave us a hint that a good time was coming when we would receive our own parcels and have once more a square meal.
From these parcels we received a small piece of soap – just a cubic inch of soap. This was the only soap we had with which to wash our faces until the all eventful day when our own assistance from England should arrive. "Parcels" was the topic of the hour, or perhaps I should say of every hour of the day, as well as the night, both in our thoughts and dreams.
We had two razors issued to us but beards and moustaches were already long and thick, and the razors were not quite of the class a barber would use; one trial convinced me it would be a lesser evil to grow a beard, and in a short time the practice became universal. Most of us had chubby little beards, and little "Charlie Chaplin" moustaches, and also the woebegone expression of that celebrity.
Our next exciting parade was when we were marched before the doctor, known to us as "Iron Cross Jack", for him to determine whether we were fit for hard work or not, but he passed out very few as unfit. This led us to speculate how much longer it would be before we were sent out to work to earn our "vegetable soup", as even in a Hunland war prison, one must work to eat.
The first working party consisted of 18 men, and they left us on the morning of 21st August 1916. This caused much talk and argument about the nature of the work they would have to do, but none of us ever knew. Now that they had commenced sending us out, we began to discuss who would be in the next party, but as they were mostly picked alphabetically, our guesses went astray. If some thought "Oh, I am not fit to go to work" and lived in hopes that they would be able to remain in Camp until at least their parcels came, but if "Iron Cross Jack" said they were fit, fit they were and had to go.
The next party to go had their names read out on parade, and were told that they would leave on Monday. When the day came I found that I was included, and we were marched to the Quartermaster’s Stores and
were issued with another bowl, a larger one for washing ourselves in, a shirt, a pair of wooden clogs, and two pairs of toe rags to act as socks, and if one’s jacket or trousers were not fit to be seen, he would receive a German military pair of corduroy trousers, which of course were second hand, and generally large enough for two or three of us as we then were. We also had a towel, a little sharp corner cap; these caps were not issued to us until three weeks after arrival, during which time some of us had [indecipherable] handkerchiefs, but the majority of us used our bowls as caps. I was perhaps more fortunate than most
as I had a rubber lined gas mask pouch, which I inverted and wore as a cap until such time as Fritz thought fit to issue head gear, the loose flap hanging down and serving as a shade for my neck.
We prepared as well as we could to get things ready for our departure, and I spent my 21st birthday rather differently to the usual manner when one attains the age of independence at home. But we were in a strange land, and prisoners, and were soon to learn the differences of situation and the contrasts to the easy happy-go-lucky life we had been used to.
On the morning of our departure for our toil, we were called early and received a bowl of soup (known to us as "Sandstorm"). It was a very rough mixture of maizena, but without taste, and very coarse. This bowl of food was considered by us as our best issue, and was eagerly looked for twice per week. Our daily ration of bread we should have kept for our train ride, but hunger would not allow us, so we ate it with the "Sandstorm", and felt for a while ready for our road, wherever it might lead, and "for better or for worse". We had been given to understand by the older Prisoners that conditions were much better out on a working party, so that our spirits and expectations were running very high.
We leave camp to earn our vegetable soup.
At day break of Aug 22nd we were ready for our tramp to the Station, thirty in all, twentyeight Australians and two "Tommies" of the "Warwicks". We were in full marching order (viz 1 blanket, 1 towel, 2 bowls and a spare shirt [indecipherable] and some amongst us had collected tins and fastened handles to them, so as to be ready and able to boil [indecipherable] a drink of tea, when the much talked of parcels should arrive. Even under this small load we were forced to make three halts, or one each mile, plain evidence that we had got into a very weak state, and yet in this condition we were going out to "work" and worst of all, to work for the "Fatherland"! That thought caused us as much trouble and worry almost as the shortage of food. Arriving at the station we had about ten minutes to ourselves, and the boys who had pawned their rings and trinkets for foodstuffs, and those who had been able to get into touch with some of the older Prisoners who had given them as much of their food as they could spare, began to eat a little of it. But for the remainder of us, it was a very hungry trip indeed, and continued to 4 p.m. by which time we arrived at our new barracks, or billets, which proved to be the music hall or dance room of an Hotel on the second floor, reached by a flight of stone stairs. There was the usual barbed wire fence around the yard, and on Sundays Patrons of the hotel would come and look at us, especially at meal times, when we would line up and get our bowl of "Potato Mash". We used to go upstairs to eat it in quiet and out of sight. The yard was perhaps about 20 yards by 10 yards, so that we had not any room for much recreation had we felt like it.
On entering the room we found light iron bedsteads with sacks of straw and another blanket each, so we made claims for our separate beds and tried to get next to our "cobbers". This done our
interpreter called us down for something to eat, and we were not slow in responding. We went down into the yard and handed our bowls through the barbed wire, and had them filled with ‘potato mash" which meant so much to us, and which although just off the fire and very hot, we ate voraciously, burning mouths and throats. This we did not seem to mind as it was such a glorious feeling that we were eating something a little bit solid. Our dishes were soon emptied, but the lady of the house told us that there was a little left in the boiler, and if we wanted any more we could have it. The result was we all lined up again and got as mush as possible. Imagine if you can our feelings of satisfaction and pleasure at once more being "full" and the relief of mind with which we went to bed, more especially as our interpreter told us we were to have five meals per day, and as this was the best we had had since capture our hopes and expectations were naturally running riot. The excitement of a good meal over, we set to preparing for bed. Our floor space was not very extensive and the beds were placed one above the other, but we took them down and spread them singly. This left very little room indeed, but we got into our cots and slept full of joyful anticipation and dreams of happier days and bigger meals. At 5.30 a.m. next morning the sentries were shouting "rouse" (treten) or "get out" (aufgehen), and we then received a drink of their burnt rye water or coffee for breakfast, and at 6.15
we were formed up in the street to march to our work.
On account of recent rains the grass was wet and the lanes muddy, so that our feet were soon as wet as the grass. Our sentries did not know just where the work was, and took us a little out of the way, so that our day was not as long as it might have been. The first introduction we had to the work was the sight of a miniature engine and train of trucks, which some German "civies" and some soldier convalescents were emptying. (Convalescent soldiers in Germany are presented with work instead of sports, and often during their furlough will work to earn a little money). There were women and girls of from 18 to 60 years of age levelling the earth as it was tipped out. It was a railway embankment in the making, but this was not to be our place of toil, for we were taken past these and formed up in front of a tool shed from which we received a shovel each. At least they called them shovels, but they appeared to us more like small scoops. The handles were ash saplings and very rough, and as the wood dried
they it cracked and caused us many a blister, and by and by hard cracked corns which would often bleed, but as time went on our hands became hardened, and we got used to the heavy shovels. We were taken to a bend in the river which was to be straightened by a canal in order to allow the water to run under the embankment. Along the river ran a light railway line on which were tip trucks of a carrying capacity of a yard and a half of earth; when we had filled them we had to push them along to the other bend and tip them into the river.
Our foreman proved to be one of the old Prussian "Kulturist" who would not allow us to sing , whistle or make any noise, one who tried to get as much work as possible from his gang of "Convicts". He made himself disagreeable in every way with the result that one day we decided any punishment we might get could not be worse that his treatment, and one and all refused to work under him, and asked to be sent back to camp. Of course he created a terrible noise, but on the arrival
of the contractor, and our complaint being lodged, we were told we would have a new "boss", one German promise that was kept. This victory put us in great heart, and the idea into our heads that he had been taking unlawful liberties.
At 8 o’clock a.m. a whistle was blown for breakfast, and then we found to our sorrow that the two slices of bread we received with the coffee and had eaten, should have been saved and eaten one for breakfast, and one for the afternoon at 4 p.m., so all we could do was sit and watch the Germans eat theirs, and they seemed to find great elation in our dejection and misery, but at times an odd apple or carrot would come floating down the river, and these were at once fished out by us and eaten with relish, at which the Germans would snigger, & laugh with delight at our misfortune & hunger.
One of the first things which attracted my attention was the fact that when Germany wishes to plant trees by her roadside instead of planting an ornamental tree that perhaps sheds its leaves and makes a mess
generally, they have planted fruit trees, mainly apple trees, and these bear a very good crop of nice apples, and later on when working by the road we would sneak away, and climb the trees, and come back with our shirts full of fruit. To get back to our first day’s work, oh! It was work! Each succeeding shovel became heavier than the other. Breakfast time was 20 minutes and then we made another start, and dragged on until 12 o’clock, when the whistle went once more and we stopped for dinner, which the orderly with the relief of guard would pull out to us in a little cart, and dish out an equal portion to each man. This we would eat so quickly that for the remainder of the day we would have indigestion and gnawing pains in the stomach. For dinner 40 minutes was considered sufficient, and when once more that whistle would blow we would drag ourselves to the shovels and get them going again, and then it was that our hands were sore! Our next respite was at 4 o’clock when we stopped for another twenty minutes to eat that piece of bread we had already eaten and forgotten, and once more had to be content to see Fritz eating his, and what was worse, to sit quiet and hear his jeers.
Our route to work led us through several fields, some of which were bearing crops of carrots and potatoes, and when marching by these we would make a grab and snatch as many of the vegetables as possible. Of course the sentries greeted this with "vectreten du schweinhunden" but as long as we had a carrot or turnip we did not mind his shouting and names because we could not understand him.
Ch.V1. A startling discovery, a good and kind hearted German.
The owner or lessee of this particular piece of ground was at least human, and sent his little girl across to us several mornings at breakfast time with 30 carrots, or one each, which we ate and appreciated as if they had been some of "Cadbury’s best".
At the close of the second day the work began to tell on us terribly, and I and several others fell out at 4 p.m. and lay on the grass until the others went home. Next day I refused to go out and remained in bed, and whenever the sentries were about, I would appear to be racked with pain, just like some of the sufferers in "Doan’s Backache Pill" Pictures.
Just through the barbed wire surrounding the barracks
there was a plum tree, and the plums were daily getting riper and of a brighter hue until I could resist the temptation no longer, and so taking off my boots and sneaking through the wires I climbed the tree and filled my pockets, but on getting back through the wire the weight of the plums in my pockets caused it to catch on the wire and make an awful racket, on which the sentry pocked his nose out of the window and "spotted" me. I at once made a dash for my bed and got under the blankets, the sentry came up the stairs and looked right along and missed me, and I thought I was undetected. But he came around again, and this time he made no mistake, but caught hold of me and said all sorts of unkind things, of which at that time I could not understand a word, and then started swinging his rifle butt and bayonet. All I could do was to hold my tongue, temper and fists, no easy matter, but at such times one must above all be tactful and sham fear. I felt more like fighting Germans than ever before, but it was no policy to do so! After he had cooled down somewhat he stood me in a corner, as a school teacher does a naughty child, and
he insisted on me standing at attention all the time, while he sat on a chair behind me nursing his beloved rifle and bayonet. My punishment was that I was to stand there for 12 hours without food. "Fritz" discovered this to be the only way to subdue the British spirit. In this case, however, he forgot the plums I had in my pocket, so that by doing it very carefully, I could get plums from one pocket to my mouth and put the stones in the other pocket, so that my punishment was not as severe as he intended it. When I was released and got back amongst the boys I found they had each given a little of their dinner and had hidden it in an odd bowl, in spite of the sentry trying to prevent such action, the boys, although hungry themselves, managed to hide it from Fritz, and handed it to me as soon as all was again quiet. It is the spirit of comradeship asserting itself, which is so general among the "Aussie" boys, and especially so with Comrades in distress, that makes us brothers in arms.
When the sentry released me he said that if I would go to work he would not report it to headquarters, but for once I became obstinate and refused to work. The sentry did not report it, as they will not report any more trouble than is necessary for fear that they will be taken away as incapable, and perhaps sent to the front. If a German is able to keep his men doing the required amount of work without too much trouble, he realises he is much better off than at the front, where he would undoubtedly be sent, if the authorities considered him unable to maintain good order and discipline, and my experience of the German at home was that he would do almost anything rather than go to the Western Front, the other fronts he did not mind so much.
The next exciting event was the appearance of an officer, who it seemed had come out to know why I would not work, but I told him I was willing enough to work at anything I could do [indecipherable] with the result that I was put on a gang that was called by Fritz the ‘langsomern’ or the "slow’ or "lazy" lot, so that my obstinacy brought me a little reward after all.
As we got wiser and discovered that the sentries would not report more than was necessary, we allowed ourselves more license, liberty & a slight feeling of independence & superiority and
began to make our own pace at work. But then the required amount of work would not be done, and the Foreman would threaten that he would keep us there until midnight if needs be, or until our work was finished. The sentries objected to this
as for if we were kept, they would have to stay as well, and this little bit of reasoning led us to go slower still in our arbeit for the Fatherland.
One evening in prison while waiting for our tea, a little German boy beckoned to me and showed me a note. I got a gas mask satchel and let it down over the wall by means of string, into which the boy put his note, which to my intense relief I found to be written in English, and what was even better still it was from some British prisoners who were billeted in the town, and who had written to ask how we were situated in regard to food and clothing. We lost no time in writing an answer we would be glad of anything they could spare us. I hailed the little German who unconsciously had done so much for us, and handed him down the reply, and within two hours, to our overwhelming surprise, three Tommies came marching in, each with a great stack of stuff. No words in either English or German could express our feelings of the joyful, inspiring sight of a strange [indecipherable] face, yet speaking our own language. These boys gave us some useful information as to how we should act, and above all impressed on us that as long as we kept reasonably moving, Fritz had no right to hurry us at all, and what we wanted to know more than anything else, how long it would be before our parcels would reach us. The sight of their careless, happy, yet determined faces was in itself enough to cheer us up tremendously, and the vigorous shake of their hard worked and scarred hands, which one could feel came straight from their hearts, and as we were the first "Aussies" they had ever seen, the novelty and greeting was not all on one side. The sentries would not allow them to stay very long, so they tipped out their bags, and went back to their waiting comrades, with the promise that, if allowed, they would come to us each week. Then came the pleasant task of dividing the food and clothing between us which took quite a long time, but after eating, and alas, gorging ourselves to the full, we did at last turn in and dream of all manner of pleasant dinners and luncheons. The arrival of this food and the information we received tended to make us feel independent and more buoyant. Our hearts once more beat regularly, and we were helped to forget the previous days of hunger and almost despair.
Day followed day without anything interesting happening, and our main topic of conversation was whether the "Tommies" would be allowed to come down to us again, and when it might be, and then just a week later they came with as much stuff as they could carry. They brought us a lot of things that needed cooking, and as we had no means of cooking anything, we mixed such things as oatmeal in with our potato "mash" and "oxo" cubes and soup tablets of every description, making the contents assume all kinds of colours, but nevertheless it was all appreciated and played its part in assuaging hunger. It was at this period we received our
first pay which totalled out at 75 pfennigs, or 71/2 d. per day. With the money we tried to purchase a few cooking utensils, and our barracks began to assume a more homely and comfortable appearance. Then. oh joy of joys, we met another bunch of Tommies who were quartered in a neighbouring village, but had come to work close to us. Some of the boys sneaked across and had a yarn with them, and were immediately asked how long we had been there, and how we were fixed for food and clothing. We told them of our conditions, and they promised to help us as much as possible until own parcels – these ever talked of and dreamed of parcels of our very own – should arrive, but their sentries would not allow them to bring much at a time, and as winter was approaching they commenced by wearing an overcoat each with the pockets filled with socks, shirts, or anything else needed. These overcoats they would take off and leave with us, and those good old boys continued this until we all had a great coat and a spare shirt each, and among other things they brought was soap. Oh! the pleasure of having a good clean wash, even if it was in a bucket and cold, and last, but by no means least, tobacco and "fags", the greatest solace and comforter of all to men in distress.
The other boys from our own village paid us another visit, bringing as much as possible, this was the last time they were allowed to come, but their kindness and gifts had put us on our feet, and we began to think that perhaps after all we should be able to "hold on" until the end.
On coming home from work one day we passed theTommies, and one of them took his cardigan off his back and gave it to me, saying "I have another at the Barracks sure evidence that he was one of those world renowned and respected Britishers. This mutual help was made possible by the regular arrival of parcels from friends and the Red Cross Society.
Those of us who had got down the lowest and felt the conditions most began to brighten up, and walk with a firmer step, all but one who seemed daily to get worse, and was eventually ordered back to hospital, where he died three weeks later and was buried by his comrades in the cemetery provided, which is really kept in very good order by fellow prisoners, each grave being allowed a headstone with regimental address and cause of death. These headstones are usually the work of French prisoners.
When a prisoner died in a Camp hospital the Germans allowed a respectable coffin, and the comrades who wished to see the last of the departed, to march, of course under guard, and pay their last respects to a British hero, the coffin being covered by the good old Union Jack. After the burial the flag was taken off and rolled up, and is not seen again until the cemetry claims another victim. There is generally one amongst us who read the burial service, and commits the departed one to the care of Him who gave him being.
The conditions and treatment of our commando improved greatly after this death; and the sentries and contractors seemed frightened of another going the same way, and those of us who were taken to the Doctor were often given a day off, and in some cases we even got some medicine.
Hurrah. The great day arrives & with it parcels from Blighty.
Then one evening the all important event happened, our parcels arrived, and caused not a little stir. For the first time some of the boys did not want their German soup, which by this time had greatly deteriorated, and was mainly water, but there were still plenty of us with ravenous appetites that called for anything and in unlimited quantities, and seemed never to be appeased, but the thought of that good food under our beds was too strong for us, and the resolutions we had formed, viz., that we would only eat a little at first, were during the night all broken, and it was a light hearted party that lined up for work next morning. Some of us managed to remember some old tunes or parodies and hummed or whistled, a sure sign that we were one and all on the mend. Could the Red Cross authorities only have seen us that morning I’m sure their efforts & heavenly work would have found complete gratitude & thankfulness in one & every face.
With the improvement in our conditions and living came the thought, that if ever I was to make an attempt to reach Neutral territory, it would be essential to have at least some idea of the language, so straight away I set about picking the wrappings from the Germans’ luncheons, and trying to read and puzzle out what it might mean, but it was a slow, tedious task, and I did not make much headway, until one day I prevailed upon one of the girls working with us to lend me her little sister’s school book, and from this I learnt a lot of the grammar and punctuation. But I still had to master the pronunciation and accent, so I would ask them all kinds of questions, just as a child does who is commencing school. Some times I would get an answer, and at others a scowl, but I still persevered , and at length got along so well I was able to ask
for in German for such things as razors, strops, shaving brushes and mirrors for the boys. Our interpreter seemed to be bashful and afraid of getting himself disliked, so I undertook to get as much as I could for our general comfort. As we got more accustomed to our work, guards and hours of labour, we thought we would like an instrument of some kind, so I procured an Accordion, and we would often have a bit of a sing song, or even a real "dinkum" clog dance. On New Year’s Eve of 1917 two or three of us managed to stay awake until midnight, and then struck up with customary tunes, the other boys joining in and swelling the chorus as they wakened up. The sentries bounded into the room expecting to see a murder, riot, or something equally as bad, but when they saw us in our shirts dancing about welcoming the New Year they were flabergasted, and thought we had taken leave of out senses. We could see that they could not understand our merriment, so deemed it advisable to leave off before they misinterpreted it, or perhaps they might have practised some of their "Kultur" on us, but we felt sure that our worst times were over, and with the Spring would come a great successful and deciding offensive by our arms, that would set us free, and
we drank imaginary toasts to their success, and utter destruction of German Militarism and "Kultur".
As winter approached, we felt the difference in the atmosphere, and found it necessary to keep moving, if only to maintain warmth; it seemed cold enough for snow. Snow it did eventually, and we knew all about it too, but when it was down the air seemed warmer, and we stood and studied the first snow we, or at least most of us, had seen. Of course the two Tommies were used to it, [indecipherable] and we would often cast a wary eye in their direction to see how they were taking it [indecipherable] cheered
us a little to notice they were feeling the cold as much or more than we "Aussies " were, so that winter and the snows and frosts of winter did not hold any fears for us, and when we noticed the Germans coming to work tied up –well, not unlike "Kewpies" – and that they felt the cold more than we did, it made our lot much easier to bear. Many times we would take off our jackets whist working to let them see we could stand it. With the help of our parcels from England and bread from Switzerland, our living was levelling us up with Fritz, and when these parcels were in regular succession, we were better fed and clothed than the average Hun, thanks to that noble Society "The British Red Cross" without which none would ever again have come to native land and loved ones.
Those never to be forgotten days when we used to sit hungry and watch Fritz eating his breakfast, whilst we had only his jeers to chew, were now reversed and on one occasion when we had cleaned out a treacle tin (and I emphasise the "cleaned"), a worker came along, picked it up and licked the leavings, if any, literally licked it with his tongue. Such a sight put us in good spirits, as we began to realise that Germany and her people really were hungry and depressed, and to verify our suspicions came the peace rumours of December 1916, when the Germans around us were quite intoxicated with delight, and told us of a surety we would soon be on our way home again, and they would have their boys back with them, and, in their excitement, were quite affable with us, until the news came through that England – good old England – had absolutely refused to entertain any of their proposals at any price. Then once more they changed to a bitter hatred, but the very fact of Britain refusing their proposals led us to believe that we were in the position to master & dictate that mastery, the final issues were in the hands of those living within the little chalk bound shores just across the Channel with the result that we were more contented and inspirited than disappointed. To see the economic conditions gradually getting worse for Fritz whilst ours were maintained, was very encouraging to us, the jeers gradually coming round to our side. I might here say that we lost no possible chance to remind them of their position which had [indecipherable] .
Then the frosts took hold of the country in all their severity, the sandpit in which we had been working was frozen to a depth of three or four feet, making it as hard as Granite, and the water necessary for the engines was also frozen, forcing us to remain indoors, because unable to do anything at our work outside. This we did not mind as the idea of working for Fritz at any thing at all is so disquieting and nerve racking, that we would do anything if we thought that by doing so doing so we would not have to work for him, but our light was also frozen. The gas mains had burst and taken in water which froze immediately, and our only illumination was from candles purchased at our expense for 1d. per
inch. This frost held on for four weeks, giving us a months rest, it freezing and blocking all the Canals and Waterways, in many cases to a depth of 4 and 5 feet, and making them utterly useless. Anything like this that would hinder them and their Fatherland in any way would cause us secret exultation and satisfaction, as our thoughts were always with our "cobbers" who were still pounding away at Fritz on the West front.
At this time the contractor had singled out seven or eight of the non-workers and had us paraded to the Doctor for medical examination to see if we were bad or only malingering. He sent five of us, including myself, back to Camp as unfit. On arriving there I was given a course of massage, my complaint being in the back and kidneys. The massaging was done by some of our own A.M.C. men who had been captured, so that they did their best for us. I was marked down by "Iron Cross Jack" as fit again in three weeks, and sent from there to the "Arbeit" Compound, when on the following Sunday on being paraded for the count, were told we had some fatigues to do. I among others made myself scarce, and went about preparing my dinner, and next morning the Sergeant in charge informed us that all who had been absent would be sent out on the next working party as punishment.
A week later 40 of us were lined up and taken to the train on our way to work, this time going in a different direction altogether, and horror of horrors, in the direction of their mining centres. Conjecture was rife, and we were preparing a strike, and had determined not to go down the mines, but our fears were groundless, as we steered safely through the Coal district, and reached our destination in a snow storm at dusk where all the kiddies of the town were
all lined up to see us, and pass their judgment. These same kiddies, by the way, often came to us later asking for biscuits – a sure sign of domestic misery and depression. Our Barracks this time proved to be a boarding house of three stories with heating apparatus fixed on each room, and as the Germans used the lower rooms, we enjoyed the privileges of the steam heaters, and considered ourselves to be in the best prison lager in Germany. We even had access to the bathrooms beneath, which we freely used, as our work was amongst iron, and dirty, and by this time most of us had soap of our own, and thoroughly enjoyed the bathing and washing with the result that our clothes began to assume a whiter colour but the best features of all was with improved conditions for washing we gradually ridded ourselves of vermin.
The party this time consisted of 33 Tommies and 7 Colonials, one of whom a South African,
who had command of seven languages, acted as our interpreter, and proved to be a very able and tactful man for the position he had only just been freed from the Cells after recapture in an attempt to reach Holland, so I made it my business to get as much information from him as possible, but he was cute and tactful and kept everything very much to himself, for sometimes when one is in that position he must work the lone hand, for should Fritz get the slightest suspicion he were attempting or preparing for an escape, we would be sent back and punished just as much as if we had escaped.
Of course with change of address came a stoppage in our parcels, and we had to put in a month on the German issue which caused
a lot of unpleasantness and argument. Our argument was this "When men
are wanted for work they can be prepared and reach their destination in 8 to 9 hours, but when it comes to their parcels, it takes a month to get in touch with them!" Through these delays, the bread when it reached us would often be quite mouldy and green as grass. This was an awful blow to a prisoner, as he had previously been warned that the parcel for him had left the camp, and he naturally worked up a good appetite, and had perhaps eaten up the last of his supply. It was a very pathetic sight to see to see one of the boys with his pocket knife, trying to save as much possible of his mouldy bread, and often eating more than he should, because of his unspeakable hunger, thus making himself ill.
Just before leaving the Camp for this work I met an unfortunate boy who had not received a single parcel of any description, and had been captured seven months, most of which time had been spent in hospital, so I chummed up with him, and we both pulled along on my issue of parcels, till his packets came from Blighty. On reaching the Commando, we both got into the same room, and on account of him being so weak, he was given the duty of "Stubendienst" or "orderly", and stayed behind to sweep and clean our rooms generally.
We had no means of cooking our food or making a cup of tea, so the interpreter asked our employer to supply us with a few bricks so that we could build an oven in the yard. To our surprise, he not only consented, but sent up a kitchen stove and had it set on the second floor. We then had a tarpaulin muster, and bought a large "kessel", holding a litre per man, this the orderly would have boiling when we came in to dinner, so that we could make ourselves a good drink of tea. We drank it without sugar or milk, and would often brew up the same leaves three or four times, but it was "tea", and wet and warm.
It was most fortunate that my mate should have been picked for Stubendienst, as he would cook and prepare any food for us while
we were I was out at work, so that on coming home, our meals were always ready and waiting. This gave me an excellent opportunity for studying my German which by this time was getting quite recognisable, and I could hold quite a long conversation with any German I met who felt disposed to talk. To further my knowledge of the lingo, I used to buy a daily paper. I cannot say here how I got it, and every evening the boys would come flocking down to my room to know the latest news. Of course their papers are something like ours, generally booming small successes, and minimising any retreat or reverse. The report I always looked for first was naturally enough "Feindliche Armie Bericht" or "enemy report", and this report although only ten or twelve lines, seemed to us to contain as much of the paper together.
"An Escape or bid for freedom"
One day, oh! joy of joys! One of us picked up a plan of the car system as far as the border. Imagine if you can
how we treasured this find and studied it until we knew it by heart, and the hope of escape it inspired !
With such knowledge of the country and our whereabouts, we began preparing our clothes, a long tedious work, but full of interest. Our interpreter, a [indecipherable] who had previously made an attempt and failed, was the main instigator, and we others were only too thankful to get his views and criticisms. Our plan was that six of us should break away as soon after the sentries had done their rounds as possible. Just at this time a photographer came round to take our photos at 3/6 per dozen, and we seven Colonials were taken as a group so to make the Corporal of the Guard easy, and to keep us as much in his favor as possible, we gave him one of the photos. He thanked us and said he would remember us when the war was over, at which we had to have a laugh to ourselves, thinking he would have good cause to remember us long enough before his precious Fatherland was crushed.
In preparing our clothes we had to be very careful indeed, as the sentries were always dodging in and out of our rooms the better to see what we were at, and whether we appeared at home and satisfied, or uneasy and discontented. So that we had to make believe that we were quite satisfied with our lot, and to further allay any possible suspicion to the contrary, I purchased a cheap fiddle, and would of an evening or Sundays, play a few old tunes, then my mate, who was musical, got a mandoline, and we would often play together, whether in harmony or not was for someone else to judge, but we managed to give our sentries and visiting officers the impression that we were satisfied and contented to carry on as we were and wait patiently for the end of the War.
I well remember one of the official visits when we had "Martial Law" read out to us, and were made to sign a document to that effect, in case of subsequent trouble, or unruly behaviour, in which case the officer trying us would ask – "You understand our Martial Law and the gravity of your offence?" and if we had so heard the Law, then the punishment was meted out without further ado. Then one night when we were asleep, dreaming of home and freedom (that most precious dream of our existence "freedom"), we were rudely awakened by the roar of anti-aircraft guns, and joy of all joys! our Airmen were over giving Fritz a little of his own medicine. Our hearts were as light as feathers, in fact they must have reached up to those Airmen, so pleased and overjoyed did we feel. At the first shots we were all up in our shirts and rushed to the window to see what was doing, but to our disappointment they dropped nothing near us as we all hoped to see a big burst, more especially we hoped to see the Station and lines damaged, but we had to be content to know they had been over, and eagerly looked for their next visit.
The only direct result that came to our notice was that a "Zepp" that had been making daily flights near us, did not appear again, whether it was destroyed or sent to the front we do not know, but of course tried to persuade ourselves that it had been destroyed. The
paper next morning made very light of the visit, and said that most of the bombs had fallen on open territory, and as near as I can remember the number of casualties were four or five. As to the effect on the morale of the people, it was very successful from our point of view. The citizens read in their own papers of the damage done to both cities and people in England, and were terrified, expecting to be treated in the same way with the same results, and began to wish their "Zepps" would discontinue their raids over London, as (that is all fair thinking and reasoning people) they argued that if their men raided London, they must rightly expect reprisals, and have the war brought closer home to them, if that were possible, because there is not a single home in Germany where they do not realise their country is at war, thanks to our good old Navy, and the successful blockade it is keeping over the Hun.
Concerning their economic conditions, these have already been published in all their awfulness and misery, and all I need do is to verify all these reports. What brings the truth home to the Prisoner is the fact of the almost total absence of elderly people in the towns and villages, and the sight of armed sentries marching through potato fields, to see that nobody digs their potatoes before they are ready, as so many have done to try to make themselves a good meal after two or three months on mangelwersel, as one potato crop never lasts out until the next is ready, and again, when one sees sentries guarding vendors of greens, cabbages, carrots or turnips, in the streets, it all tends to strengthen the belief that without them the carts would be rushed and ransacked by the starving crowds of women and children around.
As our clothes and preparations for escape neared completion, the next all important factor was for the six of us to get together and form our plans of travelling, and the hour for breaking away. But this all depended which sentry was on duty, as one came round earlier than the other so we picked a night, just six months after our arrival at the Commando. All being ready and decided, we donned our clothes, and slipped out through the window, swinging from the ledge to a lightening conductor, down which we climbed into the yard. While contemplating the best way through the barbed wire, who should come in but the Corporal in charge, who must have heard something and had come to investigate. We had to lie flat behind some bushes two yards from the sentry, but luckily he did hadn’t his torch, or at least did not use it, and he went away satisfied that all was well, and his birds were all in bed and asleep. In reality, those birds, had never before been so wide awake perhaps in their lives, and not only us, but those also left behind, who knew what was going on, and heard us making our way out.
Then came the necessity of procuring money, and as prisoners were not paid in currency money (at least not British Prisoners in Germany), but we had been paid in German currency for the first seven or eight weeks, and had saved it and hidden it for a rainy day.
Prisoner’s money is
xxx mainly paper notes with the name of the camp on them and is not valid outside of it, and the coins were are of tin from one to fifty pfennig, and the notes were ofto the value of 2 marks. To get as much money as possible, we raffled our instruments, amongst the boys, and realising sufficient for our needs.
Our plan of travelling was to form two parties of three, and to separate as soon as we got away from the Lager. On the sentry going upstairs we got through the barbed wire and were then in the open and free. Our next move was to reach the nearest town as soon as possible, as we might be missed any minute, and a hue and cry raised after us. I had not been able to procure a compass, so had fosicked around and found a magazine with a chart of the Northern Hemisphere in it, which I tore out and studied until I could see it in my dreams, and would spend hours sitting by the window looking at the stars, just as you may have seen love struck couples looking at each other, but I think my sittings were even longer than theirs, and without a doubt, more beneficial.
The most confusing fact of all was the sun of the Northern Hemisphere is
always in the South and in my school days had always been taught that the sun never appeared there, but that information was meant only for Australia, so it took me a long time to realise that the sun at mid-day was in the South, but this was mastered at length, and it was just as useful to me as if it had been in the North. Of course, the moon took the same course, and as we did most of our travelling by night, we used it more than the sun.
Our plan was to reach the city of "Dusseldorf" as soon as possible, and take the last train Westward bound. The greatest obstacle of all was the River Rhine, which is too wide and swift for the average swimmer, and the foot
bridges are all well guarded. There then remained one of two alternatives, to go down the banks and "pinch" a boat, or chance the train journey. The latter seemed to be much more comfortable, so we purposed taking tickets in a train over the Rhine and to travel as passengers, and to pose as Belgian workmen. On reaching the city, our next difficulty was finding the Railway Station, at length I came to the conclusion that a Policeman would know as much about the town as anybody, so sent my two mates on ahead while I walked up to him and asked my direction, on which he asked me why I wanted to go there, so at once I answered in an aggrieved tone of voice that I was going home, and had missed the car. He directed me to my goal, but on arriving there found to our consternation the last train had been gone 10 minutes, and the next was not till 5.30 the next morning, so that we had five hours to spend somewhere. Of course we could not stand around, so set off through the town to see if we could find an open field where we could rest for the necessary time. We walked for two hours and were still in thickly populated suburbs. On turning a corner we saw the Rhine bridge, and knew for a certainty that there would be several sentries there, so we turned in the opposite direction, and presently came to a vacant allotment between two houses perhaps sixty yards wide, and with a friendly hedge growing by the footpath
so we got behind this and hid and shivered until 4.30 a.m. What with the cold and the constant barking of a dog who had heard us, and most of all the adventure for freedom we had undertaken, was enough to keep nerves and imagination at very high tension.
We then got up and found to our dismay that we had lain in some white stuff that would not brush off, but this we did not trouble about, and told one another that it would give us the proper appearance of workmen. That trouble dispersed, we retraced our steps to the station, passing numerous solders and police. On arriving we found we had again missed the first train, but nothing daunted, my two cobbers waited outside the station, while I went in and procured the tickets. Of course I did not know which pigeon hole to go to, so went in behind an old chap and asked for my tickets, but the girl was quite affable to a seeming stranger, and directed me to the correct window where I purchased three 3rd class tickets to Munchengladback, a town about 30 miles across the River. I then went out and gave my cobbers their tickets and we walked through the turnstiles and presented our tickets to the guard to be punched, and strolled up on to our platform where we had another hour’s wait. Whilst sitting there an officer came to me and asked what time the next train went. I told him I did not know, and referred him to a "Timetable" standing close by. I do not think it was the time of the train he wanted, but rather to know for himself who and what I might be.
At length a train pulled in and we got into it, although it did not go anywhere near the place for which we had booked, and in handing in our tickets, we did so by showing the date instead of the town. We were in a compartment to ourselves until the train pushed off, and then two others got in and passed the "time of day". We were not quite sure that we were in the correct train, especially when it took a turn northward, but that was done to get onto the bridge. It is impossible for me to try to explain the relief to our feelings, when looking through the carriage window we saw an iron structure rising on either side, and then on looking down saw the water of the River flowing beneath us. We could not help noticing how swiftly it was flowing, and the thought came that one could not stand much of a chance of swimming in the strong current. On reaching the other side of the bridge our hearts were again normal, in spite of having missed the two trains. It was now daylight, and people were gathering in large numbers, and oh!, irony of all ironies, who should get in at the next station but a sentry in charge of four Russian prisoners, with their "kessel" of soup for dinner with them. I think that they must have been taking food out to a larger party of which they formed a part. We had to appear as much at home as possible, but the thought "Oh", if only we had been working on the other side of this great barrier, the Rhine, as were the Russians, we should have been gone months before.
At the next stop our unfortunate fellow prisoners alighted and went to their work, without knowing who the three tired looking "civies" were who had travelled with them. We went on further and left our train at a small country station, [indecipherable] after 2 1/2 hours travelling, and passing the ticket collector safely, set out on our way to find a clump of timber in which to hide. There seemed to be no such hiding place in sight so walked on & on hoping that on reaching the summit of each rise, a sheltered wood would reveal itself to our ever anxious eyes.
but no, we found a military Policeman first. On turning the corner we literally walked into his arms. He halted us and asked for passports. I acted as spokesman and pulled out my pocket book, looked right through it, and in a surprised tone said "Oh, I must have left them in my working clothes". He seemed satisfied and asked the others for theirs, but unfortunately they could not understand him, and then he got suspicious
and took [indecipherable] us into his office for cross-examination. I protested all the time saying "we would be late for our friends, who were expecting us in the next town". When he got inside he took my mate into an anteroom and questioned him privately. He answered as well as he could and in a loud voice so that I could hear the argument. He could not get any satisfaction from him, so had to come back to me, and we all thought that our freedom was ended, and felt terribly disappointed at having been caught after we had got over the River and the train difficulties. But I determined to bluff it out as long as possible, and I told him we were Belgian workmen going back to our work after a slight sickness, on which he wanted to know where we had been, the names of the doctors towns and our employers. Then it was the study that was spent on the chart we found served us in very good stead, as I remembered the names of several towns in that locality. On asking me the name of my employer, I told him that I had forgotten it , as I could see that it would pay me far better not to understand too much, so I pleaded ignorance, explaining that I had only been there six months and had not learned very much of the "lingo". Luckily for us he was not much of a scholar and could not read nor understand English, for had he been able to do so he would certainly have known us for what we were when he searched our pockets and letters which were written in English. My old field pay book interested him, and he wanted to know what it was and I told him it was my "arbeit" book, and that the signature was that of the "vor arbeiter". This seemed to squash his suspicions, and he said to us "Right oh, and clear out, [indecipherable] get back to work at once." In his eyes our greatest crime was we were not working. Well we lost no time in collecting our belongings and clearing out, but in an entirely different direction to that which we had told him. Our next trouble was thirst, and as there were no creeks or any water about, we found it necessary to call in at a house. I asked if I could buy any fruit, as there was a large orchard attached, and the pear trees were still bearing, but they told us that they could not spare any, wanting it all for themselves. So we asked for water, and were given a cup and shown to the pump, where we quenched our thirst. In one of the stables was a soldier on furlough, who on hearing men’s voices pocked his head out to see who we were. I bid him "Good day", but he was not in a talkative mood, and retreated into the stable to carry on with his work.
Our thirst quenched, we went on our way still looking for a friendly wood, where we would be able to shelter. At last we sighted some trees in the distance, but in the middle distance was a large town; it was dinner time and the workers were going home to lunch. An M.P. gave us a very hard and searching glance, but just as he was coming across to us, a young lady acquaintance of his happened along, and kept him busy until we were out of sight. The timber proved to be trees that were growing on a swamp
but as it was daylight we were able to find for ourselves a small patch which was slightly higher than the water logged earth, and comparatively dry, and here we stretched out and rested until dusk, when we set out again very much refreshed but still thirsty. On going through the next village we found a pump right in the centre, and in the main street. Once more we had a real good drink, and even washed our faces, feeling more fit for anything that might come our way, [indecipherable] and the frontiers of Holland seemed to be forming a definite shape in our minds.
The weather continued greatly in our favour, nice bright and clear nights, so that we were able to keep the "Great Bear" or "Polar Star" in view all the time, with the result that not once did we lose our direction or bearings. As all who have been on the Continent know most of the roads are paved with cobblestones, and on a clear night when walking through a village with narrow streets with two or three storied houses on either side, you can imagine the noise and echo of three men walking along with iron plated boots, and many a time a blind would be lifted and the lights show out, but we managed to avoid the light and continued our way unmolested.
Chapter IX Bang of gun shot. Are we spotted
At the approach of dawn we began to look about for another wood or resting place, and, just a little further on, we found it, but the undergrowth was so dense, we could not get far into it without making a terrible noise, so we lay down just on the edge of it until daylight, when we went right into the centre of the wood. It was a very small covert with a farm house a hundred yards behind us, the main road the same distance in front, and farmers working land on either side, so that we had to lie very still and quiet, but as we were very tired, this was easily done. Our next fear was that one of us might snore too loudly in his sleep, and as the one who was watching did not wish to wake the sleeper, his snores seemed doubly loud and caused a very uncomfortable feeling. In the afternoon we were on the alert for any sound, and detected the noise of a dog running on the dry leaves, which to our horror was running straight for the place where we had rested in the early morning. I got out my pocket knife, my only weapon of defence, and began to think that there would be one dog less in Germany, but had hardly opened the blade, when bang! off went a gun, and shot and leaves fell all round us. This sudden explosion caused strange feelings to run down our spines, but on peering through the foliage, I saw a "Jaeger", or "hunter". Then came the thought "Did he fire at us" or "Had he seen us?". But his target proved to be a pheasant that had flown overhead, and luckily for us he had missed it, for had he hit it, it would have fallen directly on us, and when the hunter came to collect his prize, he would have caused trouble, and perhaps there would have been aGerman less, but to our immense relief, on missing his bird, he slung his gun and went off. The shot which so startled us proved to be our salvation, for on the gun being fired, the dog that had got on to our first resting place, left his work of snivelling over our tracks, and went back to his owner, so that when the hunter and his dog disappeared, we once more breathed freely, and realised we had just had a close shave,
and looked on considering it as a warning to be even more careful if that were possible.
[Page 29] `
After this rude awakening, we found it impossible to again go to sleep, so had a meal of our biscuits and sweets that we had brought along with us, which we had saved week by week from our wonderful Red Cross parcels.
Just at dusk we set out on our way to freedom, as we intended or calculated we should cross the frontier near Bruggen, an hour before dawn, what with our recent experience, and the thought that we were nearing our goal, we set off very cautiously indeed. As the night wore on and we became footsore and weary, our cautions gradually slipped away, and we strolled on as usual, until at length I began to think it was time we left the main road, and cut off through the bush, as the roads are all patrolled for a distance of three miles from the frontier, and we wanted to miss these patrols, but my mate, who had been the orderly and consequently had much more time for studying the chart, said we could safely carry on for at least for a mile. To our chagrin we found his calculations were not correct. I was feeling tired and irritable and sat down to change my socks, to try and ease my feet a little. The others strolled on, and almost before I had put my boots on, I heard "Halt" and realised that they were up against it. The sentry had stopped them and asked for their passports as he would have done to anyone else. They not only did not have any passports, but could not understand him. While I was trying to decide what would be better, for me to do a bolt, as I had not yet been seen, or go up and endeavour to explain matters trying to bluff as on previous occasions [indecipherable] but this chap would not take neither excuses, bluff nor money, and marched us all three to the Guard Room, which was only one mile from our goal. But we did not give up hopes and determined to put it out that we were Dutch Smugglers as I rightly guessed that there would exist a feeling of friendship with their Dutch brothers who smuggled them food. On reaching the Guard Room we found several others were there as well, but not Prisoners of War. They were Smugglers, both German and Dutch, and of both sexes, old and young. We were taken inside and given a chair each, at which I asked the Sergeant "how long we would have to stay there". He answered surlily "Until morning", and then in a surprised tone of voice I asked "And do we have to sit in these chairs all night?". He mumbled something, and then turned his guards off their beds, motioning to us that we could, if we wished, sleep there. We were not slow in accepting his invitation, and as the relief of guards came in, they, being tired, got down with us and slept under the same blanket until morning
DUTCH SMUGGLERS, WHOM I JOIN
With the morning came our examination and trial, the Smugglers going through first. We found we were in a place called Kaldenkirchen. I remember one lady in particular, who appeared to be an elderly, stout person, and who on the night before I had noticed pull up her skirts, and get two pounds of butter, one pound of "wurst" and quite a lot of chocolate from somewhere about her person, and sell to the sentries, thereby thinking to better her position in the eyes of her captors. Well, when it came her turn to go and be examined, she went in feeling she would be dealt with leniently, but was sadly mistaken, for when she next appeared it was with tears in her eyes, and without her load of goods
[indecipherable] she proved to be a slight stripling of a young woman of perhaps 20 to 25 years of age. She must have had had pockets all over or under her, for the goods taken from her filled two sacks, and were considerably heavy. I then made it my business to get near one of the Dutch girls and to ask her quietly in German, if she could give me any idea of the best place and manner in which to cross the frontier, [indecipherable] she told me, that had we turned off the main road and gone south through a large Pine Forest, we should most likely have got through, as the border just there, on account of the large Forest which Frtiz evidently considers a very good barrier, is not very strongly guarded. This information I welcomed and stored carefully away for future reference. All too soon came our turn to go through, we were taken out of the guard room and interviewed singly. As before the bulk of explaining fell to my lot, with the result that that the interrogating officer soon had a long typewritten account of my supposed life as a Dutch Smuggler. Almost his first question was, "Where did I learn to speak his lingo?." to which I replied, "That I had worked with Germans on the Canals and had learnt a little of their language". Then came the usual cross-examination, ‘Where was I born?" and as "Rotterdam" was the only Dutch town I could remember it had to be there that I was initiated into this world of trouble and adventure. He then wanted my parents’ names and addresses, but I promptly told him "They died wen I was quite young". His next questions were "What were you smuggling?." I answered, "Wool, Chocolates and Footwear". He then wanted to know "How much I sold them for.?" I knew these things were scarce and expensive, so quoted a high price for wool. I said, 20 marks or £1 per pound." To which he answered, "You know wool is worth 40 marks." So thought I should better bid pretty high when he asked the price of chocolates, and said, "15 marks." As for boots, I knew the price of them in Germany, as I had often been offered 60 and 70 marks for boots sent to us from England. That means boots are costing between £3 and £4per pair. That price satisfied him, at which he totalled up what we should have, but our total cash on our persons was far beneath his figures, and he became suspicious, and on searching me found a coin from Dulman, prison camp, of course a prisoners’ coin. I explained to him that I had found it, and was keeping it as a souvenir. He then sent another officer in to one of the others and asked, "Do you come from Dulman too? "Your mate has told everything", at which my mate thinking all was up, replied, "Yes".
He seemed quite elated over his capture and asked me "Why I had tried to escape back to England where food was so scarce, and if I was not satisfied to stay and work for his Fatherland?" To which I answered, "No, I am a Britisher."
We were then searched for anything we might have as defensive weapons, or charts or compasses , but we secreted our chart and compass we had none. The search completed, four of our biggest sentries were called in, and we were taken through the town to the cells, where we had a dish of potato salad and a slice of bread. The people had heard about two Australians and a Canadian having been captured, and all lined up on either side to see us taken to our Cells. As it was Sunday everyone was able to come out and see us. We remained in these cells for two days within a mile of "Freedom and Home", and as the fact gradually became more impressed on our minds that we were really captured and unable to get away, an awful feeling of despondency came over us, for we knew what we had to go back to, but we had to resign ourselves to disappointment, and to remember as much of the information given us by the Dutch as we possibly could, so that we should not make the same blunder again. From here we were taken by train down to Aachen and placed in civilian prison there, with the Dutch Border still only three miles distant, and our thoughts turned in that direction again. But we had no chance of trying to get away from here. In the cells with us were all nationalities, and quite a number of German Deserters who had been caught on their way to Holland, and who told us pitiful tales of the conditions in Flanders, saying it was impossible for them to live and fight, as they could get no rest whatever. By day our airmen were over them and at night our artillery, and the general opinion voiced was that of being driven to despair. All this talk cheered us greatly, and helped tremendously to raise our spirits that were so depressed on account of not being able to reach Holland.
Our failure realised & "Return
ed to Prison."
Our stay here was only for two days, or until such time as sentries should come down from our Camp. These arrived about 4 p.m. when we were hustled out, taken on to the Railway Station, and started on our way back across the Rhine. Then it was that we really felt we were once more in captivity, when we heard the train rumble over the bridge, which we reached at dusk, and were once more on the same station which we had striven so hard to reach in our efforts of a week ago, Dusseldorf. The Sentry in charge went up to a Red Cross Soup Kitchen on the platform and ordered 5 coffees and soups. The ladies assisting there brought out 5 coffees, but on seeing only two soldiers and 3 "civies" they asked who the "civies" were, and on being told, "Englandern" exploded louder than any Mills grenade I have ever heard, and absolutely refused to have anything more to do with us, so that we had to go without our soup after all, but this we did not mind so much, as our minds were full of other thoughts, one of which was to break away, and had it not been that the sentries had all our money and valuables,
we would have had another try before getting back in our camp. We had no opportunity, as our train was not long in coming in,
and we which set off for our camp and trial. This train only took us about 40 miles when we had to leave it, and wait for another travelling North. We had to wait 7 hours in the Refreshment room, but felt altogether too tired and exhausted to make any further attempt at escaping, so dozed off and slept until our train pulled in, and took [indecipherable] us[indecipherable] to [indecipherable] camp in which we were then attached at Burgsteinfurt. Here we were again searched, and such things as belts, braces and handkerchiefs were taken from us, in case we might lassoo the Commandant or something equally as bad. This particular Camp was just being closed, so that our stay here was for only two days. It was at this camp where they had "Frauleins" helping to censor parcels, and such things as sweets, nuts or tooth paste or powder, were invariably lost to us.
On being mustered for our separate camps I met a Russian officer who had been out working the day before, and had filled his pockets with fruit
[indecipherable] when seeing me came up, shook hands, and shared out his fruit, which was not only satisfying but very palatable. The soup issued here was boiled greens, of what kind I know not, but it certainly was not appetising. Amongst us was a Tommy who was unfortunate enough to have been kept working behind the German firing lines for seven months, and was nothing but skin and bone. What little skin covered his bones was a mass of sores and scabs. Of course, while there he had received no parcels, and the amazing thing is that he lived at all, but he was merry and bright, for he had just received two parcels and some letters from his dear ones at home. He bid us good-bye as we parted, with a cheer and a wish that we might meet in England. I could only wish with all my heart we had met there, for it is by such men as he that we have built up our Empire to what it is to-day, men that never say "Die". Unfortunately his name and address were lost in one of my many searches in camps. He was then undergoing treatment, and when we left he went to another Hospital while we three escapees and the Russians went to ‘Clink" [indecipherable] where I had a long and interesting talk with the Russians, of the advance through East Prussia, in which they had taken an active part. They firmly believed Russia would come to her own again, and as soon as order was restored would carry on against Fritz, but whether this contention will come true it is hard to prophesy. By the way these men had escaped from Austria towards the Swiss Frontier, but found it too mountainous, and had to turn off to Holland. Their journey occupied 62 days, so that they had a good idea of conditions in both countries and I made the most of my time there to ask them many questions. Of the conditions in Austria, they said that the economic position was far worse than in Germany, where we all knew it was bad enough, and where while owing to their complete organisation, all classes got their allotted amount, it was not so with their Austrian Ally.
They had occasion to cross the Kiel Canal, by going over the main bridge, from where they could see numerous Battleships, and I thought at once, "What a splendid target for our Airmen, could they get so far."
Here in this camp we fared much better, as two Tommies got permission to come in to us each morning, bringing biscuits or a good drink of warm sweet cocoa. This food had been collected in the British Compound for Britishers in the "Strafe" Barracks. The French and Russians also had their friends bring in a little food. The French
men were very cunning and clanish, and would find some way of reaching his pal in distress. Then follows the Britisher, he will also do his utmost for his "Cobbers", especially those who have shown pluck in trying to get away. Of course the Russians hold together just as strongly, but they do not get as much assistance from their Home Government as the French and British, and consequently cannot do as much for their mates in "Clink."
While speaking of the Russians not getting much home assistance. A little idea of how invaluable the parcels are to us can be formed from the fact that in the camp, when I reached it the second time, in March, 1917, the poor devils had got so low through being overworked and starved that they would contract any ailments that were about, and generally succumbed, not having the strength to resist, as they were only skin and bone. One day, while going through the bath, I saw a batch of them stripped, and such a pitiful sight I have never seen, big framed men with only the frame left, and I could distinguish and count every joint in the spine, and if one bent his elbow back, his shoulder blade gave the impression of a large razor, and many times I have expected to see it cut through. Of course, with men in this state there were numerous deaths, and in intervals during the day it was quite a common sight to see men being carried to the Mortuary, who had died in the huts. So many were dying that the Prisoner Carpenters could not keep pace with necessary coffins, so that two men had to be buried in each, and in one funeral I attended 20 Russians were buried in this way. This was a daily occurence, and was still continuing when we left this camp for another from which later on we escaped, I often pictured to myself Britishers in the same plight, which we would certainly been but for that indispensible life sustaining Society, "The British Red Cross", which feeds and clothes the boys, who though not fighting the Hun, are worrying and harassing him as much as lay in their power, while captives in that land of ‘Kultur", or to my mind, a more appropriate name would be the land of the "Vultures."
After having been in "Strafe" Barracks in Munster a few days, a Belgian Civilian who had tried to escape was brought in, and with some very interesting news. The town in which he had been re-captured had been bombed by our airmen, he gave us a very glowing account of the raid and in short led us to believe that the damage done was very extensive indeed, but he was of an excitable temperament, and his news had to be taken with a grain of salt, nevertheless it made our hearts light, and we determined that our punishment would be much easier to bear if such news would only continue, but the next day came the news of the Italian reverse and down went our spirits "wopp". I think there is nothing plays on the temperament of the prisoner, and elates or depresses him more than good or bad news.
Further Prison Experiences
Fire! Fire! & chance of another escape but not for us.
One evening a few days later, we were all wakened by shouts of "Fire!" It appears that the Belgian "Civies" has arranged a flare, to make it possible for a party of them to be able to escape in the confusion. This fire soon spread, and as the barracks were built of wood, they were not long in burning, and carrying fire to the next one adjoining with result
so that before morning not an upright of any description was left standing. This compound was built of wood, in the shape of a square of perhaps 350 yards each way, so that the fire burnt for some time, and caused the desired excitement and confusion. How many made a break away, I do not know, but they certainly had laid their plans well, and had an excellent opportunity. As the wind was blowing in the direction of the Clink and Cells, the flames were soon carried across and caught taking hold of them, we were then hurried out, and taken into the Carpenter’s shop for the night. After we had stood in the rain for an hour or two, our greatest anxiety was whether our valuables that were in the brick place, and close to the fire would be destroyed, but several of the boys got permission to help get the German’s things out of danger. Of course, the first things brought out were cases containing our trinkets, watches, belts, money and odds and ends, such as pocket books, containing home letters and papers, photos – perhaps the most valued of all. As soon as the boys had these out of danger they got tired and disappeared, leaving Fritz to get his own goods out himself. There was just sufficient rain to slow down the blaze, but at the same time not too much to prevent it from spreading, the effect was that the fire burnt a little steadier, but licked up everything it touched. But then to our dismay we noticed it approaching the "Packet Office" but of British packets there were very few, as none had come for a week or two [indecipherable] a batch of "Froggies" packets had recently arrived. Of course the boys got excited, "Fritz" formed a guard and tried to keep order, but there was a united rush of French, British and Russians to the "Packet Office" which though not quite emptied, collapsed, and there remained only a few smouldering embers to tell the tale. The Russians that night had more food than perhaps ever before. They seemed to get in an get a lot. Perhaps their desperation led them on, but we did not mind who had them so long as "Fritz" did not score.
Our temporary prison, the Carpenter’s shop, was full of new clogs, and most of us fossicked around, fitting on a new pair, as they were much warmer than boots, and others of us hopped through the windows, before the sentries got there
[indecipherable] out amongst the boys who treated us to a right royal feed, and a good drink of tea and cocoa, so that the fire to us was a very welcome happening in many ways. Next day we were taken into one of the remaining buildings that stood in the centre and had not been burned – a former ablution Barracks with bricked floor, which of course was very cold, and without ceilings of any description, so that our change of address had its disadvantages. All this time we had spent in the "Strafe" Barracks waiting our trial, but it appeared we were in the wrong camp, and there were no papers or crime sheets against us. As winter was fast approaching, I explained to the officer our position, thinking it wiser to get our punishment
and done with it, and a few days later we were all sent off to our right camp, Munster, where, on entering we were again searched. It was here the Searching Officer discovered a 20 mark note that I had secreted in my shirt cuff, and sewn it up. I had been searched five times previously, and none had found it, but this was a very thorough search. All three of us had to strip, our pockets were then emptied, and any double seams well searched. All our separate belongings were put in a heap by themselves. I put mine into small bundles and placed them in a spare sock, and my mates also went into a sock. The third man’s things were tied up in a handkerchief. Our search finished, and our clothes donned once more, we were faced about to go to yet another "Strafe" Barracks, but on going out I led the way and picked up the belongings that had been so carefully taken from me, the others doing the same, so that except for the money, we had all our goods with us, which meant a great deal to the other two, as they had some smokes amongst theirs, and so once more we were not so badly off as Fritz had intended. On entering the "Strafe" Den, we found it to be the worst we had yet been in. It was underground level 25 ft. by 15 ft. and contained 60 men. The window was at one end, with fine mesh wire protecting it, then iron bars, and outside wooden a shutter, which, when down, made it as black as night. Here, as before we were all nationalities, and now that one is away from it, it seems humorous to look back on a lot of the antics and tricks done there. I remember one day, when two more Russians were pushed in, just as the guard was changing, the sentry on the door seemed too busy thinking of getting off to enter their names, so two Tommies put their coats on, summoned the guard and I told him that these two men had been shut in by mistake, while they had come down with a little food. But he was wary, and made off. I called him back, and told him to look at his book, and then count us. At this he began to think that we were in earnest , and a mistake had been made, whereupon he looked up his entry register, and then counted us, and to our immense relief there were two too many. It was a bold game to play, as we were not sure that the other two had been entered in the register, so took the chances and won. Within an hour of their departure from us, they were back with some biscuits and bread strike for us /strike. This they did each day. Some days they would not be allowed to come near us, but as soon as we noticed a "Sporty" sentry was on duty, the news would be sent up to the other boys, and along would come French, Russian, Belgian, Portugese and Britishers, anxious to help their "cobbers" in distress. Of course, the sentry did well, as each one would give him a little to bribe him. It is only in such cases as this, when Fritz will benefit himself, that he will show any partiality at all to a prisoner under his charge.
The following Saturday night will never be forgotten by at least three of us. At about 11 p.m. when we were all asleep, lying with heads to either wall, and two deep down the centre, the door opened suddenly, and in ‘"Bunged" a drunken "Feldweble". He caught the first man by the feet, and swung him across the room, yelling and cursing in his drunken frenzy. The next man received the same treatment. By this time we were all awake, and on our feet, trying to understand what was expected of us. It appears he wanted us to line up and go into the lobby to be counted. I strolled out with an air of contempt
and with my hands in my pockets, whereat he "collared" me by the shoulders, introducing his boots and rifle butt stood me against the wall. Hardly had I collected my wits when bang: my mate came up alongside me. Then it is that one has to fight a battle – a very severe battle with himself – and use his little brain instead of his little pluck and strength, and while we were wondering what would happen next , bang: comes another against the wall with us, and with him three Fritz’s with their Bayonets ready for action. What with weakness and being unarmed, one had to clench his fists and bear it quietly.
The door of this Barrack was not very strong, being locked only with centre lock and padlock, the hinges being on the inside, one night several Russians started taking out the screws suddenly to our dismay just as they had them all out, we heard a sentry coming along the passage, and stop at our door. As soon as he stopped, some us ran to the door and held the hinges in place, as otherwise the door would have fallen right in, but on account of the intense darkness he did not notice anything, and went away again with the man he came for, as soon after he had gone as was safe, the door was opened from the hinge side and several slipped out, passing the sentry with a "Guten abend." Those of us who were left behind closed the door and fixed the hinges again.
It was also very funny to see the boys smoking their "fags" and quickly "dowsing" them when a Fritz appeared. Many a time a Fritz would come in, and although he could plainly see the smoke, he was never quick enough to catch one, smoking. They would often make raids and get matches, smokes and razors. Mine I had hidden under a loose board of the floor. While we were here together, it was a splendid opportunity for us to compare notes and experiences, so that I came out of the cells a much wiser man than when I went in, in fact we all did.
One day we were summoned for our trial, and were taken before several officers, but the one officiating could not understand English, therefore required an interpreter. Then it was that my knowledge of German served me in good stead (although I told him I knew nothing of his lingo) because I was able to hear what he said and asked the interpreter, and consequently had my answers all ready for him. He badly wanted to know how we crossed the Rhine, but we mis-lead him, as we realised that if we told him, it would be harder to for us to use the same means again. Then came the usual Official Query, "Why did you escape?" "And are you not satisfied?" To which I answered, that "I did it because I considered it my duty as a Brtisher." He then asked the other two the same question, and received the same answer, that settled it and we were marched out and placed in Cells, which although it meant solitary confinement, was in reality better than the "Strafe" Barracks.
To show the scarcity and value of soap. My mate offered his sentry a small piece, if he could take him to the Barracks for a short time, and when all was quiet, he consented, they both went up to the boys, who gave my mate a good feed and the sentry a drink of cocoa, on leaving my mate asked for some food for the other two, which he got at once, cramming down as much as he could conceal about him. On their way back to the cells an Officer stopped them,
and wanted to know who they were, at which the sentry replied "A new prisoner, Sir," and went on his way. My mate told me afterwards that they were anxious moments for him, for had he been searched, he would at once have been found out for what he was. But, "Fortune favors the brave," even in Germany, and he got back to his cell quite safely. Next morning, when we had half an hour’s daylight in which to clean our Cells, he slipped into my Dungeon handing me a third of what he had, and without waiting to question or thank him I set to work on it immediately. Our sentence in the Cells was 14 days, and a cold 14 days they were, for the frosts were already arriving, we were in brick cells under ground level, and without any daylight. The Cells measured 6 ft. square and 7 ft. high and 12 square feet of the floor was occupied by a wooden bed, the boards of which were placed cross ways, so as not to allow of any possible ease, so that we only had 24 sq. ft. to move about in and try and keep our circulation up. To lighten matters somewhat we were taken out three times a day to latrines, so that we were able to see one another’s faces, not forgetting the hair that had been growing on them all this time, and to exchange greetings and [indecipherable] to cheer one another up as much as possible. It is really wonderful the excellent spirit the men in such conditions maintain. Nearly every minute of the day one can hear singing, more especially from the French. There would come a banging of a butt on the door, and a harsh order to shut your mouth "du schweinehund." To make my Cell feel even colder was the existence of a cook house directly over my head, and in the corner just above my bed was a water tap. I could hear the men coming to the tap quite distinctly, then could hear the tap being turned on, and almost always when the buckets were being filled a little water would be spilt, when I could in imagination feel the water running through on top of me. Each evening at 7 p.m. an orderly would come into us with two blankets, to make our night tolerable, and each morning the orderly would come and take them away again so that we should not sleep during the day.
The view I obtained from my small window during the half hour it was uncovered each morning, was first about 6 ft. from the window, a 10ft. barbed wire fence with the wires very tight and close; a yard beyond that was an electrified steel netted wire fence, 5 ft. high. To give an idea of the number of voltages, I remember that looking through one morning when it was raining, a piece of bark fell from one of the posts and lodged against the wires, whereon it instantly flared up and was burnt to ashes, and on another post where the insulator was broken, the post was flaming even in the rain. This insulator was soon replaced. Three feet from electrified fence was another 10 f. high barbed wire fence with wires tight and close. As I was looking first, through a window and then a fine wire mesh wire, then bars, and ready to shut out the daylight at any minute was the wooden shutter, that fitted tightly over all, turning day into night, and outside all this were the three fences, one felt pretty well boxed in.
Our only consolation Planning
Another Escape my next stunt.
While we were doing our time our chief thought and study was concerned with our next "breakout." Until now, men had invariably been sent out on different working parties once they had undergone punishment, but as those who were in a bad party would work on this chance of going to a new and perhaps better [indecipherable] , doing all manner of things as to be sent back to camp cells, and risk getting into a better commando after their punishment had been done, this procedure was discontinued. Fritz saw through this strategy of the lads, issued a law, that all men returning to camp for punishment were to be sent back to the party from which they had come.
Try and imagine if you can with what joy and satisfaction I received this news, for it meant that we three would be sent back to the place from which we tried to reach Holland, and that we should only have to follow the same route, as we knew just where the danger points were, and could easily evade them. This news coming to us in the Cells made us long for the day when our time would be finished, so that we could prepare again before the Winter set in too severely. Once per week while men were in the Cells they were paraded before a Medical Officer, who, as you pass him, asks, "Are you all right," at which you answer "Yes," unless of course you are too bad altogether and cannot bear it any longer, but a Britisher in that position had to be very ill indeed before he will give in thus letting Fritz see or think his spirit is broken.
On these parades, especially, if we had to wait for the M.O. we would sneak off to the Barracks, or our mates would come down to us with a little "staff of life," and the latest news or rumours. Then it was we heard about men being sent back to their original parties.
After that everything seemed to sail along O.K. for us. We found one of our cobbers from the same party was in Camp, sick, and managed to get notice to him, and he contrived to get food to us, and on that eventful day of release, he had a big feed prepared for us. My word ! how we did eat. We came out on a Sunday, making a total of nearly six weeks with a sentence of only 14 days, but we had travelled about so much and been in wrong camps, that we did a month in "Strafe" Barracks before getting our trial and sentence.
The sentry called us out just before dinner. We went first to the Bureau to get our trinkets which had been taken on going into Cells from "Strafe", then to the Camp Bank to get our little bit of money, of course, in prisoner notes, and thenoon to the Barracks, where our mates had a glorious feed waiting for us. This we lingered over and enjoyed to the utmost. Dinner over my next move was to get my trousers marked to suit myself and not Fritz, and I found a "Ruskie" tailer who was only too willing to help, and earn a little money. Leaving my trousers with him, I went about in underpants until they were done, and as soon as they were finished, I trotted around to see if I could procure charts or compass, and was fortunate enough to meet a Tommy, who not able to get away himself, did all in his power to help others.
he put me on the track of the compasses. Of these I procured two. The one I used cost me three marks and a tin of dripping. Needless to say I got it from a fellow prisoner, and although prison made and crude, it served its purpose well. The other cost me 5 marks. Our mate who was there sick, had already got a chart, so that within four hours of coming out of Cells we were all ready for another "get-a-way." The Camp money we managed to change alright. It is really surprising how much "escaping material" is to be found right under Fritz’s eyes.
While we had been in Clink, our parcels – those priceless parcels of ours – had been accumulating and were available on our release, but being a Sunday the Censor’s office was closed, so that we exchanged our tickets for goods with the boys who had supplies. Let me explain these tickets. Everyone in camp knows when a load of English parcels is in, as soon as these are sorted, the men to whom they are sent are given a cardboard ticket with a number on it. This number has previously been entered in a ledger against your name, so that no mistake is possible. On presenting this ticket at the office, Tommies are handed out the tea, sugar, biscutis, or all loose stuff. Of course when you hand in your ticket you also carry in a bowl, and into the bowl your loose goods are emptied. The tinned goods you do not see, they are stored away on shelves, and, for each tin, you receive a small ticket with the contents stamped on it ! Thus you might receive six tickets from one parcel similar to this, "Jam" and when you wanted your "jam" you would go to the window with the dish, hand in your ticket and get your jam in the dish. The tin, Fritz would keep, in case there might be a "Machine Gun" or a big "Bertha" under a false bottom, and then again he would retain the tin for future use, as tin is none too plentiful. If Tommie gets hold of them he destroys them as much as possible, by punching holes in them. I have been told by some of the early prisoners that if caught at it they would be punished, but punishment does not prevent him from carrying on, rather does it feed his spirits, for while he is in Cells he is not working for Fritz, and he knows his parcels are accumulating, and that his pals will help him out with a little food while he is there.
One afternoon there was a football match, French versus Tommies but Tommy playing his own game generally won from the "froggies" who were just learning, and, to even sides up a bit, four or five Tommies would play with them. The match over we went up to tea, and had another really big blow-out, and in the evening went to see the Cinema Show, with a small orchestra in attendance, on the whole our first day’s release was pleasant and satisfactory. This camp, Munster, No. 2, was the only one of four that I was in that could boast of a Cinema Show or football grounds, but most camps have a theatre, erected by prisoners, with material supplied by the American Ambassador, and in these Theatres one can often see a really good show , one for the British and one for the French each week, although the Boxes may contain the Commandant and other Officials, and in the front row dozens of "Square Heads" the boys in a "Cross" talk would fling all kinds of sneers and jests at their Fatherland without
their knowing it, and in the end would clap and cheer as loud as any. Of course, as soon as a really good pun came out the boys would fairly bring the house down, while Fritz would glower and stare, because he had not noticed the special joke or any other cause for enthusiasm.
Early the following morning we were ordered to get ready for our trip, so we packed out belongings, secreted our invaluable treasures, compasses and chartes, amongst them. We had to submit to another search before we were allowed out, having to empty our pockets, bags and parcels, but in spite of their search, we got through it all safely, then breathing a sigh of relief, passed through the barbed wire gates on the way to the station, under a real "wag’’ of a Sentry. The walk this time was only two miles which we did in good time. Another Sentry in charge of a Russian came along with us, we had to keep slowing up as the poor Ruski had only clogs to wear, and seemed more fit for a convalescent Hospital than a working Commando. He was very depressed and quiet and almost fell over himself with gratitude when we gave him a few of our precious biscuits. He left the train in the Mining Centre telling us he would soon be down amongst the coal again. when Two civilians joined the train, accompanied by a blood- hound.
We were by this time beginning to feel hungry, so opened our bags and took out some biscuits and potted meats, at the smell of which the dog got off his back and did his best to get a bit. It was rather an embarrassing position for the Germans, for it took all their time to keep him quiet, but the joke of it all was, that I expect they would have liked some of the food themselves. Of course, as it prolonged their agony, we lingered over our light repast as long as possible. They with their dog, left us at the next big station, and our sentry had several good "Blighty" smokes from us and so was in a very affable frame of mind. On getting close up to him to have a chat, he noticed the stripes on my trousers were only tacked on, and put his finger in and pulled it off a little. He told me I could go into the lavatory and stitch them on securely which I lost no time in doing, and took the hint to get into a properly marked pair as soon as I hit the Commando, at once secreting my good pair for next escape. My mates were not quite so cautious and did not change, with the result that the Sentry in charge had a good look at them, detecting the flaw, at once took them away and had a stripe sewn in. We arrived at last at our old barracks at Dusseldorf-Rattle.
On going down into the yard where the Corporal had stood so close to us during our first escape, my mates and I [indecipherable] could not help bursting out in shouts of laughter, for the place we had previously crawled through was wired up in all manner of ways, so, that even a bee would have a hard job to get through, but on each side there were places even [indecipherable] "Bunny" could have squeezed through. Our next cause for merriment was the lightening Conductor that had served us in such good stead before for it was bound round and round and round again with barbed wire, until it almost looked like a ladder. The window through which we had slipped out, was again closed down, so that a second attempt
through that was almost impossible. During our six weeks absence the room had been occupied by others, and to get into a more favourable room I pretended that I wanted to get back into my old room rightly guessing that the guard would oppose any suggestion in that line. Then I asked him if we could not go into an empty room and be together, but "No" most emphatically "No." We ended up getting into the rooms we had wanted to, thanks to his pig-headiness and obstinacy. I was in one room with another boy, and the other two, together in the next room but one, but we still ate and lived together, and to our Sentry’s constant dismay, he often found one of us talking earnestly with some of the others, but we always evaded his questions to our own satisfaction.
My mate, the former orderly, had felt the privations more than we other two, as he was badly wounded when captured, and still carries a piece of Fritz’s bomb in his lung, the fact that he had been an orderly and had done very little strenuous work left him soft and short-winded, so he paraded to the "quack" and got a couple of days off, and from things given by the other boys was still able to have a good meal waiting for us workers when we came in. On going again to the "Quack’ when his two days had expired he was given two days more off, until his condition got him off for a week, when he had at last had to go to work, one or other of us would go sick, so that in this way we generally managed to keep a cook indoors, and incidentally the one left in would do a little towards his next clothing outfit.
My mate had procured a descriptive map and railway timetable, which we studied in every spare minute. Our plan of escape was to form three parties of two each. Two parties now had a map each, but only one of them had a compass, so that one of them would have to go along as we did on our first attempt, but the weather was colder, and the sky quite overcast, and not a star shone for us. Had it not been for my small compass, I fear we would still have been in "Hunland." I had to make a chart, so made a small tracing on notepaper of Railways and Waterways and principal towns, in this way our preparations quickly proceeded.
On returning to the working party, the Sentries and all the Germans concerned, greeted us with jeers, which I bore placidly with the thought that "He who laughs last laughs longest." Some of their remarks were, "How did you enjoy yourself in England?" They repeated their questions so often that I will never forget them nor will they forget the answers. The Stationmaster himself came and asked me "Where are the other three that left with you?"
I glibly answered, "In England having a good time and getting ready to go back to France for another cut" at which he smiled and said, ‘Oh no, they have been re-captured and are still in Cells,’ and further "that if we were only three miles from the Frontier we would never get through, so strongly was it guarded," I acquiesced to lead him to believe that I thought it futile to make another attempt.
Although the boys came to our rescue with food they could not spare us enough as our appetites were simply ravenous, so we would ‘pinch" potatoes and cabbages, take them home and boil them to make our rations go further. It was a very funny sight indeed, when a train
would come through with potatoes and cabbages, usually stored in open trucks, and well packed up, as soon as one of the boys saw cabbages he would give the "signal" at which we would all drop shovels or picks, and take up forks, spreading ourselves along at intervals on either side, and as the trucks of cabbages came past, would knock them off. These we would secrete until knock off time, throwing our great coats, or jackets over them to hide them as much as possible, and would carry them home. It was not so much the sentries as the civil population we had to hide them from, for our work led us through the town. The Sentries we "squared" by giving them some of the spoils, so that they rather liked us to get a little extra for them they also scored. A little food means so much to everyone in Hun-land. As everyone knows cabbages need a lot of boiling and our greatest trouble was to find ourselves oven space, the stove being occupied until 11 or 12 o’clock at night. This extra cooking made great demands on our coal supply, and to cope with it we used to knock off lumps of coal in just the same way as the cabbages from passing trains.
On a Commando, the Interpreter is not supposed to work, but a number of them do, because they do not know any better, and because, perhaps, the Sentries have told them that they have to. A very funny incident was told to me by one of the party who had been sent back sick from Russia. He was one of a number who had been sent there as a reprisal,
and had receiving some very rough treatment. The interpreter on this party wore a broad, red arm band, and just strolled along among his fellow prisoners, pretending to see they were doing what was required, but really not caring a rap. To even things up as much as possible they used to take it in turns to be interpreter, thus getting a day’s rest once a fortnight, and unless some fresh work, or a visiting officer came along, could act their part alright. One day when this chap was having his day’s rest, the contractor shouted for ‘Dulmecher" or "Interpreter." The contractor it appears wanted something altered. The interpreter listened attentively and said "Ya Ya!" and moved across to the real Interpreter, but he could not for the life of him remember what had been told him, so he went off in another direction. The Contractor yelled out to him but he knew was useless to go back, so pretended to be deaf. Meanwhile, he tried to get off his distinctive band, and to hand it to one who understood their lingo, but Fritz spotted him, and there was trouble. He tried to make himself scarce, but Fritz called him up, gave him a pick and shovel, and made him do the work himself while he watched him.
Our interpreter used to fill in time ‘pumping" the sentries and wandering over the shunting yards, collecting coal, that had been bumped off trucks, so we generally managed to get fuel enough to keep the kettle boiling.
A Serious disaster. The sentry pinches our chart.
We had an awful shock one evening when one of the boys came in and said "The Corporal has got our map." It appears that two of the six were sitting on a bed studying and fixing their route, when in marched the Corporal ! One of them folded the map, and put it under the mattress just in time. He was ordered to go below, but on standing up the release of his weight on the bed, caused the map to drop to the floor. The Corporal turned and saw
It, and at once captured it. He went straight downstairs to the ‘phone, and we presume he told his news to the Chief. This meant punishment for my two comrades, and the only way to evade it, was to hurry up and get away before their punishment next morning. The two dressed ready to go
and put putting marked clothes over their others, intending to break from the work, but they did not get a suitable opportunity, so had to chance another day. We decided we would attempt to escape the following evening, so next day I rolled up the little piece of wire rope I had secreted under some rubbish, put it in my shirt, and got it home later undetected. We hurried through a little tea, got into our clothing and were all ready. I secured the rope to a leg of one of the beds, letting the other end out through the window. This window measured about 20" wide and 40" deep with four iron bars at intervals of 8." We realised that we would not be able to get through this space thin though we were, with all our clothes on, so lowered as much as we could down by string, saved from the wrapping of our parcels. All being ready, I was just getting my leg through the bar when someone under the bed said, "Here comes the Corporal.’ This Corporal caused us a lot of trouble. He was very sincere about his work, and did not intend to have any more "birds’ get out, especially was he cautious after finding the map. I withdrew and hopped into a linen press, standing erect and closing the door just before the Corporal came in. He asked for me, whereon one of the boys glibly said "He is downstairs in the bathroom." Suspicious at once, down he trotted to see what I might be up to. As soon as he was out of sight I stepped out and put on some marked clothes over those prepared, went down to him, and, in a nonchalant manner, asked him what he wanted me for. He answered, "I have some money for you !"
Our first attempt at escape was towards the end of the week so that we left a week’s wages behind us. I had been worrying him for it, to lead him to believe that we had none, little thinking it would come at such an inopportune time. I received the money, signed for it, thanked the Corporal, remarking that it had been a long time coming to me. Of course, he wanted the other two as well for the same reason, and almost caught them, but close as this shave was we weathered it safely. Coming to our room we slipped off our old marked things and squeezed out the window. My word ! it was a squeeze and caused a lot of grunting and puffing. Just as I was out of the window and standing on the ledge, along came an electric car, which ran only 12 yards distant, so that our window was lighted up plainly. I stood dead still with face inwards. Of course the light within the room was extinguished, as otherwise we would have been shown up. The car passed and I slid down the rope to the roof of a shed, which roof was covered in three inches of snow, so that on donning the clothes we had lowered, we got quite a lot of it down our necks and it helped us to keep cool. My mate had even more trouble than I had in getting through. This was his first attempt so that he was more excited than I, and half way down called for me to let him have my shoulder as the rope was cutting his hands. He had a nasty gash on the right hand for weeks as a result. Running from the shed was a brick topped stone wall, also covered with snow and ice, and very slippery. We crawled along
this for a short way until we could see the door into the street was opened, so we thought it better to reach ground level in the yard, I prepared for a 3 ft. drop, it proved to be nearer five or six, with the alarming result that I fell in a heap, making an awful clatter. On picking myself up I found I was still intact, when, bang! down comes my mate Jimmy in the same manner. We deemed it advisable to get across the street and away as soon as possible praying in our hearts, they would regard the noise as due to the wind, which was blowing fairly strongly for there were still two at the top who had not got out, and if they thought our noise was suspicious and made a search, those two would not have a chance. They were the two the Corporal had taken the map from.
The first thing we saw was one of our Sentries, standing talking to a girl. It was rather a disconcerting sight to our highly strung nerves, but fortune favors the brave and we walked straight on. The Sentry was a married man, but it could not have been his wife he was talking to, because he seemed anxious no one should recognise him, and as we came along side he got his face close to hers , keeping his eyes averted, little dreaming it was two of his birds. The path was so narrow that my arm brushed his in passing, so perhaps I should not disparage German "Frauleins" although her kindness was selfish and unintended, anyhow, the situation was greatly relieved by her presence, and I wish her all that is good.
We were now on the Street in Dusseldorf, Ratte, and quite free, that feeling of freedom getting the better of us, made us perhaps a little careless, but we soon realised we needed to keep our all wits about us, After our return from our first failure, we had been pointed out as the "Fluchtingen" to a great number of civies of the town, so that we had many times to dodge people to avoid recognition.
This time of course, I knew just where I was, and what route to take, so we walked straight into Dusseldorf, or at least to the outskirts of it to a tram terminus. To our good fortune our car came along just after we got there. I stepped on and Jimmy followed. He was to come with me and act the overworked and exhausted Belgian workman, falling off to sleep when travelling. A very hard part to play. As the car went on and filled he was separated from me a little, and had qualms, for he feared he might be asleep when I got off, so stretched his legs behind several persons until he could reach mine, so that as soon as I moved off he would feel it and hop off too.
Our supply of food for the journey we had stowed in our overcoat pockets causing many a suspicious eye
was to be cast in our direction both by soldiers and "Civies," but fortunately no questions were asked and we reached the Railway Station safely.
One of the boys, a Tommie, who had a few days ago gone through this station with a Sentry brought back the yarn that that everyone who went through the Turnstile had to produce a personal card of residence as well as a railway ticket. This news of course made us a little dubious, and I believe was the cause of the other four not succeeding in their attempt, but I determined to chance it. As it was now
evening, and crowds of workers were going home, so I told Jimmy to study the timetable that he would find just inside the door, although the numbers were all he could understand, while I got the tickets. I went to the same pigeon hole as before and got two tickets "Mit ruchfahr’ or return tickets, with these I started of in the direction of the Turnstile, going slowly until my mate joined me. When I handed him his ticket, we went boldly up to the guard in an apparent hurry. A Sentry that was there on duty gave us a very searching stare, but we hurried on. The Guard stamped our tickets and we went through onto the platform where the train was waiting ready to move off. We hopped into a third class compartment which was already crowded, and fortunately for us was not lighted. Of course, we knew this by our previous experience. My mate got a seat and pretended to sleep, but I did not get a seat, and a German soldier, a fine big fellow said, "Come on, old man get on my knee," which I did with feelings of misgivings, and had to listen to their version of our Cambrai reverse, and to reply to questions asked me. One other old man opposite said, "Yes we have advanced a little but at what cost." Evidently the pessimist of the party. At our first stop at Neuss my friendly soldier got out with several others, so we had plenty of room for the remainder of the journey.
I had taken our tickets for Crevenbrooich as on my previous attempt, but the train did not go
onin that direction much to our satisfaction, for it took us 15 miles nearer to our destination than we had anticipated. We got out at Kleinenbrach handed in our bogus tickets, my mate dropping his in trying to conceal the name of station. On reaching the open road I consulted my small compass, as the sky was overcast, and not a sign of our leading stars to be seen. Without a compass we would not have had much of a chance. The roads were snow covered and frozen, in fact were still freezing as we marched along, crossing several Railway lines where there were of course, men in charge, who if they came out to lift the barrier would get a friendly "good-night" or some remark about the weather and "Thank you" for lifting the barrier.
In one of the villages we went through in early evening, I remember a very funny incident, although almost distracting at the time it happened. There were many people walking along, but all were on the footpath, while we were in the middle of the road, so to appear more at home. I steered across to the footpath, reaching it in front of several vacant blocks, where garbage tins had been emptied. We got amongst these, stumbled once or twice on the tins, making a big clatter, at which we steered once more back to the road. There were several men quite close so we let out a couple of German oaths, cursing the bad path. On getting through the town my mate turned to me and said "I feel that we have passed through a dangerous spot and am glad enough we are through it." Between villages it was safe enough, as there were no lights and not many people. I held it was safer, and much more comfortable to keep to the main road all the time, so we tramped along as if going home from work, or a "Booze up." We
reached a cross-road, with a friendly finger post, which Jimmy, being a sailor, scrambled up, struck a match and read directions on the board which told us we were still in the right direction and were a lot further on than we had anticipated. Our next need was a place for hiding in. I looked around and on the horizon saw what appeared like timber, about 200 yards off the road, so we moved in that direction. Our course lay over a ploughed field, and frozen, so it was more like stones we were walking over than anything else. We struggled on until near the trees, our eyes on the ground, picking a track for our weary feet, but, on glancing up, to our dismay the supposed timber proved to be a house. Fortunately for us, the inmates were all asleep as was also the dog. We at once faced about and reached our road again,
and but shortly after we left the main road for a little side track, down which we found our desired timber, but no bush. The trees were Oaks, and had shed all their leaves, but we broke a number of twigs placing them on the snow so that we might not get too wet or cramped, slept or dozed till morning, when a thaw set in, and with it rain, so that there was nothing for it but to sit and get wet, until dusk, when we could make another start on our way to freedom.
As the sun rose or set I would compare my compass with it, as it was only home made and I had heard dozens of boys attribute their failure to the variation of their compass, so I was not taking any risks. Between showers we would get out my precious chart, and map out our walk for the night. We were terribly thirsty, and although it was mid-winter, we did not come across much water, running water of course. There were pools of it all along the road, but it tasted so stale we preferred thirst to the taste it left us with. Four miles from our starting point we entered [indecipherable] a large town, our road led us right through it, for at least one hour we were still in this town, but, being early, we passed as men returning from their "Arbeit." As the town seemed to get larger, and more thickly populated, for the first time, we left the main road and went South, across fields, on a cart track, which was rough, wet and very slippery, and took more out of us in the six miles than 10 would have done on the road. This track, I guessed, would lead us to a road which we had previously taken, and on reaching it, the exhaustion and depression caused by the rough track was dispelled and was followed by a sense of security as I recognised familiar surroundings.
We were both very thirsty, and several times were tempted to go into hotels and get something warm and stimulating, but considered it wiser to bear our thirst until we could reach the River. So we plodded on, looking [indecipherable] for our river as it was only 10 miles from the Frontier, so we had to exercise caution, and slow down our pace.
At last we reached the River, but as we got opposite the nearest point, heard several persons walking behind us, we stopped by a tree, and lit a couple of fags, remaining there until they were safely out of earshot, when we went across to the river, which we found was still frozen, in spite of the thaw and the rain, to the depth of at least three inches, so we sat down and pounded with our heels making a hole through
which to get a drink. We laid down on our stomachs, putting our mouth to the hole and drank and drank! This iced drink of ours was better for us, far better, than anything that was ever bottled, but very cold. We then lay on the bank resting for a while, our thirst for once, appeased with good clear water.
From this point we could see the reflection of the lights of Dutch towns in the sky, so we sat and wondered if we should be successful this time. Having been rested and refreshed, we waited until all was quiet, and then got onto the main road again starting with hearts full of hope.
The point where we were first captured was about 300 yards over a Railway line, that had a signal lighted with three lights, so that on seeing those lights I at once turned off the road, and followed the advice given me by the Dutch smugglers on the previous occasion. Feeling tired and weary, we had a rest just outside a Cemetery, realising that the next few hours would determine our fate. But after walking a little further on we determined to hide and rest so that our crossing of the Frontier would take place Sunday morning when people do not rise early, and a Sentry is dreaming of an engagement he has for the evening. So wending our way as best we could, through a swamp we searched for a dry spot, but as we advanced the swamp became worse and almost impassable, we had to retrace our steps, eventually deciding on a little open spot of high land. Although it was high it was not dry, for it was still raining. The timber here was a little bigger, and afforded us better shelter, so making our bed of broken twigs for the ground was water logged and oozing with water when one walked on it. We lay down, and were soon both asleep. My mate said I frightened him several times with my snoring, so much noise did I make, and so sound was my slumber.
We awakened next morning, cold, wet and stiff, so stripped off, and had a good old swill in a nearby drain, which refreshed us greatly. On account of being in a swamp we were not disturbed at all during the day, so allowed ourselves more ease, and had a real good rest. Setting out at dusk for our final sprint – failure or success – we wended our way back from the swamp, the same way as we had come. There seemed to be only the one entrance, so had no other alternative but to get back to the road we had left the evening before, and struck off in a southerly direction. The road we followed was thickly wooded on either side and very swampy, so was quiet and not very much used. After following it for about an hour or two we heard somebody approaching, walking in the middle of the road. So feeling like a rest, we slid down into the ditch and lay quiet, until the traveller had passed by. He may have been only a "Civie" going home from his week-end visit, or he may have been one of the patrols, anyhow we were taking no chances, acting on the German [indecipherable] "it is better to be safe than sorry." Then we clambered out and walked on for some time, until we heard the constant barking of dogs, not knowing whether they were in Holland or the blood-
hounds employed on the Frontier, stalking an unfortunate that had been sighted. Tired as we were it served to make us more cautious. A few kilometres further on we were compelled to make another halt. On one side of the road was a Farmstead reaching the road, and on the other, low thick shrubbery, which we tried to get through but found it impossible, the noise of breaking twigs and our stumbling being too great so we had to come back to the roadside and conceal ourselves in the ditch, which although it had been raining for three days did not have much water in it. Our trouble was caused by a young Fritz trying to get through the protracted business of saying, "Good-bye" to his lady love, and standing in the centre of our road. This Fritz was typical of his Fatherland, and very long winded and enduring. Perhaps the fact of being Saturday night, and the extra few hours in bed on the following morning kept him going. I did not time him, but it seemed to me to be about a week. Perhaps this girl was to blame, but at length mutually agreed to separate, thus clearing the way for our advance, which from now on, was over by-roads, fields and Forests. The Forest was entered a little after midnight. Here it was that my compass came into use, for we could see neither moon nor stars and had to rely solely on the compass. We walked on and seemed to get no nearer to our destination. We found it necessary to make frequent halts, as the tramp and weather were telling on us.
Although we did not know it, the edge of this Forest was right on the border line. At last we could see a broad opening in the trees ahead of us, and felt sure we were very close to our goal. To confirm our conjectures, just ahead of us was a high iron structure used as a lookout, but thanks to the weather, we could not be seen, nor could we see very far either, so we made our steps more measured and cautious. We then passed a lot of freshly cut timber, and thanked our lucky stars it was Sunday morning, and that no workmen were there. Then, to our relief, as the gap in the trees was widening, down came a very heavy shower of rain, which laster for quite an hour. The rain must have driven the Sentry under his shelter, we did not see him, nor did we stay to ask questions.
"At Last our reward & goal – Freedom."
The first intimation that we were safely over the frontier was a Government notice board on which was stated " This path was forbidden to "Civies." It was printed in Dutch, but we were not too sure of ourselves even then, so walked across open country, with the rain teeming down. We soon entered a village, and by this time it was almost daylight, but being Sunday, the people although Dutch, were just as fond of their beds on Sunday morning as anybody else, so nobody was about. Outside one of the houses, on the main road, were a number of vehicles, I guessed that whoever owned them would have a name and a town printed thereon, so I went across and found one of the few Dutch names I knew. Then it was that I was sure we were at last on friendly
Territory. I noticed a boy open a door so straight away went up to him and asked for a drink. He referred me to his father, who was not satisfied with giving us water, but took us into his kitchen and gave us a drink of good Coffee, which although cold was to us most delicious, it being the first drink of real coffee we had tasted for 17 months. I then asked him if we were in Holland? "Yes" he said, and asked, "Have you come from Germany?" I replied in the affirmative, and said "We are English," at which he grasped our hands, seemingly over-joyed that we had been successful in our escape. My next question was in regard to the distance of the nearest town where we would be able to obtain food, and a clean up, for we were rain-soaked, muddy footsore and weary. Just after leaving him for town, we both stood in the middle of the road in another shower of rain, facing dear old England, and shook each others hands, with our thoughts running back to the awful place we had just left and the encouraging realisation that we would soon be in a position to get a bit of our own back again once more joining our mates in France, no longer seemd to feel our weariness or that we were wet through and shivering, my mate and I on our success, feeling as happy as "Mud Larks", which we certainly looked like as far as outward appearances were concerned. Our Dutch friend said the town was about an hour’s distance away. I thought it meant by train journey, and was picturing myself six hour’s walk on foot but on asking him again he said it was "6 kilometres," an hour"s journey on foot. I noticed afterwards that all Dutch people measured distance by the time it takes to walk it. I then asked how far away the Frontier was and which direction it followed, so as to be sure of not crossing it again. He also told me that the road on which we were walking ran parallel to the Frontier at a distance of from one to two kilometres or ¼ of a mile, but although we were still so close to the Frontier we were on the right side of it and knew that our foot slogging was finished, and at last we were free. Oh the realisation of being free defies all attempts of describing our feelings & suddenly our extra amount of loathing for the hun.
This was on the morning of the fourth day, after escaping from Dusseldorf, and the realisation that our greatest perils were over seemed to bring home to us the need for sleep and rest. On coming into the town, it being Sunday morning we found that the Churches were all open and carrying on services, but as it was our bodies that needed succor and rest, the open church doors did not appeal to us A little further on we noticed a Café so we knocked and went in, but the Proprietor must have done a long night on Saturday, and was having the usual allowance of extra hours in bed next morning, or even better solution still he may have been in church. Anyway we could not get an answer to our vigorous knocking so had to go further into town, where we eventually lighted on an hotel, going inside and ordering a light breakfast each.
Of course the little Dutch waitress soon picked us out as escaped prisoners and the news that two Australian escapees were there, soon went round the town. The Proprietor came in and welcomed us to Holland, our conversation being carried out in German. He went away saying he would bring in a man who could speak our language the better to get our descriptions, for my German was anything but fluent, and did not allow me to put much detail into my talk. The man he brought proved to be a Belgian, who had a very pitiful tale to tell which he gave to us without the asking. He was at his home in Brussels when the German hordes overran his country, carrying on his business as
owner of a large laundry, in which with the help of his wife and six daughters and numerous employees, he was making a comfortable living. The Huns commandeered all his brass and copper utensils at their own price - a mere song- he was [indecipherable] compelled to accept their terms, about one tenth of that for which he had bought the goods. He told us that conditions in Belgium were appalling and said that hundreds were daily dying of malaises brought on by privations. In course of time he and his family became separated, and after trying to find them for six months, he determined to get through to Holland, where at least he could get good and sufficient food. He was cutting timber for his living, the work was blistering his hands terribly, but this was only a minor trouble, his greatest and hourly anxiety was for his people, of which he could get no tidings whatever, not knowing in what country they might be, or whether dead or alive.
As soon as he commenced talking with us his mates formed and audience a ring
around us, and[indecipherable] he had to act as Interpreter and translate our news to his mates, who included both of us in every round of drinks – Geneva Wine – and good, which soon had us feeling bright and at home with all the world although there was only one other present Jimmy my mate could hold any conversation at all that did not matter. We were free.
While sitting there, waiting for the Proprietor to bring his friend along, eating our breakfast of white sweet bread and butter, and two fresh boiled eggs, our thoughts flew back to our mates we had left four days ago, and we wondered if they had finished their breakfast or if they had enjoyed it as much as we were doing. Sunday morning breakfast is a great event in a prisoner’s life, as he generally reserves his cooking of tasty dishes until then, as he has more time at his disposal to prepare it, and more time to linger over it when it has been cooked. Thanks to our invaluable parcels Sunday breakfast or generally included dinner as well was made delicious to our stomachs that craved meat and sweets.
I then asked our friendly Belgian what was the best course for me to follow. He asked "If I had enough money to reach Rotterdam?" Of course, I had not, he then advised that we should go to the next large town, giving us the address of an hotel owned, and run by an Englishman, where he said we would be given a good time free of cost, and who would advise us further as to what was best for us todo. On reaching the ra ilway our Belgian friend bought us our tickets, as the Railway official would not take German money. He bought them for us with currency money, and I gave him the equivalent in German coin, which he exchanged at a profit, as the values fell. There is great traffic in German money, as the value rises and falls. German paper money when we entered Holland was 50% below pre war rates, but while were there, and after the Russian collapse their money went up to the usual rates. We could not find our English hotel, so we deemed it best to report to Police Superintendent, which we did at dinner time. In the examination room, were a number of German kiddies, who had been caught with a load of goods, trying to get them home over the Frontier in order to celebrate as good a Xmas feast as possible. The Dutch police emptied out their packs in separate heaps on to the floor, soap, cocoa, chocolate and butter. On our entry the admitting Officer asked, "Who are you?" I replied, "Britishers" He then spoke in perfect English, asking what we intended to do, whether to work
there or see the Consul. We decided to see the Consul. As soon as the officer examining the little German’s loads heard me say we were Britishers, he came across, shook hands, and said, "Help yourselves to some of this chocolate." "It has been paid for and with German money so don’t be bashful." So we took a good bit, but not enough to his satisfaction, he insisted on us filling our pockets. I had quite a long chat with him in the course of which I learnt that 120,000 Germans of both sexes and all ages, had crossed into Holland and taken up their abode there, working for a living. He seemed doubtful whether they had come to better their conditions, or to spread German propaganda and at the same time to be there to carry on should his country be forced into the war. The latter solution seemed to me to be very probable. Having no passports through Holland, we were told we would have togo to a quarantine station for three weeks before getting them, as we might have brought some infectious diseases with us, resulting from privations endured. As there were no trains that day, we were taken to the detention room, the same sort of room I had been in three months previously just three miles distant, and a mile across the border in Germany. Here we found similar conditions, a large room, full of people, of all sorts, sizes and ages. As the evening advanced, we were all taken into a large dining hall, and given a hot drink of pure coffee and a bowl of soup. The soup was infinitely better than that of our previous experience, and very nourishing. This finished, we were again ushered into the large room, where the others were content to sit in their chairs or lounge over the table, but my mate and I, using our coats as pillows, stretched ourselves out on the floor, and slept the sleep of the contented, dreaming of "Blighty" and the good times we intended to have there. It was in very truth for us, "The end of a perfect day" yes and the "End of a journey," too, and a long one at that. We slept soundly until 11 p.m. when a large organ struck up with popular airs, causing those of dancing proclivities to select partners, clear the floor and make themselves as gay as possible. The music although of the travelling circus variety, was good to hear and to see the unrestrained manner in which the people made merry led us to hope for a good time while in Holland. Amongst those in the room were Germans, men and women, who had come across the border to procure a better and more humane living. Some of these I spoke to. They gave me to understand that they were tremendously pleased at their success in crossing the line. They also complemented my mate and
me myself on our success, saying, "That we would now have no more hard times, and that although their papers had told them that England was also blockaded, they did not think it true," so enlightened were they by their escape.
‘Incidents in Holland."
The first thing of importance noticeable was the great contrast in the appearance of shop windows. Here, they seemed to be filled to overflowing with daintily prepared and assorted sweets, and small goods of every description then the deportment of the people in general
was a treat to us after
what we had been accustomed to see our previous experiences in Germany. They appeared well fed, strong and healthy, with an air of independence joy and pleasure. Although there is food enough for all, despite the extra 750,000 people imposed on her neutrality since the outbreak of war, one can at once understand that although neutral, Holland is greatly affected by the war. Perhaps the dearth of coal is the most conspicuous by its uncomfortable results. For example, the difficulty of travelling by train, there being so few running, and when one does get in his train, it is a very cold ride, the steam heaters being out of action with the [indecipherable] result that the carriage windows are all ice covered and frozen, making it impossible to see anything at all through them. windows. The only way of getting a glance through and a knowledge of one’s where-a-bouts was by scaping a small space clear of ice, and keeping it rubbed dry by constantly wiping it with the coat sleeve. After a real good night’s sleep and rest, I felt years younger on awakening, over which I delayed so long, that I nearly missed my breakfast, with my morning bath and breakfast over, I hunted up the Sergeant in charge and asked him, "If all escapees came through his hands?" He said "Yes." I asked if the other three men who were with me on the first attempt had been here? He replied "Yes," showing himself interested at once, then went up to the Bureau and read up all the particulars. Then he came back to us, and told us all about how they crossed the line and everything else he could. To make sure he was making no mistake, I showed him their photos, which he instantly recognised. It mightily relieved us to know that they had been successful, and we looked forward to seeing them in ‘Blighty," when we hoped to exchange experiences in person, and to hear how they had got on after leaving them just outside our prison barracks in Dusseldorf.
Our next move was to go to the railway station. There was a Sentry in charge, but what a different sentry to those we had met. He offered us smokes and sweets, telling us we would be properly treated while in quarantine, which would last about three weeks. Joining a train we proceeded to quarantine quarters. Russians joined us who had just got across, andwere naturally highly elated at their success. They had been working for farmers for three years, being captured in the early Prussian drive in the East, but what surprised us most of all was that they had been working all that time within two miles of the Frontier and had not escaped before. How we wished Fritz had only employed Britishers in such places, for we could not think of them sticking as close for three years without escaping to dear old Blighty with news of [indecipherable] the economic position of Germany and perhaps any vital positions our airmen might be able to demolish or put out of action.
At the next station a German girl joined us also having crossed the day before [indecipherable] quite affable to us. I learnt that she came from the same town in which we had caught the train, so we had the feeling in common, of having got away from the same place of misery and depression, although she being a German, and in possession of passports had kept her train to the terminus, or within a mile of it.
On reaching our destination we entered the searching room of the quarantine station, when everything was taken from us and disinfected. From this room we went through to the Doctor, who gave us a very hearty welcome indeed to Holland from Hunland, there
was no trace of any disease, and that we would soon be in good old "Blighty."
The morning arrival of "escapees" or "smugglers" was practically the only incident of interest here and needless to say was watched by all inside who were naturally anxious to see if any of them resembled the mates who had started off with themselves [indecipherable] . The Sister in charge spoke English fluently, and on hearing there were some Australians just arrived,
she came across to give us a greeting and incidentally find out what she could of our bonny Southern Island. Her questions at last exhausted, I asked her if my three former "cobbers" had been through this station, telling her their names. This caused her great excitement, for the leader of the three, our former "interpreter" understood her language well, and they had many talks together. He had shown her the photo of seven of us, feeling proud that three of them had escaped. To convince her that I was of the other three of the first attempt, I showed her my photo of the seven Colonials, with the glad assurance that now five of the seven had slipped between Fritz’s fingers. So pleased was she, that she borrowed it, to have an enlargement made, in memory of Colonial pluck and daring.
Later on the Sister received a letter from those others in England, and kindly brought it along for us to read. They were having a good time in Blighty,
and their words were like good wine to us, for we considered their letters a prophesy of what a glorious time was in store for us there also when we too were at last in Blighty.
After leaving the Dr. came the bath-room, where we had to battle very hard to keep our "hair" on. It was the usual custom to clip the hair very close, the rest being shaved off, thus leaving no possible hiding place for any body vermin whatever, but we managed after a lot of persuasive argument to keep our hair, and once more to appear as Civilians. This was a very sore point with a little Frenchman who had crossed two days later than us who had to submit to the whole cleaning operation.
In the Barracks there were 7 Russians and 1 Belgian, at least he claimed to be such, although his speech and manners were that of a typical German, we would amuse ourselves by telling him that he was a smuggler and a German. Whatever he was he did me a very good turn by writing a letter for me to the Hun Station Master who had asked me so many questions after I was re-captured on my first attempt to escape. I explained my success and rubbed it in about his Sentry’s watchfulness, and graphically detailed our plentiful food, supplies and comforts, contrasting it all with conditions in his country. As it was written in good German he would understand it, and I registered it so that it would reach him.
Our food here was mainly soup, but how vastly different to the "soup" of Germany. In it was meat, foodstuffs, good, well-cooked vegetables, and plenty of seasoning, with lunch, and afternoon tea of fresh white bread and real fresh butter. The result of this good food and rest was that we put on weight at once. One day I weighed and found to my immense satisfaction, that in 11 days I had put on as many
pounds, and I began to think that I would soon be as well as ever again. We were eating, and doing nothing but resting, and although we gained in weight yet it was only temporary, when we went out and did some sight-seeing, we got back tour usual figures.
Our first duty we considered to be our own folk. So we sat down and wrote to them. Then to all the addresses I had brought away with me of the boys who were still left behind in prison. Many of these addresses I visited personally on my arrival in "Blighty" and explained to them, as well as I could the conditions of life and work of their boys and husbands in "Hun-land."
The only depressing element to us in our veritable paradise was the constant reports which would come in of some poor unfortunate having been shot in seeking to cross the Frontier. As near as I can recollect only two deaths in this manner were British, there were several French, but more were Russians, because of the enormous number of them there, and trying to escape. When one recalls that these unfortunates may perhaps have travelled hundreds of miles and endured untold hardships to reach the Frontier to be killed, just in the moment of success was a cruel fate indeed. It makes one who has escaped consider him-self one of the most favored men on God’s earth.
Christmas was drawing near, and our quarantine was due to expire on 24th December, so we were hoping to spend a very pleasant 25th, but to our disappointment , our clothing, that was to have come from the British Consul, did not put in an appearance until after that date, and as we were not presentable to the general public as we were, we had to spend the time of waiting in quarantine, with two other Britishers, - a Canadian and a Tommy- captured at Mons. These had made three unsuccessful efforts to reach this land of "Milk and Honey" but were re-captured on each occasion. This time the Canadian collapsed as soon as he met the Dutch Sentry, from sheer exhaustion. He was one of six who had started out, facing a walk of 150 miles. On reaching the big barrier, the Rhine, they walked along its banks for hours, until they came across a small boat, anchored about twenty yards out [indecipherable] , swam out, hauled up the anchor, and towed it into shallow water, where his mates waded in, and got into the boat. Their only means of propelling it across, was a piece of board, which they had found and carried with them. With such feeble means, they drifted down the stream considerably, and only reached the opposite shore just as day was breaking. When the party was within half a mile of the Frontier, four of his mates had to fall out and give themselves up, being absolutely unable to go any further. Her and a Frenchman stuck to it, and got across on his fourth attempt.
In the Hospital was an Italian captured early in the war by Austrians who had escaped from Austria by train travelling four days as a passenger amongst Germans. He had, previous to the war, travelled very extensively in Northern France, and Germany, so that he not only spoke the language, but also knew all about the train service. On leaving
the train to commence his walk to the border he heard in the first village that he passed that two British officers had just been recaptured. Had he been a little earlier he would have been able to pilot them across safely. He gave us a very interesting account of his experiences both in Austria, and while escaping. Austria was in a far worse econmic condition than her ruler, Germany, and was on the verge of collapse in his opinion. We began to have visions of a speedy victory for our arms.
The five of us had our Xmas diner together, recalling previous Yule tides we had celebrated, and were all of the opinion that this one was the happiest we had spent anywhere, although still inside of barbed wire.
Outside it was a typical English Post Card Xmas, everything covered in snow, and had been for fourteen days, even the spikes of the barbed wire carried small icicles, so cold was it.
The Dutch Sentry’s uniform is of the same color, and very similar to that of Fritz, the only difference being the cap. He is allowed to go on duty in wooden clogs and wrap up as much as he thinks fit – altogether a very comfortable and independent looking person – so different to the sentries we had been used to, the thin sallow-faced and depressed looking Huns who seemed to have lost all interest in life – that is – until an officer came along when they straightened up and jumped about as if made of springs. ((Speaking of springs reminds me of the many bikes we saw in Germany without tubes or tires because of the rubber shortage. Small spiral springs were set all the way round the wheel rim, with another rim outside again. It required, judging by the way Fritz labored at it, five or six more man power that is usual.)
One of our first cards written from Holland was to Miss Chomley, President of the Australian Branch of the Red Cross telling her of our safe arrival in Holland and asking her to retain any letters that might arrive for us till our arrival in "Blighty". Two days later we received a telegram of congratulations on our success. Another of my cards I sent to friends in England – friends, and good friends – although I had as yet not seen even a photo of them. When first captured I wrote to these people asking them to forward my address on to the Red Cross Society. This they did, packing up a big parcel and sending it straight away. This was the first I received in Hunland. My next was from a Lady who had been to the Red Cross Headquarters and got my address and undertook to keep me in parcels while there. Numerous English people did this, but for us it did not last long, for in December of that year a better system was introduced after two years of war, to provide for every prisoner regular delivery of parcels as by the old way some did not receive anything at all. Of course, their mates helped them but it was hard for them, very hard indeed,
that on parcel nights when others got parcels, they received none. Our Red Cross parcels which were sent regularly every month contained a very good assortment of conserved goods and sweets. Then we received information that all private parcels would be discontinued and everything would reach us
through the society, a much better and surer arrangement.
The day after Christmas our clothes arrived and caused some fun when we tried them on. We got along alright till we came to the collar and ties. These caused no end of trouble to fix up and irritated us while on, but we soon got used to being civilians
again once more. A few days later a batch of us went to Rotterdam to our various representatives. Our Consul greeted us warmly and provided us with good lodgings at English speaking Hotels, giving us a little pocket money to carry on with. Our next move was to get another passport from Holland to England with all particulars on it, also a photo. We were perfectly free to go where we pleased but were warned not to go too far away as the convoy might be ready any day. I toured round Rotterdam, seeing all my small allowance of money would let me, and on New Year’s Eve, we were both invited out to a Social Evening to welcome the New Year, and to wish success and a deciding victory for our Arms.
My mate did not go as he was more at home with some of our naval men at the hotel, so I went with a "Padre" who was then convalescent. In getting there I was surprised to find so many English speaking people, mostly women, they had gathered together from all parts of the town, and we had a good evening together, welcoming in the New Year in good old English style, finishing our programme at 1 a.m. Then for our walk home over the frozen paths, and roads, where we met hundreds of Dutch folk celebrating the event in their own way, which seemed to be drinking as much wine as possible, and parading down the streets arm in arm, right across from one path to the other, dancing to lively tunes from mouth organs to accordians, and making merry with all they met.
On New Year’s Day everyone fished out skates and wended their way to canals and smooth patches of ice. It was a very pretty sight to see these people, in colored costumes, gliding along the ice in all directions. Some of the men were either pulling or pushing a small sleigh with several children in it, wrapped up in furs with only their little blue eyes and red cheeks showing. We also met a number of "Groningen" boys who retreated into Holland from Antwerp. They were on their way home for a few days on parole. Although they were in a country of peace and plenty
they were chafing in that they were forced to remain there until the end of hostilities, more especially because a lot of them came straight through Belgium, or practically so, only having a few days in that country which they came out to help. Some of them began airing their grievances to me, not knowing that I had been in Germany 17 months, till I could bear their "grouse’ no longer, and exploded, saying, "They were in Paradise compared with what I and any Britisher in Germany had to endure" at which they closed up and felt thankful it was the Dutch frontier and not the German they had crossed .
On going back to dinner we were warned that we were to embark at 3 p.m. so our sightseeing was ended and our gamble across the North Sea about to commence. Our party included 6 Britishers, two more who joined us in Rotterdam, (Tommies of three years standing)
who were also caught at Mons and several French men, including two Officers. Our boat was a merchantman, loaded with precious cargo, but not a very large one, and when it did start, jumped about terribly, upsetting nearly everyone on board. My mate being a sailor, of course was just in his element and had the laughing side of me.
We pulled out to anchorage at the "Hook of Holland," awaiting orders to go to sea, which meant that as soon as the escort arrived with incoming vessels, we would go out and be escorted across "Fritz’s playground." We had over a week to wait here on our little boat, expecting to go every day but being daily disappointed. One day a mine that had broken loose, drifted right into the mouth of the river. One of the Dutch submarines came out to explode it by gun fire, giving us a good ten minutes display of fire works.
While waiting here, the Canadian, whom we had left behind in quarantine joined us, bringing with him my belt of souvenirs and watch, that I had forgotten on leaving quarantine, in such a hurry was I to get out! I had carried these things since leaving home, and they were very precious, indeed. Everyone knows that it is the usual custom at the front, for each side to strip their prisoners for souvenirs. Well, Fritz makes no exception to that custom, and commenced his operations on the small party of us prisoners lined up at Lille before him! A man near me asked for a drink of water. He drank it, and collapsed immediately, having been shot through the kidneys and bladder. I caught him as he fell, and tried to ease him as much as possible, and was busy doing this when Fritz passed me in his search. This ordeal finished, the order to march was given and I had to get up and leave the sick man to Fritz and his "Kultur," to join the party with all my belongings intact, to after all leave them in quarantine station in Holland. So you can imagine how glad I was to see them again. The consul had wired to the director to forward them on, which he did by sending them with the Canadian. We were a happy band on board waiting for our signal to sail. It came on a rough windy day, and after half an hour I was busily engaged feeding the fish, but bad as I was I was able to watch the escort of destroyers and mine sweepers. It is a wonderful sight to see one of our ironclad destroyers come shooting along at full speed
and it giving one a feeling of absolute security. The most thrilling sight to me was when one of them, at full speed was taking the big seas, its tremendous speed drove it right through the waves, the water coming right over the foc’sle , the water running off either side, until the deck was relatively dry again, and I could see the two forward guns, with their muzzles poking out forward ready for anything that might come along, a menacing sight, and behind the guns stood the gun crew with their "sea skins" on, and eyes forever on the alert for any sight of Fritz or his "tin fish." The general appearance of the North Sea is pathetic indeed. No matter where one looks, pieces of wreckage meet the eye, pieces of all sizes and shapes, that vividly remind one of the inhuman submarine warfare, so much so that one expects to see human bodies clinging to the wreckage. As it was after sundown when we neared "Blighty’s" old shores we were compelled to anchor until next morning (also a Sunday morning) thus not arriving at the wharf until 11 a.m. on Monday-Sunday morning, when churches had their doors open & their bells pealed out joyful notes indeed, in this manner did I see Blighty for the first time.
We left the steamer, got onto a lighter and marched ashore with feelings of pride at being in good old England. Of course, we had to go through the "Alliens" office producing our passports, and answering the usual questions. This through and the authorities satisfied that we were the genuine persons, we received a cup of tea and sandwiches, then a corporal led [indecipherable]us to the Area Officer who gave us a hearty clasp of the hand, and a warm reception generally. His first words were, "I suppose you know there is no more France for you." Well, we did not know this, expecting we might get a few months leave and then have another slap at Fritz, to get a bit of our own back.
This news set us to picture ourselves taking a trip home to Aussy and put us into a good humour, feeling contented and satisfied as if we were already on our way home. This officer was also a "Mons" hero, and was wearing the Mons Ribbon which had only just been issued. He took our particulars down and sent us to Barracks for a good dinner, and then to London – the place which I had read and heard so much about, but not yet seen.
On arrival there we reported according to his orders and were taken down to Wellington Barracks where the real "dinky dye" soldiers hang out, such as the guards of all regiments. My word what an eye opener. A soon as they were up in the morning they were shaving, and cleaning uniform and equipment for morning parade. After parade came breakfast then more scrubbing and cleaning for the next parade. In fact, as far as I could see their daily life consisted of nothing else but cleaning and shining. They were fine big fellows, and gave us a warm reception. Here I found out a little more about the three escapees who had been successful on their first attempt, as they had also been through this place.
Then came three days of cross examinations as to events leading to capture and our version of how we were captured, our treatment while there and any information we could possibly give to the true conditions, the economic situation and morale of the people and any information of military importance, that we might have noted, such as the position of munition works and aerodromes and last, but by no means least just where prison camps and working parties were situated. This question led me to believe that "Blighty" at last intended raiding Germany thoroughly and felt that soon we would be punishing the Hun in the same manner that Fritz had punished us.
The Imperial War Office, satisfied we were the genuine article and that we had no more information for them, handed us over to our own A.I.F. Headquarters, where we were asked to go through all our experiences again, [indecipherable] . We were heartily fed up with questions and made our replies as brief as possible.
The rest of our story is soon told. Some weeks of furlough spent in sight-seeing in England, and inrecuperation, then embarking once
more with a crowd of returning Aussies on transport for our sunny South Land. We came home via Panama and New Zealand and a right good welcome awaited us as we drew up at Adelaide Station, thankful to be once more in Home –‘Sweet Home."
[Transcribed by John Brooker and Judy Macfarlan for the State Library of New South Wales]