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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2003

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, June 2003 Contents

POWs of the First World War
John Chapman

At the end of the First World War it was estimated that 674,000 servicemen had died in the conflict. Some 160,000 British soldiers were captured and held prisoner in Germany. But an estimated 20,000 British troops who succumbed during the Great War died not from bullets or shrapnel, but from starvation and disease in prisoner of war camps. Their living conditions were hard. They were subject to attacks of vermin and exposed to diseases, especially in the camps where prisoners from different armies were grouped together. They were also required to work in order to recover part of the expense of their detention and to replace men sent to the front. Few records exist revealing the conditions and numbers who were confined in camps. John Chapman has been seeking information on POWs from the Royal Berkshire Regiment. His list of about 1000 POWs from the Regiment can be found at <www.purley.demon.co.uk/1-RBR/G1500Apows.htm>.

Both sides took prisoners during the First World War. Many died in captivity and many suffered appalling brutality. The principal sources of information are contemporary newspapers and surviving letters. To date no detailed official records have been Found. The Red Cross in Geneva are the only known source and they are unco-operative to say the least in releasing information. It was not until January 1916 that the first lists of POWs began to appear in British newspapers. Many of the men had been reported missing and a good number as killed so the news of their captivity came as a great relief to their relatives.1 The worst cases of brutality which involved men from Berkshire arose from the fall of Kut and the capture of men from the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry by the Turks on 29 April 1916. An example was Pte Robert James Nash of Purley who died in captivity on 25 September after forced marches and appalling treatment.2

A street collection organised to provide comforts for British POWs, held in Reading on New Year’s Day 1915, was organised by Mrs L D Fullerton of Purley Park. The enormous sum of 550 was raised.3 A Committee was founded called the ‘Royal Berks Regiment Prisoners of War Care Committee’. It was chaired by William Mount MP. The Committee organised the collection of money and built a network of contributors who assembled the parcels to be sent to the men. These parcels were then brought to a depot where an army of volunteers addressed them and looked after the administration and records.

Over the years it cared for over 1400 POWs but extended its scope beyond the Royal Berkshire Regiment to any man who was (or had been) a resident of Berkshire. Naturally they could send parcels only to those men with a known address in Germany. Usually this would be the name of the camp in which they were interned; however, the Germans maintained a set of ‘Registration Camps’ such as Gustrow, Stendal, Limburg, Friedrichsfeld and Parchim. They were used as the designated addresses of men who had been sent to work in mines and factories and on farms. To assist communication and exchange information a number of ladies looked after the different Royal Berkshire Battalions. Mrs Mount of Wasing took on the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 8th, Mrs Hedges of Wallingford took on the 4th and 7th and Mrs Dowell of Colchester looked after the 6th. People whose relatives were missing or POWs were asked to make contact with the appropriate lady.4

Every 28 days six parcels were sent to each man, each worth initially 10s and later 15s plus three kilos of bread which usually came from a nearby neutral country such as Switzerland. Each prisoner was sent a special pack containing a complete change of clothing as soon as his address was received and this was renewed every six months. Each parcel contained a card which the recipient was asked to sign and return, but many often enclosed letters of thanks.

The number of prisoners from Berkshire increased dramatically as a result of the Spring Offensive of 1918. At the end of 1917 there were only some 200 on the books but by Armistice Day this had swelled to 1400 with 42 reported as having died. As a result the frequency of despatch and the amount of bread had to be drastically reduced. At the end of the war there was 3401.11s.1d left in the fund which was distributed to ex-POWs and disabled men from Berkshire or from the Royal Berkshire Regiment.

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King George V’s personal message to all those who returned to Blighty after being released as prisoners of war

An agreement negotiated through the Red Cross enabled seriously wounded prisoners to be exchanged. The first batch came home via Holland in December 1915 but it was not until July 1916 that the second batch returned via Switzerland. They brought back tales of appalling treatment: brutality, starvation and unsanitary conditions. As a result of strong representations made through the Red Cross things did improve although tales continued to leak back of terrible treatment, especially in the first few weeks of captivity when they were in the hands of the German forces in the battle zones.

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Postcard sent back to Pte J. Gore’s home informing his family that he was a POW at Giessen in Germany

The Reading Mercury of the 12 December 1918 recorded the return home of officers who had been taken prisoner. Lt Norman Langston, 8th Royal Berkshire, and other officers of the same battalion, including Capt Gentry-Birch, MC, reached home from Germany where they had been prisoners of war since the first day of the great German offensive on 21 March 1918.

Lt Langston and his brother officers and the medical officer, Capt Byrne, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who did excellent work afterwards in Germany, making it much better for his fellow prisoners, were taken just behind the lines where for thirty six hours they had no food. Their eventual destination was Rastatt in Baden. Here, said Mr Langston:

'we had three months starvation. Our daily fare was two plates of thin soup and one fifth of a loaf of bread a day. It was rather a pathetic sight at the baths to see your brother officers getting so appreciably thinner. At Rastatt they treated us like dogs. Capt Gentry-Birch was for a time in hospital with his wounds.’

‘When the soldiers’ councils took control we used to be allowed into the town and to visit the cafes and we had a good time. The people invited us to their houses. On being released we left Cologne and came down the Rhine on a 9,000 ton vessel which carried 160 officers and 1690 men. They did us very well on the boat and at Rotterdam everything that a man could want — change of uniform, razors, parcels etc.— was provided by the British Government. We could not have been treated better. As we sailed up the Humber to Hull the sirens were sounded and a very cordial welcome was accorded us and there was much enthusiasm at Scarborough.’

Another unidentified POW, believed to be a major, had managed to write home and his experiences were recounted in the Reading Mercury of 1 Jan 1916. He had been overun by the Germans and thrown from his horse onto a pile of dead. He was saved from being bayoneted by a German officer who intervened. As they were marched away they got a very bad reception from the civilians. They were punched, kicked, robbed and had all their buttons and badges cut from their uniforms. They were marched for three days to a train with 800 others and then moved to a barracks for two weeks. He wrote:

‘It would make you cry to see the state of the civilians, even though they are our enemy. Conditions are very bad. The women will do anything for a piece of bread. Meat is 3s a pound and can be sold only on certain days. We are receiving parcels from home and the German soldiers are begging to buy food from the prisoners, they are offering 20 pfennigs, about 2d, for a single slice of bread.’

Initially he only had straw to sleep on although it was very cold. Eventually he was given a blanket. Food improved when a new commandant took over. However, it was still only fit for pigs to eat. They were moved around from camp to camp and at one place the traitor Roger Casement appeared and tried to tempt men with money to join the Casement Brigade. He got a very bad reception and did not return.

Frank Bates of Reading was luckier. He was put to work on a farm in Germany and was treated well. Most prisoners however were held in prisoner of war camps in Germany or Austria. The Germans went to extraordinary lengths to use them to counter the tales of mistreatment that were abounding. Men were made to smarten themselves and then had their photograph taken looking well and contented either singly or in groups. These photos were then made into postcards which were mailed back to families in England. Many of these were published in the Reading newspapers and collected together after the war in Berkshire and the War.

German POWs in England

The possibility of the need to accommodate German prisoners in this country was realised from the beginning of the war. By 29 August 1914 preparations were well underway to transform Newbury Racecourse into a POW camp. By the 19 September no fewer than 1500 prisoners were guarded there by the Newbury Battalion of the Berkshire National Guard. Initially the prisoners interned were aliens. These were all removed at the end of 1914 to prison ships — liners anchored offshore. A number of allegations were made about ill-treatment and these were used as the justification for the brutal treatment meted out to British POWs in Germany. However, the allegations of British ill-treatment proved to be false.5

One of the camps for German officers was at Philberds, a large house near Maidenhead. This housed over 100 officers and 40 other ranks who acted as their servants. The camp was guarded by Territorials from the Devon Regiment. Early in 1915 the prisoners took to gardening and eventually the adjutant, Captain Armstrong, became suspicious and called in workmen to lay some unneeded drainpipes. While they were digging their picks struck a tunnel eight to twelve yards long and two feet square. It was cased with wood and had pads for elbows to rest on. The Germans had cut through the concrete foundations of a high wall and would probably have escaped had it not been for the adjutant.6

References

1 Reading Mercury 29/8/14, 19/9/14 and 26/9/14

2 Neville, History of the 43rd/52nd Light Infantry in the Great War. 1935

3 Reading Mercury 8/1/16

4 Reading Mercury 8/7/16

5 Berkshire and the War (Reading Standard) page 44

6 Reading Mercury 10/4/15


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created 29th May 2003