Memoirs of a Scottish Prisoner in WW1: Part 2

In Part 1 of this article we uploaded the first half of the memoirs of Corporal Gordon R. Johnston from Tillicoultry in which he described his dramatic plane crash behind enemy lines and the trials he had started to face as a prisoner in the German run P.O.W camps in WW1. Below he continues his story. Enjoy.

In May 1917 Dulmen camp was broken up, the N.C.Os being sent to Minden and the privates to another camp. This place was very good (as prisoners’ camps go in Germany). The only work we had to do being the usual camp fatigues, keeping the place clean, etc. We were allowed to have games and play football in the meadow outside the camp twice a week. There was also a Theatre and a prisoners Brass Band, and a two or three hours walk on a Sunday.

It was this camp that I started learning French properly and, another thing that helped to pass the time, was cooking our grub. As a rule, there were from two to six chaps – what we term in army slang “mucking in together”; one usually did the cooking, the others either washing up or drawing the packets for our “school.” I will now give you an outline of the packet system in this camp and, as most camps are run on the same principle, it can be taken as a general rule.

When a packet wagon arrives at the station, about 5 Kilometres away, word is sent up to the camp and 20 or 30 men are assigned to go down and unload it, and bring the packets back in a cart. When the packets arrive they are checked and a list of the names of the owners was put up. The packets were opened by the Germans, and all the loose articles were put into our soup basins – or bags that we had made for this purpose. We were not allowed one scrap of paper out of the packet, not even the tea wrappers. All the tins were kept by the Germans until we required them; then they were opened and the contents put into our basins or bags. This was a great nuisance as the ‘tin department’ was only open at certain hours of the day and, if we were on fatigue duty, we got no tinned stuff that day. Then all cigarettes were cut up and the cigarette papers confiscated. This was about the worst blow for the ‘boys’ in Germany because, out of 50 or 100 cigs, there would be only a handful of tobacco to show for them.

All biscuits were broken, and the butter, etc cut into two or three pieces. The bread from Copenhagen & Berne was cut in two to see if there was any contraband inside and, in the summertime, bread cut in half did not keep so well – especially when four men were “mucking in” and received 12 or 16 loaves at a time. The empty meat tins were boiled by the Germans, and the fat strained off and sent somewhere; the tins were sent to an iron foundry – I can assure you that nothing is wasted in Germany.

I got quite adept at cooking and could make anything from pancakes to pies. I found that the camp menu was much the same in every camp I was in, and can be listed as follows:-

Monday

  • Breakfast – Hot Water or Coffee
  • Dinner – One basin of soup
  • Tea – Hot Water or Coffee and one ration of black bread (daily allowance 1 loaf of about 5lbs between 12 men.)

Tuesday

  • Breakfast – Hot Water or Coffee
  • Dinner – One basin of Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage)
  • Tea – Hot Water or Coffee and bread ration

Wednesday

  • Breakfast – Hot Water or Coffee
  • Dinner – Three potatoes
  • Tea – the usual, and so on for the rest of the week…

Just a word or two about the coffee – I don’t know what it was made of, but some chaps who have seen it made, say it is burned acorns ground down. There is never sugar or milk in it, so you can judge how it tastes. The soup is 90% water with the remainder vegetables of some sort. The bread is almost black, has a sour taste, and is made from mainly sawdust and potato flour. Anytime I was compelled to eat the stuff it gave me awful indigestion – and you know I don’t have what you might term a weak stomach!

I can tell you that we used to grumble about the packets – and not without just cause at times – but if it had not been for these packets, very few of our chaps would have ever returned from Germany. It is only in the case of necessity that we touched German food at all – we always gave it to the Russians or Rumanians, and it was that extra stuff that kept the poor beggars alive.

I had been in Minden for a couple of months when about 40 of us were transferred to another camp, Soltan, where we were joined by another 60 N.C.Os. The whole lot of us had either tried to escape at one time or another, or had been troublesome to the German authorities in various camps – so we had been sent here to keep us out of mischief. After staying in Soltan for a week, we were sent to Heestenmoor and it was here that I had my first real taste of POW life. I had very little to complain of in my previous camps regarding the treatment by the Germans.

We stepped off the train at a railway siding and were marched across the moor for 5 kilometres, carrying all our belongings. The Germans do not supply us with anything so we have to be very careful with our private stuff, and take it all with us when we move from one place to another.

Our new camp, at first sight, was a small desolate hole, covering about an acre of ground and just about big enough to make a chicken run for about 100 fowls. We were put into an empty barrack room were we were searched, baggage as well. All our cooking utensils – and I might say they are the most important things for a POW – were taken from us; also cardboard boxes, cigarettes, money and all our tinned stuffs.

There were over 100 N.C.Os here who had been working behind the lines for some months and were not yet in receipt of packets. It would have made you weep to see the state they were in. I met a sergeant from my regiment who was absolutely skin and bone. He had been taken in April (1917) and had been forced to work behind the lines. The French civilians used to try and smuggle them food while working there, but if they were caught the Germans used to beat them with their rifles. This chap also told me how to they used to make soup out of nettles and dock leaves – anything to try and satisfy the pangs of hunger.

He and I started “mucking in” and just at that time the R.F.C. packets were something scandalous, so you can guess my issue didn’t go very far between the two of us. I used to be so hungry that I thought that it would take years of good feeding to make me feel satisfied again. When in this state you always talk about the good feeds you have had, and what you intend having when you get back home – which of course makes a chap feel the hunger all the more.

Well, to continue, we arrived on a Friday and with the exception of the usual roll-call parades, we were left alone until Monday – then the fun began!

The German officer in charge of the camp told us we had to go out and work – so, of course we refused. He called out the guard and gave them orders to use their rifles if we still refused. We refused, and the Germans waded into us. The officer drew his sword and shouted “I will show you Englishmen who is in charge of this camp!” and then made a dash for us. Two rifles were broken in the scrap, and several of us were put in the arrest house, and, I can tell you, it was no joke.

The cell was in total darkness and you were only allowed the German ration of bread and water. Every 5th day the small shutter is opened to allow light to come in, and you also got a basin of soup. Well, after being strafed for some time, we decided to go out and work. This entailed one party cutting the turf off the moor and getting it ready for cultivation; another party digging up roots of trees which had burned down at some time or another.

You know the old saying ‘You may lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.’ This applied to us; they did not have enough sentries to watch us all, so we took advantage and either broke or buried the tools. At first they used to try and make us hurry, but we soon got the sentries to our way of thinking. Taking the German soldiers individually, they are not too bad – it is fear of their superiors that make them what they are.

We had lots of petty punishments in this camp, such as standing on parade for two or three hours at a time, having the packets stopped for a few weeks, barrack room searches, and also we had to clean the latrines – a job normally done by the Russians in other camps. We were not allowed any games, and the walk round the compound was only 200 yards so, after walking round for about half an hour, you got quite giddy. We were sleeping on bare boards with two thin rags for blankets; and it was not for a couple of months after we arrived that we received a canvas sack which we were allowed to fill with straw for a mattress. As there were plenty of fleas among the straw, we were not much better off.

The only benefit we ever had from the Germans was a hot water spray bath, every Saturday. The usual washing arrangements in this camp were pumps out in the open and, during winter, washing our clothes outside was cold work, I can tell you. And the only place to dry the clothes was on the barbed wire surrounding the camp. In most other camps there were proper wash houses.

Some days there would be searches, when we would have to stand out in the cold from 8.00am to 7.00pm. During that time we had only three small potatoes for dinner. We had nothing else to eat all day and were not allowed to enter the barrack room for our own grub. The cooking arrangements in this camp were just awful. We had to bring in sticks when we came from work, and make ourselves fires on the ground. Just before meal times it was just for all the world like a gypsy camp but of course on windy and rainy days, we had to go without cooked food.

In the potato season we were put on digging them up and, although the sentries searched us when we came in, we could always manage to fetch in enough for a good feed – which goes to prove ‘necessity is the mother of invention’! I reckon we POWs would make the finest smugglers in the world. We had no issue of coal during the winter. There was a stove in each barrack room and we burned the wood that we had brought in during the summer but, for days at a time, we had no fire at all owing to the shortage of wood.

The Dutch Ambassador visited the camp twice during my stay and, due to his influence, a good many improvements were carried out – but I can assure you that there was still plenty of room for improvement.

You may think that I have had a rough time, but it was nothing compared to the private soldiers who were compelled to do all sorts of work. I know men who have deliberately broken their arm, and smashed their hand with a rock, so as to get away from the coal mines and back into camp again. Others have come back from the salt mines absolutely covered in sores. I was talking to a chap from the Scots Guards, who had been warned by the Germans to go on a working party, but told me that they would have thrown him down the shaft before he entered a pit. A few weeks later, I was told that he had been killed. The Germans had pushed him down a shaft because he refused to work.

For any misbehaviour, the men are sometimes kept down the mine for a week at a time. The Dutch Ambassador who is the British Prisoners representative in Germany knows as well as we do that such atrocities are carried out, but the trouble is proving them. The Germans are too cunning to leave any evidence about it. If the Ambassador asks permission to visit a mine, he is certainly taken there but, everything and everybody who is likely to cause trouble, is put out of the way. The Ambassador may know that everything is not as it should be, but still he cannot get the evidence.

Before we were allowed to cross the frontier we had to sign a paper to the effect that we had no claim on Germany whatever. I know of a Frenchman at Dulmen camp, who was crippled in a coal mine through ill treatment and the Germans told him that if he signed the paper to the effect that this was caused by an accident then he would be exchanged to Switzerland – but he would not sign.

I expect that you have heard about the food riots in Germany, and how the soldiers turned the machine guns on the people. I have spoken to chaps who saw it done.

I could carry on for hours yet, but I think I have written quite sufficient to show what kind of people we are fighting against. The country is in an awful state, with women and prisoners doing practically all the work. At Aachen where we stayed for a couple of days, the children and even the soldiers were asking us for food. They only received enough food to keep body and soul together: you at home really don’t know what war is.

Another time , we stopped at a fairly large station for a few hours, so we went into the station restaurant and had dinner. We all had a few tins of meat and white bread, which we had saved up for the journey to Holland. You should have seen the people stare when we out our stuff on the table. Every day there are stories in the German newspapers such as “Owing to our U boat warfare, England is starving.” and yet here were allied prisoners with more meat than most Germans had seen for months; but what flabbergasted them most was when we brought out our tea and asked the barmaid to let us have some boiling water to make it. All foodstuffs in Germany are rationed, so you folks at home are fortunate in having unlimited supply of bread and potatoes: even here in Holland, these articles are rationed.

After being in Germany for about two years my feelings can be better imagined than described, when I knew I was crossing the frontier into freedom. Hoping never to be in the same predicament again.

Your loving son,

Gordon.

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Memoirs of a Scottish Prisoner in WW1: Part 1

In this special two-part post we would like to share the written memoirs of Corporal Gordon R. Johnston of the Royal Air Force from Tillicoultry. These letters were originally addressed to his parents who were concerned for his well being on his return home. Passed down in his family, some of which would emigrate to Australia, these letters have found their way back to Scotland to his remaining family in Kilwinning. Shared here on the site not only as a testament to the resiliency of people when faced with horrible circumstances, but as a candid reminder of the brutality of war and the unnecessary suffering it brings.

Dear Parents,

I promised to give you a short sketch of my life in Germany, so I will now try and fulfil my promise. I don’t like looking back on those days, but, here goes.

I left the aerodrome (somewhere in France) on a dual controlled machine with Lt. Jowett as Pilot, with the intention of taking photographs over the German lines. While flying at 6,000 feet between Bapaume and Cambrai, I sighted two “Fockers” making towards us. Being much faster machines than ours, they were soon within firing distance. I opened fire simultaneously with the enemy, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them catch fire and dash to the ground. The other machine swooped down on us and Lt. Jowett was hit in the head, killing him instantly.

My machine started banking over to the right, so I left off firing to try and bring it under control again, but I was not long in finding out that the rudder controls had been shot away, leaving the machine practically useless. We came down from 6,000 ft. in five or six big spirals. When we hit the ground I was thrown out of the machine and landed about 20 yards away. When I recovered my senses, there were about 200 Germans surrounding me; I felt myself all over and was relieved to see that nothing was broken. Except for extensive bruising, I was alright. I went over to the wreckage and assisted the Germans in getting my officer out; shortly afterwards, a red cross car came along and took Lt. Jowett away – the doctor confirming that he was dead.

I was searched, then taken to a dugout and interviewed by a German officer who tried to get all sorts of information out of me. Then I was taken to a small place outside Cambrai where I slept for the night on some straw in a German guard room. The following morning I was taken by train to St. Quentin where I was put in a civil prison. I stayed there for four days; I was in a small stone cell; not allowed to go outside; I thought I would go mad. I put in a complaint to the officer in charge and was allowed out into the prison yard for 2 hours on the 4th day of my imprisonment.

The food here was very good but, as i found out later, half of it was subscribed by the French civil population of the town for P.O.Ws. Up to then I had had no ill-treatment from the Germans; but it was while I was being marched to the station at about 9pm that I saw the first brutality. The group of about 300 prisoners that I was in was made up of all nationalities so, of course, we drew some attention. There was a civilian curfew of 8pm – with blinds drawn across the windows, etc. Well, one lady had pulled the curtains aside to have a look at us, and a big Prussian – one of our guards – rushed up with fixed bayonet and rammed it through the window into the woman’s breast.

All this time, the Germans had taken me for an officer as I still had on my leather flying coat and, so when we got in the train, I was put with some British and French Officers who treated me just like and equal although they knew I was only a Corporal. In the early morning we travelled through the once lovely Louvain district, but which is now severely knocked about. We crossed the Rhine at Cologne and then through the large manufacturing district of Germany (Dusseldorf etc.) We arrived in Gutterslow which is an Officers’ camp at 8pm by which time I was completely fed up, having been on the train for two days and now feeling the full effects of my fall from the machine. So I was glad to stretch myself properly and try to work off the stiffness in my body. At the camp I had a cold bath which was very acceptable.

After three days I was sent to Dulmen which is a camp for N.C.Os and men, a fairly large camp which, seen from a distance, looks like a wooden city. I was very lucky landing in Dulmen, one of the best camps in Germany. Three chaps who had been captured at Mons in 1914 asked me to “muck in” with them until my own packets came through from England; so they kept me from starvation by sharing their home parcels. All the boys were very nice and, of course, I had to give them the news about how the Somme Offensive was going on, and how “Blighty” looked. etc. Being the only ‘flying man’ in camp, I was the authority on aeronautical subjects.

N.C.Os in Germany are not supposed to work, according to an agreement between the two Governments, and in this camp we did nothing but, as I will tell you later, everywhere in Germany is not the same. Morning roll-call is at 7am and working parties of Privates start work at 7.30am. Dinner from 12.00 to 1.00pm and Tea at 5.00pm when they finish work for the day, then another roll-call at 6.00pm. Lights out at 9.00pm winter and 10.00pm summer. Of course, this is only camp routine; where men are working on farms, coal-mines, salt-mines, munitions factories, etc., it is usually work from daylight until dark. Sunday is usually a day off in camp, when there is a church service.

Then we had a theatre run by the prisoners, where I saw some very good turns. We had a good hall which was built by the Y.M.C.A but the only drawback was that, if there was any trouble in camp, the Commandant usually stopped the gaff for a month or so. He gave out the order one night that the theatre would be stopped if any more prisoners escaped. The following morning three chaps escaped so, when he realised that this method was no good, he had to give up strafing us by this method. (Gott strafe England = “may God punish England”)

I had a try for the frontier from here; and was away for three days before being caught. It is only a distance of about 50 kilometres but the frontier is so well guarded at this point, that you have to be very lucky to get across. It will be much easier now than in 1916, as every available man is now on the firing line, and only wounded men are doing frontier patrol now. There was snow on the ground when I tried, so I can assure you that it was not a picnic.

If you remember we had very cold weather at the beginning of 1917; well, during the first four months of the year there were about 2,000 Russians died of starvation in Dulmen. From our compound we could look into the mortuary, and there were naked bodies – piled one on top of the other, just like frozen sheep. During the very cold snap we had, I have seen at least 20 Russians carried across in one day. I once saw a Russian burial party taking some coffins to the cemetery. While passing a cart laden with turnips, one of the turnips fell from the cart – without more ado the Russians dropped the coffins and made a dash for the turnip, and then ensued a free fight.

It was also a common occurrence to see them diving into swill-tubs and eating anything from fish heads to potato peelings and, I have been told, in 1914 – before the packets started coming – the British soldiers were in little better state. Nowadays, the Germans make the excuse that they do not have the food to give us but, whether they had it or not, the prisoners would not have it – because in 1914, before the blockade took effect, the prisoners were starving just the same.

Part 2 will be with you this coming Wednesday, in which Corporal Johnston further explains the conditions and how life was in the other camps he was moved to. Stay tuned!