Printer Friendly

In enemy hands.

ON SEPTEMBER 15, 1916, the Canadians went on the offensive, using tanks for the first time. Though an excited war correspondent for the Times boasted the tanks had given the Canadians a "sweeping victory" and that "cheering troops had followed one down the main street of Flers," most were bogged down or knocked out by shellfire. German generals dismissed them as toys. Field Marshall Haig, more far-sighted, ordered another thousand from the Ministry of Munitions.

In the course of the next two months, the Canadians would attack German positions at Courcelette, and Regina Trench, Hessian, and Desire Trenches, until the weather broke, turning the battleground into a quagmire.

"The whole country had been torn up with gunfire since July 1st," Private T.G. Gaunt of the 60th Victoria Rifles wrote. "There wasn't a blade of grass. The thing that impresses you about the Somme was the utter devastation, the noise and, above all, the smell. You couldn't bury anyone because they were constantly blown up again. The smell was beyond all belief."

At Courcelette, the Van Doos and the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion were caught up in savage house-to-house fighting. The Victoria Rifles were forced back from Regina Trench with heavy casualties. The "Toronto's," the Canadian Scottish, and the Royal Canadian Regiment somehow got through a week later after an 18-year-old piper, James Richardson, strode up and down the wire playing "Blue Bonnets Over the Border," until he was cut down. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

The Canadians managed to get through the wire, but were driven back by a German counterattack, losing 1,364 dead, wounded, and captured. Among those taken prisoner was Private Richard Wakefield of Toronto, badly wounded with shrapnel in his legs.

Barring slaughter in the heat of battle and souvenir hunting--an offence which Canadians were notorious for--the Germans generally honoured The Hague Convention and promptly removed prisoners from danger. This was not easy as the roads were under fire and clogged with traffic. Some charged they were kept in danger too long; others that they had been forced-marched to the rear despite wounds, exhaustion, and hunger. "They cuffed us, they buffeted us, they pricked us with their bayonets," one prisoner recalled, "and then they laughed as we dodged awkwardly aside." Corporal Peter Thornton of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, wounded in the chest and right leg, his jaw smashed, could go no farther. An impatient German officer shot him in the back.

Yet, there were acts of compassion. Corporal J.E. Finnemore, painfully wounded in the leg, was saved by a German soldier who evacuated him in a wheelbarrow while under fire. Frank Edwards of the Princess Patricias, who was beaten and robbed by German infantrymen, was saved by "a stalwart, bearded Prussian officer with a fuller understanding of the rules of civilized warfare." Once out of artillery range, German guards sometimes offered prisoners cigarettes and exchanged regimental buttons and badges.

At Roulers, the German railhead seven miles behind the front lines, the prisoners were herded into St. Michael's, a Catholic church. Here, they were introduced to the thin soup and sour black bread that would be the staples of their diet during the long years of captivity. The Germans issued two regulation postcards for prisoners to notify friends and family of their whereabouts. Wakefield, and other wounded Canadian prisoners were collected behind the German lines and brought to a nearby school, to be nursed by Belgian nuns.

Prisoners were not easy or comfortable patients. While British and Canadian soldiers welcomed a "Blighty"--a wound bad enough to remove them from the battlefield to the comfort and cleanliness of a hospital in England--a wounded prisoner faced very different circumstances. Helpless, in an alien environment, he could only hope for the best. Evacuated to a German field hospital that was short of supplies, Wakefield had the shrapnel removed from his legs without anesthetics and his wound dressed with paper bandages.

German rations were as an unpleasant surprise in hospital as they were in the camps. At Cologne, Lieutenant Norman Wells found there were two classes of food for officers and men and "all the stuff for the men was put in a kind of bucket and then stirred around till it looked like a pig's trough. The bread was awful stuff, very dark brown and sour and hard." He was more fortunate than Wakefield, as the food for officers was "quite eatable, although I expect our hospitals would have shuddered at it."

The food was much worse in the camps. At Giessen, prisoners had acorn coffee for breakfast, watery soup at noon, a thin gruel and sometimes a herring or sausage at supper when the daily bread ration, 100 grams, was issued. The bread was expected to last until breakfast, but it seldom did. Private Wilf Chambers, who was taken prisoner with Wakefield at the Somme, left a detailed description of the weekly rations at Meschede:

"Our rations consisted of a bowl of synthetic coffee (burnt ground barley) for breakfast, nothing more. At noon we had a soup of which there were five varieties--sauerkraut and water, boiled pot barley, chestnut, bean, and an extra special abomination of fried fruits stewed up with potatoes. Each soup had a few potatoes in it for flavour. They rang the changes of these occasionally with some boiled fish. At night we got two potatoes and a piece of bread. I think the bread was supposed to be held over for breakfast but once we got it we ate it. Sometimes with the potatoes we got a raw herring or a piece of cheese, sometimes a sausage, but the cheese and sausage were such vile smelling things that it required a great deal of effort to devour."

The diet sapped the prisoners' physical strength and left most of them with a lifetime legacy of stomach problems.

Prisoners were issued with two thin blankets, wooden clogs, and wore their own uniforms with identifying strips of bright red or yellow paint on the sleeves, back, and trouser legs, until they wore out. Troublemakers were identified by red circles on their backs. They were subjected to solitary confinement and "stillgestanden," two or more hours of standing rigidly at attention, preferably facing the sun. For an able-bodied soldier, it could be an ordeal; for men suffering from partially healed wounds, like Richard Wakefield, or weakened by poor food or dysentery, it was agony.

The Hague Convention clearly stated that prisoners could be put to work and few German officers felt the need to win the cheerful consent of their charges. Prisoners dug ditches and worked in the fields. At Bohmte, they excavated a canal. At Sennelager they felled trees, cleared brush, cut peat, and drained bogs. Many worked in German coal and salt mines, steel mills and chemical factories. In the cities, prisoners swept streets and collected garbage. Outside Bonn, they worked on a bridge. On the Rhine, they loaded and unloaded barges. They worked as stevedores at Baltic ports. Wherever heavy, unskilled manual labour was needed, prisoners of war were drafted.

Prisoners taken at the Somme, including Wakefield when his wounds healed, were put to work on the defensive positions, which the Allies would call the Hindenburg Line. They were either not officially registered or their address was given as Limburg, the main depot for mail and Red Cross parcels. The German authorities insisted that such work was no more than a reprisal against the British and French who had contravened The Hague Convention in the same way.

While some of the prisoner of war camps were located in existing German barracks or fortresses, most were dreary enclosures hastily built in open fields or scrub bush, fenced by barbed wire and patrolled by sentries and guard dogs. A big camp like Parchim held as many as 40,000 prisoners. All of them were subdivided into enclosures for 2,000 men. Dr. Daniel McCarthy of the American Red Cross described "the average prison barrack:"

"Long low rows of double-tier bunks take up the central floor space. Long tables for serving food are placed next to the walls. Bags filled with straw, sea grass or paper serve as mattresses. Each prisoner is supplied with two blankets and these are thrown over the mattresses. Every available space is used for food packages and clothes. The place has a dim, confused, unkempt appearance on account of the crowding of men, the arrangements of the bunks, food packages, clothes, etc."

Camp routine was as deadening as the surroundings. Gilbert Taylor, in Dulmen with a badly wounded arm, described days that consisted mainly of hunting for the fleas, and lice that infested his body and bedding. Corporal Frank Edwards of the Patricias recalled: "We became sick of the sight of one another, as even the best of friends do under such abnormal circumstances." The men had a phrase to describe those circumstances: "Barbed Wire Disease."

"It was a situation where a man had to have a very strong mind," a young Albertan recalled, "and he had to have a determination built in that he was only there for a short time, that it couldn't last."

For Richard Wakefield and nearly 4,000 other Canadians, it would last until the Armistic
COPYRIGHT 2006 S.R. Taylor Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:THE GREAT WAR
Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:Second TAF: a soldier's friend.
Next Article:Generosity and greed.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters