We were kept in a compound 50 yards by 40 yards [about 50m x 40m] enclosed with a high fence of netting and barbed wire over which it was impossible to climb. As there were 500 of us there was not too much room. A long low hut served for our sleeping apartment. The bunks being arranged in tiers from floor to roof. Each prisoner was given a mattress filled with some kind of seaweed and a pair of thin blankets. This was in compliance with international law regarding prisoners of war, as was also the provision of an overcoat each for the winter. But the overcoats were made of nettle fibre and after a week or two gradually faded away to nothing.
A large ship’s bell was hung in the hut which was rung every morning at half past four, when we had to get up, arrange our toilets and get our breakfast which varied according to the state of the larder. At half past five we had to muster outside and be counted and then off to work. Sometimes long distances had to be travelled before we arrived at the scene of our labours. If any of our men did not turn out the guards rushed into the hut and drove them out at the point of a bayonet.
We had no mid-day meal but worked on till six in the evening when we were again mustered and marched back to camp to get our evening meal and go to bed. No artificial light was allowed in our camp though, in some camps where they had electricity they were allowed light.
We were paid the sum of half a mark (6d)(5c) per day, but the money was of very little use to us. The Germans used every means to get it back from us. They promised us coal if we would buy stoves for winter. We bought stoves at a fabulous price and then no coal was forthcoming so we had to “pinch” whatever we could in the shape of firewood.
The Russians-:Russkies” as we called them- were useful for this. As they received no parcels we had to share with them as otherwise they would have starved to death. So they helped us by pinching firewood and other handy trifles. We also had a Newfoundlander who was adept at pinching. He was a big strong fellow and a good workman. But if he was given any timber to work with somehow or other a good percentage of that timber found its way into our stoves that night. He was a good sort and used to keep us alive in the camp.
One day a German bought into camp a stock of “Dunkelbier”, a mild sort of beer which they used to sell to prisoners. He also had a couple of bottles of wine which were also for sale but at an impossible figure. Whilst the German was busy selling the beer the Newfoundlander slipped up behind him, lifted the two bottles of wine, drank both and hopped up to his bunk near the roof. When the German discovered his loss he tore his hair and kicked up a great shine, wanted to know who the culprit was. None would give the show away so we all had our parcels stopped for several weeks by way of punishment.
We wanted a piano for our camp concerts. The camp Commander sold us one, an old “Bechstein” with wooden frame for 1,500 marks (75 pounds) ($150) our pay being stopped till the amount was made up. One of our number was a piano tuner so he fixed it up for us.
Now for the sequel. After the Armistice had been signed and we were waiting for our release, the Commandant, knowing that we could not take the piano with us, offered us 150 marks (7 pound 10 shillings) ($15), but considerably less now owing to the depreciation of the mark, for the instrument which was in much better order than when he had sold it to us. We asked to be allowed to consider the offer which led to a couple of our men smashing it into matchwood and scrap iron, using all that would burn for firewood.
Great Uncle Alf and 500 of the blokes he worked with needed to survive and did their cleverest to do so.
Again I keep hearing the canned laughter and the theme song of Hogan’s Hero’s [Yes I know wrong war but tell me it doesn’t ring the same? :O)]
*This is why we remember them !
LEST WE FORGET !!
NB This is NOT my Fictional Writing this is an actual account written by my Great Uncle Alfred Gray following his experiences in the "Great War – 1914-1917
I take no responsibility for any offense taken by the reader of this view be that in the language used or the opinion of my Great Uncle.*
Great Uncle Alfred’s Great Adventure
In the Hands of the Hun 1 – Prelude
In the Hands of the Hun 2 – Bullecourt
In the Hands of the Hun 3 -Starved and Frozen
In the Hands of the Hun [4 & 5] – Lille
In the Hands of the Hun [6, 7 & 8] – behind the lines
In the Hands of the Hun 9 – Surprise
In the Hands of the Hun 10 -Congenial Mates
In the Hands of the Hun 12 – Farm Work