WW1: Prisoners of War

We commemorate the fallen on the war memorials but so many others served and suffered, they came home but their lives were changed forever.

Ernest Larder of Strubby

Ernest Edward Larder was one of eleven children born to farmworker Allen Larder and his wife Mary Ann of Strubby. In 1911 Ernest was living in Well and working as a groom. Private Larder had joined the 4th battalion Lincs. Regiment on 12th December 1915, aged 21.

Mrs Larder, formerly Lily Dixon, learned of her husband’s plight via letters home from his comrades, hearing the news unofficially that her husband had been badly wounded on or about March 22nd 1918 and had been taken prisoner by the Germans. Desperate for information of his situation she arranged for a letter to be sent on her behalf requesting information on 8th April.

On 15th April the military sent a receipt of enquiry form to Mrs Larder:

………..so far as is known he is still serving with his corps. All casualties to soldiers (including wounds and dangerous illness) are reported home by cable, as far as possible, immediately after their occurrence, and no such information has been received in this office in regard to the above-named soldier. It may be assumed that there are no special grounds for your apprehension on his behalf. Should any information be received it will be at once communicated to you – his next of kin.

The letter offered little reassurance and eventually the unofficial information was proved accurate, Ernest was captured at Croisilles on 22nd March 1918 and held as a Prisoner of War.

Using Private Larder’s service records, Lincolnshire Regiment history and a wide range of other published material quoting first hand experiences we can piece together the experiences of Ernest and his comrades from the bginning of the Spring Offensive.

Ludendorff Plan – Croisilles March 21st to 22nd 1918

The Ludendorff offensive started on 21st March 1918. Following the signing of the treaty of Brest Litovsk, and the official end of the war with Russia, the Germans were now in a position to concentrate their troops on the Western Front. The Germans launched the offensive, with at least 64 divisions along a front of about 54 miles, they were met with just 19 divisions. Ernest fought within the 59th division, noted by Major Simpson as having seen some of the heaviest fighting during the early stages of the attack. The Battle of St Quentin began shortly before 5am on 21st March 1918:

The enemy opened with a bombardment of great intensity, using gas and high explosive shells from guns of every calibre, as well as trench mortars … roads and communications behind the front line being also swept by enemy artillery fire.            Major General Simpson’s “History of the Lincolnshire Regiment”

Due to poor visibility the British exhausted their ammunition blindly, leaving their guns useless when the enemy became visible.  The fierce fighting continued for two days, a furious attack at 4pm on 22nd March left the 4th battalion exposed, by 8pm the Germans were reported to be swarming around them attacking from both front and rear. The order to withdraw came in the early hours, the men moved back across 5-600 yards of open country under heavy, close range, machine gun fire.

During the centenary commerations the Imperial War Museum issued a Podcast featuring the recollections of the men who experienced the “German Spring Offensive” of March 1918. The words of the men themselves really bring home their experiences.

In the trenches at night, when the wind was in the right direction, we could hear the German trains and transport rumbling up their great army that was going to sweep us into the sea. We were grim, we were determined. Behind us lay the old Somme battlefields, every yard soaked with British blood shed through almost two years of hard battle.                                              NCO Richard Tobin: IWM

All the shelling and all the machine guns had ceased firing – there wasn’t a shot being fired. We remarked it was too quiet to be healthy and we all felt that here was the German Army poised to attack and we were going to be in the brunt of it Private C Cain: IWM

The German attack began in the early hours of the 21st March

When we went to bed we felt quite certain that something was going to happen the next morning. Well, I went to sleep and I woke up with a feeling of incessant noise in my head and everything seemed to be vibrating, the ground and my bed. I opened my eyes and then really said to myself, ‘Well now, this the beginning of the thing.’ I struck a match and lit the candle to see what time it was and it was five o’clock. And then I said to myself, ‘Well it’s no good lying here, I might as well get dressed.’ So I got up and by this time the concussion of the shells had blown the door, the wooden door, off my dugout and blown my candle out and I dressed in the dark. I remember saying to myself, ‘Well I’d better put on my best tunic because whether we’re killed or not, the probability will be that one will either be wounded or captured and it’s no good being captured in an old tunic, I might as well put on the new one.’ Arthur Behrend of the Royal Garrison: IWM

When we got up this morning at about four o’clock we were awakened by a terrific barrage coming from the German lines they had put up what some people have said was the most terrific barrage of the war. Anyhow, when we heard all this going on, orders came to put on gas masks. So we stumbled out of the hut into the complete darkness and there was a mist all round as well – which added to the confusion and sense of isolation – and then waited for orders.                                  British private M Cundall: IWM

They [the German Soldiers] broke through in a mass formation…… ….We fired as much as possible until the infantry came to us and they said the Germans was coming. I made an oath and I said, ‘Oh God, this is the end.’ And actually I thought it was the end of the war, as far as we were concerned. After four years against them that we had lost the war, this is the end. After all the lives had been sacrificed. NCO W. Daniels: IWM

They advanced, you see, it was fine then – a beautiful day no fog, no gas, no nothing. Just a few odd shells. And some of our people were coming back, retiring from in front of us and then we just waited. Then all of a sudden, we saw the Germans come over the hill – waves of them – I should think about half a mile away, something like that. Probably a little more. They were in machine gun range. So we only had a couple of guns but the infantry had several Lewis guns and we were down to nothing there was only me and one bloke on this one gun, the other gun I don’t know where that was, it was somewhere. They came down this slope and we just fired at them. Frederick Plimmer: IWM

The British were ordered to fall back…………

I went via my dugout because I had my secret code in the dugout and one or two secret papers. And so I ran down the steps and I burnt my code. I then started running towards my nearest guns and just at that moment the whole of the mist rolled away, almost like a curtain and I saw more Germans than I’d ever seen before in my life. They really rather reminded me of men almost coming away from a football match. Douglas Wimberley IWM                                                                                          

Eventually an officer came along and he said, ‘Oh well, they’re through on our right and every man’s for himself.’ And so of course that was us. So of course we picked up everything they’d got to pick up and cleared off back, best you could, best you could. That was all you could do. It was absolutely disorganised. You didn’t know who was who and where you were and where you was going. Off we still went and really disorganised. Nobody knew where anybody was, where your battalion was or nothing about it.  William Dann: IWM

There was masses of Germans, they come over like hoards. They come over and overwhelmed us and so I was taken prisoner at 2 o’clock and I was in the German trenches with them until 8 o’clock at night. Then we got up behind the line and they were collecting all the prisoners – the German guards were – and we had to march back to St Quentin, then. I always remember one German soldier, a young chap he was, he was marching by the side of me, and he patted me on shoulder and I’ll always remember what he said. He said, ‘Brave Englander’, he said, ‘brave Englander’ and patted me on the back. Royal Engineer Thomas Cass: IWM

Major Simpson’s publication does not convey the depth of feelings the men experienced …

We had lost ground of a valuable nature… huge quantities of stores and ammunition and many prisoners but the glorious spirit of our officers and men knew no defeat   Major General Simpson’s “History of the Lincolnshire Regiment”

I doubt Private Ernest Larder had much glorious spirit at that point, physically and mentally exhausted, wounded, he was now a prisoner of war.

Allied Prisoners of War in German Captivity: March 1918

Labour Corps at the front

Dr Heather Jones has written extensively on the experience of Prisoners of War. Despite the meticulous planning of the Ludendorff offensive no plans were made to deal with the large numbers of prisoners it yielded.

The sheer numbers of captured men at this time, estimated to be around 75,000 British between 21st March and 5th April 1918, led to a breakdown on the processing systems of the prisoners.  Corralled in caged areas the prisoners now faced harsh conditions behind the lines while they waited in holding camps to be reassigned to labour corps. 

The Red Cross notification cards were not completed and the postcards home to enable the prisoners to notify their families were not given out. This lead to the desperate wait for news that Lily Larder’s letter revealed. Food parcel distribution processes also broke down costing the men badly needed provisions.

Lack of food, long marches and little shelter all added to their misery. Germany’s desperation for labour building the roads and railways, needed at the front, led to the prisoners being placed close to the front under fire, ignoring the agreements on labour corps made with the allies in 1917. 

During the early years of the war the German authorities had only used the Russian prisoners close to the front line, but the British and the French used German prisoners in labours corps at the front which led to a series of reprisals from the Germans. British and French prisoners in German captivity were sent to the Eastern front to endure harsh conditions and encouraged to write letters home, blaming their own authorities for placing German prisoners in danger. Eventually agreements were put in place over the treatment of prisoners in working parties, which implemented a 30 kilometre rule as the required distance from the front lines.

The Allies used colonial troops and civilian prison internees for the labour required close to the front, the British used a lot of Chinese labour. Following the release of the Russian prisoners in early 1918 the German military were desperate for labour to support the new push.

Very similar stories emerged from men being captured during this time, the captives were beaten and made to work with live shells and retrieve German wounded from beyond the front lines. Little food, protection from the elements or sanitary conditions were available to the prisoners at this time. On 23rd March the German army command issued a directive that newly captured prisoners could be put into labour corps on the front line, prisoner needs were not allowed to interfere with military objectives.

The pressure on the guards to get the work done, and the numbers of prisoners so overwhelming, that they resorted to violence to try to control them as the threat of revolt was ever present. Beatings became so common place that orders were issued reminding the guards that they were forbidden and damaged the labour force.

British Government Committee interviews reveal that rations were inadequate during these months:

Many of the men were fading shadows the prisoners were literally starving and many of them became weak and ill already for want of nourishment. Common sight to see them fall over.Violence against Prisoners of War” Dr Heather Jones

One British man recalled the scene vividly:

I think it was a sergeant took us over and he marched us back. We went a mile or two back and he took us to a wire cage, at Villers I think it was. There were a real mixed bag in there: all sorts of units had got mixed up, hundreds of us. And it was muddy and filthy. We laid on the ground and when we could sleep, we tried to sleep but we didn’t get much. And each night of course some of the poor chaps couldn’t stand it, they died of exposure. But the guards used to come in on a morning and look round and see if any had died during the night, pick them up, take them out and they dug a long sort of trench at the side of the wire cage and each morning the dead were thrown in there. They were just thrown in, a bit of soil on top of them. I don’t know how many we lost there but quite a few because a lot of them weren’t in very good condition; they couldn’t stand it. Walter Hare: IWM

Working in the charge of men already brutalised by war, enduring harsh conditions themselves, the labour corps prisoners recall their experiences:

We were marched out to work, we were marched out every morning and picks or shovels were handed out to us and we used to then march to a place called Bullecourt, perhaps a mile and a half away. Yes, working in the vicinity of Bullecourt we also worked at little villages near-hand and occasionally at Croisilles, which was a railhead in those days. We worked mostly on the railway sidings at Croisilles, unloading trucks of all sorts of material. It was pretty grim and I tried to keep as cheerful as ever I could but each day some of our lads fell by wayside. And if I remember correctly, we were – when we set out as working party – a party of probably about 50 or 60. By the end of February, early March, we were reduced to probably 35. Ernest Wilson: IWM

We worked from early morning ‘til dusk and were then marched back to the compound and given our daily ration of bread. A small loaf, but this was for three men. The bread we thought was made from potato meal and probably a little flour added. We prisoners used to say it was 90% sawdust. Daily, we became weaker and weaker. By this time, we were seeking other sources of food supplies than that issued to us by the Germans and which appeared to be getting less and less. We found in the early morning a snail-like creature, stuck to the bark on the willow trees. We gathered these, and also some nettle leaves. On getting back to the camp at night, we would boil the snails and chop them up with boiled nettle leaves, making a sort of paste to spread on our bread. I can’t say that the snails had any particular taste, but they did at least supplement our scanty rations in some small way. Private H Turner: IWM

One captured German soldier was carrying a letter for home in which he described the conditions of a French pow labour unit:

I see these pitiful creatures working every day; their faces haggard, numbed. They advance harassed by fatigue, their insides ravaged with hunger. Five men receive one loaf a day. They sleep in a barracks on the bare ground without a blanket, having only their clothes as covering. And it is every day, every day the same suffering. If you could see them! A spectacle of misery, of horror. I am not yet hardened enough by war to look on indifferently. I am seized with rage at seeing such things….      Violence against Prisoners of War” Dr Heather Jones

Transportation of prisoners

Private Ernest Larder’s records do not contain the individual details of his experiences in captivity, however his service records do contain a memo dated 1938 from the Ministry of Pensions:

Re: Private Ernest Edward Larder. Lincs. Reg.

According to a statement made on repatriation by Private Larder he was interned as a Prisoner of War at Czersk Hospital and then in the Schneidemuhl Camp.

A copy of a statement compiled from the records of the Government Committee on the Treatment by the Enemy of British Prisoners of War on the conditions prevailing at Czersk and at Schneidemuhl is attached.

In addition to these records International Red Cross records also record Ernest Larder at Parchim Camp in August 1918. Despite the news reported home Ernest is recorded as “nicht verwundet”, not wounded in the camp records.

A map of the location of these three camps underlines the large distances that prisoners of war were transported, by the Allied and the German authorities.

Many records of the transport system survive, prisoners were frequently transported away from the front on the trains that the troops and provisions had arrived in.

In France and Germany in particular there are extensive records of the hostility shown to the prisoners by the civilian populations at the stations. Trains arriving full of prisoners often followed trains leaving with loved ones and those returning the wounded. The filthy, exhausted prisoners were an easy target for the rage and frustration of those on the platforms.

The reaction of the civilian populations to the prisoners of war changed throughout the war and across Nations. The intervention of military and civilian authorities inflamed and managed much of the interaction with propaganda and orders. 

During the early days of occupation the French response to German prisoners was particularly violent, the prisoners were in the hands of their guards, many of whom left them to the mercy of the civilian population. Prisoners felt they were displayed at stations although other reports suggest that the carriages were opened for ventilation purposes.

Prisoner and Civilian Interaction

German soldier Gustav Schubert, captured by the French in 1914, recalled his journey across France in a train wagon which had been used to transport horses, the stench of urine stinging their eyes:

No one who has not himself experienced it can imagine how awful the five days we spent in the train were. A great number of the prisoners were ill. Some had diarrhoea, others vomited, however no one could leave the wagon and all such waste remained in it. Even answering the call of nature had to take place in the corner of the wagon…. In some wagons there were wounded prisoners whose wounds began to produce pus and were infested by maggots…. We were treated worse than livestock….. Violence against Prisoners of War” Dr Heather Jones

Schubert’s statement, given on repatriation, does go on to mention that, even in France, once the prisoners arrived at their destination the civilian population gradually became less hostile and curiosity took over. Prisoners were offered fruit and cigarettes in exchange for buttons as souvenirs.

We stopped at all the important stations, where we were given water, and a thin soup with some bread. Everywhere civilians, mostly women ran to our wagons to beg us for a souvenir. If one did not give them a uniform loop or a button they became impertinent and rude….

Hans Rodewald: “Violence against Prisoners of War” Dr Heather Jones

In England the arrival of the first prisoners at Frimley Common was a curiosity in 1914

…..and though one feels almost mean going to look at them as if one were going to the Zoo, yet since it is a sight that has never been seen in England before and probably never will be again after this war, it was of too great interest to be missed. Vera Brittain : “Violence against Prisoners of War” Dr Heather Jones

Most of the people crowded round the prisoners and their curiosity quickly warmed into friendliness to the point of giving them cigarettes, apples, cakes and bottles of ginger beer, which the prisoners accepted very thankfully                    British journalist M McDonagh : “Violence against Prisoners of War” Dr Heather Jones

Such “flabby sentimentality” on the part of the British public was condemned in the “War Illustrated” in October 1914.

Similar scenes were reported in Germany in 1914, prisoners were greeted in Munich with gifts of beer, sausages and tobacco as had been the custom in the Franco Prussian war of 1870. The exchange of souvenirs also took place in Germany and was specifically condemned. Orders were soon issued that prisoners were not to receive gifts at stations and trains in Germany and France were sealed if stopped for long.

As the war progressed, loved ones were lost and reports of atrocities from repatriated prisoners of all nations were widely reported. Situations such as those above and the Christmas truce of December 1914 caused the authorities of all Nations to encourage more “patriotic behaviour” urging the civilian populace think of their loved ones fighting the enemy. Large propaganda campaigns pushed the message home and any reports of mistreatment were widely disseminated.

In Germany pamphlets gave accounts of terrible killings and mutilations of their men at the hands of the allied armies. Such stories gave rise to wounded Allies complaining that they had been refused food and care by the German Red Cross when the trains stopped. Nurses in particular bore the brunt of these charges. There are many conflicting accounts of such stories and many prisoner recollections praise the German Red Cross nurses warmly. Some cases of neglect by the nurses were proved but it is important to understand the situation in which these women were working.

In 1914 some German women were accused of greeting the French prisoners too warmly, resulting in the issue of the following order:

…during the transport of prisoners of war German women and girls have sometimes behaved in an undignified manner. I request that station masters intervene in the strongest manner as soon as our national honour is offended by such elements… 

Similar announcements followed and, some cities, also reintroduced the stocks for such women. Ute Daniel “Violence against Prisoners of War” Dr Heather Jones

Parchim – recorded as holding Ernest Larder in August 1918

International Red Cross records show Private Larder at Parchim camp in August 1918. Parchim is recorded as a distributing camp, built on a former cavalry drill ground. The enclosure was 3 miles in circumference and at times there were 45,000 men on the register. Some of these men were working in occupied territories. The distribution camps were placed close to the rail links to enable the distribution of prisoners to where they were needed.

The commandant at Parchim  was a business man recalled to military duty who “…had firmly resolved to come out of this difficult business and disagreeable duty with a clean conscience” He succeeded in infusing this spirit through his entire staff with the end result that care and consideration for the prisoner of war was evident throughout the camp.  Daniel McCarthy: The Prisoner of War in Germany 

McCarthy is very clear that the entire atmosphere of the camp emanantes from the commandant.

[At Parchim] were found three brothers, civilians interned, who had been offered the privilege of being transferred….. to Ruhleben, but who preferred to remain on account of the attitude of kindly welfare of the commandant and his staff towards them and other prisoners.

If the commandant is a military martinet with brutal and inhuman instincts the whole atmosphere of the camp even down to the lowest positions is harsh and inhuman.

Daniel McCarthy: The Prisoner of War in Germany 

As a transit camp Ernest Larder may not have actually resided at this camp for long. Certainly his final camp was listed by McCarthy as one of the worst type.

The commander at Schneidemuhl stated that “it was better for the guard to use his musket or bayonet on the prisoner, rather than the prisoner should be tried by court martial and sentenced to long years of imprisonment”                                         Daniel McCarthy: The Prisoner of War in Germany 

Schneidemuhl –place of internment for Private Larder – Departed 3rd Dec 1918

Transcript from a statement of the Government Committee on the Treatment by the Enemy of British Prisoners of War

Schneidemuhl: There are a large number of statements by prisoners regarding conditions. It is thought that they can be fairly summarised by saying that in 1914 and early 1915 conditions were bad and accommodation was very inadequate but that they improved after this and during the last years of the war there appears to be nothing which can be made the subject of serious complaint. The food supply was poor in quality and quite insufficient. Parcels however arrived from England fairly regularly and thereby augmented the food supplied by the Germans. The prisoners were employed in various ways, some on railway construction, some on farms and some in sugar factories and in various trades and general employment of all descriptions. Complaints were made regarding the nature of the work upon which prisoners were employed outside the main camp such as loading artificial manure but it was stated that no one was continuously engaged on this particular form of labour.

From a general report on working camps subsidiary to such main camps as Schneidemuhl in Germany it is stated that “it is now no longer a case of calling on prisoners to do the necessary work of the camps and of giving them, for their own sakes, the opportunity of other interesting occupation but a regular “corvee” enforced by severe punishments, imprisonment, wounds and even death and in this connection the power possessed by the unteroffizier the working camps is a most serious evil. Numerous cases of brutal and indeed murderous behaviour on the part of these men, even in camps where they are more immediately under control, have been brought to the notice of the committee. In the working camps, however, their powers are frequently exercised without any supervision at all and it is a terrible fate for British soldiers to be placed in the hands of a class of men who only too frequently consider that for trivial offences against discipline, slight disobedience to orders and sometimes for no reason at all, it is fitting that a prisoner should be bayonetted, clubbed with the butt of a rifle, sometimes even shot.

But it is right to add that it is only in a comparatively small number of camps that the most extreme evils prevail. Still the spirit which, as has been said by one of the witnesses whose evidence is before the committee, leads the Germans “ to treat a prisoner of war like a convict” exists, and it is evident from the extracts which have been given that the prisoners of war have learnt to their cost that their captors will shrink from nothing to force the defenceless prisoners in their power to carry out their orders to work when , where and at whatever employment they think tight, and that these prisoners are constantly at the risk of being most cruelly and unjustifiably ill-treated by those who are in authority over them.

Czersk Camp – recorded as holding Private Ernest Larder:

Transcript from a statement of the Government Committee on the Treatment by the Enemy of British Prisoners of War

Czersk was situated in the area of the 17th Army Corps in West Prussia, on the railway from Dansig to Schneidemuhl. Being fairly near the Russian border it became a large camp for Russian prisoners and was so used until towards the end of the war, when batches of British prisoners were sent there for “disinfection” after their ordeal on the Eastern Front. Most of the statements therefore as to Czersk are from the Eastern Front prisoners, so far as statements giving detailed information are concerned. A few men who describe the place went there from the Western Front or from Germany, and some of the figures given suggest that there were a good many of these men who have not complained.

The camp was visited by a neutral visitor just before the Armistice and so deals with the period during which there were 416 British prisoners in the Camp.

From all the statements it may be gathered that the camp had been occupied by 14,000 odd prisoners of mixed nationality chiefly Russians, for two or three years was very dirty, infested with vermin, and insanitary with bad latrines but was not distinguished by any brutality to prisoners or excessive rigidity of discipline.

There was a fair supply of food as far as quantity was concerned but it was uneatable.

The health of the British was fair.

Private Larder’s service records show that he was classified as 20% disabled on demobilisation but there is no further information to provide details of his experience as an individual at the current time. Records show that both Ernest and his wife Lily died in 1972.

Raymond Snowshall of Alford

Raymond Snowshall was born in Alford in 1895, the son of Henry and Sarah Snowshall. In 1911 the family lived in South St, Sarah was a widow with four children at home.

He was one of those “deemed to have been enlisted” on March 2nd 1916 under the new Military Service Act.

In letters home from France Dorothy Higgins exchanged details of the local military tribunals with her father, confirming that Raymond Snowshall was the subject of the article below:

Lincolnshire Echo on Sat Oct 14th 1916: Alford Chimney Sweep’s Complaint

In the next case the man affected was a chimney sweep living at Alford. The appeal was lodged by the man’s mother who said that since her husband died this son had carried on the chimney sweeping business upon which she depended for a living. The son was 21 years of age and single. Two other sons had enlisted.

The appeal was dismissed and the son complained against the decision, remarking that there were five brothers in Alford who had got off.

Raymond Snowshall was called up on November 3rd 1916, he left for France in February 1917.  On 11th April 1917 Private Snowshall was fighting with the 2/5th Lincolns as the advanced towards the Hindenburg line. Orders were given to attack the enemy trench from Hargicourt to Malakoff Farm as the enemy were retiring. Reports of retirement were false with heavy casualties being sustained.

Private Snowshall was recorded as being captured at Hargincourt on 11th April 1917 he was held in Minden Prisoner of War Camp, where he remained until November 1918.

Minden was a parent camp, used for the distribution of working parties for labour across Germany. Conditions at the camp itself were poor and it is specifically noted by US Embassy appointed inspector Daniel McCarthy as the worst.  A summary of McCarthy’s report on Minden appears below.

Minden Camp – place of internment: Private Snowshall April 1917- Nov. 1918

It is built in a relatively unhealthy location, of poor general plan, and as administered, is more of an actual prison for the men, more particularly the non-commissioned officers, than the jail at Cologne, without any of the redeeming features of the latter. The attitude towards the prisoners of war it not only not sympathetic, but, on the contrary, a hard attitude of suspicion and repression that appears to us to verge on real intentional cruelty. The locking up of these men in blocks without opportunity for mental relaxation, etc., is likely, if persisted in, to have serious results in the mental tone and attitude of these prisoners

While the barbarous spirit at the bottom of the atmosphere of this camp could not be entirely eliminated, the more serious evils were corrected, as was shown by a follow up inspection. This was an example of a repression type of camp, several of which existed in Germany.

To add to all of this the pitiable spectacle of the hospital attached to this camp was almost too much for a human being to stand, either with equanimity or without emotional disturbance. To have placed such a large number of such seriously wounded men jammed together in such crude barracks with insufficient medical attention, no nursing worthy of the name, and with such food as normal men could not eat, was a blunder, and a blot on German science, worse even than what occurred at Wittenberg. What possible excuse to send men to such barracks and to such a camp, could be offered, I cannot well imagine.

When to the sight of men sick and suffering and dying in the throes of lockjaw, with a dirty towel between the teeth, men dying prisoners in a foreign land without a gentle voice or sympathetic hand to ease their suffering, there was added the brutal, blind obedience to regulation, that would withhold religious consolation when it was at hand and anxious to help, this indeed surpasses all human understanding.

Extracts from Minden Camp: D McCarthy: The Prisoner of War in Germany

Private Raymond Snowshall was repatriated to Hull on the SS Takada on 29th November 1918. In 1926 he appears in Kelly’s Directory as living in Finsbury Street, his business – a chimney sweep.

The focus on Ernest Larder and Raymond Snowshall has resulted in a focus on the German prisoner of war camps and labour corps, the latter being the harshest of all conditions. US Embassy inspector Daniel McCarthy underlines the importance of the camp administrators in determining the atmosphere in which the prisoners of war were housed. Overcrowding and poor sanitation resulted in many of the camps becoming disease ridden and conditions were dire for such prisoners, but this was not just the situation for Allied prisoners as the information below shows.

Allied Prisoners of War

Recent research into the story of Sister Nellie Clark from Bilsby has revealed that in Serbia Austro Hungarian prisoners were suffering in terrible conditions. The experiences of Sister Clark and her colleagues at Lady Paget’s Hospital in Skoplje provide an insight into the difficulties of caring for overwhelming numbers of prisoners in an impossible situation.

Austro-Hungarian Prisoners at Lady Paget’s Hospital

When Sister Clark and her colleagues arrived in Skoplje in November 1914 there were Austrian prisoners within the hospital compound.

“Gaunt, shivering and blue with cold they were standing idle in the snow with broken shoes and torn uniforms” Lady Paget : With our Serbian Allies

The British soon discovered the prisoners to be weak from recurring fevers, bronchitis and lack of food. Many Serbians were also suffering from lack of food, clothing and habitation. As prisoners in such poverty the Austrians were targeted, many were wounded and then faced losing their great coats and anything else of value to their captors.

Nurse Scott, also at Lady Paget’s Hospital, was shocked to find that around Skoplje some 5,000 Austrian prisoners existed.

The poor creatures were allowed to sleep wherever they could, and were to be found in sheds, basements and stables where they huddled together in a desperate effort to keep warm. It was this situation which enabled the swift onset of the Typhus epidemic in March 1916.      Flora Scott( Private papers): IWM

Lady Paget chose to put the Austrians to work. Extra food and money were given to the Austrian cooks and the improvement was quickly forthcoming. Serbian authorities placed 70 prisoners with the hospital.  Prisoners were treated alongside the Serbs when their condition demanded it. The men soon became indispensable working faithfully and willingly alongside the English staff. They worked in the store room, the dispensary, x-ray room and theatre, serving as stretcher bearers and cleaners, chopping wood and keeping the stoves burning.

As with the over crowded camps in Germany the British Hospital in Skoplje saw several cases of Typhus and Dysentry from the moment they opened their doors in November 1914. The cases escalated, despite all attempts at isolation within the hospital environs, Lady Paget and her team obtained permission to set up a separate Typhus Colony in a relatively newly built cadet school situated on a hill about a mile from Skoplje. One of the buildings was already in use by the Serbian authorities as a hospital. The medics were once again appalled at the situation in which the prisoners were being kept.

It is impossible to give any idea of the  state  of  the  hospital and its surroundings  when  we  first  saw  it ;  in  all the wards typhus cases were mixed up with the others, spreading infection  right  and  left.  But the stables where the Austrian prisoners were quartered were the greatest source of danger.  These were long lines of buildings, long and airless. At the  entrance  we  had  to  step  through  pools  of  filthy water which collected in the holes of the mud floor, and all along the sides and  down  the  middle  wretched  figures  in foul old uniforms were  huddled  together  on  dirty  straw. Many were lying hidden under greatcoats, some shuddering, some quite still. As we lifted the coats to  look  under  we found six dead bodies in a  single  building  and  no  one  to carry them away. All the living were in a painful state of emaciation, those who had no real illness being faint with hunger,  for in  the  demoralization   wrought  by  the  outbreak of typhus there was no one responsible for their  regular feeding.    Lady Paget : With our Serbian Allies

Nurse Scott was less guarded in her letters

The barracks were filthy….in the basement 2,000 Austrian prisoners were found. Many were dead, only 40 were able to stand, they had received no food, water or light for 5 days.                          Flora Scott( Private papers): IWM

We cleaned and disinfected one pavilion and also organized a staff of Austrian prisoners, all chosen because they had had typhus. On that day we notified the town that we were ready to receive cases, and the pavilion was filled the same day. The condition in which the patients arrived was for the most part deplorable. They were· driven  up  in  the  small open carriages provided by the Serbian Administration, half unconscious, shaking with  fever  and  of ten  almost  naked. On arrival they were turned out of the carriage, regardless whether they could stand or not, or as to whether there was anyone to receive them-for I need scarcely say we had  neither porters nor sentries at the hospital, typhus being its  own protection ; and it was not a  rare occurrence for one of  the staff leaving the pavilion to find some poor wretch  lying  in the mud outside, unconscious and naked, except for the blanket round  him, just  where  the driver had left  him.

There was practically no nursing available at this time, and the most that could be attempted was to see that every patient was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before he was put in the ward, his clothing all destroyed, whether or not there was any clean clothing available into which to put him. Sometimes there was not; all the available ready­ made shirts in the town had been bought up· and it took time to have them made. The work of the wards was practically being done by Austrian prisoners who worked by instructions from Dr. Maitland. Soon we came to depend entirely on them for the work of the wards; indeed, they made themselves indispensable.

It has been said in criticism of our work that had we been able to do something for the Austrians in the compounds they would never have succumbed as they did to the ravages of fever. It is preposterous to talk of our powers as if they were omnipotent.

I honestly think that in those days, soon after the horrors of Shabatz, any attempt on our part to interfere with the treatment of their prisoners would have run the risk of exciting energetic protests from the indignant Serbians. Lady Paget : With our Serbian Allies

Many member of the nursing team succumbed to Typhus including Lady Paget herself. During this period Nurse Scott spent 7 days alone in charge of 300 men:

It was terrible at times I felt so helpless. I did not know where to go and what to do first. I began to wonder if it was really worth going on. We were so short of food, water and fires. It was too awful to see the poor creatures suffering and it want yet helpless to give. The cold was intense, and there were deep snows yet I could only give each man one army blanket. The convalescent Austrian orderlies helped. It was wonderful what a little nursing and attention did.              Flora Scott( Private papers): IWM

These Austrians as a body served us well, and the mutual liking which grew up between them and the wounded Serbians whom they helped to tend was a very happy feature in the life of the hospital. When granted leave from their posts the Austrians rejected it in favour of ensuring the welfare of the patients and the running of the hospital.     Lady Paget : With our Serbian Allies

Lady Ralph Paget:  Tribute to Austrian Prisoners

I should like to pay some small tribute to the Austrian prisoners. A more loyal, faithful set of men than those we had under us at the Third Hospital could not be imagined. The day before I left Serbia I collected them together and addressed to them a few   words   of   thanks. In response they said they would never  forget  the kindness and generosity they had received from the English  people,  and  that  on  their  return  to  Austria,  they   would  spread  far and wide the  report  of  how  well  the  English  had  treated   their prisoners.

As far as I myself and my staff were concerned, we made a point of always treating them with kindness and courtesy, though strict discipline was always maintained and any mis-behaviour instantly punished. We rarely had cause for complaint either of their behaviour or their work.  When our Unit left Skoplje their tear-stained  faces  were  an eloquent  testimony  of  their  appreciation  of  our  efforts.

No  one  can  live  among  prisoners  of war -no  matter what nationality-without realizing the agony of home­ sickness they suffer, and realizing also the thousands of families waiting till the end of the war for news of their menfolk, many of whom will never return. My experience has shown what a little kindness and humanity will do towards helping prisoners to bear their lot, and one must indeed be hard-hearted to withhold it.

Ever at the back of my mind I have but one thought-God  grant  that  our men, prisoners in a foreign land, are  receiving  the  same fair and  just  treatment,  the  same  human  sympathy,  to help them  through  their home-sickness.

Lady Ralph Paget : With Our Serbian Allies