An army that died without glory

Cruelty and neglect killed 22,000 British PoWs. Ross Davies and Graham Madocks investigate
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE ONES who were killed by bayonet, bullet or shell are remembered, but a whole army of other British troops who died in the First World War remain forgotten: the prisoners of war.

Few if any of the people of Britain and the Commonwealth commemorating Armistice Day this weekend, seeing the names on war memorials, know that as many as 22,000 of these men died not in battle but in German custody, in some cases months after the Armistice.

When the guns fell silent at 11am on 11 November 1918, there were supposed to be about 140,000 British and Empire troops in German PoW camps. But one in six never came home. They died unrecorded deaths, murdered or allowed to die from mistreatment. Their German captors, said the official British historian of the Great War, Lieutenant-General Sir James Edmonds, "did not trouble to inform the International Red Cross in Geneva".

Many British and Empire PoWs died without even reaching Germany. Contrary to the Geneva Convention to which Germany was a signatory, they were forced to work - according to the Times's contemporary History of the Great War - within range of Allied artillery on the Eastern and Western Fronts, repairing trenches and hauling ammunition.

Of the PoW camps in Germany, Sir James wrote: "There is no doubt that in the majority of them gross cruelty and brutality were either deliberately practised or allowed to obtain through indifference."

Sir James recorded that at one camp there was one medical officer for 13,000 men. When typhus broke out in Wittenberg, Gadelegen and Cassel, the German guards withdrew until the epidemic had burnt itself out, the Times reported.

Reburial of men who had died in captivity showed some had had their skulls battered in. Others had been shot. Still more died when turned loose by rebel German soldiers and civilians to find their own way home. Months after the war, ill-fed British and Empire PoWs were found working in salt mines, steel mills and farms.

In 1918, a British committee of inquiry examined 70,000 cases of alleged mistreatment and denounced "a system of shocking barbarity such as would not be believable, were it not established beyond the possibility of a doubt."

How did it happen? Unlike in the Second World War, the Allies did not demand unconditional surrender of the Germans in 1918. Only Germany west of the Rhine was occupied, so most PoWs remained in German hands. Germany was now in the power of its generals and repatriation of prisoners was not high on their list of priorities, especially as PoWs made useful hostages in the haggling over disarmament and reparations.

But the fate of the lost 22,000 had been sealed four years earlier. When hostilities beganin August 1914, the Germansthought they were in for a quick war in which Britain would be neutral. But Britain and her colonies came in on the other side, prolonging the fighting on land while the Royal Navy blockade of German ports cut off imports of food and strategic raw materials. British and Empire troops were therefore singled out for harsher treatment than the more numerous French and Russian prisoners.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, a grandson of Queen Victoria, felt betrayed by the British intervention in what he regarded as a private quarrel with France and Russia. He spoke of Britain's "contemptible little army" and branded it "treacherous". The British soldiers, being volunteers and not conscripts like the French or Germans, were "mercenaries from the slums", to be killed on capture or "treated with the utmost severity". A German officer reported his men as beating British wounded to death after the first battle between the two armies at Mons.

In Germany itself, the US ambassador, James W Gerard, toured PoW camps, repeatedly complaining to Berlin about the conditions he saw. Finding one camp where guard dogs had been trained to attack British prisoners, Gerard threatened to shoot the animals himself.

Joseph Armstrong, of Ellesmere Port, a retired policeman now aged 100, was a corporal in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment when captured near Ypres in October of 1914. He fully expected to be shot. Instead, he says, "We were stripped of our greatcoats and then sent by train to Germany, 50 men to a cattle-truck, standing up. It took three days and three nights, with one halt."

The men spent the winter of 1914 living in tents, although in the December Irish prisoners were put into heated huts and then invited to form a unit to fight alongside the German army. Mr Armstrong says: "After about 10 days the Irishmen realised what condition we were in so they raided their camp canteens, chucked the food over to us and next day or so they were back in the tents with us."

On Christmas Day 1914 he and 200 other men queued for a dinner of vegetable soup, only to find it had run out by the time they reached the cooks. He went hungry for more than four years.

After the Armistice the Germans were threatened with resumption of hostilities if they did not hand over prisoners more quickly. By 1920 there was a list of 3,000 Germans - from generals down - wanted for extradition to face war-crimes charges. But politicians on both sides had other ideas. Eventually just 12 were tried, in Germany, by Germans. A major got two years for murder, and three other soldiers were sentenced to less than a year each for kicking, beating or torturing sick British PoWs.

A German-nominated neutral observer who inspected camps for German PoWs in Britain found no ill-treatment. Germans held at Frith Hill camp, he reported, "have their own police, even their own secret police".

The lesson that murder of the helpless goes unpunished had not been lost on a man whoserved as corporal in the Kaiser's army around Ypres. In 1945, Allied troops pushing into Hitler's Germany found camps even more sinister than those of 1914-1919. Reading the reports coming back from Auschwitz and Belsen, Brigadier-General Morgan, a Great War soldier picked to serve on the 1914-1919 war-crimes tribunal that never met, said they were like a "reconstruction of what took place in the Prisoner of War camps in Germany in the last war".

n A version of this article is to appear in the journal of the Western Front Association. Ross Davies is writing a biography of Great War soldier- writer Donald Hankey, and Graham Maddocks's latest book, 'Bloody Red Tabs', about casualties among generals (written with Frank Davies), is to be published by Leo Cooper.