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|Sir William Hugh Stobart Chance, C.B.E.|
Part 5 - Prisoner of War at Osnabruck (1916).
The "Officier Kriegsgefangenen Lager Osnabrück" was a pre-war cavalry barracks located on rising ground on the outskirts of town. It consisted of a main four-storey block with rooms overlooking the parade ground, backed by long corridors and served by a central staircase. To the left of the main block were the kitchens, canteen and administrative offices. In front of the main block were two "yards" about 75 by 25 yards in area and a riding school. There were also two tennis courts.
I started to keep a diary and the following paragraphs are culled from it:
"Our beds are very close together and we have little room to move around. I found that Hunt was here, whom I had known at Reading, and several crews from No.70 Squadron (which formed part of H.Q. Wing at Fienvillers), who were glad to get our news.
Sept. 30th. We are told we are "out of quarantine" and may go into the yards for exercise. Also that we are to have a hot bath, which took place in a room about twelve feet square, equipped with hot and cold showers. I revelled in this as I had not had a bath for three weeks. Some underclothes I had sent to be washed, came back in the afternoon so I feel clean at last. A walk round the yard, but soon felt quite fagged. We were allowed into the canteen for meals, but only for half an hour. We also got into an N.C.O.'s room in which was a piano. I tried to converse with a Russian who spoke English, but was chased off before we could say much.
Oct. 5th. People have begun to move out, but where to we do not know, though we think to another part of the building.
Oct. 7th. The rest of us told to go. So we packed our small belongings and were taken downstairs where we were in our turn questioned by a Dr. Kohlmann who did not ask me much. We went into a room on the ground floor of the main block. In our room are Saunders, Pinkerton, Sams, Wingfield, Helder and Molloy. There is more room and we can see out of the windows but we are not allowed out and have meals in our room. However there is a long corridor to walk in. Had hoped for better things, but no luck so far.
We now have a Russian orderly, by name Ivan Gregorvitch, aged about 50. A real good fellow who keeps the room very clean and does anything we want. We call him "Keepatok", the Russian for hot water - his morning greeting! Everyone now downstairs and we hear we may be allowed to go out tomorrow.
Oct. 8th. The Commandant, a Major, came round this morning about 9.00. A fine looking old fellow aged about 65 with white hair and a large tummy.
Oct. 9th. Played three sets of tennis with Saunders, Captain Leggatt (Wiltshire Regt. and R.F.C. M.C.) and Tooke (Lieut. R.N.), pretty hopeless and got very fagged.
Oct. 14th. Some of us moving to smaller rooms, but we are not going until Monday. We now have roll call (Appel) at 7.45 a.m. and 7.30 p.m. Must turn out fully dressed - rather a sweat. However we manage to avoid things by pretending to be cold and putting on our flying coats.
Oct. 15th. Meat for lunch. Lovely day with blue sky and white clouds but heavy shower when at lunch. In the afternoon we were ordered into the canteen by the Commandant who told us what rooms we were to occupy upstairs on the first floor. We were also told we were going to have two hot baths weekly, a reading room, walks, use of the riding school for badminton and that a bookseller would come up from town once a week. Moved into new room - Zimmer 68 - about 5 p.m. Molloy (Dorset Regt. and R.F.C.), Money (East Yorks Regt. and R.F.C.), Helder (Royal Fusiliers and R.F.C.), Saunders (Middlesex Regt. and R.F.C.) and myself. The room exactly the same size as our old one but on the first floor. Quite a view from the window and much brighter. A cupboard with drawers to hold food. We hear this evening that the Russians have started a new offensive, also that heavy fighting was taking place at Sailly Sallisel (Somme) on 12th inst. Played bridge after appel - Molloy and self versus "Von" and "Wingers". (Saunders was nicknamed "Von" after the German General in Turkey.)
Oct. 17th. The bookseller came but I only ordered a German grammer [sic] as we are starting a library. A great discussion this afternoon as to how we should arrange our room. Money has ideas of his own but will have to fall into line with the wishes of the majority. Finally decided to have all the beds in two tiers, one side of the room and to hang curtains round them and round the walls. I shared our two-tier iron bedsteads with "Von" who slept on the top one. This is quite comfortable arrangement and saves floor space.
Oct. 18th. "Russki" got us some coal for our stove this morning - cost 50 pfg. He lit it and we got up a real fug to celebrate the event. Very cold outside and rain in the morning. Ante-room opened in the afternoon - large and airy with two stoves, tables and chairs. It should improve our comfort enormously. The third and fourth floors of the barracks were occupied by Russian officer prisoners - mostly captured during the early months of the War, ranging in rank from Colonel to Lieutenant. The only other Allied prisoner was an elderly French Captain who had a small room to himself at the end of our corridor. More about them later.
Oct. 19th. The medical officer called and we were vaccinated in the afternoon. He did it well and painlessly. Grapes in the canteen this evening - we made pigs of ourselves! The canteen is a real swindle - everything costs ten times what it should. They have run out of chocolate for some days but today they got in some absolute "filth" at M3.30, instead of the previous price of M2.80. The same quantity costs 1/- in England.
Our rations consisted of black coffee - made out of roasted acorns, with no milk or sugar - in the morning. Lunch was generally vegetable soup, sometimes there was a small piece of meat or shellfish. In the evening, more soup. We were issued weekly a small loaf of "Kriegsbrot", very hard and stale and full of potato flour and which became rock hard at the end of the week. We were able to buy jam in the canteen, but no butter, sugar or milk.
A lovely afternoon with a cloudless sky but chilly. A German plane flew over at about 1,000 feet - it could have been an Albatros. The pilot gave an exhibition of his ability to "stunt". "Von" had his diary returned by the Censor with every page torn out.
Oct. 20th. Sunday. A Service was held in a small room in the canteen, conducted by a Mr. Williams who had been Chaplin to the Kaiser's Mother. Nice fellow but owing to the presence of the German interpreter who was with him the whole time, he could give us no news. Another inoculation in the afternoon - this time for cholera and my arm was rather sore later in the day. Ivan Hay (5th Lancers) - a cousin of the Dudleys - came to tea. He had been a prisoner since August 26th, 1914 but did not look it. He told us plenty of interesting things about his early experiences. Nearly all the "tea" was provided by Hay! White bread, syrup tea with milk and sugar, cake, biscuits. Hay had been getting parcels from home via Holland. We did enjoy a real "blowout" - the best we have had for five weeks. Re-arranged the room in evening, and papered wall behind beds with brown paper which was a great improvement as the whitewash kept getting on our clothes. Three double beds on one side of the room and two tables in the middle. The iron beds had wooden slats underneath, on top of which were straw filled paliasses and two blankets.
Oct. 21st. Wingers and I got our first letters this morning. I had a letter from Dad and postcards from Mother and Katherine. A cheque made out in favour of Swiss Red Cross was the first information my parents had of my survival. Everyone excited at the prospect of more letters and parcels. My chest felt stiff from inoculations so stayed in bed. Not so cold today and blue sky. Our room begins to be quite comfortable. We have bought a teapot and becoming quite civilised. Walked for two miles in afternoon and hopes of a real walk tomorrow if weather holds. Anteroom being papered dark red and should be comfortable.
Oct. 22nd. About twenty of us went for a walk this morning with one of the Lieutenants, lasting just over an hour.
The country very pretty with pine covered hills, white houses with red roofs and roads without hedges. My flying boots hard to walk in but greatly enjoyed being relatively free for once. We got a good view from a hill just above the Lager on which are two lone trees, known as Max and Moritz or Adam and Eve. Lovely day and not so cold. Meat for dinner and stewed plums. Tea with Maxwell, Blain and Griffiths (all R.F.C.). Almost as good as being at home! Tea, cakes, butter, biscuits, jam and Patum Peperium. Went to concert given by Russians. Their orchestra with balalaikas combined with guitars played very well. Some sang and others told what we gathered were funny stories, judging by the laughter and applause they created.
We did not see much of our captors except on morning and evening Appel. A group photograph of the British prisoners was taken by a local photographer who also took individual photographs. But when it was printed, the Commandant sitting in the middle of the front row was blotted out.
Oct. 23rd. Helder had his first Russian lesson and after tea we were all inoculated against typhus. I did not feel well that evening, my chest was sore for a few days. Cooked sardines and tomatoes on our stove - very good!
Oct. 24th. Got up late - bath at 11.00, followed by a walk.
Oct. 25th. Had another walk after lunch and we went across a railway line into some pinewoods. This sort of life makes one feel slack and flying boots make walking tiring but it was good to be out again. People we met showed no active hate, but some did not seem to approve of us. On the whole they showed only an attitude of curiosity. We were not allowed to walk on the pavement and had to stick to the road. Lieutenant Klöcker was in charge. The barber came after tea-time and I had my hair cut.
Oct. 26th. Several letters from home and I hope to get a parcel tomorrow. Bad lunch - thin soup, potatoes, sauerkraut, microscopic piece of cheese. Rumours that there will be only one meal per day next month but parcels should arrive soon. Griffiths, (2nd Lieutenant Royal Welsh Fusiliers and R.F.C., an observer in 70 Squadron) gave us some cooked ham which we fried on the stove. We had our second shot of typhus inoculation and in the evening gave a concert to the Russians in our anteroom. This went off well but nothing very great in the way of performance. "Tipperary", "Old Cock Robin" went down well and the Russian chorus sang the Volga Boat Song. At the end both National Anthems were sung and as we left the room, a German Lieutenant appeared and we thought we were in for a strafing. He had only come with the Camp Commandant's compliments to say how pleased he was that we had enjoyed ourselves together. The anteroom looks nice and comfortable with its walls papered a dark red with white painted dado and doors, blue curtains and furnished with card tables and deck chairs.
Oct. 28th. Another walk today with the tall Lieutenant. We hear of a great scandal about the French Captain Allouche whom we all loathe. He has been trying to set the Russians against us. Yesterday when the Spanish Ambassador came to inquire into charges made by the Russians that canteen prices were excessive, he shoved his spole into the wheel and claimed the prices were quite reasonable, so he put his foot in it. It is curious how all the other nationalities seem to loathe the French. In every other Lager, they are hated like poison by the other Allies. Luckily there are only a few here and as we get on well with the Russians, we take no notice of them. Captain Allouche was the only French man in the camp when we arrived and we suspected he had been planted by the Germans as a spy. Having apparently given away an escape plan, it was decided to deal with him. During the night several officers entered the small room in which he slept, threw cold water over him and plastered his private parts with jam. He came rushing down the corridor shouting "Au Secours" and was rescued by sentries and taken to the Kommadantur - that was the last we saw of him.
Oct. 30th. Another dose of typhoid inoculation - we thought it was to have been the last but there is one more to come. More officers were released from quarantine - three R.F.C. and about a dozen Frenchmen. I heard from one of them that poor old Hodges, to whom I had sold my Douglas motor-bike, was killed trying to loop a Sopwith at Castle Bromwich.
Also that Nixon had been shot down over the lines and had stalled and crashed in a street. Of course killed by his machine gun being forced back into his face. Captain Hay introduced me to Captain Agapov, a Russian Cavalry Officer who is to teach me Russian in exchange for English. Some parcels arrived and after waiting in the Parcel Room for some time as there were a lot of us waiting to collect, I got hold of mine which contained just what I wanted in the way of clothes and food. - Because Holland was not involved in the First World War, Red Cross food and other parcels, sent to prisoners in Germany from England, passed through Holland on their way to the various P.O.W. Camps with relatively little interference or pilfering. Without the food parcels we should have been in a very poor way. As the War progressed, food supplies for the German population got worse and worse, particularly in the cities. P.O.W.'s came last in the queues.- Had my first Russian lesson at eleven, plenty to learn! We lunched off veal and ham pie and ate toffee and ginger biscuits all afternoon. I gave Agapov his first English lesson in the afternoon.
Nov. 2nd. Sanders and I went to the dentist. His office was near the station so we went right through the town. We were wearing flying coats and helmets and caused some excitement. I had a tooth stopped and the nerve killed. The dentist was rather rough and caused some pain but I suppose it will be alright. Got back at one o'clock and had lunch by ourselves. I heard from Whittle (27 Squadron) that O'Byrne is in hospital in Cologne with two fingers off, a broken arm and two bullets in his leg, but doing all right. So he wasn't killed after all. He shared my tent at Fienvillers. A list has been posted up in the anteroom of fellows missing, which included my name - also the names of several friends.
Nov. 3rd. Porridge for breakfast with milk and brown sugar. Two more parcels for me - one from home and one R.F.C. containing food. Russian lessons as usual in the morning. Captain Agapov lives in two small rooms on the third floor, with six other Russians who have been very nice and polite. I have not as yet been able to get a Russian Grammar, and rely on a Berlitz conversation book. The Russians are quick learners and Captain A. learns about three times as fast as I. We do not hear much war news except through the German newspapers, but the French are very pleased with life as they have recaptured Fort Vaux at Verdun and taken a lot of prisoners. They drank Bordeaux for lunch and toasted everything and everybody!
Nov. 4th. A day of rows. Hay has been turned out of his room in favour of a French Captain and naturally is angry about it. He expressed a wish to the German interpreter that all German towns might be bombed before the end of the war. Not wise of him but quite understandable. The French Captain visited Captain Gray, our senior officer to try and make peace but after some fruity language, he was booted out of Gray's room with Gray's best French - which was not very good at any time - to speed him on his way. Lastly someone wrote "Bosche" in a letter which stirred things up. The fool of an under-officer in the Tin Room had mixed my tins with Cairnes' (60th Rifles and R.F.C.) with the result that he was eating my cherished "Lamb and Peas" which I had been saving for Sunday's dinner. A poor devil of a Captain, blinded in both eyes, has arrived in the Camp. (This was Captain Gilbert Nobbs, who was repatriated some months later via Holland. He went to Australia to manage the Holbrook sauce and pickle business which he did very successfully with the help of a very efficient lady secretary. I met him in Sydney after he had retired when I was Chairman of Holbrooks Ltd., the parent company of the Australian and South African subsidiaries.)
Nov. 5th. Sanders and I got up before Appel and cooked breakfast, consisting of porridge and tongue. Sanders, Kennedy (2nd Lieutenant R.F.C. 27 Squadron) and I went down to the dentist and on the way we tried to count the windows we could see open - there were not many! We sat in the waiting room with three fat German women, a youth and our guard. My turn came last and I had two stoppings and had to have gas. While I was in the dentist's chair, an aeroplane flew over the town. Dr. Bergman became excited and we all looked out of the window. His assistant told me that a well-known Osnabruck pilot who had been flying since before the War, had crashed from 1,500 feet and was being buried today. The plane dropped a wreath, which I did not see and did the usual German stunts, for instance, turning with no "bank". On the way back, the streets were crowded with people coming from the funeral - some girls, quite good to look on for once. As usual we were objects of interest and we heard several people say "flieger". Our guard had short legs and as we were walking fast, we could hear him puffing behind us. Lunch was over when we got back, but we had our usual "fleisch".
Nov. 6th. Baths as usual. The Major came round in the afternoon to inspect the rooms as a General is expected to be coming tomorrow. Next day a Colonel turned up representing the General and inspected the rooms but did not seem to do anything special. Parcels given out in the afternoon. Molloy got his first. I was lucky and had four, two of clothes and two Fortnum and Mason. Rumours flying round that the French Captain has done a bunk as his room was locked and he did not turn up for Appel.
Nov. 8th. Yesterday's rumours came to nought as the Frenchman had only been visiting a friend in quarantine. Hunt, who was with me at Reading at the Initial Training Course, came to tea. Kennedy has heard from a friend who knew Mother as a girl, who had heard that I was a prisoner at Osnabruck. We are getting quite good cooks and had hot roast beef and cocoa for supper.
Nov. 9th. We all paraded in the Yard and an order was read out stating that we were not allowed to have maps. Inoculated for the last time by a new doctor. Molloy's 19th birthday so we had steak and lark pie and fried potatoes for supper and drank his health. In the evening there was a concert, attended by the Commandant and Dr. Pohlmann. The Russian orchestra played, there were songs and recitations. The British put on a skit based on the music-hall turn "Motoring" and the performance ended with a song by the Russian choir with their deep bass voices. The orchestra - guitars and balalaikas was not so good as before but improved.
"Tipperary" sung by Maxwell, went well. My tutor, Agapov sang a song in English - marvellously well considering he had only been learning for a short time. Three Russians in so-called evening dress were extremely funny. They all appeared very lugubrious and the youngest with a large tummy played a balalaika looking at the music about two feet above his head and never turned a hair. A Russian Colonel who was over six feet tall and looked very impressive, sang the Volga Boat Song with great gusto and passion. The "sketch" caused roars of laughter. The actors had made a wonderful car with a brake and horn and a radiator with "Ford" inscribed on it. A Russian dressed as a girl and singing in a duet drew howls and cheers from us all. "She" was given a bouquet and threw flowers in quite the approved style. Altogether a very happy evening.
Nov. 10th. Stiff from inoculation. Molloy got parcels, so we have food to go on with. The British share their parcels but the French - mainly Reserve officers - kept their parcels for personal consumption under their individual beds!
Nov. 12th. Went for a walk at ten - rather cold and cloudy but fresh. In the afternoon went to tea with some Russians with Whittle, Hay, Tullis, Gray, Salmond and Walker. Molloy, Helder and Wingfield went to tea with Uschatski and enjoyed a good feed. Our hosts were Agapov, Gempel and five others and they gave us a splendid tea - Russian and German bread, butter, cheese, cake and various Russian foods, with tea and excellent black coffee and with cigarettes to finish up with. We were a cheery party and taught our hosts to say "hot-stuff" and "damn". Agapov is learning English very quickly - it is extraordinary how rapidly they pick it up. He came down to our room one evening when we were playing "Rummy" and after listening to our slang, remarked, "You no teach me English, I understand not one damn word!"
We papered the walls of our room with brown paper and put red shades on the lamps so it looks more cosy. An enclosure is being made which is the same size and adjoins the outer yard and will serve as a football pitch. Blain came round and collected the names of those who want to play tennis. We hope to have two hard courts and one in the Riding School.
Nov. 13th. The Russians have heard a rumour that in today's daily papers, it says that the German Chancellor Bethman Hollweg has made a speech to the effect that Germany is ready for peace and wishes to have an armistice so as to put an end quickly to "This unnecessary and bloody war". I hope it is true.
Nov. 14th. Parcel day - I got four and everyone else had something. Mine were two of clothes, bread from Switzerland and an enormous side of bacon via American Express - all very welcome. Great jokes about the bacon - we have called it "Percy" and it lives in a kitbag of mine. The Germans showed much amusement when it was opened. "Percy" was a godsend and lasted a long time.
Nov. 15th. Maxwell and Gray came back from Medical Board and all got through except Maxwell. Nobbs is to go straight back to England via Holland and the rest to Switzerland. At the Lager they went to, Swiss newspapers were available and they read that Germans of all ages were to be mobilised and that the French had gone as military advisors to the Rumanians. They saw troop loads of "civvies" in charge of soldiers who looked depressed. A copy of a letter received from Hauptman Boelke's father was posted on the notice board. He was killed in a collision with one of his pilots. It was his Kampfgeschwader who shot down the four F.E. 2b's and two B.E. 2c's on September 17th. The letter, dated from Ziebuck on November 12th, read as follows:-
"To the Commandant. Sir, You have been so kind as to send a wreath as a last tribute to our son being killed while fighting for his country, which had been dedicated by the British Flying Officers interned in the camp at Osnabruck. We beg to thank you for granting the wish of the interned gentlemen and to ask you kindly to inform them that their noble display of real chivalrous feeling has left a splendid impression throughout Germany. May the chivalrous relations which have ever existed between the German and British airmen and which have been displayed by our son, soon move into the relations of the two Nations. With heartfelt gratitude to the British Officers, Yours Obediently - Professor M. Boelke".
Nov. 16th. Breakfasted on Percy as porridge has run out and we substituted fried bread. Played tennis with Wingers against Helder and Molloy. Very cold, especially wearing shorts, but good fun. As we were playing, a Schutte-Lanz dirigible flew over at about 1,000 feet. It was a small copy of a Zeppelin and we could see its details quite distinctly - propellers and all. It seemed to be having a rough time as the clouds were low.
Nov. 18th. An attaché from the American Embassy turned up at mid-day and we all jawed with him in the anteroom, particularly about having to have our windows closed at night and about the latrines which are bad. The Russians' habits involved squatting on the seats with inaccurate aim. On an icy morning I saw two senior Russian officers enter the "pissoir", the floor of which was icy. Their legs slid from under them and they ended up in the gutter. We had a "Russky" tea with Agapov, Uschatski, Rouhine and Gempel as guests. We had a terrific spread with Molloy's birthday cake draped in red paper as a centrepiece and every sort of delicacy. None of the Russians eat much but we talked hard all the time.
Agapov surprised us by leaping up and bolting out of the room saying, "I am unwell". Poor chap, he has a bad arm and always feels seedy in the evening. After Appel we had an impromptu sing-song in the anteroom. There were some quite good turns, among them one by Lowson, a sandy-haired Royal Scot, who imitated Harry Lauder and Tom Foy. Room 68 sang two songs of rather doubtful character - mainly home-composed. One was "Star of the Evening", and the other - to the tune of the Volga Boat Song - "She was poor but she was honest." This went down well with the Russians. Very cold last night and snow on the ground.
Nov. 20th. Watts - a Canadian - was put into our room. He had flown a B.E.12. Also B.A. Ordish (22 Squadron R.F.C.) who had served in the Artists Rifles and was an acquisition to the choir. We sang for about half an hour after lights-out.
Nov. 21st. We had a walk and were accompanied by some German children who followed us most of the way back to the Lager. One or two knew quite a lot of English and liked to show it off. They would not believe we were officers as we had no swords! The O'Mount came to tea and told us about the Dublin rebellion. An amusing chap.
Here some pages of my diary are missing but the last one refers to an incident that occurred early in December. The Germans sent a party to search one of the Russian's rooms and departed with bottles of beer and other drink. This made the Russians mad and one of them ran down the stairs smashing windows with a stick. I was looking out of our window and saw a Russian leaning out above me with a carafe in his hand. As the German patrol left the building and passed under his window, the carafe was released and fell with a crash at the feet of the German officer. His men started shooting and there was a big row. My diary which now ends, comments:-
"The Russian who did the deed owned up so the threatened reprisals are off. Whist drive this evening and about 25 couples playing. Molloy won and Organ won the booby prize. The latter was flying a new type of machine to France and had the bad luck to lose his way and land on a German aerodrome. His active service career was a short one!"
The winter of 1916-1917 was a hard one and the parade ground was covered with snow and ice. Our chief concern was food, but parcels arrived fairly regularly - without them we should have starved. My Russian studies progressed and I gradually became fluent in speech and writing. P.O.W.'s spent their time reading, playing cards and studying. I got hold of a text book on Bookkeeping and for the first time (after a mainly classical education) was able to read a history of the 19th century and its politics. At Eton we never studied English literature or history, and it had been a relief to become a "Science specialist" which was an unpopular subject. In fact I was the only senior science specialist during my last "halves".
The Russians were great gamblers and spent hours playing "Lotto" or "Bingo" as it is now known. Two English officers caused great excitement by going up to the Russian anteroom and arming themselves with a chess board, a draughts board, a halma set and a snakes-and-ladders board. They borrowed plenty of Camp money and proceeded to start a bogus game. First a chess move, followed by halma, draughts and snakes-and-ladders. After a long pause, one of the players nodded his head and handed over a stack of notes to his opponent. As the game proceeded, the table was surrounded by Russian officers, who though puzzled, became keenly interested in this new form of gambling. I do not think they ever understood that their legs were being pulled! I do not remember how Christmas was celebrated, but no doubt we had stored up an adequate supply of delicacies from our parcels. The "escaping bug" had as yet not infected the camp and in fact there was no score for tunnelling or wire cutting.
After the turn of the year, the Germans, who complained that their officer prisoners were being maltreated in Russia, decided to retaliate against some of their Russian captives. All the Russians were moved down to the rooms on the ground floor, packed together in rooms ventilated only by small grilles in the doors. They had to sleep on the floor on straw palliasses with all privileges such as books and parcels forbidden, and exercise limited to twenty minutes on the parade ground. It was sad to lose our friends and to watch them suffer with no possibility of giving any relief. We never heard from them again and if even some of them were eventually repatriated to Russia, few can have survived.
Another category of starved prisoners, a few of whom came to the Camp, were some Rumanian officers. They were captured when Rumania entered the War and her armies were smashed by General Mackensen. They seemed inordinately thin, but someone remarked that they wore stays.