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|Sir William Hugh Stobart Chance, C.B.E.|
Part 6 - Prisoner of War at Clausthal (1917-18)
After six months in Osnabruck, the Germans decided to segregate the Allied nationalities. In March we were told to pack up and depart. Possibly this was due to the imminent collapse of Russia under the hammer blows of Hindenburg and
Laden with impedimenta we had collected and looking like Christmas trees, we struggled down through the snow to the station. Our destination was to be a camp at Clausthal in the Harz mountains. We duly arrived in the evening and spent the night in the waiting rooms. Next morning we trudged about a mile up hill and arrived at the "Kurhaus zu Pfauenteichen", (The Peacock Lake Hotel), a wooden building converted into a Lager and surrounded by a high wire fence and with wooden barrack huts built at the rear of the hotel. Already there were other P.O.W.'s in residence, mainly those captured in the early months of the War. The senior British officer was Lt. Colonel Bond of the K.O.Y.L.I. and Captain Freddy Bell of the Gordon Highlanders was Camp Adjutant. Others were Captain Skaife of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, after the War to become Brigadier and Colonel of his regiment. Then there were two brothers by name Boger - one an Infantry Lt. Colonel and the other a Royal Engineer and a pilot R.F.C. There was a very tall and smart Captain Sanderson from my brother's Regiment, the 4th Dragoon Guards.
The Camp was commanded by a Captain Niemeyer - usually referred to as "Mad Harry". He had been a commercial traveller in America and spoke so-called English with a strong mid-western accent. Purple in the face, usually dressed in a long field-grey overcoat with field boots, sword and spurs, he and his twin brother "Milwaukee Bill" - the Commandant of the Holzminden Lager - had been appointed by General von Hänisch who was not enamoured of the British - having been given the Hanover Command after his Corps had had a rough time early on in the War. A committee under the chairmanship of Mr Justice Younger set up to report on the treatment of British P.O.W.'s, reported in 1918 that General von Hänisch was "an unreasonable and cruel man with a violent temper. He took every opportunity of curtailing anything which could make the prisoner's life less irksome. He will march surrounded by his staff and shriek with rage at the British officers, calling them dogs and pig-dogs, as did his Inspector-General Pavlovski." On visiting the Clausthal Camp before we arrived, he had exclaimed very slowly and clearly, "I am hoping every day to receive the order to send some of these people to be put up behind our lines to be shot by British shells."
Of the brothers Niemeyer, the report comments, "Neither of these men could or would speak the truth". There were generally two junior German officers - usually recovering from wounds or on sick leave, an Interpreter N.C.O. and the Reserve soldiers of the Landwehr, who guarded the Camp and provided sentries.
The Kurhaus stood above a lake - the Pfauenteich or Peacock Lake - surrounded by plantations of fir trees, and in the distance one could see the Brockenberg - the mountain famous in German myths and allegories. Some of our officers were housed in the hotel, but I was in a small attic with Money and Ordish and the rest of our party in three hutments adjoining the Hotel. Our British orderlies were housed in huts outside our compound and there were cells for those committed to "Stuben arrest". The huts had rooms each holding six officers and were so small that beds were arranged in pairs - one above the other according to German barrack practise. There was only room for a few chairs and two small tables, and no space for our belongings. Each room had a stove and during the winter months we could generally buy logs. But the un-insulated huts were icy, so overcoats and sweaters were essential. When we arrived and until a room in the Hotel was converted into an anteroom, the only communal accommodation was the hotel dining room, adjoined by its kitchen and canteen. In the summer we were allowed to construct a tennis court and to have a squash court built by a local contractor at our expense. We were able to take exercise in the area in which the courts were located. In the winter of 1917-1918, the tennis court was flooded and used for skating. There was also a small golf putting course which we laid out. A favourite sport, particularly among the senior officers, was "bee ferreting" as there were lots of field mice on the golf course. A captured bumble-bee was introduced into a hole and persuaded to act as a ferret by a stream of smoke blown from a pipe. It was amusing to see ancient Colonels competing with each other on bended knees and puffing away into the holes, having laid bets on who would first cause a mouse to bolt!
The Camp was surrounded by a high wire fence, inside of which was a barbed-wire fence - crossed at the peril of one's life from the trigger-happy guards who patrolled round the perimeter. Outside the Camp was the Guard Room, Kommandantur and the block of cells which had to be enlarged owing to the number of officers who fell foul of the commandant. "'Drei Tage Stubenarrest" was the penalty for incurring his displeasure. The Germans had little sense of humour and were unmercifully ragged. "Mad Harry's" flow of invectives was met with laughter, making his complexion even more purple than usual. "You go right avay - forty meters ago. I send you to little 'arrest 'ouse". A sentry was summoned and the offender marched off to the cells. In April I wrote to my sister to say that there was plenty of snow - "We get a fall nearly every night". Keeping warm had been a problem and with a diet lacking in vitamins, small cuts turned septic. Most of us went about with bandaged fingers. There was a stage in the Dining Room and officers interested in acting ran a very successful Dramatic Society, putting on several plays. Parcels followed us from Osnabruck, but because it was discovered that some tins contained compasses and other escaping kit, all tins were opened in the Tin Room and their contents tipped out.
A party of officers arrived from Friedburg, among them my cousin Jocelyn Lucas who had been captured early in the war acting as a galloper to his General. When he returned to England, he was awarded a Military Cross. Succeeding to his family baronetcy owing to the death of his older brother, killed in a fall from an observation balloon, he became Member of Parliament for Portsmouth and served for many years in the House of Commons. He also became famous as a breeder of Sealyham terriers. He died in 1979.
On the Fourth of June, 1917, the Old Etonian officers celebrated the occasion with a dinner to which nine of us sat down and drank the toast "Floreat Etona". Those present were Colonel R.G. Bolton (Scots Guards), Major Morrison Bell (Scots Guards), C.K. Hutchison (Coldstream Guards), Captain O.B. Sanderson (4th Dragoon Guards), Jocelyn Lucas (Warwicks Regiment), M. Brocas Burrows (5th Dragoon Guards), C.E. Scarisbrick (The Royal Scots), J.H. McEwen (Cameron Highlanders) and myself. The menu consisted of turtle soup, salmon mayonnaise, curry and rice, cold tongue, fruit salad and coffee.
In June I wrote, "The squash racquets came very opportunely and I hope you will be able to send out balls. We have been allowed to build a second squash court and were able to make another tennis court using our own labour. We had an excellent show by the A.D.S. last night, who put on "The Little Damozel". Critchley (Lieutenant G.E.V. Critchley, a Guards officer) as heroine, was marvellous and reduced several elderly Colonels and Majors to tears. The Dutch Ambassador arrived last week and made a thorough inspection. Boxing has been the great excitement lately and the finals took place tonight. There have been some amazing fights - a knockout in the first fifteen seconds and two heavyweights who in their eagerness to slay each other, entirely forgot all they had learned and went at each other hammer and tongs. By the third round all they could do was to lean on each other for support and wait for time to be called. Our hopes for peace in the autumn seem rather shaky as far as can be gathered from the papers. Can't say I look forward to another winter in this country. The days pass slowly - Appel in the morning, waiting in queues for parcels and showers, preparing meals and pursuing my studies in Russian which I have continued with Captain Boger who had served as Military Attaché in Moscow."
There were various Camp activities - gambling, drinking, studying and escaping. Two Naval officers made themselves imitation German uniforms - dyed greatcoats, blackened flying boots to resemble German field boots, with spurs made of wire and silver paper, and wooden swords. They made up to represent the Commandant and his Leutnant, with escaping kit hidden under the former's greatcoat to simulate the Commandant's large tummy. One evening they walked out of a side door, passed in front of the kurhaus up to the gate, where the sentry on duty saluted and let them out! Not long afterwards the real Commandant and his Leutnant left their office and walked to the gate to the consternation of the sentry. Unfortunately the escapers did not get far and were captured and brought back to serve a term in the cells. We were allowed to make small vegetable gardens on a plot close to the wire fence and one evening two officers hid among the cabbages at night, cut the wire and escaped. What happened to them, I cannot remember.
The real big escape plot was the making of a tunnel. The floors of the huts were some feet off the ground and the space below them was boarded off. A hole was made in the floor and using bed boards to revet its sides, a shaft was dug which went down several feet. Digging took place during daylight hours and at the end of the day's work, a cover was placed over the shaft and covered with earth. From the bottom of the shaft, a tunnel was dug in the direction of the perimeter fence. This was lined with bed boards and air for the diggers was provided by a bellows with attached tubing. The earth removed had to be disposed of and this was done by filling small sacks hung inside trousers which could be opened up and the contents spread on the ground under the other huts. Work on the tunnel had progressed to the point where it was under the wire fence. One of the orderlies - an Irish Corporal - gave the game away and the tunnel was discovered. "Mad Harry" went wild with excitement - the compound was full of armed Landwehr and we were confined to barracks for some days. Potential escapers had been busy preparing escaping kits, contriving civilian clothes, making maps and with the help of a German Under Officer who was bribed with gifts of food and soap, producing railway passes and other forged documents. A tunnel at our sister camp at Holzminden proved much more successful and many officers escaped, some of them getting over the frontier into neutral Holland, including Jock Tullis who had been with us at Osnabruck.
The same Under Officer used to give us advance notice of prospective searches so it was possible to hide away items of escaping kit, hidden largely behind the boards with which the huts were lined and using secret panels whose positions were cleverly disguised.
One day we heard of a forthcoming search and were prepared for it when we were kept on parade longer than usual. Coming up the road to the camp gate, we spied an ancient "fiacre" drawn by a decrepit horse. In it were seated the Commandant and a large staff officer. Behind them came a squad of military police in full uniform with helmets and tall black field boots. They were followed by about a dozen men in civilian clothes who turned out to be detectives. Last of all came a company of young Jaeger troops. The Commandant and the staff officer dismounted - the latter wore an armlet on which "Gibralter" was woven - the gate was opened and they proceeded slowly to walk past the officers on parade, followed by the Military police and the detectives, several of whom sported beards. Some wit called "Maa" - a sheep's moan of complaint, and this was taken up with some gusto to the disgust of the Commandant and the amusement of the staff officer who at any rate had a sense of humour. The occupants of each room were then taken off in turn, accompanied by a policeman and detective, to have their rooms searched. This all took a long time before all the rooms had been dealt with. In the event, very little escape material was discovered, but the detectives lost several of the umbrellas with which they were armed. The guards "mislaid" a number of rifles which were only discovered as the result of a further search. The sequel to the search which went on all morning, took place a few days later when a crowd of officers invaded the Commandant's office and during the confusion, a number of escaping items discovered during the search, were recovered.
During the summer we were allowed a number of walks on parole, but as the result of a "strafe" ordered by General von Hänisch, they were discontinued, a pity as the surrounding countryside was attractive. At the end of August, I wrote, "We had a racquets tournament but I did not get very far, being knocked out in the second round. Directly the weather gets better, they are going to have a foursome golf tournament but for the last few days it has poured with rain and the greens have been flooded. It is miserable being confined to our huts all day after being able to enjoy the open air for so long".
An exchange of prisoners had been arranged between the Dutch, German and British authorities and several parties of the longest serving prisoners were shipped off to Holland where they were interned, though with plenty of freedom to move around, at Schevengen. I wrote in September, "The exchange to Holland seems to be going very slowly and we have not had the doctors here yet. Except for the sick, there does not seem much chance of getting to Holland before Christmas. We had a dance last night and although everyone said they were too lazy to participate before it started, when it actually got going, the floor was full of prancing and cavorting Colonels and Majors - in fact there was hardly room for the rest of us. We have a new Lager officer here now, a rather aged Captain who speaks broken English".
When Jocelyn Lucas got to Holland, he sent a letter to the wives and parents of some of his friends left behind, describing our life at Clausthal. It was headed "Typical Day" and I quote from its contents:
"8.30. Roll out of bed - anyone in bed after 8.30 is liable to prison, so if a Hun officer happens to be in a bad temper he can get a full bag. Most people stay in bed as long as possible so as to make the day shorter ... a most desirable thing in prison life. The next thing after Appel, which takes place at 9.15 when we all parade whatever the weather in front of the Kurhaus and are counted, is a douche if it happens to be a bath day. There are four douches, two of which never work, one of the others condescending to dribble and the fourth being all right, if a little slow. As some 250 officers have to have their whack, it will be seen that they are liable to some inconvenience and if they are lucky they get a little water to wash off the soap. The douches are nominally open from 7.30 to 9.00, but as a rule only work properly for a short while. If there is hot water, it is boiling and no cold available. If it is cold, the chances are the hot will only come on for a few minutes. A favourite trick played by the German N.C.O. in charge, is to let a number of officers wet themselves, and then as there is a long queue of soapy bodies waiting, off goes the water. Of course if you wait for ten minutes it may come on again, but the chances are it won't. On the other hand, if you don't wait, it is sure to come on as soon as you go away! If you give up the idea of a douche and don't come at all, the solitary visitors will declare that they had the bath of their lives.
“Next the most important event is BREAKFAST. I put this in capitals for we love our food in prison if only for the reason that there is nothing else to love and it fills up so much of an otherwise long and monotonous day. However as we got up late, we have to eat it quicker than Mr Gladstone eats his, if only for the reason that if we don't bolt it, we shan't have time to finish it for we must be out on Appel by 9.15 and it means three days in "clink" if late, besides keeping others waiting in the cold. Still, a certain number play the game of "last across the road". This is much helped by the fact that the exit door is very small and there is always a queue to get out so that the late comers have time to bolt a cup of tea and swallow some bread and marmalade before being chased out by a sentry. A favourite trick of the Hun is to lock the door from the outside before everyone can get out. Of course if this is spotted, the position is rushed and the sentry pushed back until all are clear. Occasionally it succeeds and those enterprising people who get out by the window, drop into the waiting arms of a sentry who marches them straight down to jug...”
On Appel, a notice is read out to the effect that certain officers are required immediately after Appel is finished. These usually belong to the same room and have for some reason or other incurred the spite or enmity of "Whistling Rufus" the Berlin detective. They return to find a posse of soldiers outside their doors and accompanied by a German officer who has to be present on these occasions, and by several satellites. They are allowed to look on while their beds, boxes and general belongings are searched for forbidden articles. These include everything from maps and compasses, down to candles, flasks and the envelopes of letters from home. Dictionaries bought in Germany come into this category if not expensive ones, as the cheaper ones can apparently be used for a code. After everything has been put into the passage and the wall paper pulled down in places, the floor is examined and everything where things could be hidden is ransacked. Failure to find any contraband means nothing, as if Rufus feels annoyed, he will drop in a day or two later. After all this is over, the officers concerned are graciously allowed to put their things back.
A word about the parcel system may be of interest. It is certain that while a certain number of parcels do not arrive, notably if they contain boots, the majority do turn up. These are given out at the rate of about 200 a day, so that if a lot come in, the delivery is spread over several days. Bread however, gets issued fairly well. The tins are taken away to the Tin Room, of which more anon. Things such as sugar and tea are handed out, but a receptacle must be brought for them as nothing is given out in its original wrapper or container. Toothpaste is confiscated but can be squeezed out if wished. Under the direct orders of General von Hänsch, soap is cut into little pieces and bread from neutral Red Cross Societies is cut into pieces. This no doubt for fear of concealing maps or compasses. This is now done by a machine instead of by a bayonet as before. The General's soul-inspiring words to his staff were, "Cut up their bread into slices, cut up their soap into small pieces, and remember you are German". Two people can normally draw parcels at a time but the rate of progress is slow as everything is examined with great care. Books, after having the owner's name inscribed in them, are taken away and sent to the censors where they remain from three weeks to three months unless, as sometimes happens, they get lost. It is somewhat unfortunate that there is no means of telling whether a book has been confiscated or lost - the result is the same. A book which has passed the censor is stamped with an official stamp, which varied from camp to camp. Some of these have been successfully duplicated, so that if by a sleight of hand an officer has been able to steal his own books, he takes them to a brother officer in charge of the counterfeiting department and has them stamped forthwith. This is particularly useful in the case of books which would not pass the censor on account of their contents. It is sometimes possible by gumming the cover of a frivolous novel over the outside of a book on the war without the censor doing more than glance at the cover.
Tins are given out every day and 40 messes are allowed into the Tin Room at a time, varying in number from one to four officers per mess. As there are about 120 messes, it means that every officer can get in every three days. Before this system came into vogue, eight days was the average and people spent hours waiting in a queue. No officer can take out more than six tins at a time. The method of procedure is as follows - the first on the list hands a list of tins required by himself and his mess, stating in which lockers they are to be found. A Hun then gets them out and another Hun opens them and puts the contents in dishes which you have brought to receive the contents. Some of the Huns work fairly well but others give you vegetables for milk and say "No jam" although twelve tins of jam repose in the locker under his nose.
The Canteen is chiefly remarkable for the high prices charged for everything. It is run by the wife of the proprietor of the Kurhaus - a large fat woman by the name of Frau Wedekind. Each officer is given a wine card which enables him to purchase a limited number of bottles each month. The non-drinkers trade in their cards to the boozers! The ration is two bottles per week or six per month. But the prices are astronomic. Formerly, three bottles of white wine and three glasses of so-called port or sherry could be acquired weekly, but the allowance was cut down as it was found that some officers drowned their sorrows by drinking too deeply. From two to four officers usually mess together and all meals have to be taken in the Dining Hall. The washing up is done in rather primitive form as the supply of hot water is limited. Cooking is done in the kitchen and is free of charge. This saves a lot of trouble. English orderlies are now employed in place of the French who were dismissed in disgrace at the same time as the German women cooks. The work mainly consists of cooking porridge in the mornings and such things as eggs and bacon. For the rest it is merely a case of putting already cooked food to warm up. As the space is limited, all who can make use of their own "campite" or use a "Tommy" cooker. The supply of boiling water for tea making is very poor and is seldom if ever hot. The Germans supply nothing for breakfast except ersatz coffee made from roasted acorns. Lunch consists of vegetable soup. Sometimes the vegetables are inside the soup and sometimes outside. Meat of a sort in minute portions is supplied once or twice a week. It is often in the soup and then often in someone else's tureen. In the summer fruit and vegetables can sometimes be bought from the canteen at fancy prices. Supper consists of two tiny rolls of bread or potatoes, but usually "Gemuse suppe". i.e. vegetable soup. But these rations are supplemented by our supplies. The bread ration - one small loaf of Kriegsbrot made largely from bran and potato flour is not issued to us but can be bought at the canteen. As most officers get Copenhagen or Swiss bread there is never any difficulty in getting the full ration and more if necessary. Danish bread is incomparably the best of any sent us and arrives in good condition, whereas the Swiss bread always arrives hard and the English bread is hopeless in warm weather unless sweetened, such as currant bread.
We are normally supposed to have one orderly per six officers. They are usually drawn from those who have worked in the mines and have broken down there. The result is that some are permanently ill, while others throw a fit if work is mentioned. The sound ones are taken off to work for the Germans and as soon as an unfortunate orderly gets sufficiently well to be of any use at all, he gets sent back to a men’s camp from which he is drafted to work.
Officers are paid monthly in camp money - the amount depending on rank. For a considerable period last winter the only lights outside the Dining Hall were in the passages - those in the huts being on for about fifteen minutes to allow us to go to bed. Candles were "Streng verboten". The official reason given for lack of lighting was there was "no benzine". However acting on information received, a threat was conveyed to Baumgarten the electrician to give him away for taking bribes, and so he conveniently discovered a number of drums which had been mislaid. It was simply part of the official efforts to make us as uncomfortable as possible. The lights never go on in the building until it is too late to play cards.
The cells are a perfect boon to the weary and sixteen have been added to the original two for the convenience of officers since the camp was turned over to the English. Lights and fires and a room to oneself, however small - who can want more? No trouble in preparing food - it is sent over by an unselfish mess-mate and in the winter can be warmed up on the stove. Of course no exercise is allowed unless the sentence is over a month. This can be a little tiresome but for three days is as good as a rest cure and is quite the fashion both from inclination and otherwise.
Police dogs are used to guard the camp at night but usually they are harmless as the sentries do not know how to handle them. One sentry merely kicked his dog who barked at some officers lying in the grass cutting the wire at night so that they got away, though eventually recaptured. There are two dogs belonging to two detectives recently imported who are not so well behaved. Attempts to fraternise with the dogs are punished with cells. "Whistling Rufus" is the nickname of the Berlin detective who is always whistling for his dog. He is more obnoxious than the other "tecs" and visits our room continually at night with his dog and does not mind waking everybody to see if they are still there. He visits rooms at any time with his hat on and examines books and letters in his capacity as "Criminelle" as he described himself.
If a prisoner wished to mope he can do so though he is a nuisance to his companions. If he wished to sulk he can do so if he is silly enough. If he has a sense of humour he gets on all right. There is much amusement to be got out of our situation if only it is looked at in the right light and of course the officers are much better off than the men. Clausthal is by no means a good camp, but the surroundings are pleasant in summer and there are many worse. No Hun can go on being malevolent for ever if he is treated as a joke and he gets tired of trying to carry out oppressive regulations. The highest authorities are the ones to blame. When the German armies are doing badly regulations are relaxed, only to be re-imposed when they can score up some successes. Various improvements have recently been made such as a cinema on Sundays and life is bearable with the prospects of exchange to look forward to.
At Christmas time the A.D.S. put on a pantomime - Cinderella and in January, "Charlie's Aunt". The actor who played the real "Aunt" was made up so funnily that when "she" arrived on the stage the audience howled with laughter for quite five minutes. Luckily he did not lose his self control and so the play went on successfully. Parcels continued to arrive and someone had a letter from Colonel Bond in Holland which he had reached about a fortnight ago. He seemed to be enjoying himself. Captain Boger, with whom I continue my Russian studies, is next on the list. He is a very nice fellow and I shall miss him. Married on August 4th, 1914, he was captured in October of that year.
Christmas 1917 was celebrated with a number of parties and in January the papers reported a heavy snowfall - up to 70cm. deep. After the successful German offensive against the British 5th Army on the Somme in March 1918 when the Germans pushed our troops back nearly as far as Amiens and took many prisoners, the Kaiser issued an order of the day requiring celebrations to be held. The German population short of food and dispirited badly needed cheering up. We were paraded in front of the Kurhaus and addressed by Niemeyer surrounded by his troops and standing on a raised platform. He made a lengthy oration saying, "Vell Yentlemen, for you ze var vill soon be over. Unser Kaiser has given an order that the flags shall be hoisted and that we should cheer the German victories." Whereupon he gave the command, "Fahnen Herauf”, and the German ensign was hoisted to the top of the flag pole. The Commandant ended by telling us that "thousands of Yermans are going vest every day", not realising what this conveyed in British slang. There was a long burst of cheering from the British officers who were delighted to know that their enemies were being slaughtered! The parade ended and we returned to our rooms highly amused. But what were Niemeyer's thoughts were never revealed.
On the 1st April, 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy Air Service were combined to form the Royal Air Force. Having been seconded from my Worcestershire T.A. battalion to join the R.F.C., I was now seconded to the R.A.F. with the rank of Flying Officer, and changed my double-breasted R.F.C. uniform (known as a "Maternity Jacket") for the khaki uniform originally issued to the R.A.F.
April 1918. The days are lengthening and spring is on its way. We hear from the Swiss papers that peace with Russia has been declared, so must expect German troops to be transferred to the West. Their March offensive on the Somme seems to have petered out, after recapturing much of the ground we took in 1916. In a letter to my sister dated May 15th, "This will be full of the one important topic - to Holland or not to Holland. Facts first - the last party left on May 12th and brought the list up to July 1916 - so I am just two months off it. Provided the exchange continues (as will be learned later, it came to a halt) I should be there before the end of July. This waiting and wondering has been the worst time for anyone since we were captured. It is almost impossible to settle down to anything for more than a few moments. So the only thing to do is either to doze in the sun or to wander round looking like a poor specimen of the tramp class, wearing a large pair of down-at-heel old boots, dirty, very aged grey bags, a much torn and mended cardigan, a cap which can hardly be recognized as such, complete the outfit".
Tennis and golf are both going strong, though only one tennis court is in use at present - the other being re-surfaced! Parcels continue to arrive so life, though boring, was reasonably satisfied. A party of Merchant Seamen officers arrived in the camp - all taken prisoner by the German raider "Wolf". Six Jap officers appeared one day but left shortly afterwards for another camp so we had little chance of talking to them.
At last, in August orders came for those of us captured in the autumn of 1916 to move to Holland. We gave away various treasures accumulated over the past months, packed our bags and marched to the station and took a train for Aachen, where we were housed in a Technical High School building. Sanders, Molloy, Helder, Wingfield and Money came with me. The guards said, "Tomorrow you will be in Holland", but time passed and nothing happened. The Dutch frontier was only a few kilometres distant and we were allowed several walks "on parole" in charge of a German Lieutenant. Many of us were struck down by an attack of influenza which was raging at the time. We lay in bed suffering from high temperatures with only some weak gruel to sustain us. When we recovered we were so run down that we could hardly climb the stairs - in fact we crawled up on hands and knees, having searched the rubbish bins for crusts. The Germans, particularly in the towns, were getting very short of food. Having consumed the tins we had brought with us for the train journey, we were back on vegetable soup and "Kriegsbrot". After six weeks of waiting we had to sustain a severe shock - being informed that the exchange to Holland had broken down owing to the sinking of a British hospital ship on its way to pick up German prisoners from England. We were to be shipped back to a P.O.W. camp on the Baltic. So, packed tight in 4th class carriages, we wended our way by train via Berlin and after several nights, when it was difficult to get any sleep, duly arrived at Stralsund. Our new camp had been occupied by Russians and was on an island called Dänholm, separated from the city by a narrow stretch of water and crossed by small ferry boats. The island in peacetime had housed a garrison H.Q. and was provided with several blocks of barracks and other buildings. We messed in a hall some way from the barrack rooms in which we were housed. Sanitary provision was medieval and consisted of a circular structure, on the first floor of which was a circle of inclined "seats" and underneath the "shit cart" which was drawn out periodically to have its contents tipped. The Baltic winds blew strongly up the apertures which were only partly sealed by their seated occupants! When we arrived, there were about four hundred newly captured British prisoners, mainly taken in the German spring offensive. We - the old hands - had to teach them the various tricks and devices we had learned during our two years of captivity. Food was in very short supply but supplemented by a hoard of potatoes stored in cellars under our ground floor rooms. It did not take long for one of our experts to make a key and open up the door to the potato store. After a time some food parcels began to turn up - if I remember rightly, emanating from Holland and Switzerland.
Early in October a message came through to me to say that my youngest brother Eustace had been killed on September 27th, when serving with the Coldstream Guards, in an attack on the Canal du Nord. I had not seen him for the two years in which he had grown up since leaving Eton and going to an Officer's Training Unit at Bushey Park. My eldest brother Roger, who had transferred from the 4th Dragoon Guards to command a Company of the Rifle Brigade, had been badly wounded and had lost a foot earlier in the year. The War caused terrible casualties to those of my generation and in the post-war years, the country suffered from the loss of the thousands who would have become its leaders. The slaughter was terrible and many of my contemporaries at Eton fell by the wayside.
There was plenty of room in the camp for exercise and the German staff were fairly amiable and left us to ourselves. In October, three German-speaking officers from our barracks planned to escape, having acquired civilian clothes and forged identity and travel documents. One of them was Hugh Durnford - later to become Bursar of King’s College, Cambridge. One evening he walked to the ferry in his disguise as a workman - showed his pass to the sentry and spent some time in Stralsund until he could catch a train to Hamburg. From there he travelled in stages to the Danish frontier, crawled between two German sentry posts and got away to freedom. He wrote of his experiences as a P.O.W. in a book called "The Tunnelers of Holzminden". On the same day, a German speaking officer by name Ortweiler also got away and in time reached England.
There was not much to do to keep one occupied at Stralsund but the American forces had been flooding into France, the War with the Turks was over and at last it became clear that it was only a question of time before the Germans would be defeated. The autumn turned to winter and at last, in November, we heard that an Armistice had been signed.
We were told that there were some Russian officer prisoners locked up in an Asylum near Stralsund and I was asked by our Senior Officer to accompany him on a visit arranged by our captors as I could speak Russian, by this time quite fluently. Our Senior Officer was taken into one of the wards and was told by the German Superintendent that the Russians - who were in beds between two genuine mental cases, were suffering from various kinds of mental illnesses. Following behind, I was able to converse with several of the Russians - one of whom told me he had been sent to the Asylum as a punishment for having made several attempts to escape. Poor fellows - we could do little to help them and one hesitates to imagine what were their ultimate fates, either in German hands or in the hands of the Bolshevicks if they got back to Russia.
The German collapse came as a great shock to her ruling classes and with demoralised troops working their way home from the fronts, the climate was ripe for revolution and a Communist take-over. Soldiers and Workers Councils sprang up in several cities, among them Stralsund. Naval ratings from Kiel took over the Camp, appointed a Sergeant, who had previously looked after the camp hens, as Commandant. The German officers were summoned to the canteen, where they handed over their swords and left for the mainland. The elderly Second-in-Command of the camp - a distinguished looking cavalry officer who used to strut around looking impressive in his uniform with its black polished field boots - and a shako headgear - was to be seen in a knickerbocker suit of clothes and a porkpie hat which he removed as he bowed to his new masters.
We had not long to wait before we were sent off on a train which fetched up at Warnemunde, from where there was a ferry to Denmark. After crossing to Jutland - the mainland - we were housed in a camp, warmly greeted by the Danes who had managed to keep out of the War. The warmth of their welcome astonished and delighted us and at every stoppage the population, many of them wearing gala dress, provided refreshments. We were allowed to take walks without supervision and appreciated the luxury of sleeping between clean sheets. After a stay of about ten days, we went by train to the port of Aarhus, and embarked on a very smelly small steamer. The North Sea was rough. We were crammed tight in what cabins were available and most of us suffered from mal-de-mer - made worse by a diet of very greasy Irish stew! After a stormy crossing, we arrived at Leith, the port of Edinburgh, where we were greeted by local dockers who enquired, "Where have you been spending the War?" R.F.C. officers were sent to Scarborough where we were interviewed and after telling our various stories covering experiences of becoming prisoners-of-war, we were allowed to go off on leave. I ended up in London, just before Christmas, at my Uncle's house in Lennox Gardens where my Mother was staying. It took some time to accommodate oneself to a normal way of living, but early in January I set off for Cambridge and entered Trinity College three years later than originally planned.
The University was settling down to the upheavals caused by the War. The undergraduate body was a mixed one - Service people like myself, youngsters coming up from their schools, a contingent from the Navy of Sub-Lieutenants whose education had paused when they joined their ships as midshipmen, and a number of American officers wearing medal ribbons and gold bars on their sleeves indicating how many months they had been on active service. It was not always easy to get them to appreciate that some of us had seen up to four years of war and in several cases, earned decorations and held senior rank. My Tutor was a classic and took little interest in his pupils reading for science or technological degrees. So one had very little tutorial advice or assistance. I did not feel I could tackle an Honours Course so settled for an ordinary degree in Engineering. It was not easy to resume academic work and after struggling with lectures which I found difficult to understand, I went to a private coach who helped me to take a First class in the first part of the engineering course and a Second class in my Finals. To amuse myself I took Russian lessons with a Polish undergraduate and passed the oral examination of the Modern Languages Tripos with flying colours. So in the summer of 1920, I went to the Senate House wearing the appropriate hood and gown and received my degree.
I was too late to get into College but had comfortable rooms in St. John's Street, which I shared with another Etonian, Gerard Staveley Gordon, who was also reading engineering. Most of my meals were taken in the Pitt Club, though one had to dine or lunch in Hall the specified minimum number of times a week and put in an appearance in Chapel.
My free time was spent on the River Cam where I rowed in the Third Trinity Eight which went Head of the River in Mays, bumping Pembroke and Jesus on the first two days and rowing over on the following two days. We had a good crew, captained by Clarence Buxton who had rowed in the University Boat before the war and was President of the C.U.B.C. We were coached by two old Blues - Roly Nelson and Robin Arbuthnot. Two of our crew gained Blues - Herbert Boret and John Fremantle - who was 9th man in 1920. We did well that year in the Lents, making several bumps. But in the Mays lost our place to Jesus as Head of the River and at Henley where we were coached by the famous oar, Brigadier Gibbon, we were beaten after a close race in the anti-finals by the ultimate winner of the Ladies Plate, Christchurch.
So ends my story and military career, being demobilised from the Army and R.A.F. in March, 1919 - just four years after being commissioned into the 2/8 Bn. of the Worcestershire Regiment.
Postscript. What happened to my fellow officers in Room 68? Sanders went to South Africa and returned to farm in the East Midlands. Helder, who had intended to join the Church, became a dentist. Wingfield became a chartered accountant, working in London. Money rejoined his Regiment for a time and then went barn storming in New Zealand, ending his military career as Adjutant of a R.A.F. Reserve Squadron. All others have died except Tom Molloy who rejoined his Regiment - the Dorsets - ending up as a Colonel and for some years has lived in Malta.