Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Officers and Prisoners

In Elusive Dawn I have a Canadian officer pilot – let’s call him Z - who becomes a Prisoner of War (POW) in Germany, so I wrote his experiences to reflect what was typical -  based on real WW1 POW camps - as well as to illustrate some of the seeming absurdities of war.

Z began his incarceration in Vohrenbach, an idyllic new camp for officers in the Black Forest.  The commandant was an easygoing fellow with an English wife, so he was particularly decent to British POWs. (Canadians were British subjects in those days.)  Food was adequate and sometimes included potato salad and sausages. Giving their parole – a promise not to escape – officers were permitted to go for unguarded walks outside the camp.  With his officer’s salary that Germany had to pay him, as well as money from home, Z could buy good booze and other treats at the canteen.  It was an officer’s duty to try to escape, but most were quickly apprehended.
Holzminden officers' POW camp, Germany, WW1
When Vohrenbach was turned into a reprisal camp for French POWs, Z ended up at the notorious Holzminden prison in Prussia – the fiefdom of the brutal commandant, Hauptman Karl Niemeyer. Pilots and Canadians had a reputation for being troublemakers, which is why over 100 of the 500 POWs at Holzminden were Canadian.

Karl Niemeyer
 Niemeyer had lived in the United States for 17 years before the war. The prisoners mocked “Milwaukee Bill’s” often-laughable English, landing some, like Z, in deep trouble.

Niemeyer singled out a few well-known prisoners for harsh treatment, like Leefe Robinson, who had earned a Victoria Cross for being the first pilot to shoot down a German Zeppelin over Britain.  Z also became Niemeyer’s whipping boy, enduring long stretches of solitary confinement.

Rations at Holzminden consisted mostly of odious black bread and dishwater soup, so care packages from home and the Red Cross were essential to the POWs survival. In the latter stages of the war, they ate better than their guards and the starving German population – unless they were in solitary confinement.

Unlike the ranks, officer POWs could not be forced to work, so they relieved boredom with sports, plays, concerts, lectures, debates, reading. And planning escapes.

POWs in Germany were sent to neutral Switzerland or Holland during the latter years of the war if they were ill or had problems with their nerves after prolonged imprisonment. By the end of the war, 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops were interned in Holland alone. Once there, they could live in hotels if they could afford it, and officers could have their wives join them.

Canadian officers had a clubhouse on the seafront in Scheveningen in Holland where booze was cheap. The Canadians had a baseball team and often played against the American Legation in the nearby Hague. Some men got paying jobs and fell in love with local girls. But they weren't allowed to leave the country, and Britain would have been obliged to send them back had they tried. However, if a prisoner managed to escape from Germany to a neutral country, he could go home – and back to war.

On July 23, 1918, after nine months of secret digging, 29 prisoners managed to escape from Holzminden through a tunnel. Ten of them succeeded in reaching Holland.

You’ll have to read Elusive Dawn to discover how Z ends his war.

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