Accounts of brutal treatment of British WWI soldiers in German PoW camps emerge 104 years later

‘Hardly a day would go by without a beating’: Harrowing accounts of brutal treatment British soldiers endured in German PoW camps during the First World War set to go up for auction after rare documents emerge 104 years later

  • Interned British Tommies, were kept in cages without food and drink suffered beatings and dealt with disease
  • Letters collected by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Crosse after WWI ended in November 1918 have emerged
  • They shed new light on the distressing experiences of captured British servicemen during the Great War
  • A soldier wrote of how the Germans ‘would not give me any food’ after calling their air raids ‘complete failures’
  • The collection is going to auction with Henry Aldridge & Son tomorrow and is tipped to sell for around £700 

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Harrowing accounts of the brutal treatment captured British soldiers endured in German prisoner-of-war camps during the First World War have emerged 104 years later.

British soldiers interned in German PoW camps wrote how of how ‘hardly a day would go by without a beating,’ and how the Germans ‘would not give me any food’ after calling their air raids ‘complete failures’.

The Tommies were kept in cages without food and drink, suffered savage beatings and dealt with horrifying disease in the camps.

The rare documents were collected by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Crosse who was tasked with tracking down prisoners returning home as the war ended in November 1918.

The collection of letters sheds new light on the distressing experiences of captured British servicemen during the Great War, as it was referred to at the time, as little information about them exists.

British soldiers interned in German PoW camps wrote how of how 'hardly a day would go by without a beating,' and how the Germans 'would not give me any food' after calling their air raids 'complete failures'. Pictured: German soldiers guard a line of British prisoners of war, many of whom carry a few belongings, as they walk along a road during the First World War

British soldiers interned in German PoW camps wrote how of how ‘hardly a day would go by without a beating,’ and how the Germans ‘would not give me any food’ after calling their air raids ‘complete failures’. Pictured: German soldiers guard a line of British prisoners of war, many of whom carry a few belongings, as they walk along a road during the First World War

Rare documents like this letter were collected by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Crosse who was tasked with tracking down prisoners returning home as the war ended in November 1918. Pictured: A letter written by Private Cotton to Lieutenant Colonel Richard Crosse detailing his time in the German PoW camp

Rare documents like this letter were collected by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Crosse who was tasked with tracking down prisoners returning home as the war ended in November 1918. Pictured: A letter written by Private Cotton to Lieutenant Colonel Richard Crosse detailing his time in the German PoW camp

'We were badly treated by the Germans and hardly a day would go by without a beating': Page three of the letter written by Pte Cotton to Lt. Col Crosse detailing his time in a WWI German PoW camp

Page four of the letter written by Pte Cotton to Lt. Col Crosse detailing his time in a WWI German PoW camp

‘We were badly treated by the Germans and hardly a day would go by without a beating’: Pages three and four of the letter written by Pte Cotton to Lt. Col Crosse detailing his time in a WWI German PoW camp

A document from the War Prisoners Fun for Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Regiments signed in December 1917

A document from the War Prisoners Fun for Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Regiments signed in December 1917

Survivor Private Cotton was captured on the Western Front in France in 1918 as ‘thousands’ of German soldiers attacked the British line.

As he tried to flee over the top of the trench, one of his comrades was shot in the knee and they had to take cover.

Writing upon his return to England after the war, Pte Cotton said: ‘While we were going over the top, Lay was shot through the knee and it was impossible to keep up with the regiment.

‘We decided to get back again but the machine gun bullets were flying all round us.

‘There was a heavy bombardment at the corner of the road and it would have been suicide to attempt it. We decided discretion was the better part of valour and we took shelter.

‘It was while we were waiting for the barrage to lift that the Germans came up in their thousands and we were taken prisoner. We spent the night in a cage without food or shelter.’

After his capture Pte Cotton endured an interrogation by German soldiers who ‘knocked him about’ when he refused to reveal information about the British position.

He described how the prisoners survived on scraps of bread and food smuggled in by French peasants.

A contemporary map of the main prison camps in Germany and Austria during the First World War

A contemporary map of the main prison camps in Germany and Austria during the First World War

A map of the Ypres Salient - known as 'Wipers' by British soldiers - 'Tommies' - the location of four major battles during WWI which had a cumulative total of well over a million casualties

A map of the Ypres Salient – known as ‘Wipers’ by British soldiers – ‘Tommies’ – the location of four major battles during WWI which had a cumulative total of well over a million casualties

British prisoners of war in Doberitz, Germany, form a work detail for manual labour during World war One in 1916

British prisoners of war in Doberitz, Germany, form a work detail for manual labour during World war One in 1916

British prisoners on the road, in Le Mesnil, France, in August 1916 following the Battle of the Somme

British prisoners on the road, in Le Mesnil, France, in August 1916 following the Battle of the Somme

The Tommy was sent to a nearby labour camp to repair roads where he suffered ‘daily beatings’ and witnessed several British soldiers being killed.

He went on: ‘It was a terrible place. The huts were alive with bugs and sleep was impossible.

‘I slept in a shed most nearly all the time. We were badly treated by the Germans and hardly a day would go by without a beating’.

The soldier became so sick that he was sent to hospital in Germany where he was kept until the end of the war.

Miraculously he survived, even after a wound in his leg turned septic on the gruelling train journey there.

Another account was by a Pte Leonard, who was captured in 1917.

He wrote of how he had to carry a wounded Tommy six miles while under guard and repeatedly dropped him due to the accurate shelling from his own side.

He wrote: ‘I’m afraid Young had a rough time as I was carrying him, and every time a shell came near I dropped down and of course he went with me, and our artillery were doing some good shooting.’

He wrote of how he was questioned by the Germans on the strength of the British forces.

He ‘gave them nothing’ and then antagonised them further by calling German air raids ‘complete failures’ and saying Britain had ‘plenty of food’.

His irate captors ‘knocked him about’ and then deprived him of food. He wrote: ‘They could not believe it and I was knocked about for telling lies.

An account which is part of the collection being auctioned by Henry Aldridge and Sons Ltd

An account which is part of the collection being auctioned by Henry Aldridge and Sons Ltd

The letters, amassed by Lt. Col Crosse, who commanded the second battalion of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry regiment at the Some, are tipped to sell at Henry Aldridge and Son of Devizes, Wiltshire, for £700

An extract from one of the accounts of British solider during WWI

The letters, amassed by Lt. Col Crosse, who commanded the second battalion of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry regiment at the Some, are tipped to sell at Henry Aldridge and Son of Devizes, Wiltshire, for £700

‘They would not give me any food that night, but some French civilians smuggled me in some bread and wine.’

He then marched 10 miles to join a large working camp of British Tommies who were building a road and railway.

He said ‘several Englishmen’ were killed there ‘from shell fire’ from their own side.

The letters, amassed by Lt. Col Crosse, who commanded the second battalion of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry regiment at the Some, are tipped to sell at Henry Aldridge and Son of Devizes, Wiltshire, for £700.

A large map of German PoW camps notated by Crosse and a comprehensive list of prisoners showing where each was captured is also included in the collection.

Andrew Aldridge, specialist at the auction house, described it as an ‘extremely rare and fascinating archive’.

He said: ‘It relates to soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans and includes a number of letters written at the end of hostilities from prisoners giving first person accounts of their treatment at the hands of the Germans.

‘Many of these are are particularly graphic but the one by Private Cotton really stands out’.

He told the MailOnline how this challenges the notion some hold of WWI being a ‘gentleman’s war’, especially when compared to the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WWII.

Around 192,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen were taken PoW during the First World War.

The collection of letters was purchased by the auctioneers from a private collector. 

According to the British National Archive, there is ‘very little information anywhere’ on PoWs liberated after the armistice, making Crosse’s collection incredibly historically valuable.

Lt. Col Crosse’s collection will be sold on July 30

Mr Aldridge also said a collection of letters written from the trenches by Sapper Thomas Winter (pictured) of West Riding 456th Field Company Royal Engineers was also going to auction

Mr Aldridge also said a collection of letters written from the trenches by Sapper Thomas Winter (pictured) of West Riding 456th Field Company Royal Engineers was also going to auction

A letter from a collection of letters written from the trenches by Sapper Thomas Winter of West Riding 456th Field Company Royal Engineers

These letters are also going to auction with Henry Aldridge & Son

British WWI soldier Sapper Thomas Winter wrote to his sister that Germans shouted at the British trenches: ‘Who won the FA Cup?’ A collection of letters written from the trenches by Sapper Thomas Winter of West Riding 456th Field Company Royal Engineers was also going to auction with Henry Aldridge & Son

Mr Aldridge said a collection of letters written from the trenches by Sapper Thomas Winter of West Riding 456th Field Company Royal Engineers was also going to auction.

The letters were written over an 19 month period from May 1915 to October 1916

The first dated May 12 1915 and written during the second Battle of Ypres reads: ‘I’m still safe and sound but I must admit I’ve been a bit lucky.

‘We went into action on Saturday midnight and a thundering bombardment started and 4 o’clock we rushed in on first reserve ready to take part in engineering if wanted.’

Included in the collection is a letter that Mr Aldridge finds particularly fascinating where the British soldier recalls German soldiers shouting to over to the British trenches: ‘Who won the FA Cup?’

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