from ‘The War Illustrated’, 25th January, 1919
'Hun Inhumanity to Helpless Men'
by Robert Machray

Some Facts About the German Prison Camps

a group portrait of British prisoners


“Brutes they are, and brutes they remain," said Mr. Balfour, commenting on the submarining of one of our ships, in circumstances of great inhumanity, by the Germans at the very time they were seeking an armistice. The Foreign Secretary was not using the language of diplomacy; he was speaking the blunt, the horrible truth, under pressure of righteous anger and burning indignation.

Germany has manifested her brutality in many ways, but in none more conspicuously than in her attitude towards British prisoners of war, whom she singled out for far worse treatment than that given to any of the unfortunate combatants or civilians of the other Allies who fell into her cruel hands.

In many instances to be British was to be tortured to the limit of endurance. This surely is the unforgettable, the unforgivable thing. There are things to be remembered at the Peace Conference — the German maltreatment of prisoners is certainly one. But for us British there are things that we should hold in perpetual remembrance, and one of them is how hideously the Germans made our own poor fellows suffer in captivity. Can anything ever blot it out ? Here is "no place for repentance."

Callous Treatment

Not that Germany repents; of that there is no sign ; she is sorry that she has lost the war — that is all. After the armistice she treated the British prisoners with the utmost callousness. Her first idea was to make them continue to work for her, in the same dreadful conditions as before, but when she saw that this would not be permitted, she sent them out of their camps without food, clothing, boots, and without guides, to find their way as best they could to the lines of the Allies. And this, too, at a time when on her own behalf she was appealing to the "sacred laws of humanity," laws which she had never herself observed, but had incessantly broken.

On November 17th last two thousand British prisoners reached Nancy, in France. "I have talked to a large number of them," wrote the special correspondent of the "Times," "and in no case, so far as I know, were any of them given food to carry them through their journey. Some of them had walked for four or five days before they got to the French lines, and others from greater distances are still on the way. They are nearly all wretchedly clad, and their sufferings from the cold alone, for the weather is bitter, have been intense. They look like tramps of the most wretched degree. Their state of physical exhaustion, the thinness of their poor bodies, and the mental torture that is written in their faces, are pitiable."

On the same day a correspondent with the American Army spoke thus of some British prisoners" he had seen: "Never did one look upon more silent and pitiful victims of German hatred of Britain. Their faces emaciated and blue with cold, tunics hanging like sacks from their shoulders, voices thin and low, bespeaking exhaustion — they presented a picture of utter misery."

The British Government addressed a severe warning to the German Government respecting the cruel treatment of the British prisoners returning to the .British lines, and threatened that if there were no change for the better that fact would be taken into account in the arrangements made for the provisioning of Germany. But the brutal treatment of British prisoners had been the deliberate, cold-blooded policy all along of Germany, whether Government or people, and it was pursued with persistent pitilessness, in spite of specific agreements concluded with Great Britain. The last of these, that known as The Hague Agreement for a mutual exchange of prisoners, was signed on July 14th, 1918, but Germany took no action on it for nearly four months — not till she was beginning to whine for mercy.


just captured


Years of Nightmare

In thousands of British homes the truth, in all its horror, is now being told by the returned men. What stories they are that these men tell! They all speak of hunger; famine would have stalked through every camp but for the food-parcels sent from Britain. They nearly all speak of savage treatment — of blows with the butts of rifles, of proddings with bayonets, of being forced when weak and ill to work under the lash, of terrible punishments for the least breach of the most arbitrary rules. "The discipline was so cruel that if prisoners did anything wrong they were crucified ! "

This is what these' men are saying, and they will add that men died under this barbarity. Everything that the most diabolical malignity could suggest was resorted to by the German torturers to break the spirit as well as the physique of the British. "A four and a half years' nightmare," is the way in which a man captured very early in the war described what he went through. "A hell, and worse than hell," said another.

Soon after the signing of the armistice the fact was disclosed that the treatment of British prisoners by the Germans had become still more devilish, if that were possible, after the Cambrai reverse last year, and particularly while the German offensive in March and April this year was in full swing. Though one of the agreements between the British and German Governments categorically forbade the employment of prisoners nearer the firing-line than thirty kilometres (twenty miles), the Germans kept the British close up to the front, did not allow them to communicate with their friends at home, and prevented them from receiving the food-parcels. The minimum of abominable food and the maximum of danger from shell fire was their daily lot; most of the available food was given to other prisoners.

"Living Skeletons"

"Many of the British prisoners are pitiable spectacles," wrote the Australian correspondent with the forces in France, who saw some that had reached the Australian lines ; "they are nothing but living skeletons ; their arms are as thin as broomsticks, and they are unable to speak a sentence of more than a few words."

Queen Mary was told by a soldier that he was a member of a company of one hundred men, who were compelled to work behind the front line, where many were killed by British shells, and that only thirty-five were left alive when the armistice came.

The White Paper (Misc. No. 28, 101S), issued by our Government in December, should be read by every Briton — and once read it will never. be forgotten. It is a shocking tale of odious tyranny, of revolting torture.

A fresh phase of Hun barbarity was revealed in another Government report, dated November 1st, which stated that the Germans had transferred from the western front to places as far away as East Prussia and Poland gangs of prisoners who were no longer fit for their purposes behind the lines in France and Belgium.

Of the camp at Trelon, Poland, one of our men wrote : "This was a proper place of torture, supposed to be a hospital for our boys should, they be taken ill while working behind the line. Scores were coming in daily, fifty-three dying in three days with dysentery. There was only one doctor. The place was supposed to hold four hundred, but something like one thousand were here."

Of the treatment behind the lines a witness from Ramecourt said: "The men at St. Erme knocked prisoners about in competition with one another to see who would get the most work out of us ; they all had sticks. Several prisoners died from starvation."

Prisoners' Terrible March

A corporal of the 5th Seaforths, who had once thought that the German rank and file were brutal because they were ordered to be brutal, said, after eight months' captivity, that he was completely disillusioned, and was thoroughly "enlightened by first-hand knowledge as to the inhumanity of the average German, high born or low."

Of the other enemy Governments little can be said against Austria, but the case is different with respect to Bulgaria, and Turkey. Austria had few British prisoners', and on the whole they were not badly treated. Fortunately, Bulgaria did not have a very large number, but she was as deliberately cruel as Germany.

As for Turkey, who can read of the ghastly march of the prisoners from Kut to Bagdad, and then across the desert, without feeling the utmost detestation of the Turk, who is not at all the gentlemanly person some people would have us believe, but is as brutal as the German. Of that terrible march an officer said : "The prisoners were driven like sheep along the desert ways, denied food, kept short of water, refused shelter, refused rest, bayoneted or clubbed if they stopped, struck by raw-hide whips when they faltered. Roughly speaking, 75 to 85 per cent, of the British rank and file died."

Another officer said, "Most of the actual detailed stories of the ill-treatment of men and officers are too beastly to publish." A third officer stated, "The Turk in this war has proved himself to be a worse fiend even than the Hun."

The crimes of the enemy against our prisoners cry aloud for just punishment, and we must not only insist on that, but never allow ourselves to forget what our men suffered. It is satisfactory that it has been officially announced that the enemy Governments will be required to account for every British prisoner who has at any time been in their hands.

Robert Machray

views after the Armistice

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