Finally, on 22 November 1918, Grandad was on his way home.
At 19 years old Jack Wakefield had been a Prisoner of War in Germany for 7 months, endured meagre food rations, illness and no letters or parcels from home. At long last the Armistice had happened and the prisoners could go free.
Sarah Paterson, in her book ‘Tracing Your Prisoner of War Ancestors, the First World War’ is very informative on how repatriation happened. She describes the situation in Germany following the Armistice as “extremely chaotic”. With transportation in a dire situation and soldiers taking matters into their own hands to try to make their way home, the Red Cross no longer knew who was where. Furthermore, the men were weakened by lack of food which hampered their efforts to get to a channel port.
My understanding is that Grandad and those with him were pretty much left to their own devices to find their way home. His postcard home postmarked ‘Dover 22 November 1918 5.30pm’ bears a picture of Balatre – La Place. L’Ecole des Filles. Grandad wrote at the top “this is my last internment camp” and he has pencilled a cross on the right hand side of the building. This would seem to indicate that he had been there as a POW – whether he had been moved around frequently during his time in captivity we shall probably never know, but the fact that by this stage he was close to France would have aided his journey home. Those who were stuck in the heart of Germany had a long wait.
Balatre is today in Belgium, very near the French border. This spring, on our tour of the battlefields and memorials, we also had time to visit this tiny village. I had wondered whether any evidence of the school building might remain. Unfortunately not, but we sat in La Place with its church on one side and war memorial on the other, and took in the fact that Grandad had been there 100 years earlier. I wished that someone might appear who I could talk to, but the village seemed shut up and asleep. Then finally an elderly woman emerged from a house. I rushed over to approach her in my best French. She was lovely – and most interested in my story. I showed her the picture of the school and she was able to indicate where the building had been. She knew people who had been in the village longer than she had and promised to see if she could find out more, so we exchanged addresses. Subsequently we have corresponded, though she has not been able to find any additional information as yet. But I was so thrilled to have made a personal connection.
How did Grandad get a postcard of the school? Did the locals give the soldiers postcards as they left?
Grandad wrote on the card “Dear Mother, Just a few lines to let you know that I am in dover and shall be home Saturday do not no (sic) what time”. The aforementioned book describes how POWs returning through Dover went to a Reception Camp at Waterfall Meadow. They were given a packet containing a pipe and tobacco, cigarettes, toffee, chocolate and biscuits in addition to a hot meal on disembarkation. Once at Dover, provided the men were medically well enough, they were given their ‘leave and duty’ ration books, a message from the King and a rail warrant to travel home for two months’ leave.
Richard Van Emden, in his book ‘Prisoners of the Kaiser’, says that “by the end of November, fewer than ten per cent of POWs had reached England”. Grandad was, indeed, fortunate to be among them. How did his family react when he got home? There must have been such a feeling of relief to get their son back, but mingled with the grief for the elder son who would never come home. And quite possibly Grandad did not know of his brother William’s death until his return to Woking.
Did he get the cake that he had been so desperate for in those last seven months? I hope that, despite the food rationing, the family were able to feed him up. His final words on the postcard are “Get plenty of grub in for I been starved.”