One hundred years ago, Grandad had already been a Prisoner of War for 18 days. He was captured on Wednesday 24th April somewhere near Hondeghem, France. His regiment (2/2 Royal Fusiliers) had been working with the Royal Engineers excavating trenches a little way back from the front line as the German Spring Offensive pushed steadily westwards. Quite how he came to be captured I don’t know, but he may have been out on a reconnoitring patrol.
By this stage of the war it was quite common for prisoners to be initially kept quite close to the front line. Often they were forced to work supplying amunition to the German front and were in frequent danger from Allied shelling. Living conditions were often squalid, with no shelter, blankets or sanitation.
Whatever happened initially, it would seem that Grandad had, within the month, been taken to the POW camp at Gustrow, about 200 km east of Hamburg. No doubt he had been given the standard card to send home informing relatives of his capture, but the first of five letters or cards to have survived and kept by the family was written by him on 20th May.
On this card he writes: “With love these few lines trusting they find you all well and happy as it leaves me. Well Mum don’t worry about me for I shall look after my-self while here. I had that letter with the paper in it on the Tuesday and was taken prisoner on the Wed 24/4/18. Well Mum all I hope is that Will is safe.”
Ironically, that same day his brother Will’s Captain was writing to their mother to confirm his death in Belgium.
The food shortages for civilains in Germany as well as POWs was chronic by this stage of the war. As I recall, Grandad spoke very little of this period of his life, but one thing that has always stuck in my memory was that he said he ate dandelion leaves. I was therefore interested to read the following in ‘The Hunger War – Food, Rations and Rationing 1914 – 1918’ by Matthew Richardson: George Scroby of the Cheshire Regiment was held behind the German lines in France and later wrote “we managed to make the food spin out by various additions and substitutes such as gathering Nettles and Dandelions, old cabbage etc which we were able to gather whilst out working..….I used to cook the nettles etc over a fire in the yard to make a bit of a meal” (p 40).
Grandad (Jack Wakefield) goes on to say in his message home “I should like something to eat, you know a good big cake and some tobacco, fags and fag papers. Send plenty of them.”
Parcels sent from home were a lifeline for the prisoners, but with the reigning chaos as the end of the war drew closer, it is thought that few parcels reached their destination during the latter part of 1918. “Please send me a parcel regualy (sic) every week you can find out what to put in it at the post office.”
Grandad’s card home, though clearly written on 20th May, bears the postmark of 10 July. All of his communications home seem to have been delayed for quite some time.
“Well Mum I don’t think it will last much longer…. I think this is all so good by, keep smiling. From your loving son Jack”. My great grandparents must have received his letter with a mixture of relief that he was still alive but anxiety as to the conditions he was experiencing, despite his plea for them not to worry.
It would be seven long months before his release.