Get plenty of grub in

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.

Balatre, Belgium
Balatre – La Place

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.”

L'ecole des filles Balatre 1918
L’ecole des filles Balatre
POW postcard WW1
Grandad’s final postcard home
Letter from the King

 

 

It would be nice to get a line from dear old Woking

Grandad’s last full letter home from his prisoner of war camp is postmarked Gustrow 14.11.18.  The top of the letter, and therefore the date he wrote it, is missing and I strongly suspect that it was written a good bit before 14th November, especially since all the other letters have a postmark sometime after the date of the letter.

Grandad (Jack Wakefield) says “we are having some lovely weather out here now”, and that it is now 6 months since he was taken prisoner, so I’m guessing it was written in October.  Additionally, my understanding is that once the Armistice had been declared the Germans often just left the POW camps, leaving the prisoners to their own devices.

Grandad obviously had an inkling that the end might come soon as news of the war’s progress filtered through:  “the war seems as though it won’t be long before it is all over.”  Interestingly, he also says “I think I have got over the worst of my prisoners life now”.  We know from the previous letter that he had had a spell in hospital, but surely at this late stage of the war the food shortages would have been at their very worst?

We learn in this letter that he has received no letters or parcels at all from his family while he has been a prisoner.  His early letters were insistent about wanting cake and cigarettes.  I should think it highly likely that the family did send letters and parcels but that the chaos in Germany by this stage of the war meant that nothing got through to him.  He says “It would be nice to get a line from dear old Woking.  I have not had a word since I was taken prisoner 6 months now”.  Despite the cheery tone of the letter, Grandad must have wondered whether his letters had reached home and how his family were faring.  Presumably he still had no idea at this stage that his older brother William had been killed in Belgium back in April.

Jack Wakefield
Jack’s letter home Nov 1918

“Hoping to see you all soon”, he concludes.  And in fact, possibly around a month after writing this, he would, indeed finally be on his way home;  returning to a nation that was reeling from the loss of a generation of young men.  He was a 19 year old, returning home emaciated from months of starvation and having witnessed the most atrocious things.  No wonder he didn’t want to talk about it.

But tomorrow, on Remembrance Sunday, I will be going to “dear old Woking” and, as I lay a wreath in memory of Jack’s brother William, killed on 12 April 1918, I will be remembering too the ordeal Grandad endured as a POW.

We will remember them.

Jack Wakefield