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.
“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.
Writing home on 11 June 1918, just 3 weeks after his first letter, Jack Wakefield is putting on a brave face. He expresses optimism that the war will soon be over (“I don’t think it will keep on much longer”) and looks forward to getting home (“well Mother, let us hope for the best, then what for a good time in Blighty, it will be grand”).
He repeats some of the information from his first letter, including details of his capture: “I had the misfortune to be taken prisoner….I had the letter with that paper in it that you said went to Frank and Will on the Tuesday. I was captured on the Wednesday. It seemed funny I was the 3rd one”. Maybe the ‘paper’ was a newspaper cutting – I wonder whether it told of other local lads who had been captured? That would appear to make sense of the reference to the “3rd one”. Frank Bookham was soon to be married to Jack’s eldest sister Annie. He was serving with the 631 Motor Transport Company of the Army Service Corps, and earlier in the war had been out in East Africa.
Having now been a Prisoner of War in Gustrow, Germany, for seven weeks, Grandad is understandably anxious for some provisions from home to supplement what must have been extremely basic provisions in the camp. “Well dear Mother, do your best to send me a parcel as soon as you can. The Post Office will let you know what to put in it. You know, a good big cake, some fags, tobacco, pipe and fag papers. Send plenty of them for I can make it up with you all when I get back. See if you can let me have one or two books.” In order to emphasise the point, at the bottom of the letter Jack adds “send a parcel each week – get Nell to help”. His next eldest sister Nell was obviously the sister to be relied on – it was she that his brother Will had turned to the previous Christmas when he was short of money.
I recently came across the journal of the Central Prisoners of War Committee of the Red Cross and Order of St John for January 1918. This edition of the ‘British Prisoner of War’ carries an advert for suitable cigarettes and tobacco to send in parcels. Whether or not Jack’s family attempted to send any of these we will never know. The journal also contains useful information on how to send parcels and what could be included. Unfortunately for my Grandad that did not appear to include “a good big cake”!
Although written on 11 June, the postmark on this letter was a month later – 10 July. What an anxious time for his family back in Woking.