What was it like being a POW on the Western Front?

Becoming a prisoner-of-war was a risky business. You had to hope that the enemy, who probably moments before you were trying to kill, would now look kindly on you. One soldier said that ‘chivalry diminished according to a kind of graduated scale’ –soldiers in certain units, because of what they did, were less likely to be taken prisoner than others. You then had to make your way through enemy lines that were probably being shelled and attacked by your own side.

The Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper had a few letters passed on to it by relatives of Poole, or Dorset Regiment, men who were prisoners-of-war on the Western Front. A Culture volunteer working on the Poole History Centre First World project describes their experiences which varied quite wildly.

In November 1914, Private James, of Pile Court, Poole wrote to say he was a POW in Weser, that he was ‘having a good time’ and recommended not ‘taking notice’ of what was being said in the newspapers. He said that there were quite a few Poole men in the camp. This must have included Private James Houghton who was captured, along with 200 others, on October 13th 1914 and wrote that he was now in Hamelm, Weser. He said he was alright but would welcome cigarettes and cake. His father was Mr J. Houghton of the Brewers Arms, Poole.

Private Charles Beale, Dorset Regiment, had been wounded and, on recovery, had been sent back to the fighting. He was taken prisoner towards the end of 1914. In a letter to his mother, who lived in Nile Row, Poole, he said that she was not to worry – ‘I am quite happy’ but he would welcome chocolates and cakes. He understood that the Poole Working Men’s Club was going to send him a parcel of tobacco and clothes.

 In stark contrast to Private James’ pleasant experience is that of Private H. Ripley of the 1st Dorsets who actually escaped from a POW camp. He described his experience of being a POW to the ‘Hampshire Telegraph and Post’ in August 1916. Ripley went over to France with the British Expeditionary Force and fought at the Battle of Mons. He was taken prisoner near La Bassee on October 22nd 1914. He was then taken to Douai where he was held in barracks for seven days along with many others and the ‘treatment [was] too filthy and disgusting to describe’. They were then sent in railway trucks to Germany with around 70 men in each truck and nothing to eat or drink. The journey took two days. They were then put in a temporary camp where they were given a piece of sausage and a bit of black bread. After a short stay, they were sent on to Dortmund to work in the coal mines. A few days later, they refused to do the work which they felt was contributing to the death of their fellow servicemen. ‘They knocked us about’ but in the end their captors asked if they would be willing to work in the woods near Munster. He worked there for several months before being sent, along with a small group of men, to join several hundred French and Russian prisoners working in the coal mines. The British soldiers refused and were punished by being forced to stand to attention against a wall for 10 hours a day with hardly any food. The effects of starvation and exhaustion meant they had to give in a week later. It was shortly after this that Ripley decided to escape. The newspaper article, as reported in the Poole and East Dorset Herald, unfortunately does not describe how he escaped and made his way back to England.

Several men were transferred to Switzerland in either a prisoner exchange or because they were seriously wounded. Towards the end of 1914, Private E.G. Langdown sent a postcard to his wife who lived in Garland Road, Longfleet. He was a POW at Sennelager, Paderborn and wanted his wife to send him cake, jam, biscuits, chocolate and similar but that no letter should be included. His wife learnt in January 1917 that he had been in Paderborn since August 23rd 1914 but had then been transferred to Switzerland because he was very ill. He said he was now staying at a very nice hotel in the Swiss Alps. Interestingly, Mrs Langdown’s house was called ‘Mons’, presumably after the battle in which her husband was captured.

Sergeant-Drummer F.J. Bowditch, ‘a native of Poole’, who was an interned POW in Switzerland sent a letter home at the beginning of 1917 requesting that a six-key E Flat piccolo be sent to him at the Hotel Berthod, Chateau-de-Oex. The reason was that he needed it to play in an orchestra that was being created. His injuries meant that he required two sticks to be able to walk and was expecting to have more surgery. Christmas 1916 had been a pleasant time with a Christmas tree, concert, a film show and afternoon tea – ‘we couldn’t have had a better day’s enjoyment’.

The conditions under which POWs were held deteriorated significantly as the war progressed because the Royal Navy blockade was leading to widespread starvation in Germany. The Dorset Guild of Workers had a Prisoners of War Fund which was specifically aimed at providing food and clothing for Dorset Regiment prisoners of war. In June 1917, a view was expressed that if POWs in Germany did not receive food parcels from organisations such as the Dorset Guild ‘these men would starve’.

The Guild supplied parcels for Dorset Regiment men in captivity and subscribers could ‘adopt’ a prisoner at 5s (25p) per week but this increased as the price of materials went up. A special effort was made to send them parcels at Christmas.

A POW wrote in February 1917, after being exchanged and interned in Switzerland, to express his thanks for the parcels from the Dorset Guild which he had received when he was a POW in Germany. ‘Dorset soldiers receiving parcels from the Guild are well satisfied…it is a good parcel to look forward’.

 Comments from other Dorset POWs said the parcels were ‘exceedingly good and I am very grateful’; ‘they come very nice, and regularly, but do want some soap badly’. One man was puzzled he had received no bread but was pleased with his parcels of boots and clothing. Supplies of bread were from a Central Committee and went via Copenhagen and it was believed that the problems were in Germany. Although an improvement was noted in March 1917, a year later it was said that the German postal system was working badly and that Austrian postal system had collapsed which affected parcels for POWs in Bulgaria and Turkey.

It is estimated that nearly 7,000 officers and 170,000 other ranks were either prisoners-of-war or were interned in a country that was neutral. The experience of Captain Esler, R.A.M.C., highlights how their fortunes could change.   He was held in a POW camp near Baden where he slept on straw riddled with lice and subsisted on a starvation diet. He was then transferred to a POW camp on the Baltic Coast. The contrast could not be more startling. Here they had blankets and sheets, cooking facilities, a recreation hut and entertainments. They received so many food parcels via organisations such as the British Red Cross that they began to give food to the camp guards who were starving.

One thought on “What was it like being a POW on the Western Front?

  1. my father A.B.Frampton was wounded and taken prisoner at Labasee he told of stripping of in the snow and hanging their clothes on the barbed wire of the pow camp in an attempt to kill the lice also the prisoners made items from tins and he was allowed to go with a goard ti the village to barter for food


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