Behind barbed wire

April 8, 2018 by Sharon Adams

Many Canadians spent more than three years in German prisoner-of-war camps in the First World War. At this one, a flood brought a welcome change to the camp’s oppressive daily routine.

A small cheese sent from home played a big role in the survival of two starving Canadians in a First World War prisoner-of-war camp deep in Germany.

“It was one of the cream cheeses…so popular in Canada,” Lance-Corporal Edward Edwards wrote in his 1918 memoir, The Escape of a Princess Pat. The food was welcome, but the real treasure was the compass concealed inside, no small contribution to the happy end of his third wet and miserable cross-country escape in 1916.

Edwards was one of the few Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry to survive the fighting at Frezenberg Ridge east of Ypres, Belgium, on May 8, 1915, saved only because an officer stopped the massacre. He spent the next 15 months as a PoW, as subject and witness to cruel and inhumane treatment.

The 3,847 or so Canadian PoWs were just a blip among an estimated seven million captives in the war, including two and a half million held by the German Empire. Those numbers are a historical anomaly—throughout most of human history, captured soldiers were killed or enslaved (although nobles or the very wealthy might be ransomed). Ensuring the well-being of captives rose slowly to the moral high ground; by the 1800s, “civilized” societies did not kill prisoners, but locked them up.

Modern attempts at “civilizing warfare,” as Desmond Morton put it in Silent Battle, began with the creation of the International Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1906, events spurred by concern over the 40,000 wounded soldiers left suffering on the battlefield at Solferino, Italy, in 1859.

The Red Cross had a major role looking after prisoners’ well-being in the First World War, keeping track of PoWs and collecting and distributing relief packages. It also provided camp inspectors and tried to ensure that warring nations respected prisoners’ rights.

The Geneva agreements stipulated that the wounded, medical attendants and chaplains were not to be attacked. Captors were responsible for medical treatment of wounded prisoners and speedy exchange of medical personnel and chaplains. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 made governments, not individual captors, accountable for the humane treatment of prisoners. Minimum standards for food and lodging were established. Prisoners (except officers) could be required to work in non-war related jobs. They had to be paid, although the cost of their keep could be deducted from wages. They could be disciplined for trying to escape.

The major parties in the First World War signed these agreements. But good intentions easily melt under war’s hot emotions.


PoWs pause from their labour and queue for a meagre meal. Food became scarce as the war persisted, and prisoners went hungry all the time.

Edwards had the misfortune of being captured just when a tale was making the rounds among German troops of Canadians slitting throats of the wounded. Edwards was in a group of 10 Patricias taken by the 21st Prussian Regiment. There should have been more.

“Becoming a prisoner was one of the most dangerous acts on the battlefield of the Great War,” historian Tim Cook wrote in a 2006 article in The Journal of Military History. Killing of prisoners was banned, but “it was difficult for soldiers to alternate between the frenzy of killing and the offering of mercy.”

Sometimes officers, including Canadians, told their troops not to take prisoners; sometimes soldiers would see red when a buddy was killed; sometimes troops would avenge a real or rumoured atrocity.

When Germans poured into his trench, said Edwards, “they trampled our dead and bayonetted our wounded.” Two privates were shot in the head. A young soldier from Winnipeg put his hands up in surrender and “his captor placed the muzzle of his rifle square against the palm and blew it off.”

An interrogation officer told Edwards, “You’re the fellows we want to get hold of. You cut the throats of our wounded” at Saint Julien, Belgium.

“I said, and quite truthfully, that we had not been at Saint Julien,” wrote Edwards. “We were aware of the story of the crucifixion [of a Canadian at] Ypres…for its truth I cannot vouch. How far other regiments may have gone in retaliation…it is impossible to say. That prisoners may have been killed is possible, for such things become an integral part of war….”

Although they took about 42,000 German prisoners, “Canadians commonly boasted that they did not take prisoners—boasts the Germans soon discovered,” Morton wrote in When Your Number’s Up.

“Therefore, Canadians who fell into German hands often suffered a similar grim fate,” wrote Cook. “That begat a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals.”

Most of the 3,847 Canadian PoWs were captured early in the war—including 1,400 in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.

Agreements about the treatment of prisoners were ignored from the moment the Patricias were captured. Immediately, they were stripped of their personal items, even coats. They were locked in freight cars and were not fed, nor their wounds treated, for three days. At each railway station stop, the Canadians were lined up before civilians who jeered at them and spat on them.

Sergeant Arthur Gibbons was wounded at Ypres, dragged behind German lines, left in a field for four days, and kicked and hit by passing soldiers. The doctor who treated him 12 days later cursed Canadians as mercenaries. When Gibbons woke after an operation, he found his foot and ankle had been twisted around so “when I looked down, I saw the bottom of my foot instead of the top.” The ends of his broken thigh bone had been overlapped, rather than fit together, so one leg was 14 centimetres shorter. His dressings were not changed for a week at a time.

“Our prisoners of war have suffered hardships the like of which no human being should ever be subjected,” Lieutenant J. Harvey Douglas wrote in his memoir Captured: Sixteen Months as a Prisoner of War. He was captured on June 2, 1916, in the Battle of Mont Sorrel, after a machine-gun bullet tore through the skin, bone and tendons of his arm. He also had a head wound. He was treated relatively kindly on his way to the military hospital in Cologne, Germany, but his treatment there is best described as negligent, if not incompetent.

Germany set out with good intentions. Prisoners were to receive two blankets, a towel, eating utensils, comfortable quarters and adequate nutrition. But individual commanders administered the camps, controlled the provisions, made the rules.

Treatment varied according to the attitude of the camp commandant. Slow starvation and brutal discipline awaited Edwards, but that was not the experience of every Canadian PoW. One camp inspector described contrasts between camps as “the difference between day and night, between heaven, relatively, and hell absolutely.”

Expecting a short war, Germany was unprepared for so many prisoners, but eventually built nearly 300 prison camps. Officers and their orderlies were housed in repurposed buildings such as hotels or schools. There were beds with proper mattresses, more room and more privacy. At the other end of the spectrum were punishment camps for those who tried to escape, resisted orders or were violent. Many prisoners died of brutal treatment, unsafe working conditions and privation.

The majority were sent to basic camps surrounded by barbed wire, compounds housing as many as 40,000 prisoners. About 250 prisoners of various nations were crammed into ill-lit, badly heated 10-by-50-metre huts, sleeping in bunks on straw mattresses. “Latrine buckets in the corner, usually overflowing by morning, affected air quality,” noted Morton. Some camps had libraries, concert halls or theatres. Others were bare-boned and unsanitary. In the Wittenberg PoW camp, prisoners, sick or well, were assigned three to a mattress. Guards and medical personnel abandoned the camp during the ensuing typhus epidemic.

About 300 Canadian prisoners in German camps did not survive captivity, victims of disease, deprivation or brutality.

Germany made full use of its prisoner workforce. Canadians toiled on farms, in factories and foundries, in salt mines and coal mines, draining swamps and building railways, often without proper tools or safety equipment.

Those who refused to do work that would contribute to Germany’s war effort were harshly punished, Morton reported. In 1916, Private Fred Armstrong was sentenced to death (commuted to 13 years in solitary) as a ringleader of an anti-work group. David O’Brien refused to work at a Krupp munitions factory and was tortured, then partially paralyzed from a cut to his spine, reports Nathan M. Greenfield in The Reckoning. Others were severely beaten or bayonetted, or sent to punishment camps.

As the war wore on, Germany began concealing some captures so that prisoners could be used for dangerous work at the front—both contraventions of The Hague Conventions. Of 346 behind-the-line prisoners who arrived at one camp on Oct. 8, 1918, 127 died within two months, Morton reported.

“Except for the starving, as I look back now, Giessen was not such a bad camp as such places go,” Edwards recalled. Even so, “It seemed then a hell on Earth.” Even minor offences were punished by solitary confinement, with already scant rations reduced even further.

No matter the camp, food was a worry. Soup and sour black bread (with sawdust added later in the war) were mainstays. Rations worsened over time due to Allied blockades. Food was scarce for German civilians and the military—let alone more than two million prisoners.

“For dinner we had shadow soup,” wrote Edwards, who recorded camp recipes in his diary. “For 800 men, 200 gallons of water, one small bag of potatoes and one packet of herbs. To make matters worse, the vegetables issued were in a decayed condition.”

Relief parcels saved prisoners from starvation. Once camp conditions became known, families, regimental associations and charity and relief societies began sending food parcels. The Canadian Red Cross shipped more than half a million, providing clothing and milk powder, butter and cheese, hardtack biscuits, tinned meat and fish, dried fruit and sweets, tea and coffee.

Parcels were often pilfered. “We considered ourselves lucky if we received six out of 10 sent, and with half the contents of the six intact,” said Edwards. Withholding parcels was a common punishment.

Starvation and unsanitary conditions led to health problems—epidemics of typhus and cholera and the diseases of malnutrition. Soon cemeteries opened near camps.

Humiliation and helplessness in the face of abuse also bred depression, which prisoners called barbed-wire disease. “You can’t imagine the absolute hopelessness of one’s existence where we have spent three years behind barbed wires,” Harry J. Wells of Elmsdale, N.S., wrote home.

Even in the best camps, prisoners pined for freedom; in the worst, some risked all to escape. Hundreds tried, but only about 100 Canadians made it to freedom, some after multiple attempts.

Edwards and an escape partner hitched up with Mervin Simmons and Tom Bromley, captured in the Second Battle of Ypres. They walked away from a farm work team after supper on Oct. 3, 1915. Edwards’s partner lost his nerve and they turned back; Simmons and Bromley were caught six days later.

After punishment, the Canadians refused work reassignment to a munitions factory and were sent to a punishment camp near Hanover in north-central Germany. Conditions were worse, strengthening their resolve to try escaping again. Simmons wrote on the inside of an envelope addressed to his brother in Canada, asking for a compass. Luckily, censors missed the message.

In January 1916, the four used wire cutters to break out. Again, one man lost his nerve. Bromley surrendered when his legs gave out, giving the remaining two a better chance. Edwards and Simmons were captured nine days later, within view of the Dutch border.

Asked why they had tried to escape, “We feared to tell the truth, that we had been forced to it by ill-treatment; so merely stated that we were tired of Germany and wanted to go home,” said Edwards. They were locked in solitary prison cells for a month, on short rations—two biscuits a day. “We were supposed to receive soup every fourth day, but we did not. The slow starving was, to my mind, the worst.”

The Parniewinkel punishment camp near Hanover, where they were next transferred, “was the worst of all those we were to know,” wrote Edwards. They were determined to escape.

But escape was not the only way out for others. About 300 badly wounded Canadians were promptly returned home. Others less seriously wounded but needing long recuperation were sent to Holland or Switzerland to wait out the war, courtesy of prisoner exchanges.

Desperate prisoners would do anything to be among those lucky few. Gibbons qualified by pretending to be feeble-minded. (His thigh and ankle were re-broken and set properly during long hospital stays in England and Canada. But he never regained his prewar stride).

Dejected Canadians captured in the Battle of St. Julien in Belgium in April 1915 march into captivity in this painting by Private Arthur Nantel, himself a prisoner for more than three years.

George William Frost was captured in the Battle of St. Julien in April 1915 and spent nearly three years as a PoW. The Germans wanted him to work in the coal mines, but he was determined not to contribute to their war effort, said great-grandson Wayne Smith of Airdrie, Alta. Frost pretended to be crazy and was assigned to garbage duty instead; he was caught helping another prisoner escape.

When his wife Mary learned he had been given a life sentence, she used family influence to have him included in a prisoner exchange, contacting King Alfonso of Spain, who directed his ambassador in Berlin to make the arrangements. Frost was sent to Switzerland in a prisoner exchange in November 1917.

During the war, exchanged and repatriated prisoners were warmly welcomed, but at the end of the war, PoWs largely came home to indifference. “No group in the [Canadian Expeditionary Force] has been more completely forgotten than its prisoners of war,” Morton observed.

Stigma had deep roots. It was commonly believed soldiers would rather die than surrender. Boards of inquiry under British military law determined whether a PoW’s capture was due to dereliction of duty. Or cowardice. Capture, it was believed, “could have resulted only from some personal failing on the part of the soldier,” wrote Jonathan F. Vance in Objects of Concern.

At war’s end, it took months to organize evacuation of the 2,700 Canadians remaining in PoW camps, first to collection camps, then to England, then to Canada.

But Edwards and Simmons were not among them. When relief parcels caught up with them at Parniewinkel, the compass in Simmons’s cheese had not been discovered. They hid it and some maps for their next escape attempt. In August, the pair again walked away from a work party meal break.

Skirting bogs, avoiding towns and farmers, eluding search parties, they made their way across some 250 kilometres of hostile country in three weeks. They were constantly wet, cold and hungry.

Finally, a happy diary entry on Sept. 10, 1916: “Fine weather and in Holland. All our troubles are over.”

Both were back in Canada to celebrate the Armistice.

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