War’s end, and WW1 pilot and POW return to Holtzminden prison camp after a celebratory party in a rustic tavern with his colleagues.
Having been told by a German officer to return to camp quickly as we were about to leave by train, we rushed back to be greeted by an astonishing sight of a mighty bonfire in the middle of the parade ground throwing up flames to the height of the surrounding castle buildings. Dancing around it were forty or fifty crazed men, all shouting and yelling, and hurling beds, chairs, tables, pictures, anything that would burn onto the fire, making the flames leap even higher. Pots and pans were hurled through the windows to clatter down on the concrete beneath. The Germans had attempted to dowse the flames but the hoses were cut and the fire crew driven out of the camp. A complete window was taken out on the top floor and a beautiful Steinway grand piano was pushed through it to crash down to the ground where the mob would seize the smashed parts to feed the crackling flames. For the next hour or so everything that could be taken out was destroyed to the chagrin and mortification of the Germans who had hoped to salvage our valuable leavings. Outside the big gates a howling crowd of civilians howled with disappointment as they saw more and more valuable furniture go up in flames.
One redeeming feature of all this wanton destruction was our thoughts for the town’s children. All spare food, chocolate, biscuits and soap was divided amongst them, and many a youthful heart was gladdened by the sight of the chocolate which had not been seen or tasted in Germany for many years, poor little beggars. War had been nothing for them but starvation and air raids.
At 9 o’clock the camp calmed down and the Colonel addressed a few words to us on parade requesting an orderly march through the town to the station, and from now on to conduct ourselves as British officers. We faithfully carried out his request.
The big prison gates were opened and for the last time we marched through them, the German guard drawn up to salute us. Quietly watched by the townspeople we marched into the station and entrained. At midnight the train steamed out of Holtzminden, the German officers saluting us as the train pulled out.
It was a long weary journey across Germany and it was twenty four hours before we finally reached the Dutch border, but there were a few interesting experiences on the way which helped to relieve the monotony. During one of the many halts we were shunted into sidings as a train load of French prisoners passed slowly through on the main line. They had two huge French tricolour flags waving from the windows. How we cheered each other, and together we sang Rule Britannia and La Marseillais. On many of the roads we saw repatriated groups of prisoners of war marching along to music provided by mouth organs and piano accordians, coming in the opposite direction were German infantry marching back from the front and we all cheered each other as we passed.
At Munster we had a long wait, but the opportunity was seized to clean ourselves up a bit, and the rail side water tanks were temporarily requisitioned and turned on, and dozens of us, stripped to the waist, stood beneath the outflow to receive a greatly appreciated douche, to the great amusement of the onlooking railway staff. Late in that evening we reached Gronau and changed onto a Dutch train. Soon after the train rattled over the frontier into Holland amidst scenes of unbounded enthusiasm and emotion. I don’t remember lying down on the straw strewn floor of the school we were billeted in that night, I just collapsed and slept immediately.
Next morning we were all given money and we enjoyed freely walking about the shops, and being greeted with friendly smiles, but we were eager to get nearer home and so it was with relief we heard we were leaving for Rotterdam that evening, where we immediately embarked on the S.S Jacarda. It was my misfortune to be last aboard on embarkation and to find all bunks, hammocks and even blankets occupied. There was one other officer in a similar predicament so we decided to walk the decks together. He told me of his remarkable and horrifying experience after he was taken prisoner, it is a tale worth retelling.
He was an aerial observer and he and his pilot were flying over Manheim in Germany in a D.H.4 during October 1917. They had dropped their bombs and were returning home when a shell burst close to their machine. A large piece of shrapnel crashed into the engine, cutting the fuel feed and smashing the propeller. They landed safely but were immediately surrounded by German soldiers and taken prisoner. For a week they were kept in a local prison where, to their great surprise, a German lawyer visited them to tell them he would be representing them in a court martial, to be held on the morrow. On being asked what the charge was he replied, propaganda leaflets have been found in your aeroplane and this is forbidden.
The court martial was a farce but to their consternation my friend was sentenced to death and his pilot to twenty years penal servitude. The British government took the matter up and notified the Germans that if they carried out the sentence then Britain would retaliate by executing six German officers by firing squad. Threats and counter threats passed backwards and forwards through Holland, but it was not until the evening of his intended execution that he learned of his reprieve by the Kaiser, his sentence being commuted to penal servitude like his pilot. They were sent to a fortress for criminals where they picked oakum and made sandbags and where they had to suffer the animosity of a prison population of German murderers and criminal thugs. After further negotiations through Dutch mediators they were finally sent to Mindelheim where they arrived as seven stone wrecks, when previously they had weighed nine stone.
I had been totally enthralled by this story and had not noticed the ship had cast off and was gliding down the river. Very shortly we entered the North Sea and sailed up the Dutch coast towards Heligoland and then across towards the Humber. We had to take this long route to avoid the still active mine fields. It was a cold journey across but eventually we found comfort in the warmth of the engine room where we watched the Scots engineer tending his beloved engines.
After breakfast I managed to find a vacated hammock and spent the rest of the day asleep. I got up in the evening for dinner and spent the rest of the night and early morning watching the approach to the coastline of the Humber estuary. It was a beautiful moonlit night as the ship slowed and anchored for the night. It was a great thrill to be so close to the coastal lights of our beloved England. In the morning we up-anchored and sailed up the river, a trip none of us will ever forget for ships of all descriptions had been drawn up in lines and we sailed home between them. Every ship sounded their siren or hooter whist the crews lined the rails and cheered and cheered. A lump persisted in coming in my throat whist tears whelmed up in my eyes, but everyone else about me were in the same emotional state and many were openly weeping, but was it to be wondered at? After so many months of wearisome waiting, hoping and suffering, the long awaited day had dawned and at last we were soon to see our beloved ones and all we held most dear. Gone was the barbed wire, we were free once more, amongst our own countryman who were cheering us a thunderous welcome home. It was a truly great emotional experience for us all. Very soon we tied up at the dockside, lined by a mass of more cheering well-wishers. A guard of honour had been drawn up and a staff officer of high rank came aboard to greet us, seemingly glad to shake us by the hand. Dear old ladies fussed about us handing out sandwiches and cups of tea. Then, individually, we were handed a personal letter of greeting from the King.
Soon after we were entrained and steamed off to Scarborough where on the way people acclaimed us from wayside stations and farmworkers in fields waved their hats and cheered us. On reaching Scarborough the climax was sprung upon us, for a military band greeted us with lively marching airs, and illuminated tram cars delivered us to the Royal Hotel. Here the Mayor of the town and the General Officer Commanding Northern Command gave us more kindly words of welcome before we were shepherded into the dining room for a tremendous Christmas dinner. Scarborough was ours for that whole weekend. So, at last we arrived home back to our loved ones, bewildered but happy, may we be preserved to enjoy and may we find that we had fought for everlasting peace.