Having followed my grandfather, Private Charles William Palmer, member of the 48th Battalion, A.I.F. across France from his landing in Boulogne to his capture at the Battle of Bullecourt on 11 April 1917, we are now going to visit some of the places he was held immediately after his capture.
If you wish to start the story from the beginning please go to What is this Blog?
The towns we visit in this post are mentioned briefly in Charles’s diary. Generally, our visits to these places raised more questions than were answered. The aim, though, was to gain an overall impression of the way the prisoners were treated after capture and where they were moved to initially. It’s important to remember that Charles was one of 1,170 men taken prisoner on 11 April 1917. That is a lot of prisoners for the Germans to deal with at a single time.
Écourt St Quentin
We pick up Charles’s story after his capture from the last part of his diary entry for the 11 April 1917.
“… After taking our knifes [sic] & stripping us of our strappings, I was told of [sic] with an [sic] Hun to take one of the badly wounded to the Dressing station some 3 or 4 kilo’s away a task I shall never forget as it was snowing hard & up to our shins in slush, it about had one down to it by the time we got to the station carrying a man on a single pole stretcher who weighed 11 stone or more was a severe task. Having lost sight of the rest of my mates I was taken on to Ecort [sic] St Quentin where I found the rest of our unwounded awaiting for [sic] to be searched. There they took letters, money, in fact anythink [sic] that took their fancy. We where [sic] then taken to a church close by where I was simply astonished to find upwards of a thousand men some being very badly wounded laying about in all Directions in their saturated clothes (church in Ecort [sic] St Quentin).”
Écourt St Quentin is a small town that seems to predominately consist of one long, wide main street. Although the town is small, the church is not. It’s an old red brick edifice of stately proportions, which looks as though it could easily have been there 100 years ago. We walked around its boundaries, but were disappointed to find it locked due to vandalism. It does seem likely that this is the church Charles and the other prisoners slept in that first night after capture.
There is a photo on the town’s website from 1917 showing the church being used as a hospital by the occupying German army so this may support the fact that this is where Charles was located for the night. The orderliness of the beds and patients in the photo, however, are at odds with the disarray described by Charles.
Écourt St Quentin church in 1917.
The church as it is today.
On Thursday 12 April Charles reports:
“I was with the first Batch to go, about 250 including 13 Officer’s, we where [sic] marched off to another village called Villers where we again stopped for the night in a Church. Here the Germans gave us a slice of Bread and some macoronie [sic] soup having no basins or anythink [sic] in the way of tin we had to strip our helmets of the rubbers & lining to use them as basins, before marching.”
On the 13th he goes on to say:
“In the morning the Hun’s took our jerkins from us which made matters worse as they kept us warm…”
We had some confusion about which village Charles was referring to in this diary entry when he mentioned Villers, as there are a few villages with that name. We visited Villers-les-Cagincourt, but the church there is quite small, so I doubt it could have held as many prisoners as we believe were in Charles’s group.
It now seems more probable that he was referring to Villers-en-Cauchies. More research needed!
Still on 13 April – “We again moved off for another Village (Solesmes) some -– kilos away where we stopped for a few day’s having to sleep in underground cellars.”
Solesmes is a small village in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region with a population of just over 4,500. It has a small rotunda and a covered market hall, and we managed to find a restaurant for lunch. Generally, though, it is much like many of the small towns you pass through in this area. Looking around it’s hard to imagine where the underground cellars may have been that housed the prisoners for a few nights from 13 April 1917.
Any of the town’s buildings may have had cellars.
About 4km out of town we came upon a small extension to the Romeries Communal Cemetery which is the resting place for some 832 Commonwealth soldiers.
“On the — we moved off for — a Distance of — where we entrained for Lille…”
Charles obviously did not know the name or location of the place he refers to briefly in this entry, but from the diary of another soldier whose experiences were similar for this period of time it seems that they may have been taken to Les Quesnoy for transportation by train to Lille on 16 April 1917.
We decided to visit Les Quesnoy even though it was only an entraining point for the prisoners, as the town itself had an interesting story to tell later in the war, in 1918.
It was then, in the final weeks of the war, that New Zealand troops liberated the town from the Germans who had held it since 1914. A memorial set into the town’s historic walls illustrates how the New Zealanders used a ladder to breach the medieval walls and capture the remaining Germans.
A section of the medieval walls.
Visiting these four small towns may not have yielded a lot of concrete information, but it did give us a sense of the countryside and towns that the prisoners were taken through on their way to a larger and more sinister site – Lille. This place will be the basis of our next exploration.
* In the quotes I have used from Charles’s diary I use [sic] to indicate when an error in the text is part of the original, rather than typographical.
– Photos taken of Écourt St Quentin on 30 October 2016 –
– Photos taken of Solesmes and Les Quesnoy on 1 Novembet 2016 –