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“The vilest place… still, they did not break our hearts…”

My grandfather, Private Charles Palmer, A.I.F. was captured at the Battle of Bullecourt on 11 April 1917. In a three week journey, my husband and I are using Charles’s diary entries as a basis for following in his footsteps as a POW.

If you wish to start the story from the beginning please go to What is this Blog?

Lille

Then…
The time of Charles William Palmer’s capture on 11 April 1917 coincided with a period of ‘reprisals’ by the Germans against POWs in retaliation for perceived British ill-treatment of their POWs.”… prisoners of war captured during the reprisal period became “prisoners of respite” – they were to be worked hard, given little food, and would be housed in poor lodgings without so much as a blanket” (1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War). They would also be made to work at the line under fire from their own side.

In one of the worst examples of this treatment prisoners were housed at Fort de Mons (Fort McDonald) in Lille.

In his diary for the period 16-21 April 1917 Charles writes:

“We where [sic] then taken on to Lille a place which every man will remember till his dying day for we where [sic] treated like animal’s and almost starved. Arriving at Lille on the evening of the 16th April, some of us very soon had a knowledge of the vindictiness [sic] of some of the German Officer’s, I for one of several had my pipe snatched out of my mouth, broken, and thrown at me. Before leaving the Railway Station for Fort McDonald we where [sic] told the Guns are loaded and any man attempting to escape will be immediately shot. Arriving at the Fort we where [sic] placed in the dungeons as many as 100 men in a cell about 35ft by 15ft stone floor, no blankets, or mattresses, a tub for urinal purposes, it was something awful, our daily ration’s was one slice of bread equal to 7 or 8 men to one loaf and a pint of dirty water called soup. We where [sic] told that we where [sic] prisoners of respite [sic], and would be treated as such, they kept [sic] their word we was [sic], also told to write and tell our Friends that we where [sic] being starved. All together we where [sic] there six days, and without a wash we where [sic] a sorry sight still they did not break our hearts.”

And now…
Ever since first reading this section of Charles’s diary I have had vivid imaginings of how dreadful such a place might be. There are also other men’s descriptions available online that add further to the detail of how inhumanely these prisoners were treated. The Fort came to be known as the ‘black hole’ of Lille.

A helpful lady at the Tourism Centre in Lille directed us to the Fort; a 20 minute drive from the town centre at Mons-en-Barœul. The Fort was renovated in 1984 to form a cultural precinct. It is clear, though, that much of the original architecture is still in place. With the help of some directions from library staff (you can always rely on the library to help 😀) we were able to explore a lot of the exterior structure. Unfortunately a tour of the dungeons scheduled for 6 November was just outside the extent of our stay, but we now know there is an association concerned with the Fort’s preservation and history, so that augers well for future research avenues.

The Fort was built in the late 1870s and is roughly rectangular in shape, covering approximately 1,900 square meters. It is located partially below ground level with mounds of soil covering some sections.

Diagram of Fort McDonald.
This present day diagram gives an idea of the layout of the Fort.

The entry to the Fort is across a foot bridge which spans an earthen ‘moat’ between the outer and inner walls. There is an internal courtyard from which large rooms open. The courtyard flows through to an area set up as an amphitheatre. From this area entrances to chambers and tunnels are evident, though locked off to the public. There are also numerous ventilation shafts visible that one presumes service the ‘dungeons’ below.

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Internal courtyard.
Fort McDonald tunnel entrance.
Tunnel entrance.

In our explorations we also managed to walk in the area between the outer retaining wall and the inner wall of the actual Fort. The inner wall contains chambers and walkways within its structure, a number of which we were able to enter and photograph. Some of the chambers we entered appear to match descriptions of where the POWs were kept, but without seeing the locked off areas it is not possible to be sure. This will require further research.

Fort McDonald walls.
Walking between the outer and inner walls of the Fort.
Fort McDonald chamber.
Chamber within the walls of the Fort.

For the purposes of our quest to follow my grandfather’s life as a POW I was very pleased to find that the Fort has survived and been re-invented as a cultural institution. However, it did mean that my imaginings as to how horrific conditions were in the Fort now had a concrete basis, rather than just a written description. Entering those chambers and turning off our torches to stand in the darkness; smelling the dankness in the air from the cold stone without the added smells of close, unwashed bodies was claustrophobic and all too evocative for me. Again, I felt immense sadness at the depths to which humans will sink in their treatment of others.

The German period of ‘reprisal’ lasted 6 days for Charles at this Fort, but without any idea of when it would end, I imagine many a man would have been broken, and yet still he writes – “they did not break our hearts”.

* 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.

– All photos were taken on 29 October 2016 –

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