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Working at the Front – Brebières – “still we grin and bear it”

Brebières Sign

My grandfather, Private Charles Palmer, A.I.F. was captured at the Battle of Bullecourt on 11 April 1917. Over a three week period, 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?

After his release on 21 April 1917 from the confines of Fort McDonald in Lille, Charles was in a batch of men who were sent back near the front line to work for their captors. Keeping the prisoners at the front line in danger of artillery and bombing from their own side was a contravention of the Hague Convention, as was their poor treatment and starvation rations.

Charles worked in areas near the Front for nearly seven months, during which time he saw a number of his fellow prisoners killed or wounded by Allied fire power. He worked at a variety of jobs, for long hours, with little food, rare access to personal hygiene facilities and dreadful living conditions.

In the next three posts we will try to trace the location of the ‘camps’ Charles stayed in during these seven months, as well as the towns he mentions in his diary. We will endeavour to visit each town to see what is there now, nearly a 100 years later, and to fulfil our aim of walking in Charles’s footsteps.

Brebières
After leaving the Fort at Lille Charles was moved to Brebières where he stayed for seven weeks between 21 April and 9 June 1917. This map shows the location of Brebières and those places nearby where he was sent to work.

Brebieres Map

Then…  
In his diary Charles mentions that Brebières was a Divisional Headquarters for the Germans, but we do not know where this HQ was – perhaps they took over a large house if any remained standing.  As to where the prisoners were billeted he also doesn’t say, only referring on a couple of occasions to the ‘Camp’.

Another POW in the same batch as Charles does, though, provide a little more detail in his diary:

“…entrained for some place … which turned out to be a partially destroyed village three kilometers behind the German lines. After waiting some hours at headquarters, we were taken into a small barb wire enclosure, with one half finished hut and the material for building more. The snow was still on the ground, but no blankets were issued, and many of us had not even overcoats. The next day … [we] started into finish putting up the huts and fix up the cookhouse. … We were supplied with straw to lie on, but after a few days had to throw it all out on account of the vermin.”
(Ref: Diary of Justin Dawson)

On the day he finds out he is leaving Brebières Charles reflects on his experiences:

“… arriving back in camp we got word that we where [sic] being sent further back from the line in the early morn, we where [sic] not sorry either for during our stay in Brebieres we had an awfull [sic] time, one slice of Bread & a pint of soup made of horse lights & dryed [sic] turnips per day no Blankets, just the bare boards to sleep on and most always wet through. Neither did we have a knife or even a Basin, having to use our helmets for soup or to rinse our hands and face, some of us got pieces of hoop iron and ground one edge down with a brick and so made a knife of kind. Many a gold ring, watch puttie pocket wallet where [sic] given away here for bread. … Whilst a [sic] Brebriers I have seen men eating moles rotten turnips. 1 party killed and eat [sic] a dog.”

It’s obvious from the treatment Charles and his co-prisoners received that the period of ‘reprisal’ against POWs was still in force (See blog post “The vilest place…” “still, they did not break our hearts…”). Some extracts from Charles’s diary relating to Brebières show the everyday danger they faced working at the Front.

20 May 1917
“Grave digging at Brebieres a fair amount of Artillery firing. Several Aircraft fights one of the hun’s brought down, ours much more than held there [sic] own.”

25 May 1917
“Several shells fell in Brebriers in the early morn. One fell within 20 ft of our sleeping quarters about 3 in the morning waking us all up, several more fell dinner time close handy doing damage to town, wounded several Huns, had job cleaning up village gave gold ring for Bread had a good feed the best for a good while ending a fair day, areplanes [sic] over during the night.”

26 May 1917
“Working in Brebriers cleaning the Divisional Headquarters & other Billets which where [sic] struck by shells in the early morn several shells fell very near to us whilst at work…”

28 May 1917
“A fine day working in the Grave yard from 7.30am to 4.30 plenty of planes about not much artillery firing. Our presents Guard is a terror alltogether [sic] we used to be able to get a little extra rations by means of any trinklets [sic] or money at the wire fence, but these will not shut their eyes to anythink [sic] in fact they try their damdest [sic] to make our life a misery still we grin and bear it.”

And now…
We visited Brebières around lunchtime so, as is usual in French towns, everything was very quiet – roller blinds were down on the few businesses we saw and the streets were empty as most people were having lunch. As is also common in these small towns many of the long brick walls fronting the streets belong to farm buildings. There was no way of knowing where a ‘camp’ might have been placed. We also looked out for any imposing houses or buildings that may have been used as a HQ for the Germans. There was a large building that backed onto the canal which may have been a contender, but this is pure conjecture.

Brebières church.
Brebières church dated 1851 would probably have been known to Charles.

Douai

Then…
As Charles’s diary reveals, much of his work around Douai involved unloading ammunition:

11 May 1917
“Working Douai Railway Siding unloading ammuntion [sic]. British gun firing into Douai. French people gave is [sic] a good feed of rice also some clean shirts towels etc also a little bit of soap had a good wash for the first time since a Prisoner.”

15 May 1917
“Grave digging from 6am till 4pm at Brebriers. After soup, taken in motor waggon’s to Douai to unload a train of Ammuntion [sic] into motor waggons from there we took it out to some place near the firing line, arriving back in camp at 2 am on the 16th. A very long day on a 3rd of a loaf.”

27 May 1917
“Working all day at Douai carrying ammunition. Several planes fighting overhead, two Hun’s came down, one of Jerry’s anti aircraft brought down one of their own planes. Arrived back to camp about 4 oclock. Inspection of Camp by the C.O. he was a swine if ever their [sic] was one, one of the Tommie’s named (Dogerthy. R.M.L.I) not coming to attention quick enough for him he had him tied up to a stake for 3 or 4 hrs, he also told us we would be kept under the present bad condition for months to come (very cheerful) no blankets soap and very little food also under our own fire this for the reason he says that the German planes had taken photos of their prisoners working in our lines (we dare not call him a liar but we thought so).”

30 May 1917
“A very long day’s work at Douai digging pits for Ammunition working from 7am till 7pm. Then had to walk to camp 5 kilo’s distance raining very hard.”

8 June 1917
“Working on the Douai Roads 7 Kilo’s from Brebriers walking both ways from camp. English planes bombed railway line near by at 11-oclock am…”.

And now…
Unlike many of the small towns Charles was taken to as a prisoner, present day Douai has a sizeable population of approximately 43,000. We walked around the town looking out for monuments and structures that were likely to have been there in Charles’s time. An imposing ‘gate’ toward the eastern end of the town centre proved to be La porte de Valenciennes à Douai, dating from 1453. We were also very interested to locate the railway station as this is the means by which much of the ammunition would have found its way to the Front. Although the main station is a modern building, there is an old siding nearby that obviously dates from earlier days.

These photos give an idea of those structures as they are now.

Douai gate
La porte de Valenciennes à Douai
Old railway siding at Douai.
Old railway siding at Douai.
Old Douai railway station
This part of the old railway station at Douai is dated 1911.

Corbehem

Then…
At Corbehem on 1 May 1917 the dangers of working at the Front became all too apparent with the deaths of both Australian and English prisoners. Charles reports as follows:

1 May 1917
“Digging Graves all day, another party working at Corbehem unloading Ammunition from the train. Several 12 inch shells from the British Guns falling along the line, one fell amongst the men killing 6 Australians 1 Tommie & wounding 6 others. Also blew the dump up. Burnt the station down, also the railway trucks.”

3 May 1917
“Working in the ruins of the Corbehem Railway station where our poor fellow’s where [sic] killed on the 1st. after being promised that we should not be send [sic] there again. Left in haste as our Guns started to shell it again. Two Tommies killed in Brebriers by our Gun fire.”

These actions were part of the larger British offensive known as the Battle of Arras.

And now…
Corbehem, with its population of around 2,400, had a more welcoming feel to the town than did Brebières. We stopped to admire the church before seeking out the current railway station. Obviously rebuilt after the war, it was still a location where Charles had worked, though the landscape would have been drastically different.

Corbehem Railway Station
The re-built Corbehem Railway Station
Corbehem Railway Station
Corbehem Railway Station

Vitry-en-Artois

Then…
10 May 1917
“Working on the Canal Roads between Vitry & Biaches about 8 kilos from Brebieres plenty of Schrapnel [sic] flying around a few planes fighting over head.”

1 June 1917
“Working at Vitry in the German Headquarters Dugout about 40 ft deep cutting out Chambers for sleeping berths, every bit of Chalk that was taken out was covered over with grass as soon as it reached the surface.”

2 June 1917
“Working same as yesterday in the dugouts. got home at 12 o’clock. Managed to obtain a little Wheat which I ground up in a coffee grinder. And made a little Wheat Cake of it not at all bad at any rate it was filling. Heavy Gun’s firing all day, we can see the Balloons from here on the British front. A heavy barage [sic] at 8oclock near Biache. How one wishes they where [sic] there for things are getting to [sic] cruel here never a change of clothing or a pair of Socks to wear and no soup to work with we are looking forward for our letters.”

And now…
Charles’s mention of Vitry-en-Artois in his diary is generally confined to the roads on either side of the town, rather than the town itself. Still, we visited the small town out of interest and found the canal that runs through the area as Charles often worked on the road running nearby.

Canal through Vitry-en-Artois
La Scarpe Canalisée – Canal through Vitry-en-Artois

During this seven week period based at Brebières it is very obvious that the prisoners were made to undertake extremely physical work for long hours with very little to no nutritional sustenance. I find it very hard to read Charles’s diary references to food and the extremes to which they would go in order to find something or anything to eat. It is also clear that without the support of the French people and the food and other items they were able to pass to the men, that survival would have been even more unlikely in these circumstances.

* 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 of Douai taken 27 October 2016 –
– Photos of Brebieres, Corbehem and Vitry-en-Artois taken 30 October 2016 –

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