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Orchies – a Momentary Respite

Orchies town sign

This blog is the story of a three week journey through France and Germany following in the footsteps of my grandfather, Charles William Palmer, a Private in the 48th Battalion of the A.I.F. Charles was captured at the Battle of Bullecourt on 11 April 1917. By using his war diaries my husband and I are hoping to visit all the places that Charles was taken after his capture.

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

After his capture Charles worked for the Germans in areas near and just behind the Front for nearly seven months. 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 previous post we looked at a period of seven weeks when Charles was based at Brebières and working in and around various towns nearby. During that time he was very badly treated and worked under fire from his own side.

On the 8 June 1917 Charles and his fellow prisoners received word that they were to be moved away from the front line the following day. The town they were destined for was called Orchies.

Orchies

Charles stayed at Orchies for 12 days from 9 to 21 June 1917. He arrived in a large contingent after marching for about 12 hours from Brebières to Douai then onto Orchies. This map gives an indication of the location of these towns.

Map of Orchies

Charles and his fellow prisoners were under the belief that they had started their journey away from the front line to Germany. Given the dreadful conditions he had endured in both Lille and Brebières Charles must have finally had some small cause for optimism about the future. In reality, it was going to be at least another five months before Charles was to reach a POW camp in Germany.

Then…
Extracts from Charles’s diary give us an insight into his stay in Orchies:

9 June 1917
“Left Brebriers … with about 400 others, there being in all about 650 Australians & Tommies. We are under the impression we have left the Dangers of our own guns to proceed to Germany having been told that our Government have [sic] arranged that no prisoners are to be within 30 Kilo’s of the firing line, which we hope is true as we have had a rough time of it one way & another. We are a much different lot than we where [sic] on the other side some have straw hats in fact the men are wearing clothing of all descriptions, oh for a new issue. … we proceeded on our way to the town of Orchries [sic], en route the French People was [sic] very good, giving to the men, when the guards where [sic] not quick enough to stop them, which they will do at the Bayonets Point, Biscuits Loaves etc which the men generally scrambled for…”

10 June 1917
“Up a [sic] 6am after a good nights rest, very stiff & sore. Having had a bit of luck whilst cleaning out Billets in finding two of Chamber’s Journals dated 1869 Jan 30th. I passed most of the day reading for the first time since a prisoner reading a book of English print. Everyone of my comrades are waiting their turn to read it that journal worth a fiver to us now. Bed at 9pm.”

11 June 1917
“Rose at 6am had a good wash without soap … the place we are at is the Delemere Pottery Works Orchnies [sic] a very large factory tons of pottery stowed away here half finished. We are allready
[sic] getting better treatment the officers and Guard treat us with more respect allthough the men are enough to gaul [sic] a saint.”

12 June 1917
“… clearing one of the work shops of Pottery to make a Disinfectant room for our clothing and selves. … one thing that we cannot get enough of is tobacco. The men dry tea leaves to smoke & this evening I saw one drying used coffee for the purpose of smoking.”

14 June 1917
“… We are all very anxious to hear from our Dear one’s at home. It is some 4 mths since I have heard I hope to hear before this month is out. A very heavy Gun fire all night in the Arras District.”

17 June 1917
“Coffee at 6am no work Church service for the first time since a Prisoner.”

18 June 1917
“Work done during the day, repaired my Boots which where [sic] getting pretty bad. Two French Ladies again brought us in … a good number of Shirts 800 egg’s some Bacon Bag of Rice Tobacco etc … We had a good lecture from an Officer on Discipline and Penalties for neglecting to observe same even to the Death Penalty was added in.”

19 June 1917
“… Breakfast 4.30 the best we had since being prisoners consisting of Boiled rice & eggs [from the French]. 5am parade proceeded to St Amand a distance of 14 Kilo’s for the purpose of getting a Bath & having our clothes fumigated, on our return we where [sic] caught in a Thunderstorm and had a second Bath, coming home like drowned rats & free from Lice.”

And now…
Orchies is a small French town close to the Belgium border with a population of about 8,300. We visited the Town Hall in search of tourist information or directions to the local library. The two ladies we encountered did not speak English but we managed to convey our request and they were as helpful as they could be. They were able to highlight a map for us showing the road that used to contain a large pottery factory, although nothing is left of it now. This road was called Rue Falemprise. Along here we found a building materials supplier on the right occupying a large area, part of which was bordered by an old brick wall. Further along there was unoccupied land finishing at the entrance to a farm. On the northern side of Rue Falemprise there was a new housing estate. Any of these areas could have been the land that housed the original pottery factory referred to by Charles.

Old wall in Orchies
Old wall along Rue Falemprise, Orchies

Since our visit I have been able to discover a little more about a pottery business that has a long history in Orchies. It appears to be quite well known and there are many examples of its pottery available on online auction sites. I am reasonably certain it is the one that was in the Rue Falemprise area. What I can’t locate is a connection with the name “Delemere” as quoted by Charles.

In 1917 the pottery factory in Orchies was called L’Herminé  Et Cie which, in 1928, merged with a company from another town to become Manufacture de Moulin des Loups-Hamage. One of the streets in the new housing estate is named Rue du Moulin des Loups.

This aerial view shows Rue Falemprise running along the lower section of the view, with Rue du Moulin des Loups running off at almost 90 degrees through the new housing estate.

The probable location of the pottery factory
The probable location of the pottery factory

At this point in my research I am assuming that this is the pottery factory that Charles stayed in for those 12 days. It is likely that the building was damaged as Orchies is described as being ‘destroyed’ in 1914 during WW1. At the moment the name ‘Delemere’ is a mystery yet to be solved.

Saint Amand-Les-Eaux
Charles mentions in his diary that the men are taken to Saint Amand, now known as Saint Amand-les-Eaux, for fumigation and a bath. This is a spa town known for its thermal waters so I assume that they bathed in an existing bath house of the time. The town square is dominated by the striking 82m high clock tower, part of the remains of the beautiful abbey of Saint-Amand. This structure is visible from various parts of the town so I feel sure that Charles and his fellow prisoners may have seen it when they were there for fumigation.


In comparison to the hardships endured at Lille and Brebières this short period at Orchies must have been a respite from the appalling treatment they had received since capture. Again, they were supported by the French people whose contributions of food and clothing made such a huge difference to these men.

In my next post we will explore Vieux Conde and Conde, the area where Charles stayed and worked after leaving Orchies.

* In the quotes I have used from Charles’s diary I have used [sic] to indicate when an error in the text is part of the original, rather than typographical.

– All photos taken on 31 October 2016 –

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