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Condé-sur-l’Escaut – Working in the Forge

Charles William Palmer, POW

This blog is the story of my grandfather, Charles William Palmer, a Private in the 48th Battalion of the A.I.F. who was taken as a Prisoner-of-War at the Battle of Bullecourt in France on 11 April 1917. His story is told through his diary entries.

Over a three-week period my husband and I have followed Charles from his arrival in France to his capture at Bullecourt, then through many villages as he has been moved across France as a POW.

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

In my previous blog post Charles and his fellow prisoners spent 12 days at Orchies under far better conditions than any they had experienced since being captured. On 21 June 1917 that brief respite came to an end as Charles, together with 59 other prisoners were selected to move on to Condé-sur-l’Escaut.

Condé-sur-l’Escaut and Vieux-Condé

Charles spent the next six months, until 15 November 1917 staying and working in Condé-sur-l’Escaut and also working in nearby Vieux-Condé. This map gives an indication of the location of these towns.

Map of Condé-sur-l'Escaut

Then…
During those six months Charles wrote in his diary almost every day, even if just to show that many days passed in the same way, often “shoeing” [horses] or “working in the forge”.

Given the tedium of these days, I have selected the following diary extracts to reflect more notable events that occurred from time-to-time, as well as those that demonstrate the treatment metered out to Charles and the other prisoners.

21 June 1917
“The whole of the camp in small parties are again being sent to other parts, 60 of us moved off from Orchies about midday arriving at Conde about 27 kilos distant at 8.30 pm, here we where [sic] camped in the Old Conde Barrack’s [sic] built by the French in 1600. This being a Calavary [sic] barracks the Germans had turned it into a hospital for their horses.”

22 June 1917
“We where [sic] paraded at 6 am. The Officer in Charge gave us to understand we would get better treatment than previously if we behaved ourselves.”

“I was picked out to start work in the shoeing shop where I have done my first day’s work at 30 Pfennigs per day … our men have jobs as horse attendants much better work than they have previously done.”

28 June 1917
“Making up Chains. Rations, especially the soup very bad. 2 shirts 2 Blue coats & a pair of socks given to me during the day by the French Ladies first pair of Socks for 3 months.”

7 July 1917
“Working in the Forge. 2 of our men who reported sick where [sic] ordered to lose their ration of Bread every alternate day for 3 day’s for malingering as the Doctor says.”

13 July 1917
“Have heard today of Peace rumours also that Lille & Douai have been taken. Several areoplanes [sic] over during the morning 4 Germans down.”

14 July 1917
“Working in the Forge. National Holiday for the French people who are very jubilant having heard good news from the Front do not know what it is, we heard that Lille, Douai & Ostend have been taken also that the Kaiser is missing.”

23 July 1917
“Sent to Vieux Conde, working in another forge having to walk both ways 2 ½ kilos.”

24 July 1917
“Working Vieux Conde. This is much better as there is [sic] two belgians working in the same shop got some biscuits and a nice bit of tobacco from them.”

29 July 1917
“Half days work in Conde. I had the luck to get a piece of Rabbit & new potatoes for Dinner which was delicious.”

30 July 1917
“Working Vieux Conde. The country looks very nice. Harvesting as [sic] started the Germans taking half of the crops.”

11 August 1917
“My Birthday [his 40th]. Working at Vieux Conde a very tiresome day’s work as we have to be up by 5 am sharp Breakfast and walk to Vieux Conde a distance of two & a half Kilo’s reaching Barracks at 6 o’clock in the afternoon. A long day.”

18 August 1917
“Removing shoes from dead horses, the carcases [sic] are being sent to St Amand for meat a few of us got a bit of Lights & Liver which we cooked up, and eat [sic] not very nice but filling.”

27 August 1917
“One of the stables at Conde in charge of a Under Officer, was the scene of some of the Hun’s Cruel work, a Donkey and a pony where [sic] kept without food or water for three days as a punishment for kicking & Biting at the Officer or Sgt in Charge.”

3 September 1917
“Our bread ration now is 5 men to one loaf about 3lbs weight very course bread, bran & oats being some of ingredients used.”

4 September 1917
“All prisoners have been issued with heavy wooden clogs and are compelled to wear them both at work and when in the barracks, most of the men have terrible sore feet through them, Sgt Fairbrother sent to prison for 7 days on half rations for refusing to wear them.”

Clogs
Wooden clogs – when I took this photo in The Netherlands we were told that socks were needed when wearing clogs. I doubt the POWs had socks.

13 September 1917
“Having the best day I have had since being a Prisoner of War for I received my first letter from my People in England [his mother] it was a great treat to get some news and to know that they have heard from us.” (Read more about Correspondence)

15 September 1917
“Working at Vieux Conde the German smith who I have been working with has been sent to Germany with a train load of sick horse’s [sic] so being in the shop with only the two Belgian Smiths, I made a pair of clinching tong’s [sic] and a good many pairs of heel plates.”

26 September 1917
“Some of our party sent out with a few horses grazing all day, during the day some of the boys got some Champagne some how, and one of the party Dave Waterfield indulged to [sic] freely the sentries thinking he was very bad carried him into a French Lady’s house. The Lady not knowing what was wrong gave him a big nobbler of Cognac which made him speechless, he was taken back to Camp, where he slept if off.”

22 October 1917
“Arr Back at Conde I got 3 red cross parcels two of Biscuits one of groceries, what a feed we had, these being the first I got.”

Red Cross Parcel Contents
(Photo credit: Australian Red Cross)

The evening before he leaves Condé-sur-l’Escaut Charles reflects on the previous five months.

14 November 1917
“During our stay at Vieux Conde, from June 21st till Thursday Nov 15th we where [sic] treated much better than at Brebrier’s [sic] not in the way of food, for that was on a par with Brebriers (vile) a good many of us would have been left behind, but for the French people who used all manner of dodges in getting parcels of food and clothing smuggled [sic] to us. I have seen many a poor woman and children beaten for passing to us, or throwing to us bread, as we went to work or on our return, during the last few weeks we must have had a change in Officer’s [sic] at headquarters Valenciennies [sic] for order’s [sic] came out that the French people could send us food into the barracks by mean’s [sic] of the Under Officer, there where [sic] a lot of Russians here the French people did not seem to care for them for some reason or other, a great number will never return to the their homes, when we left there was about ten Britishers Buried there.”

And now…
I was very keen to visit both Condé-sur-l’Escaut and Vieux-Condé as Charles had been so explicit in his description of where he had stayed in Condé – the old Condé cavalry barracks built by the French in 1600.

We again had a delightful encounter with some local French people who tried so hard to be helpful. The Hotel de Ville or Mairie, meaning the Town Hall, is often a good place to start in some of these small towns. Unfortunately the one in Condé was closed that afternoon so we visited the Mairie in Vieux-Condé, which was only a couple of kilometres away. When we entered the foyer looking like lost tourists, a gentleman who had been chatting to the receptionist approached us. With little to no English on their side and our limited French we then began our story, as we usually did, with where we came from and why we were in their small town. It was quite an agonising process that eventually brought another lady into the conversation as well. After a good 15 minutes we finally had a map reference and the description of a building under restoration in Condé. My absolute delight at getting a lead to follow was so obvious to them that all three were visibly relieved to have been able to help. We were waved off with many au revoirs and happy smiles. It was such a lovely connection we made.

Vieux-Condé Hotel de Ville
Vieux-Condé Hotel de Ville (Town Hall)

We followed their instructions to the corner of Place Verte and Rue de la Cavalerie in Condé-sur-l’Escaut where we found L’Hôtel de Bailleul (the Castle of de Bailleul) on one corner and an old building with a ‘green door’, as they specified, on the opposite corner.

L'hôtel de Bailleul, Condé-sur-l'Escaut
L’hôtel de Bailleul, Condé-sur-l’Escaut

We spent some time walking around the perimeter of both buildings and into a shallow courtyard through the arch of the Castle. It was obvious that the buildings adjoining the Castle and running down the roads on either side were of a different era. Needless to say we had numerous theories about both the Castle and the ‘green door’ building but nothing of substance to guide us.

We learned from a rough translation of an information plaque that the Castle dated from the 15th century and the attached buildings on either side from the 17th century. No mention of the cavalry. Without further input from a local source, we felt we had hit a dead-end.

The 'green door' building, Condé-sur-l'Escaut
The ‘green door’ building, Condé-sur-l’Escaut

Since returning home, and with the benefit of more understanding of the local French scene, I have been able to do some more online research, this time in French, rather than English. There is another building that may also be a contender for Charles’s barracks. It is not far from where we were exploring. It is La porte Vautourneux (The Vautourneux Gate). In just one source so far I have found mention of soldiers and horses in relation to the Gate. I shall continue my research, but I sense that Condé-sur-l’Escaut is a place that definitely warrants another visit!

Vautourneux Gate
La porte Vautourneux (The Vautourneux Gate), Condé-sur-l’Escaut

(Photo credit: Vadrouillages et Pâturages Blog)

As Charles himself admits, in some ways he was treated better during his stay in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, than in his previous time as a prisoner. He did work long, hard hours at the forge either in Condé-sur-l’Escaut or Vieux-Condé, depending on where he was assigned, but there was the occasional half-day off. It is obvious too, that without the help of the French people he and many others may not have survived. The food and clothing that came from the French, together with the ten Red Cross parcels Charles received in quick succession during October and November 1917 at Condé-sur-l’Escaut kept him and his mates from starvation.

On 21 November 1917 Charles completed his five-month stay at Condé-sur-l’Escaut. In the next blog post we will follow Charles to yet another location in France.

… but first, just a little more about correspondence to and from POWs and family …

Correspondence

Each time I read the diary entries and notes that Charles has written I feel I get to know him just a little better. He writes in an understated manner, being usually quite matter-of-fact about things, so when he does write more strongly, such as in his description of the day he received his first letter from family – “Having the best day I have had since being a Prisoner of War“ you know his emotions are probably stronger than the mere words convey. That much-longed for letter, in this case from his mother, arrived on 13 September 1917. By that time Charles had been a POW for five months.

Letters that have survived between Charles and his family members show that lengthy delays were the norm in mail getting through to both England and Germany. Mail to and from Australia took many months longer.

On 15 July 1917 Charles’s brother Ted, in England, wrote to Charles’s wife, Mary Palmer, in Perth, Western Australia with the news that Charles was alive, as mail from Germany had just reached England. On 20 September Mary wrote to Charles expressing her relief at finally receiving a letter from him – what a long five months that must have been for poor Mary. As you will see from the excerpt below, words failed her when it came to expressing how she had coped.

Excerpt from a letter to Charles from his wife, Mary
Excerpt from a letter to Charles from his wife, Mary

 

* In the quotes 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, except those with specific credits, taken by Kaye Hill –
‘Clogs’ photo taken 21 October 2016
All other photos taken 31 October 2016

 

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