On 11 April 1917 my grandfather, Charles William Palmer, a Private in the 48th Battalion of the A.I.F., was captured in France at the Battle of Bullecourt.
Using Charles’s diary entries as a guide my husband and I followed Charles through France to Bullecourt, then to the many villages he was moved to as a prisoner-of-war.
If you wish to start the story from the beginning please go to What is this Blog?
In my previous blog post Charles spent six months from 21 June until 15 November 1917 working in a forge at Condé-sur-l’Escaut. The next stage in Charles’s journey takes him to Marchiennes, which he describes as “being a place for concentrating the prisoners en route for Germany”. Here he stayed for 11 days describing it as “one of the vilest camps we where [sic] ever in”. Given the conditions and treatment he survived in Lille and in Brebières it is difficult to imagine a place that could be more wretched.
Unlike Condé-sur-l’Escaut where Charles and his fellow prisoners were put to work, Marchiennes seems to have been a ‘holding place’.
Charles records his arrival in Marchiennes:
15 November 1917
“Left Conde at 4am after a tiresome march of 13 kilos we arrived at Valenciennes at 7am. We waited here for about two hours, when we where [sic] entrained and taken on to Marchiennes where we met a good many more prisoners who had come in that day from other places some of them having had to march 40 kilos they looked more dead than alive, there is about 1000 of us here in different camps, our camp is some old stables…”.
In his writings Charles repeats his revulsion at the camp’s condition a number of times:
“… here we where [sic] kept for eleven days, simple living on one slice of Bread per day and if we where [sic] lucky we got a piece of turnip, this was one of the worse places I have been in yet, the filth we where [sic] living in is undescribable [sic].”
“… Marchiennes being this worst camp we have been in yet, I cannot describe a place to equal it in all my days.”
Further details about the conditions at Marchiennes can be gleaned from the diaries of other men who also spent time there, such as:
“There were no sanitary arrangements whatever, and after a few days that part of the place was disgusting in the extreme.” (Diary of Justin Dawson)
“It was a cheerless place… designed to break the best of hearts.”
“Lice … began to appear and became a continual source of irritation. … Water for washing purposes was unobtainable. We had no blankets.” (Dairy of Reginald Morris)
It must have been an immense relief to Charles when, on 26 November, he realised that he was among a large group being moved on from this camp to Germany. As Charles tells the story, it was only with some trickery that he actually ended up on the train that was to take him to his first prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.
26 November 1917
“The whole of the prisoners where [sic] paraded together for the purpose of entraining for some camp in Germany. Whilst on parade the Germans asked for 100 volunteers to return to Tournai getting no response from the men, the German Officers picked the men out from the different Companies as we where [sic] placed along the road. I was picked out and told to stand on the end of our Company whilst the Officer went along the other Companies. I sneeked [sic] back into the lines (David Waterfield M.G.) changed hats with me. I also turned my coat inside out which altered my appearance a lot, on the Officer’s return to collect the men that he had picked out of course he missed me and seeing Waterfield with my hat he lugs him out. When Sgt Wilson who had been with us since the 11th April told the Officer that Waterfield was to [sic] ill to do any further work after a bit of grumbling he let him come back with the rest of us, at 6pm we arrived at Marchiennesville Station and waited till midnight before entraining. The train that was taken [sic] us away brought into Marchiennes upwards of a 1,000 Russians to take our places (poor devils) in the different Fronts. Leaving Marchiennes at midnight we had a very tiresome journey.”
When I first read this account of Charles’s attempt at disguise to avoid being sent off to Tournai I felt like cheering for his success at tricking the ‘huns’. Upon reflection though, I realise that it was a dangerous game he played, both for himself, and his accomplice. On many occasions in the past the men were treated appallingly for lesser transgressions, or even threatened with being shot. I imagine it was a spur-of-the-moment response born of desperation at being so close to moving on to Germany and then having that hope dashed. Tournai would probably have only offered more of the same hard work and poor treatment that they had experienced in the past seven months. I sense that getting to Germany, whatever those POW camps may have held in store, was infinitely preferable to being close to the Front.
These days Marchiennes is a small town with a population of around 4,800. More research is needed to determine where prisoners were held during the war, especially as references indicate that there were a number of sites used. Charles stayed in old stables.
We spent some time walking around to get a feel for the place. A stroll down Rue d’Abbaye revealed the remains of the Abbaye de Marchiennes from the 18th century. The Town Hall and local history museum occupy the abbey’s imposing main gateway building, but we were disappointed to find that both were closed to the public the day we were there. Another gateway stands in opposition further along the road about 280m from the first. Amazingly, both gateways still form a thoroughfare for traffic, including trucks, even though there is a preservation order on the buildings.
Many adjacent buildings in the Abbey precinct are in need of repair.
For Charles, the 26 November 1917 was the day he could say goodbye to France and the Western Front. Finally, after more than seven months, he was heading to Germany. In my next post we will follow Charles to the first of two POW camps where he spent time during his capture. This first camp is called Friedrichsfeld and it is over 300km from Marchiennes in France.
* 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 taken on 31 October 2016 by Kaye Hill –