During WW1 the Germans held my grandfather, Private Charles William Palmer of the 48th Battalion, A.I.F., as a prisoner-of-war from 11 April 1917 until his repatriation at the end of December 1918.
Using Charles’s diary entries as a guide my husband and I have followed in Charles’s footsteps through France to his capture at Bullecourt, then on to the many villages he was moved to as a prisoner over a seven-month period.
In my previous blog post Charles spent his final 11 days in France in appalling conditions at a ‘holding camp’ in Marchiennes. From there he began a two and a half day train journey from France, across Belgium, to Friedrichsfeld POW Camp in Germany.
If you wish to start the story from the beginning please go to What is this Blog?
Charles was moved out of Marchiennes in France in the middle of the night on 26 November 1917. Charles describes a dangerous and eventful train journey:
“… Leaving Marchiennes at midnight we had a very tiresome journey. Arr at Brussels at 5pm on the 27th, here we stayed about 1 ½ hr continuing our journey we arr at a place called Welkenradt [sic], the [sic] being early morn of the 28th, here the train ran into a dead end smashing two coaches, killing two of our men and wounding several others. Continuing our journey we arrived at Friedrichfeld [sic] at 2am on the morning of the 29th here we where [sic] kept in the train till daylight, then we where [sic] taken to Friedrichfeld [sic] Lager here ever [sic] man was searched before he went into the Lager. The Tommies at this camp being mostly 1914 & 15 prisoner’s, where [sic] in receipt of red cross parcels so very soon gave us some food, we needed it for we where [sic] famished.”
This map illustrates the distance the men had to travel over a two and a half day period, with no evidence that they were ever allowed to exit the train during that time.
Friedrichsfeld is about 100km north of Cologne in the district of Wesel, and should not be confused with the town of the same name in Mannheim, 250km southeast of Cologne.
In a 1920s publication – Map of the main prison camps in Germany and Austria, by Mrs. Pope-Hennessy – Friedrichsfeld is described as follows:
FRIEDRICHSFELD. — Sixty miles north of Cologne near Wesel. Capacity 35,000.
There is an open space in the centre of the camp for football and tennis; also gardens with flowerbeds between the barracks; large vegetable gardens and potato field run by the prisoners. It is the centre of many working commandos, mining and otherwise. It is also a postal station for a large number of prisoners who have never been in the camp itself.
Friedrichsfeld was known to be one of the better POW camps in Germany. As the previous description shows there were spaces allocated for physical activity and the growing of vegetables. In the camp there was an emphasis on personal hygiene with the provision of a laundry area for prisoners and adequate shower rooms. The camp was also known for its theatre and entertainment shows produced by the prisoners.
Friedrichsfeld housed prisoners in long timber barracks with the first POWs in 1914 providing the labour for the build. There is even evidence of beds and bedding which would be the first time in seven months that Charles was not sleeping on wooden or stone floors or vermin-filled straw.
Friedrichsfeld POW Camp Barracks
(Photo credit: Friedrichsfeld POW Camp Blog)
I imagine that Charles’s brief stay at this Camp must have fuelled his hope that conditions for POWs in Germany generally were a vast improvement on those he had endured for most of his time in France.
In his writings Charles later reflects briefly on the conditions at Friedrichsfeld during his 19-day stay.
“Most of us got a few red cross parcels here and we done justice to them. The allowance of German Bread was one slice per day. The Germans offered all of the prisoners (British) 20 phennigs [sic] per day in Lieu of their ration of Bread it showed they where [sic] feeling the pinch allright [sic]. Here I was kept till Dec 17th during the time I was at Friedrichfeld [sic] I had several good Baths and plenty of clean clothes thanks to the red cross also a pair of good Boots”.
“… things in general where [sic] much better here than what we had been used to, although very strict the Chief Offices [sic] on more than one occasion [sic] using his sword of course the prisoners were defenceless”.
When planning our trip to Friedrichsfeld we decided we would stay in Wesel rather than Friedrichsfeld itself. We based this decision on the extent of the facilities we could find in each of the towns. Friedrichsfeld seemed quite small, while nearby Wesel hosted a number of accommodation options.
Wesel turned out to be a delightful town, with one long shopping street and a number of lovely buildings. The train station was easily accessible and our hotel was just across the square from the train.
Thanks to a wonderful online resource, Friedrichsfeld POW Camp: Virtual exhibit of pictures from the Friedrichsfeld POW camp taken during WW1, I discovered when researching the camp, we had been able to pinpoint the location of the site using Google Maps and Google Earth, so we were well armed with information. Even so, we thought we would continue our usual practice of asking the locals if they could provide any insights. We started with the owner of our hotel, who had no idea that there was ever a POW camp in the area. He directed us to the local library where we spoke, in our limited German, with two of their staff. Although they pulled a number of history books from the shelves for us, there was little they could offer, and they certainly had no personal knowledge of a camp in the area.
The next day our hotel ordered a taxi for us and we headed to Friedrichsfeld, just 5kms along the main road. Our taxi driver spoke quite good English and was curious as to why two Australians wanted to be dropped at a nondescript intersection in his small town. When we explained about the huge POW camp that had existed there in WW1 he was highly disbelieving of our story. When he dropped us off he good naturedly wished us ‘luck’.
Beyond houses there was nothing of note at the intersection until we pushed our way through some vegetation to find a large park, surrounded by trees. We later found an entrance to the park further along the road with a sign Kriegsgräberanlage that translates as War Graves. The road running alongside the area is called Am Franzosenfriedhof, meaning French Cemetery.
This cemetery was to the east of the POW camp and at some point may have even formed the camp’s eastern boundary. The small cemetery was originally for French soldiers who died as prisoners in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. In WW1 the cemetery was extended and prisoners who died at Friedrichsfeld POW Camp were buried there. The Camp held French, Russian, Serbian, Belgian, Italian, Portuguese and English prisoners (these may include soldiers from all parts of the Commonwealth).
We explored all parts of the cemetery and discovered many grave markers hidden by foliage, as well as the more obvious monuments.
Monument to French prisoners
Dated 1870-71, with the addition of a remembrance plaque at the base dated 1914.
The photographs show the monument in 1914 (Photo credit: Friedrichsfeld POW Camp Blog) and present day, 2016.
Monument erected in 1916
Erected by the prisoners for their comrades who died in the POW Camp. The monument is dedicated to all nationalities represented in the cemetery, namely Belgian, English, French, Italian, Russian, Serbian, and Portuguese soldiers. The 70 graves of Commonwealth soldiers who died between 1916-18 were later re-located to the Cologne Southern Cemetery. It is not known if any of these were Australian.
These photographs show construction of the memorial in 1916 (Photo credit: Friedrichsfeld POW Camp Blog) and how it looks today in 2016.
This has extensive text in German that I am still to translate.
WW2 Grave Markers
Five rows of 228 flat markers from WW2 graves. All appear to be Russian or Serbian.
Stone Grave Markers
Numerous stone grave markers are clustered under four trees, mostly with either one of two symbols indicating nationality / religion. These are believed to be Russian, Serbian and Muslim.
After exploring and photographing the cemetery we followed the map (shown at the top of this post) and walked around and through the original area that housed the POW camp buildings. Much of the area is now a housing estate, but there is also a sporting stadium that would have been part of the original site of the camp. We walked around the boundary of the camp then into the sporting field identifying the extent of the space and where features, such as the camp gates, may have been located. A fluoro-vested groundsman approached us, obviously wondering what we were up to. He had some English and I was able to show him the POW Camp map on my iPad. He was the first local we had met who actually had some appreciation of what was located in that area during WW1. We had a lovely conversation with him and he gave us directions for exiting the field via a shortcut.
We then crossed over the main road, Hindenburgstraße and entered another park that was also home to many stone memorials. This area had once formed part of a very large military training camp dating back to the 1870s. The memorials were for German soldiers who lost their lives in the various theatres of war; some of the older memorials were in quite poor condition.
We couldn’t help but compare the state of all the various headstones and memorials we had seen in Friedrichsfeld with the respectful, beautifully presented and maintained Commonwealth war graves we had seen in France.
Charles stayed in Friedrichsfeld for a mere 19 days before being prepared for yet another move. He really must have wondered where and when all the moving was to end.
On 16 December 1917 he writes:
“Packing up ready to depart elsewhere and a General seach [sic]”.
“Elsewhere” turned out to be Güstrow, another POW camp some 600kms away in the north of Germany. In my next blog post we will find out what awaited Charles on the next stage of his journey as a prisoner-of-war.
Friedrichsfeld POW Camp: Virtual exhibit of pictures from the Friedrichsfeld POW camp taken during WW1. Presentation: Karl Goellmann. English Translation: Jeremy Popkin
Map of the main prison camps in Germany and Austria, by Mrs. Pope-Hennessy. New and revised edition. London: Nisbet & Co. Ltd., 1920.
* 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, unless otherwise credited, taken on 4 November 2016 by Kaye Hill –