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 his diary entries as a guide my husband and I have walked in Charles’s footsteps through France to Bullecourt, then to the many villages he was moved to as a prisoner-of-war while working for the Germans. We followed Charles to Friedrichsfeld POW Camp in Germany and in this post we will join his journey to Güstrow in northern Germany.
If you wish to start the story from the beginning please go to What is this Blog?
After his 19-day stay in Friedrichsfeld POW Camp, Charles was on the move again, this time travelling a distance of some 600kms by train to another place of internment, Güstrow POW Camp.
Charles records in his diary:
“on the 17 Dec  all our things were searched, and also on the 18th when we where [sic] marched off to the train en route to different other Camp’s [sic], I being amongst a good number booked for Gustrow a camp where some hundreds of men chiefly Russian’s [sic] died of starvation in 1916.”
Evidence suggests that the train taking Charles and his fellow prisoners north to Güstrow travelled through the Lüneburger Heide, a heath-land of natural beauty about 70kms south of Hamburg, before continuing onto that city.
Among the writings, letters and photographs that Charles has left are a number of postcards. Postcard production was prevalent during WW1 with soldiers often using them to send short messages home. Soldiers also purchased postcards as mementos of places they had visited. At some stage on that long train journey from Friedrichsfeld to Güstrow Charles had the chance to buy two images of the heath and three of Hamburg. Copies of these may be viewed on the Postcards & Photos page I have created as part of this Blog.
Güstrow is around 200km north-east of Hamburg. In a 1920s publication – Map of the main prison camps in Germany and Austria, by Mrs. Pope-Hennessy – Güstrow is described as follows:
GÜSTROW. — A cathedral town in Mecklenburg (pop. 17,800) with an old ducal castle. The prison camp is situated in pine-woods three miles from the town. It consists of wooden barracks holding some 25,000 men. The camp carries on its register over 50,000 names, which proves that it is a centre for a great number of working commandos.
The following translation of a German source describes, in more detail, the structure of the Camp:
“The camp lacked any infrastructure at first, which is why the living conditions were initially very hard. It was only at the beginning of 1915 that the prisoners erected at least 150 solid wooden barracks (partially covered with tar tarpaulins)… . Other sources speak of about 250 barracks built with the help of various Güstrower woodworks. Each barrack was subdivided in the middle and thus had two entrances. These fixed barracks were about 10 m wide and 50 m long, a smaller type was 10 m x 20 m. They are said to have housed between 50 and 100 prisoners (other sources speak of up to 250 prisoners per barracks). The furnishing consisted of only a minimum of furniture: the bunk beds, a few tables and benches, and two stoves for heating. … Among other things, there was a kind of narrow-gauge railroad for transporting food [and other items], which crossed the entire camp from the bearing track of the regular railway line. The captured soldiers arrived at the station Primer Burg and then had to go on foot to the camp about 2 kilometers away.”
Upon arrival at Güstrow POW Camp Charles notes:
“Here we met a good many other prisoners, after standing out in the snow for about 2 hours we where [sic] told off to different Huts, each hut having a very large stove placed in the middle of the room for the purpose of warming the room up but alus [sic] there was no wood or coal to light a fire with.”
A week later, Charles writes:
“Xmas eve Brady & Bolton who were my two mates & self bribed a German Sentry who was guarding a stack of wood with a piece of soap, to let us take a couple of pole’s telling him to turn his back to us whilst we stole them, after a bit of argument he walked away, we very soon got off with a couple of poles, which we got to our hut safe. Xmas morning having made a good fire Brady made a very good pudding with some flour chocolate raisins & some sweets, which I got in a parcel at Friedrichfeld [sic], needless to say we made short work of it, for that was all we had, with the exception of one thin slice of Bread for the day.”
Fortunately, a large number of photographs of the Güstrow POW Camp and its inhabitants, usually in the form of postcards, have survived and are evident in both the digitised collections of the Australian War Memorial and also on various websites. One such image is this view below of the camp Barracks in snow, which is similar to the way Charles would have seen it on his arrival in December 1917.
From the photographic postcards that Charles left behind there are two that are certainly taken at Güstrow. Of these, the first one is of the camp Church, readily identifiable by its distinctive spire and cross, which is also visible in the previous photo.
The second postcard is of a group of prisoners outside one of the barracks. Charles is not in the gathering, so I can only assume that some of the men may have been his mates, which could explain why the photo was in his possession. Group shots such as this were common as the camp apparently had its own ‘photographic barracks’ where images were taken and processed.
By late 1917 Güstrow POW Camp was very well established and had extensive facilities, such as a bakery, post office, laundry, shoemaker’s workshop, disinfection unit, hair cutting room, and more. The Camp was also known for its variety stage shows performed by the prisoners; many surviving photographs attest to this.
Unfortunately Charles’s exposure to such facilities was short-lived as his stay in Güstrow was, on this occasion, for only 10 days. He did return to the camp at Güstrow for a time in late 1918 while awaiting repatriation after the armistice was signed, but I will include more about this period in a later Blog post.
Now we will look at what remained of the camp when we visited in November 2016.
And now …
Before our trip I had spent some time researching the actual location of the Güstrow POW Camp and what might remain today. I located some mention of the camp cemetery on various discussion forums and using Google Earth my husband was able to pinpoint the location of the cemetery in the woods near a pistol club, a few kilometres from town. I wrote to the local Tourist Bureau and to the Archives in Güstrow to confirm the location and enquire as to the safety of visiting the area. It seemed from our research that our area of interest was precisely in line with the end of the shooting range! We didn’t want to take any chances. The Archive kindly replied with some background information (all in German) and a highlighted map confirming the location and assuring us that it was safe to visit.
The turn off to the camp cemetery is located on the main road to Glasewitz, to the east of Güstrow. After leaving the main road we passed through a small light industrial area before turning onto an unsealed road toward to the pistol club. An old wooden sign gave us hope that we were on the right track. Our arrival at the pistol club seemed to indicate we had reached a dead-end, but after some hesitation, we doubled back and found a rough track that headed off in what we hoped was the right direction.
The track ended at the top of a gentle rise where we found the remains of the Güstrow POW Camp Cemetery. Given the state of the track and the area in general, it was evident that very few visitors find their way there.
As with the Friedrichsfeld camp, only the cemetery remains. There are no other obvious remnants of the camp itself. Only two memorials are visible. One is a plaque listing all the nationalities represented in the cemetery.
Those British (Commonwealth) prisoners who died at Güstrow are not represented on this plaque as their remains were transferred to the Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg in 1920.
The other memorial at the site is to allied prisoners of war who died while in captivity at the Güstrow camp. The memorial was completed in April 1918 and was designed in the camp and paid for by the prisoners. It is purportedly the work of a French sculptor. Sadly it has been allowed to fall into a dreadful state of disrepair as the contrasting photos indicate.
Photos and postcards of the cemetery from the war period show row after row of graves crossing the face of the incline upon which the cemetery is located. We could find no sign of these graves now, although the rows of trees and some indentations in the land give a sense of what is below.
Priemerburg railway station
Before leaving the area we decided to locate the Priemerburg railway station as one of the references cited earlier mentioned that this was where the incoming prisoners were unloaded from the trains for the 2km march to the POW camp. As the following photos show, in contrast to the station building that existed in 1917 the area is now purely functional and uninspiring with no evidence remaining of its former structure.
For Charles his march from the train station to the prisoner of war camp at Güstrow heralded yet another period of uncertainty. He may have imagined that having reached far northern Germany it was likely this might be his final stop; a place where he could wait out the end of the war. While conditions at the camp were reasonable in contrast to those he had suffered previously, his stay was to prove brief. After 10 days Charles was on his way again. In the next Blog post we will follow Charles to Lübeck.
Australian War Memorial. Photograph Collection A01303.
Australian War Memorial. Photograph Collection P09591.
Güstrow: historische Ansichten auf alten Fotos und Postkarten ab 1890 [Güstrow: historical views on old photos and postcards from 1890 onwards]
Map of the main prison camps in Germany and Austria, by Mrs. Pope-Hennessy. New and revised edition. London: Nisbet & Co. Ltd., 1920.
World War One cemeteries – Hamburg Cemetery, Germany.
* 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 otherwise credited, taken on 10 November 2016 by Kaye Hill –