Life as a prisoner of war in World War One
Jerseyman, Major Albert George L’Estrange Le Gallais, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, was a prisoner of the Germans during World War One, and on reaching Montreux in Switzerland a few weeks before Christmas 1917, having been transferred from three years captivity to an internment facility, he provided the following account of those years:
- ”Taken prisoner, afternoon 31 October 1914, near Gheluvelt, marched to Wervicq, and from thence to Tourcoing, where we arrived about 11 pm. Kept waiting at station until 2 am, then put into train.
- ”I was with a party of 11 officers. Our escort was commanded by a sergeant. No food of any sort was provided, nor were we allowed to buy any, from the 31st to the evening of 2 November, when we arrived at Crefeld, except some very bad rye bread, and not much of that, and a little coffee twice.
- ”Each large station we went through we were screamed at and abused. At Cologne men were taken out on the platform and forced to walk up and down, being kicked and jeered by the crowd. We officers were taken out of the train and shut up in a small room, with no chairs, under the stairs of the station. Whilst we were there, a general, his staff officer, and a woman came in to stare at us and looked at us as if we were wild beasts out of a zoo.
- ”Arrived at Crefeld, we were kept in the station about half an hour, and then sent to a tram that was waiting for us. The road to the tramcar was lined by soldiers to keep the crowd away from us, who were screaming and cursing and very anxious to get us and tear us to bits. They, the crowd, tried to hit us with sticks, and actually succeeded in hitting Captain Soames, who was in the rear. The crowd even pursued us when we were in the tram half way to the barracks, and really if they could have got at us we would have had a very bad time.
- ”Arriving at camp we were put in a large room and left to ourselves.
- ”The treatment in Crefeld Camp was, when compared with other camps, quite good, due, largely, I think, to the Commandant, Major Courth. Our chief trouble was that we were not allowed to look out of the windows, nor were we for a long time allowed to have them open. If you looked out of a window you were shot at, at once, by the sentries. At this period all nationalities were mixed up together. Later on this, and the question of shut windows, was put right by the American Ambassador.
- ”We were allowed to write two letters and two postcards monthly at this time, and our letters from England came through quickly and regularly.
- ”No drink was allowed until 1915. When Major Vandeleur escaped, the whole camp was stopped smoking a week, and this punishment was again applied later, but each time less vigorously. I was two years and six months at Crefeld, and our treatment there on the whole was fair.
- ”In May 1917 I had to go to hospital near Crefeld to undergo an operation to my nose. Whilst I was in hospital, all the English were moved from Crefeld to different camps in Germany. I was never allowed to go back to the camp to look after my kit, which I had left before going to hospital, never expecting to be moved, and in consequence was put to great loss, both as regards food and clothing, all of which were looted by the guards.
- ”I went to hospital on parole, where I remained for about a fortnight. At 5 am on 1 June 1917 I was awakened in hospital and told to be ready to move at 6 am to proceed to another camp, destination unknown. My escort consisted of two armed men, who, although I was still on parole, would not even leave me when I went to the lavatory. My parole card was subsequently returned to me by post, after the journey. My destination was Schwarmstedt, where I arrived the same evening about 8 pm
- ”To describe this camp would require a far more able pen than mine. Situated about 30 kilometres north of Hanover, on a moor that had originally been a marsh, I came across a cluster of wooden huts of the worst type, neither waterproof nor windproof, around which was the usual wire fence.
- ”The country here is exceedingly flat, and nowhere can you dig down three feet without coming to water. Most of the land here had been drained by the French prisoners in 1870. The result of this water under the surface was that there was a perpetual evaporation going on, which made the camp most objectionable.
- ”In the huts we were exceedingly crowded, often having to put the beds one on top of the other, like berths on a ship. The bedding consisted of two very worn blankets and a mattress made of sacking, with the coarse grass off the moor. Fortunately we were there only in summer. I can think of no place more unpleasant in winter.
- ”The latrines consisted of an open ditch situated in the middle of the huts and only 12 feet away from some of the sleeping rooms. This was only emptied when full to the very top, and the smell over the camp was dreadful.
- ”As for food, it consisted of: Breakfast - tea or coffee, no sugar or milk, and bread, which you bought and was an extra charge on the messing, and which I personally could not eat without a stomach ache afterwards. Dinner - daily was served in a camp bucket placed in the middle of the dining-room, and consisted of a kind of swedes, mangolds, a few potatoes, and some scraps of tinned meat of some kind. This mixture was quite uneatable, and made the room smell sour. Tea consisted of some kind of soup, usually quite uneatable.
- ”When we arrived in the camp there were no knives, forks or plates. Of fresh vegetables and fruit there was any quantity in the neighbourhood, but we were not allowed to buy them, as they were not available for prisoners, although German soldiers told me that they had vegetables going to waste in their gardens, which they could not send to Hanover, and which they were only to anxious to sell. Further, inside the camp itself was a large patch of vegetables, salads, etc, but we were not allowed to purchase any of them until they were quite passé.
- ”During all this time we were getting no letters, and our letters home were being held up, so that no one at home should know how we were being treated. All this was taking place while the Commission in Holland was promising better treatment to prisoners.
- ”Our letters were often delayed a month or more in Osnabrück. At first they bore the stamp date of arrival and date of departure, but when Major Wyndham, Wiltshire Regiment, the senior British officer, complained about this amongst other things, they faked the date of receipt and made it coincide with the date of forwarding to us. But for the efforts of Major Wyndham, who was continually standing up for our rights as prisoners, I think we should have been much worse off.
- ”From Schwarmstedt I was moved to Holzminden, Brunswick, a camp with good buildings, but with, I think, the worst type of Prussian, a German-American cad named Niemeyer, as Adjutant. With the exception of the Commandant, all of the staff of this camp were the same, and spared themselves no trouble if they thought they could annoy the prisoners. I understand that all the camps in the X Army Corps, ie the Hanover command, are the same, and I believe it is largely due to General Von Hänisch, who does all he can to annoy those who have the misfortune to be prisoners in his command.
- ”From Holzminden I moved to Heidelberg, where the treatment was reasonable, although the accommodation was not all that one would wish, but where you rarely saw a German, and they scarcely came into your rooms.
- ”The food, too, here was better, as the daily ration consisted of plenty of fresh vegetables, and more could be bought in the canteen. The bread was also eatable, and there was a small ration of sugar. My only real grievance in this camp was the shortage of fuel, the rooms lately being exceedingly cold.
- ”From Heidelberg, I passed direct over the border into Switzerland on 9 December 1917.
Major Le Gallais was an OV, and he had also been to Brecon College. Being granted a commission in Jersey’s Militia, he was then gazetted as a regular officer into the Northumberland Fusiliers, serving in South Africa, as Captain and Adjutant, and later as ADC to Mauritius’ Governor.
After regaining his freedom, in December 1918 he retired from the Army and returned to the Militia, first as the Second in Command, and then later as the Commanding Officer. The Militia at this time was the equivalent of one infantry battalion’s strength.
World War Two came and he again volunteered for Army service, being appointed Town Major at Lille, a short-lived appointment, given the German breakthrough. After a brief leave in Jersey he returned to England, and on 30 September 1940 he was killed during a bombing raid that hit the town of Sherborne in Dorset.