My Experiences as a Soldier and Prisoner of War Germany 1918

Address to the Senior Citizens Club in Swavesey

(Given at The Memorial Hall on All Saints Day 1976)

Rev. Arthur Beaumont


Introduction

When I tell you of my war experiences do not imagine I am holding myself in your admiration; I was just one lad of 181/2 called up to join an army of hundreds of thousands, most of whom were far better soldiers than myself.

That was in May 1917, nearly 60 years ago. In the previous year, 1916, was the famous Battle of the River Somme in France when tens of thousands of British fellows were killed; they had been civilians in what was known as Lord Kitchener's Army. So there was to arise a shortage of men and more were constantly being called up to serve. That no doubt was why they took me from my village - home where my mother, a widow had already given four sons: one a Canadian (killed in 1915); one wounded 1915 (Loos) and discharged as of no further use; one invalided out in May 1917 from illness. Of course, like all lads I wanted to go and it was not until I was in the Army that I found it was not such a bed of roses as I had imagined.

I went first to a barracks at Bury St Edmunds - Training Reserve Battalion in Suffolk, and I well remember having sheets on the bed; that was the only place I ever had sheets, and I have slept on the ground. That is when you find it hard to blanch on your hip bone. Try it sometime! I also remember that at tea time you had to share a bowl of tea with your neighbour, who you had never seen before. That was a new experience!

My brother told me "don't remain in the infantry or foot soldiers - you'll get a lot of marching. Try to join something else." So at Dover I applied to join the Machine Gun Corps. I well remember standing before the Medical Officer with pleading eyes that he would pass me. The Adjutant thought "Here is a poor specimen - don't pass him". Well, the good doctor said "his heart is alright" and so I was allowed to join the Machine Gun Corps. I suppose my heart was in the right place!

After some months training in the Dukeries, Clipstone Camp, (Notts) I was considered a trained machine gunner and as I said, such was the demand for men, that I was on draft to go to the war front in February 1918, after about eight weeks training.

I would like to read you some of the sentences in my letter to my dear mother from the train 3rd February 1918. What hope and optimism of youth going to the battlefield. I was soon to have that optimism shattered. We reached embarkation spot for Folkestone in Kent to embark from there to France.

As we waited for the transport ship to take us across the English Channel we stood - we younger soldiers - and watched a column of old soldiers marching to the boat. They had been home on leave from France from the battlefield and on leave, or holiday, at their homes. No doubt many were realising they would never see their own loved ones again and there was not a smile among them. They were a silent marching line which struck me forcibly; I was soon to know why they felt like that when I reached France and the line.

Going overseas

As our transport crossed the channel there were destroyers there to watch for submarines. We landed at Boulogne and went to a camp at Carriers near Etaples. After 4/5 weeks training we were embarked in cattle trucks for the front line. It was not unpleasant, as the sides were open and one could see the French countryside. Very different from the trucks when I was a prisoner on the way to Germany and we were shut in, except for one small high window, where we clambered up to see where we were going.

At last our train reached the battle line and one could hear the guns in the distance - that was a striking experience which I have not forgotten. My first taste of horrifying war - we were near St Quentin. The Horse-Shoe Sector of Machine Gun Defence - A Salient Bulging Out.

Our machine was a Vickers gun with a large tripod which was carried separately from the water-cooled magazine (Vickers Gun). It fired 400/500 bullets a minute. We carried boxes of ammunition with us. The army had recently taken over a part of the front line from the French and where we were placed was a kind of horse-shoe shaped bulge with a machine gun trained on each segment so that all was covered. It was my first experience of the line. Of course one only came out at night from what was called the dug-out; a place in which to live and sleep in - kind of cross-shaped I think. It was covered on top with sacking coloured (camouflaged) to look like the ground so that it could not be seen from the air.

I have not forgotten going out on guard on a moonlit night and hearing the long distance shells making a trajectory overhead. You waited to hear the dull boom when it reached the target on the ground and exploded - fortunately a long way from us, behind the line of enemy - to say the least. The dug-out was not pleasant if filled with smoke which had no outlet and we endured a lot of damp and smoke.

March 1918 - The Attack

On the morning of 21st March, 1918 at 4am the Germans began their awaited attack. Any soldier will tell you what an experience it is to be in a bombardment in the front line - all the guns trained on one part of the line, then having destroyed that, lifting and going forward, the infantry advanced behind the barrage.

The guns concentrated on the front line of trenches and shells burst like a coal skuttle scattered in the air. Hundreds of them firing and the noise deafening. In the bombardment our HQ was destroyed in the barrage of guns so we had no orders. What we we to do? There was a mist ahead on the flat ground and we had no ideas where our infantry men were in their trenches. (I was a young soldier and though it sounds personal, I did say my prayers openly). Then Lance Corporal Johnstone looked at me, a young soldier, and asked my opinion. I had been awakened at 2pm after a time on guard from 8am.

Well he decided to evacuate the dug-out so we did, leaving the emplacement at about 2pm. There were shells falling but we reached the banks of a canal (the Crozat canal) where we gathered many more who had to leave the front line and were underground awaiting orders.

It was near a town called Tergniers, which had been a railway junction, in the dug-outs and on the enemy side of the canal I was picked out to be one of a rear-guard to stop with the gun on the opposite side of the canal. I remember watching some engineers blowing up a bridge over the canal at night (actually ineffectively). Next morning, 22nd March, Lieutenant Wallgate and another officer were with us in a house on the railway. We had no food and I remember finding a tin of something left by other soldiers - it was a boon we enjoyed.

The gun was on the bank of the Crozat Canal. My duty arrived. As a I made my way for my turn to be at the gun - one hour on and two hours off - the Germans were firing and sniping bullets. The ground was all broken up with fallen bricks and rubbish but is is amazing where you put yourself when you may get shot in the leg or elbow.

While I waited the Germans pushed some light bridges (very cleverly) across the canal and came pouring over attacking. I am always thankful I did not fire the gun - possibly my life was saved because of that.

Soon they were around us and we were rounded up in a group on the bank. The officer took our soldiers' pass-books for information on what troops were in the line. I put my hand to my pocket thinking I had better give up my knife. He cocked his pistol at me and my hand soon came clear I can tell you!

I omitted before, old people, an incident which happened there. A German (officer) had rushed at my machine gun. He was shot through the head. A German soldier came to our group. He picked out a man of the Command Regiment (I did not know him), the Officer made him kneel and shot him. I feel that Londoner may have been killed in my place.

On a day or so later we were moved and we went to a farm house, into the farm house yard. I was very hungry by this time: we had to leave our gun emplacement just when we were to have our daily meal - most unfortunate! There was the farm house door. I knew a little French and had some French money. I went to the door (not a wise thing to do, for the French people's sake) but I held out my money and asked if I could buy 'du Pain' - some bread. Oh no! Of course they dare not do it; they were of course afraid. Yet one young French woman (God bless her) looked at me - thin as a rake - and she went to the staircase and soon came down with one piece of buttered bread - she gave it to me. I have never enjoyed a piece of buttie so much in my life! We usually got threequarters of a pint of coffee and one slice of bread and a bowl of vegetable soup. Then after 8 or 10 kilos march we were in some huts in the woods (the kindness of a German - he could do little to help).

I was picked out with others to go to a hut before some intelligence officers who wanted information; the man in front of me had, I believe, given some. I had a good excuse "I was quite new on the front line' and knew nothing. Actually it was information they would welcome, for it showed the English were using young troops and were short of older and more experienced ones.

24th March - Bread ration. Again march to Guise with thousands of French soldiers - I said we had taken over part of the line from them - Guise was a large town. We were put into some very dirty stables in station buildings.

I have spoken of hunger. I saw some high ranking officers - Lieutenants, Colonels, etc. sitting on the floor eating (with a penknife), some turnips and eating it in pieces from the end of a pen knife!

One of my wishes was of course to let my mother know that I was alright and I was alive. She had hardly heard much for 4 or more weeks and my brother - George - a Captain in the East Surrey Regt - was also in France and he was to be killed in 16 days time on April 9th at Fleurbaix. I had an inspiration what to do to let her know. Walking in the street I saw a German officer of the Luftwaffe (or Air Force). I went up to him and saluted very smartly. He asked, in broken English, what I wanted. "Could I write home?" Well no. Then he thought and did what was a merciful and kind action. He had this piece of paper which held cigarettes; he asked me to write what I wanted upon it. I put my name and my mother's address and underneath 'I am a prisoner and safe and sound'.

This officer was a German airman and his plane was brought down in our lines. He was captured and my letter was taken from him. He seemed to have meant to have dropped it in our lines.

2nd May: That was the first news my mother had that I was alive. She had to wait about six weeks at least. (How much our relatives suffered when we were quite alright). You can imagine her relief, it came about 2nd May, 1918 - she had a telegram 22nd April to say George died of wounds. My brave mother.

The March from Guise to Landrecies: Easter Day 1918

I have not forgotten that walk. We had no food before we went - just like the British Army in that! Men staggered along, some lay down (Uhlan horsemen accompanied us). I well remember a man near, ran into a field planted with beans; he had found an old tin with water. He went into the field and dug up some of the beans planted in the field and was washing them in an old tin. Yes, we were hungry I can tell you.

When we reached Landrecies food was awaiting us. We made for Germany all night and were fed at stations. The food got worse as we approached Germany - the civilians always fared worse than the soldiers, even in England that was true.We reached the prisoner of war camp in the province of Hesse 'Giessen' in Bavaria, German.

The Camp at Giessen

This was a well ordered camp since we had been through four years of war and the Germans had time to plan and organise it. If you look at the booklet you will see there was a church hut. Here my prayer book; here by the way is my small New Testament given to every soldier. (Frank's copy turned aside a bullet in his chest).

I had great help from reading the Psalms in this prayer book; they are a great stay in times of trouble.

From this camp men were sent out to various parts of the country to work. The fortunate ones who had been farmers or farm labourers were able to live on farms and or course they were fed better than any. I was sent to a placed called Eisenfeld in the Hertz mountains. We lived in a house reserved for us.

By this time the October Revolution of 1917 had taken place. The Russian prisoners received no food from home as we did. We gave them rice to cook. Parcels etc.(Contents bread, biscuit from Holland from the Red Cross). They had no socks and were of a very low calibre serfs; all but one non. commissioned officer. He told us stories of the autocratic Tsarina. When she visited a place he said they were expected to reverse their arms to be less dangerous I suppose.

May Day 1918

My first work was down a mine. We were called up at four for (hogus) coffee and bread and left at five for the mine. It was spring time and the scenery was really lovely - one compensation. Down the mine at 6 o'clock until 2 o'clock. It was an ironstone mine not a coal mine. My job was to take charge of a truck which had been filled with blocks of ironstone and to guide the truck to where it was sent up the cage to the top of the mine.

You fancy me with a truck of stone and a sloping line! - I couldn't stop the thing; so off the rail it went off the lines and the Germans came, with not very polite language, to lift the truck on to the rails. One young German got out a knife at me, but being a peaceful fellow he did not stick it into me. One of our men fought some of them with a pit prop. We you can see they soon felt my great abilities did not rest in mining so I was sent to another job after 2 weeks, but I kept one momento - the gas jet off my lamp.

My second job was at an old smelting factory. By this time in the war the Germans were obviously short of metal so we, and other men, were to take down the metal sheets by cutting the bolts which had been fixing them.The German had a sledge hammer and my job was to hold the iron chisel with which he aimed a blow to cut off the bolt. Naturally my hands were rather knocked about. I had a little fighting spirit.

The little mountaineer - I can see him now with his small moustache and I, were on top of the whole structure 70 feet high. There was a hanging rope and we were quite high up. He beckoned me to seize it. I said "No, I won't", so he gave me a slap on the face. So, bad man as I am, I said "Well I will not do it now". He changed. Maybe he thought, unless I am careful this Englander will push me off. So he called me by my Christian name, Arthur -  and we were friends again.

Well my damaged hands were a blessing in disguise. I was sent to the doctor. When I showed my massive chest he held up his hands in horror I was too thin to go back to camp. Hurray! I said to myself - so back to Giessen I went again for another job. When I was taken I had to go to the office for something and there was an Englishman who had tried to escape and had been caught. Men used to collect tins of dripping and packets of biscuits from their parcels, but we never heard if they got through. This man had been caught and was awaiting to hear his fate and punishment.

Letters home

We were allowed to send cards and letters home and my dear Mother kept mine as you may well think she would do. I notice how I try to keep up everyone's spirits at home by saying how well I am and how all is going well. Yet I notice one thing - I kept wondering how was my brother (George). He had been killed on April 19th. I sent three cards to him and then my eldest brother wrote to say he had been killed (really knew it within me).

Prison Money (Germans angered at lighting cigarettes with the notes).

My third and last job at a tannery was a place called Burgel, near Frankfurt am Main. It belonged to a naturalised American named Becker. The men (and women) will know that the hide of the cow is kept for leather and in those days the hair was kept to stuff the horses collars, we older ones know. Also some of the hair was used to stuff mattresses.

The hide was soaked in lime and the hair of course came off and must be separated; the pits were cleared and a German with a barrow full of this white dripping-hair was brought to me (I fear he was not always well disposed to this prisoner and I think he threatened me one day). I had two machines to watch. One washed the lime-filled hair in a trough; this hair I put into baskets and took to a round copper machine, actually a round copper container with holes. I put the wet hair into this container, switched on the current by shifting the belt (like that used in the old threshing machine). This whirled round the hair until it was almost dry.

Then an old German workman came from upstairs with a basket and he took the hair to ovens where it was baked and thoroughly dried. He was quite a friendly old fellow. The only time he was upset was when he had an order (I believe from what I should gather that he was to join the army). The Germans were now getting on their last legs. It was a good thing for our sakes, for they used to say the clogs we wore in winter would freeze to our feet, so I was saved that.

Armistice Day was 11th November, 1918 - finish of war - prisoners to be freed at once.

We had our thrills (tell of Christie and the small sentry). A French prisoner was carrying a protmanteau. The guard told Christie - a Canadian - to help him. Christie, who knew German, made some foolish reply. The sentry fumed and fumed all the way back to the billet - the Germans did this at time and when we reached the small house up the stairs he put some cartridges in his gun and came as if to shoot somebody. He might have hit someone.... but I suppose he calmed down.

The end of the war came in November 1918 - discipline went - German officers were pushed aside. Soldiers and workmen's councils set up. A revolution and an armistice.

We left Germany via Saarbrucken and Metz (I went and saw the cathedral) then to Calais.

Someone gave us buns and as we crossed the channel I was in no mood for rejoicing I can tell you I felt very bad and sea sick but soon the Cliffs of Dover appeared to cheer me up. We were met at Dover and with great welcome and kindness. How wonderful to be in England and free.

As we passed through the lovely county of Kent I was quite willing to say with Wordsworth (on his return from France - 1799)

I travelled among unknown men,

In lands beyond the sea,

Nor England did I know till then,

What love I bore to thee.

Tis past that melancholy dream.

Nor will I quit thy shore

A second time; for still I seem

To love thee more and more.

Well it was not quite true for I did quit England at other times later but I always returned with gladness that I was a native of these great islands. So I thank God I got through the War.

One thing I shall never forget - the greeting of my dear Mother when I entered the door of my home in Swavesey village in Cambridgeshire on 14th December, 1918.

Conclusion

I must draw to a close now and I do trust I have not bored you speaking so much about myself. Two things to say:

1. One scene is naturally imprinted on my mind because it was possible the nearest thing I have ever been to death.

It was when a German rushed up to the machine gun where I was standing; he shouted out "Machine Gewehr" (Machine Gun). Just as he did so a soldier from behind me shot him through the head and he slumped by my gun.

I said just three words "Lord help me". Well he did help me! I am here today 58 years later and I pray I may have been worthy of His saving my life to serve and love Him as a Parish Priest of the Anglican Church.

2. The sequel was more tragic for one man.

I told you we were rounded up and made to come out of the trench and put off our equipment. As we stood there in a circle - I can see it dimly in my mind's eye still - a German soldier came with his bayonet and picked out one man from, I believe, the London Regiment - quite unknown to me.

The German had seen his friend lying there by my gun - dead! He will have one life for his friend's place. He marches this Englishman to the spot; the officer saw he could do nothing with him, so he made the English soldier kneel down and he shot him. Now I have always felt that, in one sense, that Londoner died in my place.

Well this week is Holy Week and on Good Friday there was certainly One who died in my place and because of my sins - yes, and yours too - my friends! But I trust one day to see that Englishman in the place Jesus has gone to prepare for all who love Him and believe in Him. Who is not dead but risen and living.

So all will be well one day by His grace and to give Him my thanks and greetings to that unknown soldier who may have died in may place. Can I not thank God I was saved to live in this beautiful world?

I thank our Saviour who gives a peace and joy no one can destroy or take away and His grace to live day by day and that hope through Him of life eternal, for our loved ones and all who die with faith in Him.

The Home Coming

We were sent to camp at Canterbury for medical inspection and extra feeding. I arrived home in my own village of Swavesey in Cambs on the 14th December - I had never been away from home before.Let us remember my Mother had given five sons to the War, two were killed (1915 and 1918), one was discharged wounded, one was discharged ill and I was a Prisoner of War. Her faith and deep trust in God had given here the strength to endure this ordeal. She was also helped by the kindness of her friends in the village and the local Vicar.

I will never forget the moment I met up with my Mother once more and even to this day I can hear her voice echoing through the years. Thank God we were reunited.

A reward which came from my experiences was that I was granted a generous state grant of over £200 per annum for my education in the University of Cambridge, at Emmanuel College, which proved to be a great and lasting boon. After my graduation I was subsequently able to enter the Ministry and spend the rest of my life in the service of the Almighty.

Arthur Beaumont (Rev.) All Saints Day 1979

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My thanks to Nigel Beaumont for providing this material and to Cliff Brown for typing it into an appropriate format for publication.