A Nasty Birthday Surprise by Sue Bavey
An Extract from as yet unpublished Lucky Jack by S. Bavey
On my 24th birthday, March 21st, 1918, at around 5.00 a.m. a terrific noise began - the German barrage had started. You could hear nothing but gunfire. It shattered my eardrum. Eight of us, all snipers, including my mate Charlie, were in the extra trench, which had been dug by the Royal Engineers. We had been in the trench since the previous night. It was quite some way out in front of our frontline and we had been given orders to keep it defended at all costs.
Suddenly the Germans started pouring out from their trenches. As men were shot down they were replaced by others. They advanced in small pockets, which they had weakened by constant bombing, not in a straight line as we had expected. They were shelling heavily to the left and right of us, but somehow, miraculously, not on us. Waves of German soldiers flowed past us, but they didn’t come anywhere near us, as we hid, terrified, in our trench. Yards in front of us we could see a group of fifty soldiers advancing, and another group the same distance behind us. They swept right past us as we stood in our trench watching them. The British soldiers were in full retreat and from our slit in the ground, all we could see was the backs of the German soldiers, as they continued forging ahead.
We stayed in our trench like that, surrounded by all of our equipment and everything we owned. We had expected to be in the thick of the fighting and instead there we were hiding in a small trench. At around 11 a.m. a group of Prussian soldiers appeared, part of the ‘mopping up’ party sent to finish off or round up any survivors who had been missed the first time the soldiers went through. They threw some ‘tater mashers’ into the trench (hand grenades), which luckily missed me, and then came rushing down into our trench. By some good fortune, neither Charlie nor I were killed. We decided we had no choice but to put our hands up and surrender under the circumstances. It was 11.30 a.m. by this time and we had managed to hold the trench since 5.00 a.m. We were terrified and exhausted and Frank Richards had been hit by a piece of tin between his neck and shoulders and he was bleeding and holding his head.
One of the Prussian Guards was a big, fierce-looking man with a moustache. He jumped into the trench next to me, with his bayonet fixed and pointed at my stomach. Convinced my last hour had come, I was absolutely terrified and said “Goodbye” and waited for his deadly thrust. Instead of thrusting his bayonet into me I heard him say softly, almost gently, “Zigaretten, Kamerad?” He wanted cigarettes. I took out my cigarette tin from my pocket where I carried a few ready-rolled cigarettes and offered it to him. He took some cigarettes and then pointed at my equipment and said, “Los!” We had to leave all of our possessions and equipment there on the ground and follow them out of the trench. They then walked us back to their lines. What an absolute feeling of relief that was, although we were filled with trepidation as to what would follow! We had heard about the maltreatment of prisoners of war by the Germans and had never really dared to consider what it would be like if it happened to us. We knew prisoners were often sent down coal mines and felt fearful for our future.
Two of our number, including Frank, had been hit by the tater mashers and their legs were badly wounded, so they needed help, but the German soldiers were patient and took their time while we dragged our fellow soldiers out of the trench and up a slope. There were prisoners to be seen in all directions being told where to go by German soldiers. A very smartly-dressed young officer asked me in perfect English where in Britain I had come from. I replied, “London,” and it turned out he had been to Birkbeck College in London until the war started. He had been made to give up college in order to fight. He then said, “You need not worry, the fighting is finished for you. Good day to you, gentlemen.” We were left to find our own way via a sunken road strewn with dead horses and broken-down vehicles. We had no idea where we were going, but just followed the steady stream of prisoners leaving the battlefield. Finally we arrived at a massive field in which there were hundreds of other dishevelled and broken-looking prisoners and stayed there for the night with no food or drink. The following morning we were brought a large dixie on a cart, containing some kind of tea from which they gave us a tin to drink and a slice each of brown bread. At this point they started forming us into groups and we began marching again, this time to the railway depot. I had managed to stay with Charlie until the depot, but that was the last I saw of him, Frank and any of my other pals, who by this time had become like family to me. Charlie was put on a different train to another place, while I was put on a train to Münster. It was so sad to lose sight of someone I had spent so much time with over the previous three years and I often wonder what happened to him. Having a friend like Charlie Shaw in the line, to whom I was able to talk to about my family and how I felt when my heart got broken, had helped me get through the bad times no end and my heart was heavy as I wondered how I would be able to cope on my own and what terrible things were in store for me next.
The trains which took us off to prison camp were made up of dozens of cattle trucks with blacked out windows and barely any air vents, and we were brutally shoved up a set of steps, which the Germans brought for us, and pushed inside, forty to a truck. We traveled without food or water like that for two days, with only a small grating for ventilation up in one corner of the roof. There was no lavatory, so we had to use one corner of the truck as a toilet and the lack of drainage meant that the smell was overpowering. I only had my handkerchief with which to cover my nose against the terrible reek. You had to stand and since there was no support it was best to lean against the wall if you could. If you were in the middle part you had to lean against each other for support and everyone kept sliding to the floor and then getting themselves back up again. I knew no one and had to keep leaning up against people I’d never met before. It was very awkward and we were all terrified. We had no idea how long we would be in that horrible situation together in the pitch darkness, with the awful smell and lack of space and the constant noise from the wheels as they went over the rails. It was enough to make anyone question their sanity before too long.
When we arrived in Münster after two days of hellish travel, we were taken to a German prison camp called ‘Lager 1’. There were three ‘Lagers’ in Münster. When we alighted from the cattle truck we were given a slice of brown bread and something they called ‘coffee’ to drink. It was made from acorns and in any other circumstance, would have been distinctly unappealing, but we were desperately thirsty. Then they marched us through the town with fixed bayonets pointed at us, while the local people lined the streets staring at us, taking in our dreadful, dirty, wet, miserable, broken appearance as we passed by. I noticed many of the local people wore wooden clogs on their feet.
Once we arrived at the camp in Münster, we were ushered through a large gate into a guardroom. We went through the guardroom and out into a yard with a central grassy area surrounded by huts, which would be our sleeping quarters. There was a hut for each nationality of prisoner in that camp, Russian, Indian, Turkish to name a few. The beds inside the huts were wooden bunk beds made from chicken wire and each man had a thin blanket. Unfortunately, the blankets had been left outside the huts when we arrived and had got soaked in the rain, so that night we had to sleep on chicken wire with a wet blanket, but at least we were no longer standing in the dark cattle truck with our bones being rattled by the constant vibration and ‘rackety-rack’ sound of the train. We were so exhausted from our journey that I don’t think anyone had trouble sleeping, despite the uncomfortable beds.
We had a sergeant major in our hut and we persuaded him to represent us as our spokesperson. He took charge of us and appointed two men each day to do tasks such as fetching our daily rations from the cookhouse. They would bring back a big dixie containing the water in which the Germans had cooked their vegetables, a slice of brown bread each and some coffee made from acorns. That was all we got to eat on a daily basis. Sometimes there might be a little bit of mangel wurzel left in the cooking water which we could chew on for nutrition.
What a far cry that was from birthday cake and a celebration! Luckily I lived to celebrate many more birthdays in my long life - living to the grand old age of 106.