British Isle Genealogy
 England, Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man
   Wales, Channel Island, Isle of Wight

Experiences as a Prisoner of War

British Isles Genealogy | 23rd Service Battalion Royal Fusiliers

Extracts from the Diary Kept by "Mr. Brooks, the Schoolmaster"

"Reported missing."

Many poignant memories attach to such a bald announcement as this. Dead—probably a prisoner of war—perhaps. And there have been those who would have preferred, had they had the chance, of a death under the open sky to imprisonment under the Hun.

In the diary of a 23rd Royal Fusilier, "Mr. Brooks, the schoolmaster," as he was once dubbed by his captors, tells the story of how he was made a prisoner, his detention by the enemy, and his eventual return home.

The arrival of a parcel, he says, was a red-letter event; the problem of how much to eat at a time, and how much to save out of his rations for the provision of another apology of a meal, was a big one. Boiled nettles and dandelions for dinner and tea on Whit Sunday, 1917, proves what the fare actually was; quarters of eggs were unaccustomed luxuries. "I have picked moldy crusts off the ground, and prunes off dust-heaps," he says.

Dry bread and tea was a luxurious meal; beards had to be cut, or pulled out by means of borrowed scissors; one loaf, and a small one at that, had to prove sufficient for the needs of five men; there were occasional intervals of twenty-two hours between meals. "We were thinking of nothing but food," he explains. All this time, too, the prisoners were engaged in heavy manual work, humping bricks, loading and stacking hay, and so on.

While in hospital, "Mr. Brooks, the schoolmaster," sold his boots for tobacco and his socks for bread, and he mixed his jam ration with coffee in order to eke it out. "Personally, I am hungry all day long," is how he describes his feelings. "I bought about one-sixth of a loaf for seventeen cigarettes."

"I was rather slow in getting into bed," is how he describes another of his experiences, "and the German orderly picked up my satchel and hurled it against the wall, open as it was, at the risk of spilling its contents."

He pays a deep tribute to the humanity of the French who were still living in the occupied territory; the Belgians he met were also kind; some Germans showed traces of feeling, others were no better than brutes....

Here, however, are actual extracts from the diary itself. They speak for themselves.

"Three or four Germans began to advance, and it seemed to me that the question which had been at the back of my mind since a second or two after the first opening of the guns, Was this the end? was about to be answered....

"With many signs to hasten, my German hurried me on. Soon, with three others, I found myself by poor old Bill Shoebridge, a good old grumbler of some fifty summers, who had been cruelly sent out to us in December, and had kept his end up well, with, at times, many grumblings. He was painfully hit above the knee....

"We came to the village, yet unsmashed, but showing signs that it had received a knock or two. OPPY was printed in black letters on white boards in various places, and after wondering for some time what Oppy meant I found it was the name of a place.... We were then marched off, and after some more wandering found ourselves in a kitchen with two or three Germans, who looked quite comfortable, well fed, and at home....

"The Germans we saw almost all regarded us kindly, though many of them had something of mockery in their looks. We now began to see a few of the French inhabitants. They are splendid. Willingly they give us all they can spare, and much that they cannot. Were it not for the fact that they are not allowed to give, and that all their gifts have to be sub rosa, we should, I think, want for little....

"Then came the first unpleasant incident. A poor Frenchwoman rushed out and gave a loaf to one of us. One of the guards, a boy of about nineteen, snatched it out of his hands, and threw it on the pavement in front of the woman.

"At Phalemphin station we were all included in a party of eighty. We were addressed in English by a German officer. The gist of his remarks was that we were to be marched to our destination, and that any man who tried to escape would be incontinently shot, also that any man who did not behave would be punished....

"After this day, Saturday, April 28, for more than five and a half weeks, day in and day out, we left our prison between 6.15 and 6.40, struck work and returned for dinner between 11.15 and 1.30, according to the job, left the prison at 1.30 (if we had not arrived for dinner until after 1 we got extra time), and struck work any time between 5.30 and 10.30....

"In our (British) lines if one (a prisoner of war) has to work extra time, one always gets time off to compensate, also one has plenty of food to work on. Here, extra work carried no compensations. The work, especially latterly, was mainly unloading trucks, pushing the trucks about, and packing the contents of the trucks in various stores.

"In the yard were always parties of French and Belgians working, and, if allowed, they would have given us their souls. At the commencement of our stay, however, we were told to take nothing from the French, and it was certainly not many days before we found it was almost impossible to take anything from them because the penalty was so great. Whenever the French and the Belgians did get a chance they availed themselves of it....

"Let us never forget that we also got things from the Germans. Until we reached Phalemphin we had received no rough or cruel treatment whatever....

"At Douai our gaolers were without exception friendly and kind; at Lille our gaolers were taciturn, and when they did speak, though loud and threatening in words, laid hands on no man. We were, therefore, expecting no man-handling, and it came as a fearful shock. It is my impression that man-handling began in about four days' time, but it may be that some smaller incident, such as being thumped in the back by the guard, had passed unnoticed as being mere playfulness on their part.

"As to man-handling, it began slowly and increased in frequency, and I think in severity, as the time went on, until, to me at any rate, it became somewhat of a nightmare. Within a week of our arrival at Phalemphin the guard would rush at, beat, strike, or kick any man who had a pipe or cigarette in his mouth while we were being counted in the yard....

"Suddenly the man in charge in that part of the yard appeared. It was the first time I had seen him. Judging from first impressions, he was a quiet, self-contained, steady kind of man, rather like the great 'Agrippa' in 'Shock-headed Peter' to look at.... Suddenly the man changed, and with a sudden rush was amongst us.

"'Agrippa,' thinking he was being disparaged, flew at Barber and struck him violently two or three times in the face. One of our sergeants, named Morley, remonstrated, and in a second 'Agrippa' had struck him two or three times in the face....

"I don't know what you would think of one and a half spoonfuls of jam, or grease, or preserved meat, or half an uncooked herring for the only thing to eat daily in addition to dry bread and a bowl of soup at midday, but such are our rations, and I can tell you that by now one has got to look forward to the day's issue as a very big thing....

"The first 'tying up' shows him, the sergeant-major, at his best as a wise judge, jury, and executioner.... The method of tying up was as follows: In the garden behind our barn were some trees. The man had to stand with his feet close together and his back to the tree; he was then tied to the tree by a strap round the ankles.

"His hands were tied together behind his back and the strap passed round the tree. The third strap was the worst; it was tied round the man's neck, and tied tightly round the tree, so that the back of the man's head was against the tree.

"Of course, a good deal depended upon the guard—some guards would tie all the straps lightly, some would tie some men tight and others loose, and so on. The most popular tree for tying men up to was not straight, so that being tied up tightly to it was no joke, as I can vouch for....

"A favorite pastime of the sergeant-major was to come and watch the men at work. Then, indeed, did everyone buck up.... On one occasion I saw him mercilessly belabor an Australian boy with his stick. The boy had not been able to respond quickly enough to his order.

"Well, it is six months to-morrow since I had an English meal. (This is written in hospital.) The last three days I have tried the tip of having a drink of coffee at breakfast-time, and having my breakfast between 8.30 and 10, but I don't know that it is any better. Strange are the ways of this hospital—no soap and no clean bedding since I came in.

"Sometimes peace and go as you please, sometimes every little rule fussed about. Clothes and food are not in any way satisfactory, but one is getting a rest, and that is what one should remember.... Suspense. Waiting with, oh, how many hopes and fears, for that parcel to turn up. Hungrier and hungrier, and with the dread of tobacco running out...."

Then in conclusion comes a pathetic little personal note.

"I have never read this through since I returned in December, 1918. Seeing the mention of Bull a few pages back reminds me that I afterwards heard he had died in hospital. I wrote to his wife on my return, and found she was a widow.

"The Germans reported that her husband had died from wounds in Mons Hospital. I was with him all through August, and he had no wounds. I saw him in hospital in November, and he had no wounds, only boils. So I do not see how he died of wounds."

23rd Battalion

The 23 (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers, 1920

Search British Isles

British Isles Genealogy Records

Channel Islands Genealogy
England Genealogy
Ireland Genealogy
Isle of Man Genealogy
Scotland Genealogy
Wales Genealogy

Other Genealogy Records

Free Genealogy
British Isles Books
Genealogy Library
Canadian Genealogy
Genealogy Gateway
Family Tree Guide

Cyndi's List

Sites I Visit

Garden Herbs
Trade Recipes

Sip of Wine
The Little Tea Book

British Isles Genealogy


Add/Correct a Link


Comments/Submit Data


Copyright 2004-, the web pages may be linked to but shall not be reproduced on another site without written permission from BIGenealogy. Images may not be linked to in any manner or method. Anyone may use the information provided here freely for personal use only. If you plan on publishing your personal information to the web please give proper credit to our site for providing this information. Thanks!!!