Thanks to Rick Riehl, who give us this diary, from his Uncle
The Americans and French were always more reasonable in a place like I have just mentioned. They always lined up and waited for their turns, or at least most of them did, but the English could not possibly be handled or managed in any way. We were often very disgusted with them and very often told them about it. They wanted everything and rather than see their "Buddy" get it they would see it wasted. The Italians were also strong on that order. They were flocked about the coach that we were in and they couldnít talk enough to suit themselves. They seemed satisfied that the war was about at an end and they were again thanking the Americans. This made the French and English very much "peeved" and whenever we praised the Belgians after that we were always told how "mean" they were.
While we were there we asked several questions in regard to what we had heard as to their treatment. A small boy was brought to us with his right hand cut off near the wrist. I cannot say that the Huns did this, as I did not see them do it, but the Belgians told us that it was. They told us of many dirty stunts, but as we did not see them, we only have the Belgians word for it. Naturally we believed what they told us, as we now knew from what we had seen that a Hun was not too low to do any thing and we put nothing past themóno matter how mean or cruel.
We stopped here quite a long time. The rumor was that we were to receive instructions as to where we were going. The tracks were filled all over with a solid mass of trains loaded with artillery and other supplies from the front. We couldnít see how the war could last much longer as trainload after trainload was going into Germany from the front. All sidetracks were full and very often-long auto trains were seen on the roads. There were also quite a number of German soldiers being sent back. From the Belgians we learned of the big advances the Allies were making and we wished that we would have stayed and hidóperhaps we would have been recaptured. When we left this place, the whole town was there waving and yelling at us as we left. It was as though a circus or some similar thing had taken place at this town, as it seemed as though everybody had turned out.
That night, early in the evening, we landed in Luxembourg and were again given a little soup, but of a very thin quality. We got into the coach again and as we were so sleepy some fell asleep while others remained awake. All we could do was to lie against one another. When we awoke, or rather when it became daylight the next morning, we learned that we would soon enter Germany. From the time that we received our last soup until the next was just sixty hours and as we were almost starved then, and then had to wait sixty hours. Some died and were taken out at different towns along the road, while others were down and out and so weak that they couldnít leave the coaches for anything to eat when we did get a chance. It was very dark when we got our soup this time and machine guns were placed around to keep order. Not only us but also a few carloads of German soldiers had been coupled onto our train and they were also hungry. Talk about a fuss! They sure made one. Every time they got to any place where there were people they would make and awful noise crying: "Hunger!" "Hunger!" in German.
While we were lined up there waiting, a German officer came toward me and asked, "You are an American are you not?" I answered, "Yes sir." He said, "I am also." I asked, "What are you doing in a uniform like that if you are an American?" He then told me that he had been a professor in some large college and had been teaching German. He wanted to improve his education in German and went to Germany. While he was there the war broke out and he was forced into service. As he had done some flying in civilian life he chose the aviation branch of service as he thought that some of his American friends had perhaps joined the French or English aviation corps. He had always fought on the Russian front or any other front where the French and English werenít fighting. He said he didnít want to shoot any of his friends. He had been wounded twice and was now convalescing at that time and would be going to the front again the following week, and he supposed it would be the western front. Austria had quit that day and he told us about it. They were very much disgusted with Austria and said that they "werenít any good; instead of being a help that they were a detriment, as Germany had to take care of them."
I asked him if he intended to go back to America after the war. "Yes," but he feared that that wouldnít be for some time as Germany had passed a law that no able bodied male citizen could leave for ten years. He then told me that his parents and some sisters were living in Brooklyn and New York. I asked him if he thought that the war was about over with. "Well," he said, " I donít know." "Germany could hold out for a while and he thought that President Wilsonís points were very strong." I asked, "What kind of terms would we have got had it been the other way-óGermany setting the terms instead of the Allies?" He didnít know. I asked if Germany was getting awfully low on food and he said that they were, but that it wouldnít stop them. I told him that I couldnít see how a man could fight without eating and said that if the Americans had to fight with what the German soldiers were getting that theyíd know why it would be hard. I asked if the Allies were advancing very much and he said that they were but "Germany was letting them." The Germans were going to retreat as far as the Rhine River and there they had strong fortifications and nothing could break through there. We believed some of this and some we didnít. We believed that the Germans were retreating all right, not because they "wanted to," but because they "had to." We also believed that they had strong forts on the Rhine, but Germany didnít expect anyone to ever go through any of their lines, and it was also possible to go across the Rhineóif we cared to.
This fellow told me that his English was very poor, as he hadnít had any occasion to use it for several years. He spoke very good English, but had a brogue, which made it quite difficult to understand him. Whether he was, or used to be, an American, I donít know, but at the present time it could easily be seen that he was a German at heart, also in uniform. When speaking of the Allies he would say "you people" and in speaking of the Germans he would say "we." When we were alone I said that if he did go back to the front that I hoped that one of his friends would get him, instead of him getting one of his friends.
He told us of a riot that they had had at this same place the day before among the Germans. They were being fed here and didnít get enough to eat and demanded more. They were refused and there was a big fight and a few men were killed. They were going to play safe and mounted machine-guns around and were going to use them if necessary.
Later we received a small piece of bread with some kind of a paste on it and were again loaded into the cars. We didnít pull out for a while and as we had no lights, we drowsed away. Early the next morning we were in Coblenz and had crossed the Rhine.
Germanyís shortage of men was commencing to show clearly, as women were everywhere doing menís work and in many cases they were doing the work of horses. Very often women were seen pulling wagons around. Cows were used for plowing and general farm work. Not oxen, although we saw a few of them. The main crop seemed to be mangles. Women were also doing most of the farm work. Very often we could see prisoners of war working around different places and more than once we wished we could get into a field of mangles for a few minutes. We dreaded them, but they were better than nothing.
The country was very nice looking--hills and valleys, trees and winding roads, plenty of streams--but under the circumstances we couldnít appreciate its beauty.
The train crew was made up of women and young girls. All wore uniforms. In one case an engine stopped alongside of our car and we talked to the crewóa man and two girls. One of the girls looked rather young to us, and we remarked that she was rather young looking to be doing such heavy work. She told us that she had been doing that same work for over two yearsófiring a railroad engine. They gave us some hot water. We all drank some and then had enough to bathe our hands and face.
We passed through several fair-sized towns, also several places where there were prison camps. As the Englishman who worked in the office was with us and was familiar with all the names of different camps, we thought that each place we came to, where there was a camp, would be ours.
On the chilly Sunday morning, November 3rd, we pulled into Merseburg, Germany, and were unloaded and lined up. Several were too weak to get out of the cars and had to be carried out. As we stood in line waiting to be moved, and shivering from the frosty damp air, we had to take many insulting remarks, and say nothing, from the civilians of the town. There was quite a few that passed us going to church. Even women, evidently mothers or wives of some soldier who fell in battle, who were in mourning wearing long black veils, would say mean things.
After the weak had been loaded onto a large wagon we were started on a hike, we didnít know how far or where, but we knew that if it was very far that most of the men would be lying along the side of the road.
As we marched along carrying our little bundles, we became very weak and men began to fall. A new outfit of guards had met us at the station and the ones that had been with us on the trip had been relieved. We noticed by the buttons on their caps that most of the new guards were Prussians and we sure hated that type of a Hun worse than any of the rest as they had always been more severe.
We marched for about an hour. Many men had "fallen out," as they were so weak and could not possibly go further. We were all ready to drop. We were hungry and weak when we started and the starvation on the trip, no sleep, and cold, had put us all out of commission. I had several rolls of the pills about me, which came in very handy on the trip.
After our hourís hike we reached a prison camp but did not enter. We were marched all the way around and entered at the back. Several prisoners were standing inside of the barbed wire watching us pass and we understood their looks.
The wire fence about this place was similar to the one about the other camp or pen at Trelon. It was about ten feet high with a lean-in of about three or four feet. This was made of barbed wire closely woven and then there was another fence about eight or ten feet away, the guards were in between these two fences.
We also passed a pen of dogs used to chase prisoners who escaped, if any of them were lucky enough to get a chance. They were doing some awful howling and by the looks of them they got less to eat than we did. This was an awful large camp and it took us a long time to get around it. We finally reached a small lane and were marched up that. On one side there was a small bunch of buildings built away from the rest of the camp. This was the isolation part of the camp and we were to get into that for a while. On the other side of the lane was the main camp and there were thousands of prisoners walking about. As we passed, it was only natural that the English got next to the fence and spoke to us as we passed, as we were among the English. "Do they feed anything here?" we asked. They answered "Some black bread and water soup, we eat very little of it, though, we get Red Cross packages here and live on them. We only eat Jerrieís junk when our packages run low."
The first thing us Americans wanted to know was whether or not the American Red Cross had headquarters here and whether or not there were any Americans there. There were a few Americans here and they were getting a few packages, but they were good packages. They also told us that the package that the A.R.C. sent was the best that any R.C. sent and we were commencing to feel good already. They told us that we would be penned up away from the main camp and wouldnít be allowed to get into it but they could get over to see us and would be as soon as they would get a chance.
We were turned into these places when we got up the lane far enough, and halted, and after being counted off we were marched into the buildings. They were very cold and as there were stoves in them we got the promise of some coal. The beds were made of wood and were in the order of bunks. They also had the paper sack of shavings. There was some excitement in getting settled and after we did get settled we wanted something to eat. We were told that something was on the way; that some French men were getting it for us.
At these prison camps there were committees. The French, English, Italians, and Russians would have a few men who were at the head of things. Whenever the committee got any news they were to let the rest know about it. Whenever the Germans at headquarters wanted all the prisoners to know anything, the committee was called and told about it and it was their duty to "spread it."
The French committee called on us and most of them could speak perfect English. One had lived in America for several years and had been a dentist in some large city. He was glad to see us, but not as prisoners. They told us of Austria, Turkey and Bulgaria signing the armistice and encouraged us along by telling us that we would soon get something to eat and some clothes from the Red Cross. They also told us the American Red Cross gave larger packages than any other Red Cross did. We were then registered as prisoners of war and I received my numberó6670B. The letter designated the company to which I belonged. We were given cards to be sent to our Red Cross, also some for the French Red Cross. Some of the other committees were also among their men and gave them about the same news that we got and were a pretty happy, hungry bunch of men. A little while later we received a little piece of black bread and some soup, which was terribly bitter. It was made of mangles, ground up and boiled, and tasted much worse than what we had been getting. This, we learned, was a diet. We were supposed to be "convalescents" and were to be on this "diet" for several days to regain our strength. We all ate the bread and drank the soup, even though it was very nasty tasting, as we were very hungry.
Shortly after we got through "eating" and were sitting around resting, because we couldnít sleep after all the excitement of the good news that we had received. Some Tommies yelled down to us "Yanks, here are some more Yanks coming to see you." They were real Yanks who were coming to see us and, as dirty and ragged as we were, we were glad to see them. They wore campaign hats, new uniforms, shoes and leggings. They looked like real soldiers instead of prisoners. Among them was Kerns, who had been brought into that hospital where I was first taken. His chest had not fully healed up but he was looking pretty good. He had been sent direct from that hospital to this camp and had been getting his Red Cross packages, and clothes. After I told him of the route that I had had to take he considered himself lucky. The Sergeant whom I mentioned that lay in the opposite corner at the hospital was also there. I hadnít met him before, but Kerns told me who he was.
We were next treated to a real American cigarette. We, of course, had a great many questions to ask in regard to our packages, etc. These men told us that they never touched any of the Jerriesí soups or bread and that they often traded the bread with the Russians for some "spuds" which the Russians stole while out working. That day was sure an exciting one for us. We signed several cards including one for the sizes of our hats, shoes, and clothing. The American Sergeant told us that he had received word from the Red Cross stating that there would be some clothes and several packages of food sent in as emergency rations to be used until the regular packages could be started. After that got started we would receive them regularly.
The English committee promised us that they would do their best to get us some rations from their Red Cross the following day. The French said that we would receive some of their hard tack.
We were given a card to send home and were told that we could write every week. I at once wrote all I could get on mine and addressed it to my parents. Later on I wrote another but was told that I might as well keep it as the Germans would not send any more and they were only destroying them so I kept that one and delivered it in person after I got back.
We had a good sleep that night and the next morning received some more "diet." I ate very little of the diet and decided to wait a while longer for the black bread. About ten oíclock we were all lined up and marched into another building where we were told to strip and we were vaccinated in the chest on the left side. This was far from pleasant, as it was not done very gently. None of us knew what it was for and we learned that we were to get three of them.
We were called out into the yard and a German soldier who spoke and read very good English read a long string of "junk" off to us of things that we could do and things that we couldnít do. He gave consequences for what we should do and what we shouldnít do, and nearly all of them ended "punishment even unto death" if we didnít do as we should. If we carried civilian money; if we saw anyone destroying German property and didnít report them, and it was found out that we knew it, would be just as big an offense for us as though we had committed the deed ourselves. We had to report if we saw any one lighting matches or smoking in or about any buildings, and dozens of other "doís" and "doníts." After he had read all of these to us we had to sign our names to the fact that we had fully understood all.
That noon we received some food from the English Red Cross, a package for each two men. We were told to "go easy" on this, as it would have to last us for a long time. We also received some French hard tack and were told that we would get this about once a week. I didnít eat or drink any more "diet" from that time on, although I ate small pieces of bread several different times when I would run short.
The following day we received a real bath and our clothes were fumigated. The next day we got another inoculation in the chest on the opposite side. The after effects of these "shots" in the chest were very bad and in many cases the fever caused by them would make the victim delirious. About two days later we received our third one on the same side that we got the first. This third and last one was too much for me and I was delirious for several hours. I was some amusement for the rest of the boys as I did a lot of talking and singing. They told me that I had said everything about the Germans but bless them. I also sang several songs, among them the "Star Spangled Banner." I laughed when I heard all this and asked them if they stood up, and they said that they did. I asked why they didnít stand me up and they said that they thought that I might stop singing. Things moved along here very well, at least a lot better than we had been used to. Some of the boys had eaten too much and were sick. Colds were very common, but in general everyone felt good. It was possible to hear a few humming a tune, whistling and singing once in a while, and even laughing.
The tenth of November we received word that some food had arrived for us and we would receive it the following day, as that was Sunday. We were also told that the armistice was signed and that we would be cut in the very near future. We all tore around in good shape after hearing so much good news. We had a high old time and after we had settled down again and were talking about what we would do when we got out, the route we would be sent home, and all other things that would naturally come up under the circumstances, an English Sergeant Major walked in and we were called to attention. He then told us that "the armistice had not been signedóthat the German officials had gotten there too late." There was a sigh all over the room. He told us to keep up, "seventy-two hours more time had been given, and under no circumstances could the war last much longer as all of Germany was at a revolution.
After he left we declared that the next man who came to us and told us of the armistice being signed would go out of the window headfirst. Twice we had been fooled.
Naturally after cheering as much as we could and feeling as happy as we could under the circumstances, our hearts and hopes dropped lower than ever when we leaned that the signing of the armistice was a false alarm.
The next day a few of us went to the French Red Cross building, where our Red Cross supplies were to be kept, and received the issue of eats and clothes for all the Americans who had arrived with us.
"Corn Willie" sure looked good to us this trip as well as the "gold fish" as we called salmon. Besides food, we received clothes. Each man received an overcoat, O. D. shirt, suit of underwear, socks, handkerchiefs, towels and toilet articles, razor, soap, toothbrush and paste and some American cigarettes. We were all quite happy and it was like a family of children around a Christmas tree after Santa Claus had just left.
While these articles were being divided the English Sergeant-Major again made his appearance and asked for attention. It was quiet, but I must say that he got very little attention from the Americans. He couldnít expect it. Their minds were somewhere else. We were again told that the armistice had been signed and that this time it was no false alarm, it was actually true. We didnít "celebrate" this time as we had been fooled twice previously and this time we were going to find out first and then celebrate. Besides, our new clothes, food, etc., took up most of our time. Everything had to be divided equally, and, as most was easy to do, but no one could touch his until everyone had his share. After all was divided it was only a very few minutes until every one was eating and more than enjoying themselves. After eating, we of course had to put on our new clothes and next try our razors and toothbrushes, after that we all felt better and looked somewhat better, although most of our uniforms were in pretty bad shape. We were told that we would receive new uniforms, shoes and hats as soon as our names and numbers were received at Red Cross headquarters, which was at Berne, Switzerland. It was our fond hope that we would be released from Germany before the clothes ever got there. Rumors were already afloat and according to them we were going to leave any minute and we didnít feel safe in going to sleep. We were afraid that some would be going and we might be among them and would be asleep.
. He then told us that "the armistice had not been signedóthat the German officials had gotten there too late." There was a sigh all over the room. He told us to keep up, "seventy-two hours more time had been given, and under no circumstances could the war last much longer as all of Germany was at a revolution.
We had a long lonesome wait at this place and some days seemed like weeks. We knew that the armistice was signed and that we would soon be going home and waiting to be turned loose or taken away any day, in fact most any hour.
After getting something to eat everybody seemed to get a little life and we often had pretty good times among ourselves. We even went over into the main camp, as several of us could speak a little German, and we all claimed to be "dulmatchers" (interpreters) and in this way we could slip by on most of the guards very often. They had musical entertainments or speaking by ones who were talented along different lines and once I, with a few others, attended a show that the Russians put on. It was very good and the acts were carried out in fine shape. We were told that these fellows had been professional actors.
We were not allowed to carry or have civilian money of any country in our possession. We were supposed to exchange it for some paper that was issued at the canteen at this place. This paper was printed on one side and had no value whatever outside of this camp. It was merely a check. No bank or government was back of it. The offense for carrying the national money was very severe and it was not very healthy to be caught carrying any of it. In one case an Englishman had escaped from some place where he was working at. He had dressed like a woman and one morning lost one of his gloves, which gave him away. He was taken back to camp and given solitary confinement for twenty-eight days. Seven days for escape, seven days for wearing civilian clothes and fourteen days for having civilian money about him. He got twice as much time for having the money as he did for either of the other offenses.
I wanted some of this money as souvenirs, as well as some of the other boys. We planned and plotted how we were going to keep it. Some had it in their shoes and different places about their clothing. I ripped the collar off my blouse and put a few bills in between the two pieces of the collar one of each of the following: one mark bill, two mark bill, five mark bill and a five franc bill. This sounds like a lot of money but in all, considering it at pre-war time value, it only amounted to three dollars in "real" money. I again sewed up my collar and wondered where I could hide a little silver. The band at the top of my trousers seemed to be about as good as any place so I ripped that and put some different silver or metal coins in that place. My belt covered this and these coins would have been very hard to find. I also put a couple in the lapel of my shirt pocket and sewed these places up.
If we did a little yelling they would leave. Germany was at a revolution and the soldiers were not doing their duties. Therefore we were neglected more and received better treatment, not because they gave it to us, but because they were not on the job and we were taking advantage of it.
The guards were not as active as they had been and instead of walking their posts they sat around and at different times we walked back and forth as though we had a perfect right to do so.
Several of the prisoners had been going away after dark. A hole had been cut in the fence in the back end of the yard and every night some would leave. Some just went out for a visit and would return while others left for good. We were thinking about leaving but we were so far into Germany that it would be a long walk and would take a long time to get out if we ever did. We were told that we would soon be sent out and that it was very foolish to escape. Several Russians escaped as they were putting them to work and releasing some of the others. We were told that the Russians were to be kept there to do the work that the other prisoners were supposed to do so that they could be exchanged and sent to their own countries. The Russians didnít like that kind of a noise and every day some would take advantage of the hole in the fence. Several French left also.
One night Max (the American whom I have already mentioned several times) and two Englishmen made up their minds to escape. These three fellows had gone out "visiting" by way of the hole in the fence and knew the lay of the country pretty well as far as the village. One of the Englishmen was the one who had tried to escape in a womanís clothes as previously stated. His name was Alex. Alex got a pair of German trousers from one of the Tommies in our barracks, a cap from another and an overcoat. He got a belt with "Gott Mitt Uns" on it and stole a bayonet. He had these clothes over the top of his own. Max and the other fellow were going out the same as they had been dressed. They were to act as prisoners and Alex was to act the part of a German guard. They took a little Red Cross stuff with them and we helped them through the fence. Alex had been a prisoner for four years and could read, talk, understand and sing German as good as any German could. If everything looked good they were going to notify us by mail through the English committee and we were to follow; if it didnít go well they would return.
Max left several little trinkets with me and I was to send them to his home after I got back to the U.S. These fellows hadnít been gone more than half an hour when it started to rain and it rained all night. We expected them back but they didnít come.
Three days passed and we were commencing to think that we would soon receive a letter or some word from them. The evening of the third day we received word through another Englishman that the boys were on their way back. The morning of the fourth day they came back and they were sure tired out. Their clothing was soaked and covered with mud. Alex had tried to get transportation, but that was impossible. No one was allowed to ride the trains in. They had hiked all night the first night and the next day Alex tried to get them food and he was asked for a card and he didnít have any. The second night they stopped with some German troops. Alex played his part O.K. He told the Germans that he was taking the two prisoners from one camp to another and got by with it. They then began talking about their experiences. The Germans wanted to know what company Alex belonged to and what battles he had been engaged in. Alex told him some company but said that he had been on the Russian front. After a few minutes the German left, stating that they were going to get Alex some papers so that he could get food and lodging along the road and couldnít see why the headquarters of the prison camp didnít furnish him with that.
Alex was a little afraid that the company and the front which he had given might not jibe, also that they might want to know some more of his doings and find out who he was, so while the German was gone they left and from their reports I donít believe that they lost much time in getting away from that place. They finally landed in Liebzig and attempted to get some eats but failed. They then made up their minds to return as they learned that it was worse toward the border. They got back to Halle and stayed there one night and got a ride from Halle to Merseburg. They said that they would stay there a month longer before they would try to get out again, nor would they advise anyone else to try to escape.
There was a cemetery adjoining the camp. The prisoners of the camp had erected a large monument. Each grave was marked; the prisoners paid for also all expenses connected with this. When this monument was dedicated, a committee of each nationality was chosen to do so. I was one of the Americans. The monument was of stone and stood about twelve feet high. All four sides had engravings in different languages. The English inscription read: "In memory of our comrades who died in captivity." One side was engraved in French, with words of the same meaning, as well as Russian and Italian. Some of the German civilians from town were out there and after one man from each nation spoke in behalf of the prisoners of his country, a few Germans spoke. One man, a clergyman, spoke and said that as long as he lived around Merseburg he would see that the cemetery would be kept up as the prisoners had kept it. He also gave the prisoners a great deal of credit for doing as they had in keeping this place up under the circumstances. He said that he knew what an awful life we had to lead while captives, but that we would be going back to our own countries soon where we would receive plenty to eat and wear and that we should forget all. He also asked us not to hold any hatred toward them as the war was over and we must forget those things. We could forget a certain amount of our treatment, but another certain amount never shall be forgotten. Being prisoners in the hands of our enemy, we could not and did not expect to receive the best of care but we surely did expect to be handled like human beings. Had we been handled, as such it would not have been necessary to erect this monument for so many "who died in captivity." I have obtained several pictures of this cemetery, which I bought from a Frenchman, who secured them from a German photographer.
We had a long time to wait at this camp after the armistice had been signed. Each day a new rumor would be around. Sometimes the war "was on again." Often we heard that our own troops were coming through after us. The Englishmen were sure that they heard one of their own engines whistle and naturally the rumor started that the English trains were after us. A newspaper named ""English-American News" was given to us about twice a week. It contained news from some countries, but it also contained much propaganda. We didnít know how much of it to believe. One article told us what wonderful good treatment and reception we would receive if we remained in these camps peacefully until we were sent out by these man officials and that if we did not, we would be punished after we got out if we werenít killed in trying to escape. We knew well enough that our enemies did not want us to stay in a prison if we could get away, and newspapers that the Huns could read couldnít make us believe that we were supposed to stay in this camp.
We were getting our American Red Cross packages and were depending upon them wholly. We very often exchanged our German bread for some from the Russians. One day we heard that potatoes were very easy to get, and everybody seemed to have some. There was no shortage, as evidenced by the fact that someone would come around with a couple pockets full "for sale." That evening wires were cut or removed very easily, and the fellows slid through under the fence in this ditch. The guard was up perhaps fifty or sixty talking with another guard. There were sure some potatoes going into camp that night. Some of the Russians told some of their fellow countrymen in the min camp about it and they carried them away by the sack full. The next morning a search was made. Several sacks of potatoes were piled up in the middle of the yard, but unless a man had more than his share, they were not taken away. They were looking for rabbits. Some one had gotten hold of eight rabbits, which the Germans had been figuring on getting. We thought this pretty good, and wished the one who got them "luck." They did not find the rabbits and left us again without taking the pile of potatoes in the middle of the yard. When they returned that evening, the potatoes had been stolen for a third time. They did not look for them the second time and if they had they would not have gotten near so many because we sure ate to our heartís content. This was another case of our taking advantage of the guardsí absence.
One Monday morning we (the Americans) were called to report to a certain building in the main camp. Rumors had been around pretty strong to the effect that we were soon leaving. We got into our clothes in a hurry and reported. We were then told to report at the main gate to have a picture taken. A lady from Switzerland wanted a group of about twenty prisoners from each nationality to photograph. When we found out about this we were quite disappointed and started back. Some of the boys called to us and asked us not to be pikers. The rest of the nationalities were well represented, but the Americans didnít want to go. We werenít so anxious to be photographed as we were to get back home. One of the boys called us back and he and two more of us reported at the gate. There we met a lady who claimed that she was born in England and had moved to Switzerland just before the war started. She took us to the office and we stopped outside while she went in. She came out with a paper in her hand; a permit to take us out. She went to some officer and got some guards to guard us while out and with five guards we were marched down the road. We thought this pretty rich to be taken out under guard in a case of this kind over a month after the war was over. We asked the lady where we were going and she told us to Merseburg to have our picture taken. We supposed that we would be grouped and "shot" and then taken back to camp. We were taken to a cathedral and there stood a man with a motion picture camera. We were supposed to be "sight-seeing." We were to go into the cathedral and be photographed while going in and then again when coming out. This did not work as the lady could not get permission to allow us to go in, so we were marched by and craned our necks as though we were seeing something. We were then hiked down a large row of steps and the camera stopped at the top. We were told to walk across a bridge and back up the steps. A German in uniform stood by and handed each of us a piece of paper as we passed, to represent a pamphlet of some kind. We were then taken down to the river and as we walked along the banks were again photographed. We then went to some loading dock and were asked to get in a boat and would be rowed or paddled up and down the river a German paddling the boat.
I, as well as a few more commenced to see the purpose of this photographing and refused to get into the boat or any more pictures excepting one which they promised to make a copy of. We were to be paddled up and down the river in a boat by a German. Then Germans would hand us pamphlets or souvenirs, and we would be looking at the German cathedrals, etc., and photographed while doing so. Then Germany would come out with these nice films and show the world how "nice" they were treating their prisoners. We told this lady how we felt about it. We asked her to photograph us about the camp, eating our soup, and to show our general living conditions. She said that they werenít allowed to do those things and that we could well believe her.
That night we decided we wanted some potatoes, and as an extra guard had been put on the pile of spuds, we didnít see how we could get them. Finally the bright idea of buying the guard came to us. We all talked about it and took a collection of what we could give. Some offered a small can of meat between two people; some offered hard tack, and others black bread. We were not in the habit of peddling our eats, but in this case, we were going to get value or no deal.
One of the boys went out. Being of Jewish decent, he could handle the German language very well. He got into a conversation with the guard and put the proposition to him. The guard told him that he would talk to his comrade and see what he thought about it. As soon as they were relieved, one came to our window and knocked. He wanted to see what we were going to give them. We showed him, and it didnít take very long before they returned with a large gunny-sack full of potatoes; all the two of them could carry. This quite late and ordinarily we were not up. Weíd been getting so little attention lately that we werenít following rules and regulations very closely.
We gave them what we had promised and sure got our moneyís worth, and the guards seemed to think that they had too. They didnít leave the place but started to eat at once- that being a big change for them. We didnít wait long either. It seemed everyone was paring potatoes and in a very few moments a pail full was set upon the coals and cooked. We had a midnight feed. After we finished one we had another pail full and hid the remainder of the spuds in different bunks. None of us slept very well as we had eaten too much. Since getting our Red Cross packages we had been eating so much better and everybody got "pep". So that night we had a real Dutch picnic and most of it was at their expense.
Early the next morning (Tuesday) we were told to report to a certain barracks. We received an extra piece of bread and some kind of meat paste that was actually spoiled. The cans that contained it were rusted through and the odor was very strong. We would not eat it and threw it down, but some Russian prisoners picked it up. Then they threw it down as quickly as we did. We were also issued another Red Cross package. We didnít need the bread and divided it among the Russians. Two days before a large wagonload of Red Cross packages had been sent. What were we going to do with them? As their headquarters were in the French Red Cross building, we decided to turn them over to the French and they were suppose to divide them between different nationalities. The French got very little from their outside government so it was more than right for us to turn over the packages as we did. We received orders to get our belongings together and be ready to leave at noon. We were one happy bunch. Max had a very high fever and was very weak. I attended to him as best as I could. I gave him all the pills he could take- along with the good news of leaving. At noon we were lined up and our names and numbers were called off. No one was missing, as every man was on the job when it came to leaving this place with prospects of going home. There were 22 of us, and 21 had been wounded. One man had been captured with the French, having served in an ambulance section with them. Some were still in bad shape.
We were finally marched out of the gate and down the road. Two English men stuck with us. We were all quite tired and exhausted but none of us were downhearted. About two oíclock the train rolled in. we got in it were ever we could find room the two Englishmen with us. Whenever it was necessary they said they were Americans also. No one doubted their word. We passed through Halle and Liebzieg, and Max showed us certain places he remembered from his attempt to escape. After we got to Berlin, our train pulled into a very large depot and we got out. The guard lined us up and we were taken through the depot and halted in front of it. We stopped here and waited for orders. Here we were, in Berlin, Germany, standing in front of a railroad station.
While standing there several people came up to us and started to talk. They spoke excellent English. Some had lived in America. Some told of how they would go back there as soon as they got the chance. A lady passed by carrying a few bouquets of fresh-cut flowers, the first we had seen in a very long time. One of the boys remarked, "Oh, look at the flowers!" The lady stopped very suddenly and said, "I understand and speak English quite as well as you do." We believed her because she spoke these words very well. We were very surprised and stood and gazed at her as she started off again.
Several children came up to us and asked for something to eat. One fellow who claimed to have a brother in the meat business in Chicagi sent them away, telling them that we were prisoners and didnít have anything to eat ourselves. This was very pitiful because we would gladly have given those ragged little children something to eat, but were afraid we would lose all that we had.
A few very old style cabs were lined up at the station, but not in very great demand. They had small horses attached to them and these were in the very poorest condition. Most of these cabs were driven by women or very old men. All the while we were there we saw only two automobiles. Other platform wagons were being pulled by women and small boys. Sometimes a dog or two would be pulling as well. We noticed that whenever there was a team pulling one of these wagons that it was soon loaded with German soldiers who were being transferred to some other depot.
We didnít know where we were going, but we were all happy as we had strong ideas that wherever we did go would be a step closer to home. Rumors soon started. Some would say that some German had told them that we were going to Hamburg and that an American ship was waiting there for us. This was almost too good to believe.
All of us who were there were Americans, with the exception of the three Englishmen. We caused a lot of excitement, as there was a crowd about us most of the time. Some were pretty decent to us and talked reasonably.
Plenty of them could speak our language and we could understand them well. Some told us how glad they were that the Allies had won; that the militarism of Germany would not be so strong. If Germany had won they feared that it would be worse than ever. Some praised President Wilson and said that he was doing fine for them. Others called us by our old name, "Schweine!" Then others would try to smooth that down and quite often they would have a good word or two among themselves. We didnít care about this as we didnít want them to have any scraps among us or around us. We had heard enough of them. We could stand to be called "Schweine" a few more times as long as they kept us moving.
Our orders finally arrived and we were to be at another depot about three kilometers from the one we were at in a very short time, or at least faster than any of us could walk with our baggage. We told the guard that we couldnít walk that far and he told us that we would have to pay our own way as no transportation was being furnished. Most of us had no money. I still had my few bills sewed in the collar of my blouse, and after talking a few minutes I asked the guard what it would cost to get us over there with one of those wagons. He asked a driver and found out that it would cost us three marks each. We commenced counting what we had and saw that we had enough. Some who had a few marks paid for those who didnít have any. Most of the money Max had gotten for the coffee went for this. We were lucky that he had sold it, and were only too glad to divide ours with him. We all got on the wagon- twenty-three Americans, three Englishmen, and the German guard.
No need saying that this was a load, with the baggage we had. The streets were quite vacant after we got away from the station. Now and then we would pass another wagon, such as the one we were on, and then perhaps being drawn by women or children. Some of these had quite large loads on them as well. We saw several soldiers out walking with lady friends of theirs, and all seemed to be enjoying themselves. We were enjoying ourselves as well. It was a sleigh ride party. The guard wit us was a rather quiet, easy going sort of fellow, and didnít say much to us. We sang several songs as we were pulling down the road. We gave several yells and had a good time. At one place we had to walk to get over a bridge and a large crowd soon gathered around us.
The buildings that we saw were very high, mostly of one, two, or three story structures. We saw some four stories high and above the largest building carved in stone was "New York" in real English letters. We wondered if this building was called that because it was the highest.
After about half an hourís ride we reached the railroad station. We unloaded and lined up. At each place or stop the three Tommies were expecting to be caught. Out in front of this station was a German selling "hot ones". They were some kind of bun and real wieners smoking hot. They sure looked good to us, but when we rushed toward the man, he wouldnít sell us any. We went into the station, and then got the guard to get us a few. They looked very good. The bun did not taste as good as it looked. I donít know what it was made of. The wieners were made of horseflesh, but they were hot and tasted pretty good. We were then hiked up some stairs, and finally went through a gate and down to a train. The guard gave the railroad guard an order to pass twenty-two Americans. And here we surely expected the Tommies to get picked out. But as some could not get along as fast as others again, the Tommies got by. When we got up to our train it was very crowded again, as were all trains at that time because troops were on the move all over Germany.
Another car was attached to our car. Half of this car was not divided into compartments and had no seats. It was evidently used as a baggage car. The other half was divided. As soon as it was opened, we rushed in. As we all carried either a box or a bundle, we all supplied ourselves with seats. We were pretty well crowded in, because these cars were not very large. At the same time, we were quite comfortable and very happy. The train did not pull out for a while, and more and more people kept coming. Several came to our car and wanted to get in, but we had the door fastened from the inside. The guard had told us not to let anybody else in, and we were doing as we were told. Some of the Germans were very angry when we would not let them in, and one fellow threatened to break the glass. One of our boys who could speak German told him that we had orders not to let anyone else in. Another added, we are Americans and we are going home in style; we canít be crowded. We must have made quite a little noise because the guard, who was in the next coach, came back and told us that we better quiet down a little. We told him that other Germans were trying to get in and we wouldnít let them. And he said, "Das ist richtig."
We now knew that we were going into the northern part of Germany, but didnít know where. Some of us began to fear the salt mines. What if we were going to be sent to work instead of going home. The salt mines were most dreaded by all prisoners of war. When a fellow went to work in them he very seldom came back. About two oí clock that night, we were told to get out of the train, and there we saw a sign, "Altdamm".
They were taken into the depot of this place, and learned that there was a camp about a kilometer out of town. As soon as we received our orders, the guard marched us out to this camp. After a short hike we finally reached the high barbed wire fences again. In a few minutes we were in a office and our names and numbers were taken. We were then marched over to another building and told to do the best we could because we would only be hear a few days at the most. Some of the fellow already in the place awoke and told us they were expecting to leave for Denmark. We lay right down on the bare floor without any covering of any kind. Because there was no fire we were very cold and got no sleep. The place was alive with fleas and we were busier than ever scratching.
The next morning we heard of some Americans at this place and we looked them up. Among them I found the fellow who had his leg amputated at the first hospital I was at. Several others were in very bad shape. They got to that place ahead of us and were expecting to leave that day. That night we found several old rags and blankets left by old prisoners and we got to bed quite early. With the exception with cooties and fleas we had a good sleep.
The next morning, rumors were about that we would be leaving that day. Our named were checked again that evening and we were told that we would leave the following day-Friday. It turned out that we did not leave till Saturday. The next morning we arose fresh for anything that would come. The weather was very miserable so we didnít seer around much. It was raining, snowing, and blowing very hard. We had no stove so being inside of the building was being out of the wind. We had a large pipe, perhaps two feet in diameter in which we were keeping a fire as fast as we could get the wood. To get this wood we had to break up anything we saw. We could do this easy enough because no on was guarding us.
Christmas was only a few days off and we were wondering were we would be and how we would spend it. We were thinking of our loved ones at home, wondering how they would spend their Christmas. At the time the Armistice was signed, we truly believed we would be in the United States for Christmas. We now knew we would be in the United States but where?
About noon that day, our names were called of and we were told to be ready to move at any time. They had been notified by telegram that the ship was almost there. As soon as they received the order we would have to move and be able to get ready in a hurry.
A prisoner of war always got a small box with a lock on it that was used to store whatever valuables he might want to keep in it. These "kistens", as we called them, were all discarded at this place and we took with us only what we really wanted to keep. About 7:00 that evening we were told to "fall in". We now knew that we were going to Stetten, a seaport on the Baltic in the northern part of Germany. WE did not know exactly where we were going from there, but there were many rumors afloat. There was a lot of singing and shouting during this eight-kilometer hike.
When we got to the docks there was a Danish ship waiting for us. The Danish sailors were out waving as well as English Red Cross nurses. German guards were lined up on each side of us to see that no one got away to do any mischief to the docks. There sure was an awful noise around the ship. We could hardly wait our turn to walk the gangplank. The minute a man got on it, everyone around sure knew it as he shouted for joy. It was the thrill of being free again. As we passed along the dock, we could see into the ship and it looked very inviting. It looked so different than the prison camps we had become accustomed to.
We passed some nurses and one asked, "Are you not Americans?" She was also an American, but had joined the English Red Cross at the outbreak of the war. Each of us was sent to our different decks and compartments, and lunch was served at about 10:00. We had bread and jam, plus tea and an apple. The bread was real white bread. The three Englishmen were still with us and had decided to go directly to America with us, provided that we were routed that way the English officials didnít pick them out.
We were told that we wouldnít leave until the next morning as more prisoners were expected. We had no place to lie except on the floor, and there was not a great deal of room for that. We were just happy to be where we were, and were told that we would land after just a dayís ride. Early the next morning the balance of the load boarded the ship and as they made as much noise as we had, we knew that they were getting on board.
Some came into the compartment where we were and as they passed us some of their faces looked very familiar. We soon found out that this trainload of men were from our former camp. We found several of the boys who had been our best friends. They had the laugh as we left there a couple days before they did, and now they were on the same ship with us. The three Englishmen, who had made their getaway with us, were glad to find their old palls getting out so much sooner than they had expected. We talked of our experiences since we had left one another and finally decided that it was about an even draw.
We had come on a passenger trains and had been in Berlin, while they came on an extra and in this case it was a much slower way. Our ride lasted about twelve hours and theirs had been three or four times that long. The camp at Merseberg was in better shape than the one at Altdamm. At any rate we were all on the same ship together and would reach our happy destination at the same time.
At daylight on Sunday we could feel the ship move. It seems as though everyone wanted to get out on deck to yell something at Germany before they left. For several hours we sailed slowly up a channel with Germany on either side of us. When we reached the Baltic, the ship stopped. As I happened to be on the deck at that time, I saw a German officer get off the ship and into a small boat. They turned and went back while we continued our course. We wondered why this German had been on board, but later found out that he had been guiding us through the mines.
The Baltic was a little rougher but no one became seasick. All who ere not well and needed medical attention were put into staterooms and given care by the Red Cross. We did not go hungry that day, but rather ate to our heartís content. At evening we docked at Copenhagen and our train was waiting there for us. We learned that we would have about an hourís ride to the Danish camp.
The coaches were also of the European type. Compartments in several of the coaches were double-deckers. After switching around for a while, we stared on our trip and soon reached a small station. We were unloaded and told that we had about an hourís hike to Camp Greve. Several Danish people met us here and gave us a hearty reception. We were surprised to find that so many of them could speak our language. Many of them had been in America. The camp was very much different looking than any we had seen for a very long time. The buildings were bungalow style and very inviting. A sleeping room was on each end with plenty of good warm blankets. We were not there very long when we were called into a large mess hall and had a real feed- waited on by Danish soldiers. Many of them recognized us as Americans and we had several conversations with them. We were finding out some things that had happened since weíd been captured. After our feed we retired. The next morning we received another good feed and a good bath. This kind of war was heaven!
Preparations were being made for Christmas. Several wagonloads of things were being brought in. Decorations were being put up and a number of little things were being done to make it a Merry Christmas for us. The day before Christmas some American officers came out to see us and brought us each a package of things from the American Red Cross. These things had been purchased in Copenhagen. I donít remember everything, but I got a scarf, some heavy socks, woolen mittens, smokes, candy, different kinds of dried fruit, plus toilet articles of different kinds.
The Colonel offered to send telegrams to our parents if we so desired to inform them that we were well and enjoying freedom again. Also he gave each man some "krones". We had quite a talk with the Colonel and learned that we would leave in a few days. We were being held there to see whether disease or sickness would break out. We were all very happy- why shouldnít we be. First our freedom, second our treatment, and thirdÖall of the other things we were thankful for. Just this telegram to our parents meant more to any of us than any amount of money. The Colonel wished us Merry Christmas and we reciprocated with a few cheers- and then he left stating that if there was anything we wanted, we should not hesitate to call him.
As it seemed to be the custom in Europe, we enjoyed our Christmas feed on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas day. It was some feed! No money, food, or time had been spared to make this a real banquet. I cannot relate all of what foods we ate by name, but the various dishes were enjoyed by all. Beside our plate lay a cigar with a small card printed in English. "Danish officers and privates at the Greve Camp wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!" The Danish Boy Scouts lost no time in doing their bit. Each barracks had a Christmas tree well trimmed and lighted with several little gifts around it. WE were asked to leave this until evening and then we could divide up what there was as keepsakes or remembrances of our 1918 Christmas.
Our fond dream, of course, was to be home for Christmas, but we could not complain. Many of us had gone hungry on the previous Christmas. We retired rather late that night after playing with the toys and games around the tree.
The next morning we received ten krones (about $3.00) from the English paymaster and secured a pass to Copenhagen. We sang most of the way back to the station. The first thing we did in Copenhagen was to look for a restaurant. We found one and had a light lunch. As there were so few American soldiers there, we caused quite a bit of attention. We were given a hearty welcome by all of the people who saw us.
On one corner was a man with a minute picture camera. We stepped in front of the machine and a large crowd of people gathered around us. We could hear "Americans" ringing through the crowd all around us. The Danish people sure made a lot of us Americans. A few minutes after this we met some American sailors who were more than surprised to see us and couldnít imagine how American doughboys had gotten into Denmark. Nothing would do but that we had to go back to the ship with them. This was a new ship, being on its first voyage. We were all taken to the galley, and if anyone went away hungry it was his own fault. There was only one pie left but three of us got it and it disappeared on short notice. We then had supper with these sailors and were shown about the ship.
That evening the shipís orchestra played several new songs for us while some of the sailors (gobs) sang. When we finally left this ship our pockets were far from being empty. They were well loaded with candy and smokes. When we said we had enough, we were told to take some along for the rest of the boys. We appreciated all of our gifts, and good times, but our first present was certainly the best and most appreciated of all- Freedom!
RETURN TO THE MENU OF PRIVATE FRANK LAST
RETURN TO THE AMERICAN MENU