A Tonge Soldiers Captivity

Private Thomas Wicks Of  The Sherwood Foresters

    Private Thomas Wicks B company 10th Sherwood Foresters was the son of Mr. & Mrs. A Wicks of Tong Mill Sittingbourne. On April 22nd 1918 Thomas was reported Killed in action by his platoon officer, He was reported to have been killed by  a machine gun bullet whilst in action. His family were left in no doubt that he was dead and received many letters of sympathy from Thomas's comrades. In June 1918 however his parents received a postcard  from "the dead" Thomas was a prisoner of War. What follows is his account in his own words of his capture during the German March Offensive of 1918........

Chapter I

CAPTURE

   Shortly after I returned to France from leave, on February 19th 1918, things began to hum; and after the deadly monotony of the trenches one welcomed almost anything as a diversion; having wearied of catching rats for recreation!  However, from March21st we had more than enough diversion. Day in , day out, a deafening bombardment took place; when we weren't being shelled, we were bombed from the sky, and German airmen flew along above our trenches and riddled us with machine-gun fire. Aerial battles took place and the "vanquished" always unloaded a cargo of bombs upon us, hurriedly. And as for snipers...... They never missed a shot! We had some very narrow squeaks just then, and our lot were very unfortunate. In every stunt we were the last to return, and we got a terrible pummelling for things were, indeed looking very black just then.
    On the evening of April 21st, we were informed that we were to attack at dawn, the objective being a bit of railway. Our trenches were behind a wood and Fritz's was the other side of it between us and the railway. Dawn came clear and frosty, and over we went. I was behind the OC he gave me a nip of whiskey which bucked me up. No doubt it was Dutch courage but it was quite serviceable anyway. What happened to the 300 of us after that I shall of course never know. Whether the order was given to retire or what it was, the ground was covered with the wounded and the dead, as we were through the wood in the open under a deadly hail of machine-gun fire the most deadly weapon of the war. A handful of us dropped into shell holes and awaited events. One got hit but it was nothing much.
    The bullets were pinging everywhere and the shells screaming, so we dare not look out. Just behind us on the German side of the wood were a few huts containing German machine guns. We hoped the smoke, when they caught fire, would cover our escape. But the smoke blew the opposite way. We debated whether to make a dash for the wood, but it was useless to think of it, and we awaited nightfall to retire, We spent six hours, until 10 pm in the hole, when a voice above us said: -" One minute !"   and flourishing a fine healthy looking bomb a Jerry regarded us disinterestedly from the top. He spoke perfect English-as so many Jerries do! and was reinforced by other bombers. After a full minute had elapsed we climbed out,  disgustedly slung our rifles on our shoulders, and hiked off across no mans land  towards captivity.

    Chapter II

Behind the German Lines

    We were herded behind the German lines 11 of us - till 4pm. then searched, our rifles and bandoliers having previously been removed. We laid the contents of our pockets down on the ground and a German NCO abstracted what he thought fit. I lost only my razor and was in danger of losing my pocket case, but I asked for it saying it only contained personal photographs. The NCO searched it diligently, but gave it back to me. I thought we should have to "rough it" but the first few weeks was a holiday after the strenuous March and April in the trenches. The evening we were searched, after capture, we were allowed to fetch in our twelfth man, who we had left in the shell-hole. Then we were told off to help the German equivalent of the"RAMC" collect their wounded. Some of the "jerries" were gigantic fellows, and three or four of us at a stretcher were soon tired out. Especially as we had  to hoist ourselves and the loudly protesting stretcher case up a steep ravine or railway bank with about 40 rough steps cut into it. The medic's took turns with us in getting the stretchers to the dressing station about 2 miles away, then we prisoners were marched to Le Transloy the first "gefangenen lager (prison camp) Two of the famous mounted Uhlans escorted us they were very picturesque with their lances and full equipment altogether we walked about five miles behind the lines.

        Chapter III     

            The Gefangenen Lager

    No doubt, as there was only a handful of us, we got better treatment than if there had been a crowd. There were now seventeen in our party, twelve of us and five others who had been forced to join us. At Le Transloy, we were herded into marquees and given some straw and one blanket each to make ourselves "comfortable"! The blankets were part of the loot captured from the Allies in March and were the usual thick brown Army blankets. We were  employed in making a light railway a most monotonous job and every day we lived in dread of being sent into the interior of Germany. We had plenty to eat in fact more than at subsequent camps. The Jerries rations at that time were so plentiful, that we often had extra bits for our tea that had been left over from dinner. It must be admitted that much of the foodstuffs had been captured, so we were only eating our own rations, but at the wrong side of the line. We allotted two loaves between 7 of us daily and had plenty of fish chiefly dried haddock which sometimes went around three times. We all thought this too good to last, as we were being treated very decently as well. One day we were making dugouts for the hospital, and we looked through  the window to see what was going on  inside. We saw enough! It was the operating room window and a surgeon was busy carving the abdomen of an unfortunate jerry. The anaesthetic gave out, and despite the patients heart rending cries, he was held down by six orderlies, while the operation was finished. We did not stop to see the end of it as it made us turn sick and cold  and fervently hope that we should not have occasion to be a hospital patient. We heard several times how very short the Germans were of medical supplies, especially  anaesthetics. We were at Le Transloy  nearly twelve weeks then the Allies began to get busy so we were shifted further back.
    We were next moved to Marchienz, a distance of several kilos (sic) and stayed there only eight days. The very name Marchienz makes me shudder for it was a perfect "hell" crowded, filthy and we were treated worse than cattle. When we got there we were put into an old iron foundry with nearly a thousand others. It was a roomy place, but was packed to suffocation. We were not given any fresh straw, and  it was filthy and verminous and in the hottest part of July,  our plight beggars description. Things were beginning to look  "black" for the Germans so they took it out on us in spite. we had nothing to eat and nothing to do. There was food of a sort allotted to us, but only a fraction of what was actually required. We lined up by the cook house and waited sometimes four hours or more for something to eat and when it came to one's turn, our portion was a thimbleful of lukewarm "akilly" that had not had  bowing acquaintance with any meat whatsoever. Many of the fellows had come from camps where they had perhaps been badly treated, and dropped from exhaustion or dysentery. Indeed we who were remarkably fit considering all things, scarcely knew how to stand in the broiling sun, which beat down pitilessly upon the paved foundry courtyard.
    Dysentery was very bad indeed, every day fellows were carried away, presumably for treatment, and were never seen again, and numbers died as they lay in the filthy straw. The place rivalled the black hole of Calcutta and teemed with every insect pest imaginable. It was impossible to keep free and all sanitary arrangements were of the most primitive kind, the creatures had every encouragement to swarm.
    We fellows, having nothing much to eat, nothing to read and nothing to do, and seeing dysentery cases strewn around us, felt life was not worth living, and almost longed for death. We scrambled and quarrelled like ravenous beasts for the bread that was doled out to us, the most rank black musty stuff that was ever called "bread" ! The allotted portion was 2lb loaves between seven men. Sometimes we got it, sometimes we didn't, and  having nothing to do we just sat around and brooded upon our misfortunes, and cursed the evil day which saw us made prisoners of War.
    We piled bricks and slabs of rough iron on our straw and spread our blankets upon this hard debris rather than lie on the stinking heap of refuse by courtesy called straw, which in all probability had been the bed of a dysentery case. The mortality at this terrible place was appalling. These eight days will live in my mind forever! Then we went on to St Amand and this seemed like fairyland in comparison with Marchienz.

 

Chapter IV

The Saw Mills In The Forests Of  The Ardennes

    Sixty of us were sent to St Amand, which is on the borders of the forest of the Ardennes to work in the saw mills there. We were there nearly 2 months, August and September and it was not at all a bad place. For one thing the forest was very beautiful, and as we were able to buy a few potatoes and occasionally a loaf from civilians, we had enough to eat and could appreciate the countryside. Our guards were very decent fellows, and fared about the same as ourselves. We quickly realised that if we played our cards right we should be all right with them-that is the majority of them. There were one or two big burly fellows who barked commands in guttural German at us, and when we, naturally failed to understand they were inclined to assist our powers of comprehension with a hefty butt end of a rifle ! But most of the guards were quite decent and as long as we did our allotted task properly, discipline was lax.
    Blackberries were very plentiful around there, and we all hurried to get our work done, and then the guards went with us to pick blackberries. We could easily have escaped, but it was ridiculous to take the chance as we were now some distance from the German line, which we would have to pierce, and among the regulations posted up in the camp- which was an old tannery- was one which announced that escaping prisoners could be fired on without challenge. So we made the best of it and as we were a fairly healthy group, we got along remarkably well.
They asked for volunteers to work in the coal mines for which four marks a day was paid. We were paid one mark a day for our work at the time, cutting and carrying wood to the saw mills. This mark was a voucher which was exchangeable at the canteen for cigarettes and cigars chiefly A civilian would ask five marks for a loaf...
    The saw mills were most pleasant and clean to work in and we were given every facility to keep ourselves clean, and having removed our passengers "lice" from Marchienz, we were able to keep ourselves passably clean and respectable. Soap was always scarce and of peculiar hard kind when we did get a scrap.
    At this camp we fared very well and we had to complain of our own cooks, chosen from amongst ourselves, who sometimes sold our stuff to the civilians. The camp was surrounded with barbed wire but a decent guard would turn a blind eye when he thought a bit of trafficking was going on through the wire. In September the Allies advance was becoming serious, to the Germans, so we were hurriedly packed off to Lessines, in southern Belgium, still in forested country. Happily we were only here five days as it was by way of being almost as bad as Marchienz. We were employed in making ammunition dumps, which was against the rules and we bodily protested against it. We were compelled by the guards with fixed bayonets to get on with the job. Here dysentery was again very rife, always it was more apparent when the food was poor and sanitation lacking ! But Tommy was advancing so rapidly that our exit from Lessines was ludicrous! We were hurriedly bundled down to the station in two parties of thirty each, and were more or less left to our own devices. We rambled about the station premises and finding an empty pulman car by the platform, we all got in and for one hour rested our weary limbs in comfort! Presently  the guards came along and dug us out to our places in the cattle trucks at the rear of the train ! We bade farewell to Lessines with joyful hearts, but wondered where we were going next !..         

Chapter V

At Valenciennes

    At Valenciennes we had to change trains as it is an important rail junction. Here we took part it what might have been a tragedy but turned into a comedy! While waiting for our next train, some of our own airmen took the opportunity to bomb the town. That station cleared like magic, for every airman aims at the station when bombing the town, in order to dislocate rail traffic, and our airmen were very good shots. The station was absolutely clear except for we prisoners. There was a troop train standing at the platform with German soldiers either returning to or from the front. To a man the whole train cleared including the guard and driver and they all squeezed themselves underneath the train. Our guards went with the crowd and left us "unprotected".  But one guard perhaps having a sense of duty peered out from beneath  a  carriage and beckoned frenziedly to us in broken English "Come Tommy!! come Tommy!!, Englander bombs!" We all stayed where we were for there was nothing to be gained by being caught perhaps like a rat in a trap beneath the wreckage of the station or pinned beneath a heavy train, should a bomb fall there.
    Happily for us the airmen were at great altitude and although bombs fell all around us and terrific explosions took place which shook every inch of the station premises the station itself was not hit. Here it maybe remarked that our airmen were greatly dreaded because they were so "dare devil" Sometimes a British or French plane flew at a hundred or so feet above the ground and casually and cheerfully picked out its objective, and always hit it too! The German planes were bigger and heavier and stronger than ours, but it was our airmen that made our raids so successful, for whatever may be said concerning the cruelty of the German hoards, the average German is a cautious methodical chap and would not dream of  attempting a "stunt" above the town he was raiding. But our fellows having let loose their bombs would loop the loop a few times before departing.
We witnessed some wonderful aerial battles in the summer, for the British planes were improving every day and it was often the a similar case to the way the Spanish Armada was defeated by the smaller, swifter, lighter English vessels in 1588. The big cumbersome Gothas could not turn so rapidly as the smaller battle planes of the Allies and were often at a loss and subsequently defeated.     

Chapter VI

Mons Barracks

    When the bombing was over we were herded into our portion of the train, cattle trucks as per usual and as the weather was superb just then, the beginning of September, the ride to Mons was not pleasant. The country now was undevastated, although in German hands. The contrast between the north and the south of Belgium is marvellous, but when one considers the events of early autumn 1914 it it not surprising, the Germans merely marched through this district in the Ardennes using main roads, and beyond picketing every town with German troops the country was left untouched. The Belgium population were required to work for the invaders and received a few marks a day and a price for their vegetables and other produce when purchased. But in the event of  a Belgian refusing to work under the new regime his possessions were confiscated and he assumed the status of a prisoner, but without even a prisoners few privileges. There were some abominable atrocities committed about this district for when Jerry gets his knife into anyone the Lord help him! The poor Belgian was always the victim of his own principles, and of everyone else's. He was tortured, starved and even dismembered if he persisted in refusing to work, and usually forfeited his life under the most terrible conditions. But the farms and queer little small holdings were all tilled and well cared for on the whole for the Belgians are of Flemish extraction and akin to Germans in build and temperament.
We stayed one night in the famous Mons barracks. around the town itself  were evidences of the great retreat from Mons of 1914 and everywhere there were heaps of debris and shattered buildings, quite "bairnsfather-like" in character and an utter change from the beautiful country we had just passed through. We spent a very short night here, and at 4am were marched to the station, about a five minute walk  to catch a train leaving at 7:30pm ! We stood about all day in the broiling sun, apparently forgotten. The guards occasionally moved into view to see if we were still there and had procured a few loaves for us, and also cigarettes. It was a most boring day and we were anxiously wondering where we were being taken as we had the utmost dread of being taken into the heart of Germany. At 7:30pm we embarked on what proved to be the last stage of our journey as a (gefangenen) (prisoner) to Baulers a village near Nivelles.             

Chapter VII

Nivelles-Baulers

When we arrived at Nivelles we found we had described a semi-circle round the forest of Ardennes from St Amand. we were marched through the town from the typical flat railway station, to a suburb named Baulers. To our inexpressible delight we found we were to be "housed" in the village boys school, a modern well-built building on two storeys, excellent sanitary arrangements, lofty clean rooms, not crowded and ample water supply in separate basins and even soap! We all agreed that if the fates were kind, we should remain here for the duration and we moved heaven and earth to do so.
    The whole thirty of us set out to give as little trouble as possible to efface ourselves and to do our allotted tasks well. We were fortunately in with the commandant . This official sets the pace at every camp. This commandant was a dark thin, tall aesthetic man, having the appearance of a scholarly professor rather than a soldier. He was distinctly amiable man, and we saw such very little of him that he might not have existed.  The real  controller of our destinies was the "Ober-lieutenant" who was very decent too, also the Quartermaster was well disposed to us.  " Though I say it as shouldn't" we were a clean lot of fellows, and we obeyed the regulations which included a certain amount of work to be got through each day. The quarter-master was very particular about our ablutions and inspected us most carefully every morning, saying "Nix warshen!" till he almost saw the joke himself, which is saying alot as no Germanhas the least sense of humour, everything is taken absolutley literally and anything in the shape of a joke is taboo.
    We had to be at our work by 6 am each morning and  as it was 5 kilos (about 3 miles) away in the forest, we rose at 4am and had breakfast (coffee and bread) at 4:30 and usually started off at about five. They observed the "daylight saving act" so at 4am it was often dark at the latter end of our stay and bitterly cold. What those poor fellow who were imprisoned in Germany for three years had to suffer, I shudder to think.  

   

Chapter VIII

Armistice Day

We knew peace was " in the air" and when I wrote to my people saying I should be home for Christmas, it was a case of "Thereís many a true word spoken in jest" for those words were written in August, and I indeed was home for Christmas.

On the Morning of Armistice Day I was in a crowd at the saw mills but was on duty to fetch some rations from Nivelles a much coveted job. I was very busily purloining some potatoes from a newly opened clamp and was rapidly filling my pockets and a sack I had with me. Some fellows were loading up carts on the other side of the clamp and although they must have seen me but chose to turn a blind eye. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a sepulchral voice at my elbow said sarcastically "you will go home soon, donít hurry" A German officer stood by me and bent sufficiently to say the Armistice was indeed a signed fact. The school master run up the Belgian flag and the whole village of Baulers became a riot of flags and bunting and cheering citizens. We prisoners calmly put our few pitiful Lares and Penates together and set off for the town expecting to get arrested at any minute. We could not leave the town so prowled around in pairs with a wary eye on the Jerries we met. We knocked on the door of a wealthy looking house and said "English" to the maid who answered, who promptly ran off to her mistress, who at once invited us in. Words fail to express the gratitude we felt to these kindly Belgians. They plied us with food and made a great fuss of us. The daughter translated to her parents our conversation and when we departed they insisted on giving us money. We returned to the town centre and the American Legation. We were not officially "free" yet so were very circumspect on our movements. They gave us coffee and a meat pie and bread and cheese at the American Legation and wished s luck. We slipped away and made tracks for the station. We boarded the first west bound train without any hindrance although our badly patched khaki must have given us away repeatedly .

We found ourselves again in Mons, and from there we wrote to our people saying we had "escaped" and would be home shortly. Then we entrained to Calais and were prepared for the kindly welcome we received. We were ticketed and docketed now for they were very busy now as the camps were clearing fast, and dealing with several thousand ex prisoners a day.

We were first fed, how wise of the officials plenty of food, so much that the poor fellows who had been half starved made themselves very ill. We were then stripped and sent to the hot chamber to have the live stock with which we were infested baked. The we wallowed in a real bath with hot water towls and soap. Finally we were given a new outfit, we would have liked to have kept our old garments as a specimen of the great variety of patches that can be made by tumbling fingers, especially our underwear that vied with great grand mothers patchwork quilt !

 

Chapter IX

Repatriated

    After the cleansing process we sought the YMCA rest rooms for a few hours respite before embarking on to a boat bound for Dover. About 2000 men crossed the channel on these boats and three boats crossed daily. Lorries met us at the quay to convey us to the camp on the hill. Amid the deafening screech of every siren on every ship in the harbour. As we passed through the Dover streets crowds of people cheered us and we cheered and bandied jokes and felt too happy for words.We arrived at camp and we were fed and any discrepancies of clothing were rectified. We all had a medical to see if we were fit to travel and immune from any disease or "live stock" Happily many of us were quite fit so we merely had to wait for travel passes and repatriation papers before the final train home.We went directly to Victoria and after looking up a few relatives I took the evening train home.

   Thomas does not go into detail regarding his home coming, perhaps in those days it was considered a private matter.