I was originally attracted to this book because I grew up close to Cannock Chase, and although I was aware of its military connections (in particular the German Military Cemetry and the Katyn Memorial), I had no idea there had been a POW camp there in the First World War. The scale reproduction of the Messines battlefield, produced as a training aid after the battle is better known, and it turns out that is what first attracted the author’s attention to the POW camp, as some of the prisoners were used to help build it.
I must admit when I first started reading this book, I assumed that there would have been more German POWs in Britain during the First World War than the Second, simply because of the long commitment on the Western Front. However that turns out not to be the case – the British ended up with just over 100,000 POWs on home soil in the First World War, and over 400,000 during the Second World War. As a result it isn’t quite as surprising as I had first thought that we rarely read about the First World War POW camps. That doesn’t make this book any less valuable.
Pursehousehad found interesting material from three different points of view. The views of the German POWs themselves and of the British guards and camp commanders are joined by the views of the locals of the Cannock area. Here we get a mix of jealousy, especially after rumours spread that the camp was either better built than British Army camps, or the POWs were better fed that the locals, hostility after reports emerged of mistreatment of British POWs in German hands, and a rather confused attitude to the use of German POWs as farm workers or on other jobs, with some angry that they were displacing locals, and others arguing for more POW workers! One interesting theme are the complaints made by both sides – on the German side about the way they were being treated, and on the British side about the behaviour of the prisoners. There were also some suggests that German POWs should be punished for any perceived mistreatment of British POWs in Germany, although common sense won out here and that didn’t happen. As in the more famous Second World War camps inspectors from a neutral power (The US unti 1917 then Switzerland) visited POW camps and made detailed reports on how they were being run, and quite a bit of that information is included here.
This is more than local history (although it will be of great interest to people from the area – I certainly intend to go and find the site once we are all allowed out again!), as it covers an important but often sidelined aspect of the First World War.
1 – Background – Treatment of Prisoners
2 – Brocton Prisoner of War Camp
3 – The Prisoners and the Guards
4 – The Commandant
5 – Keeping the Prisoners Busy
6 – The Interpreters
7 – The Nearby New Zealanders
8 – The International Red Cross, the Swiss Legation and Complaints
9 – Prisoner’s Views on the War
10 – Repatriation Boards
11 – Discipline in the Camp
12 – Maintaining Order, Attempted Escapes and Shootings
13 – Food
14 – Work Parties
15 – Brocton Prisoner of War Hospital
16 – The Hospital Structure
17 – ‘Barbed Wire Disease’
18 – The Influenze Outbreaks in 1918
19 – Further Swis Legation Visits
20 – The Armistice is Signed: the Prisoners Prepare to Return Home
21 – The End in Sight
22 – Brocton Prisoner of War Camp Closes
23 – Suggested Uses of Brocton Camp after the War
24 – Brocton Prisoner of War Camp Today
Author: Richard Purehouse