Our thanks go to Sue & David Tall for sharing the following wonderful story with us:
Sergeant Harold Betts of Raunds joined up in 1914, serving in the Northants Yeomanry, and subsequently the Leicesters. He was shot by a German officer with a revolver during the action on the Marne on May 27th 1918 and was taken prisoner with hundreds of his comrades.
He was a prisoner behind the German lines at Bazancourt near Rheims and was three months in captivity. When his wound healed, he and his chum, Sergeant Ben Bolton, also of the Leicesters, made up their minds they would escape at the first opportunity, as they were being treated so badly. They knew they were within shell and gas range of the fighting line.
In the early morning of August 27th, they made their escape. Having previously arranged with their fellow prisoners what they would do, they were sent out in a party 100 strong to repair a railway, accompanied by only four German guards.
As they marched on the road through a wood, they worked themselves into the middle of the line and, as the prisoners sang “Good-by-ee!” to drown the sound of their movement, they made their escape.
After a series of adventures, they made their way to the French lines and were taken to Rheims in a French officer’s car, then to Paris and back to London.
One of their souvenirs of their time in the hands of the Germans was this postcard of two prison guards. On the reverse of the card they declared their intention to take revenge on their enemies, should they ever meet, après la guerre!
Sergeant Betts subsequently gave the following extensive testimony to the authorities in London on their experiences and treatment at the hands of the Germans:
“I, Betts, on the day of my capture saw some of our wounded, about five of them, who had been caught by one shell, killed by the Germans, who bayoneted them. These men were from the same company as mine, but a different battalion. I also saw a platoon of Northumberland Fusiliers lined upon a parapet before a German Flammenwerfer – 15 of them were killed. There was no German officer there, it was done by the German soldiers on their own. When my party came up in the charge of a German officer, a Lieutenant, he stopped it, that is, the German soldiers. Four of five of them stopped when they saw him.
We, Sergeant Bolton and myself, were captured on the same day at Cormicy and were taken back to Brienne, a receiving cage, and it was there we met. From there we were taken to Rethel. Here we were put in a municipal prison. I did not require a bed at the dressing station, but many of our wounded got very scant attention. The Germans were very short of supplies and their own soldiers were neglected in the same way. We noticed that they had no stretchers; they were using waterproof sheets; very bad for the wounded. They were also badly off for anaesthetics.
The first food we got was a bowl of soup at Rethel on the evening of the 28th May, but we could not touch it, we were also given some coffee and some bread.
We were taken on the 29th May to Mont-Meillant St Jean and stayed there four days and then went on to Bazancourt, where we stayed till we escaped. Up to the time we got to Bazancourt we only did ordinary fatigue work. We were with French prisoners as well as British – about 452 British. The French were given the preference, the Germans seemed to have a greater aversion to the British than the French.
We were searched and interrogated at Mont-Meillant St Jean and had to give up letters, photos, and paybooks at the receiving cage first day; they did not take watches or money, but the soldiers in the line where we were first taken took them. No clothes were taken, but the first thing they did was to take the puttees and boots from the dead. Finally all our puttees went because we swapped them for bread."
At Bazancourt a camp was made for us – 400 British – no French. Dysentery was very bad. Five men died in the first fortnight. We remained there until we escaped on 27th August 1918. The camp was first in the charge of a sergeant-major, then of a sergeant. Both these men treated us very badly. As N.C.O.’s we did not have to work, ie any N.C.O.’s under then rank of sergeant had to work. Food, one pint of barley stew! a slice of bread (400 grammes) and the substitute coffee. More often than not the bread was mouldy. The German soldiers, however, received the same, but more. They had 700 grammes of bread and probably a little meat in the stew, horseflesh. We got no parcels here and had no opportunity of writing home until 4th July 1918. We were then allowed to write a postcard and after that a letter. I wrote in all six letters and yesterday found out that my postcard reached home, I do not know when, but no letters. We received no correspondence at all.
Bazancourt is 15 kilometres from the French line, this was within the shell area. We have seen shells burst within 1 kilometre on the ridge, but the French knew we were there. Work done was building and repairing railways – conditions were bad. On the average 10 hours a day and this would be on a bowl of coffee – all depended on whether a man was working on a morning or afternoon shift. We had huts, but very crowded – unhealthy and unsanitary – beds in tiers, about 120 in a hut which would have taken 80 comfortably. We received blankets after we had been there two months and then one thin blanket, not German but looted – small fancy blankets.
For latrines a long hole was dug and it was left without any treatment and it got into a terrible state – millions of flies and a terrible stench. This was especially bad and practically every man in the camp had dysentery. There were five deaths from dysentery during the three months we were there. If a man was really too bad to go out to work he was sent to a hospital at Rethel, but here the treatment was bad owing to poor and scanty food. If a man went sick he might be sent to the health officer in the village, but this man really had no supplies. There was no heating apparatus in the tents and no drying facilities. Eventually we had a well sunk and a wash house was built for us where we could rinse our clothes, but no soap; the German soldiers had no soap either and there appears to be none in Germany. The camp got filthy and verminous. After we had been six weeks in camp we were taken to some baths where our clothes were fumigated, and then they proposed fumigating us every month, and this was done. There was also some pleurisy. Sergeants Harman and Eltham both had pleurisy and were sent to Rethel. They were not returned to Bazancourt and we presumed they were sent to Germany.
There was a canteen near the camp and we could buy cigarettes here at an exorbitant price, but nothing else.
There was an English-speaking German who came from Berlin, an interpreter; he was equivalent to our lance-corporal; his name was Hantzschel. This man did not help us at all, and we had to be very careful what we said.
The guards were a party of Landsturm; they were mostly old men who had come out of the line, and this place was used as a convalescent home for them; they were changed twice.
In some cases their treatment was brutal; we have seen them knock prisoners about and we used to report them to the Commandant, but we received no satisfaction. There was never anybody seriously injured by this treatment, but frequently prisoners would be injured by the work on the railway. The work was very heavy, and the men would be so weak from lack of food. We did not receive any clothing, but there was none there to give us even if we had wanted any; there was no insanity among the prisoners, and there was never any suggestion as to assuming German nationality. In our letters we were instructed we were to say we were well fed and well treated. From our letters it would appear as if we were in Germany, they would not show we were in occupied territory. Our letters were sent to Friedrichsfeld to be censored.
We saw no other British prisoners, but some French captured in July, about 350, they stopped in our camp one night. These men were very well treated, and caused some discontent amongst us because we were not so. They came to our camp the same day that they were captured.
The German guards seem very dispirited. They do not think they will win, and they also say that the moral of the civil population in Germany is low and that it only wants a spark to set a revolution going. They seem very bitter against America, and realise that she has put a final touch to the war. Their first question was always “were we Americans?” The German troops on that front came from the Russian front and had probably never seen an Englishman.
If we went out as sergeants we received half a mark a day. Of course we paid it all back to the canteen. We were paid in francs, and owing to the cost of exchange 10d was only worth 8d. The men received 35 pfgs per diem.
For the least offence a man was punished. The least form was stopping the bread ration and also pack drill – this was a German pack drill with an abnormal weight in it, bricks and stone – and we were punished for the least offence. We were not bombed at all, but the French did splendid work in this locality. Only a few other prisoners came to Bazancourt apart from the original lot. We were never informed what punishments we should receive for different offences, it was all simply left to the discretion of the sergeant.
Bolton had tried to escape before, but was captured and got his pack drill.
What we chiefly complain of is the great shortage of food, long and hard conditions of labour, and dirty and bad accommodation – no recreation, not even an English book or paper, and we got no news whatever. Treatment was, generally speaking, bad. No correspondence from home. We both of us lost at least 3 stone during captivity, and we both had dysentery in camp. The food is very short even among the line troops, but they have a good deal of dried vegetable and dried fruit. Their physical condition appears to be very bad, and from the way the wounded fare (that is the German wounded) their recuperative powers have decreased.
On 9 May 1915, George Orton was captured by the Germans just 12 days after arriving in France. He was to spend over 3 years as a guest of the Kaiser before sadly becoming a victim of pneumonia in October 1918.
In May 1917 he wrote home to his son Arthur, who had just joined the Army Service Corps. Here is a transcription of the letter:
George Mundin Orton
My Dear Son,
Just a line to let you know I received your nice letter this week and you know it pleases me to know you are all right and I trust you keep so and have better luck than I, but cheer up there will be a time someday when we will try and make up for all this.
It is harder for Mother now you are called away and I know you have all done what you could for me but Mum is not obliged to send money now and it will be best for her not to as she can’t afford to now and I am getting food all right through the committee and it is good of them.
So you have joined the ASC, it is better and I hope you will get on all right. Sorry you had to part from your old pals but you say you have found some good ones and you will and you must be all right with all but don’t let none come it and always do your duty and look after yourself.
Write as often as you can.
Good night from your loving Father.
7145 Pte G M Orton 2nd East Surreys Prisoner of War Block I, Lager II Rennbahn Munster Germany
The following story appeared in the Rushden Echo of 27 December 1918
Germany’s Inferior Airmen
Raunds Soldier Prisoner’s Statement
Hun’s Brutal Neglect of Wounds
Fiery Liquids Applied to Injuries
Private Arthur Hubert (Hugh) Clarke, 18501, Northants Regiment, of Raunds, has arrived home from Alsace-Lorraine, where he has been for several months in German hands. When he was captured he was wounded in several places about the legs, but the Germans made little attempt to dress his wounds. The paper bandages with which the wounds were bound up were not removed for six days, and all the time the wounds were getting in a dangerous state.
To prevent gangrene the German doctor poured into the wounds some iodine in the neat state. It is needless to remark that the pain resulting from this drastic but delayed measure was excruciating almost beyond endurance. Another fiery liquid was applied to other parts of his body. The only satisfactory result is that the leg was saved, but the agony was needless if attention had been paid sooner.
A poor fellow who was taken at the same time as Pte Clarke and wounded similarly, had to lie in a barn for nine days without any medical attention whatever, and when the German doctor did at last remove the bandages, gangrene was so far advanced that the leg had to be at once amputated.
Pte Clarke never completely recovered from his wounds while he was in enemy hands, but he had to work as hard as the rest, and had no more food. Being close to the German lines, he could not write to his friends nor receive parcels from them. He had to work at a German aerodrome, assisting with such heavy work as lifting huge engines, salving crashed planes, and so on.
He observed that the machines were of a good type, but there seemed something lacking about the pilots. Either the training was too superficial or the airmen themselves did not possess the necessary pluck and initiative. Pte Clarke could see a very great difference between the splendid fighting spirit of our own airmen and the absence of the offensive attitude in the German pilots.
For some time before the Armistice, Pte Clarke was put to work in a sugar factory. His hunger being so keen, he ate large quantities of sugar one day, with the consequence that he became ill, and he still feels the effect of the starvation. He lost weight until he was down to 7 stone, whereas his normal weight is 14 stone (which he has all but recovered). He says all our prisoners were little better in appearance than living skeletons.