One of the pleasures of giving my talk at various WFA Branches on “The Treatment of British POW’S by the Germans on the Western Front” is meeting people who have family histories to share.  They have many interesting stories about the experiences of their relatives who were held captive.  Their stories also serve to identify patterns of behaviour and experience and to recognise the many places that appear regularly in the stories of prisoners.

After a recent meeting in Lincoln I was told the story of Private Joseph Riley.  He was reported missing on the 26th March 1918. The Battalion War Diary of The 1ST Battalion Sherwood Forresters reports the Battalion was, on 24th March, holding the line along the banks of the Somme.  At dusk the Germans raided two of the Battalions’ Forward Posts across the River from the Commune of St Christe.  In one of the two posts, one officer and three men were killed and one officer and six men were captured.  The Germans were driven off from the other post.

The following day, under orders, the Battalion withdrew but not without some opposition as the Germans were close behind them.  This withdrawal continued until they reached the village of Rosieres on the evening of the 26th.  At some point in these events Private Riley was taken prisoner, but the family believed he was captured at St Christe.

The family also believed Private Riley was in a POW Camp at Gustrow, but know for certain that he died in captivity.  According to Commonwealth War Graves Commission records he died on 13th September 1918. He is buried at Valenciennes (St Roch) Communal Cemetery.

Gustrow Camp was in Mecklenburg Region in the North of Germany, not too far from the Baltic Coast. The Camp had Barracks for 25,000 men with sections for all the Allied Armies, but an additional 25,000 men were registered at Gustrow.  These would have been off site in various’ Work Kommandos’.  Men of all nationalities who died at the Camp were buried in the Camp Cemetery.  All British and Commonwealth soldiers who died there were re-interred after the war at Ohlsdorf Cemetery near Hamburg.

There was no report that Private Riley had been wounded on capture.  The area around Valenciennes remained in German hands until captured by the Canadians in early 1918. The German 17th Army HQ was based in nearby Denain and they also had a large military hospital in the area, War Hospital Detachment 29.  His grave and local newspaper reports refer to Private Riley having ‘Died whilst a prisoner of war’ rather than died of wounds.  The family had been led to believe that he had died of starvation.

Commonwealth War Graves records show that of the 19 men originally buried in the German section of Valenciennes ( St Roch) Communal Cemetery, only nine men could be identified from the plates on their coffins. Private Riley was one of these, so it would appear that he had received a proper burial.  After the war the graves of the ten men who could not be identified were removed to Le Quesnoy Communal Cemetery Extension. There is a memorial stone to all the men in both cemeteries.  All the German Graves were removed.

My research indicates that there are a number of War Cemeteries in the area which contain the graves of British and Commonwealth Prisoners of War.  One of the largest is at Conde-sur-L’Escaut where prisoners were kept in an old French Army Barrracks. The local Communal Cemetery contains the grave of over 90 men who died in the area between June 1917 and October 1918. Throughout that period the area was in German control. Two of these men are:  Private Frank Smith 1st Battalion Essex Regiment,who died of Phthisis (T.B.) whilst a POW on 16th August 1917 aged 30 and  Private Anthony Richard Sumiejski, 25th Battalion Canadian Infantry Regiment died of sickness 2nd May 1918 aged 30.

There was evidence throughout the war that prisoners on capture were being held behind the lines to carry out work.  There is evidence that this was a common practice from as early as 1916. The length of time they were held behind the lines would vary, but from 1917 there are examples of many men who never made it into a registered camp.

The significance of this for the wellbeing of the men is that they would have to survive on German rations and do hard manual work for twelve or more hours a day.  The standard German ration would be one or two cups a day of ersatz coffee, some thin soup with turnips, cabbage or other vegetables, and a portion of black bread.  What the bread contained was often a mystery. If you were in an official camp you would receive Red Cross food parcels.

As the war progressed and men were repatriated, escaped or somehow got messages through to their families a pattern was beginning to emerge which was confirmed after the Armistice.  All returning prisoners were interviewed and the evidence was published in ‘The Report on the Treatment of Prisoners of War Behind the Firing Lines in France and Belgium’.

As a result many unofficial camps were identified, and towns like Douai which is close to Valenciennes were used as distribution centres for prisoners.  What also became clear was that to cover their activities the Germans would often register these prisoners in official camps.  One soldier from the 6TH Seaforth Highlanders was registered at Friedrichsfeld and Parchim Pow Camps but never set foot in Germany.  On his return to England in 1918 he was admitted to Fulham Military Hospital. Another prisoner registered at Gustrow on his return stated that he had never left the Peronne area after his capture.  Near Peronne in September 1916, a pile of 120 letters and 254 postcards were discovered all printed with the address of Gustrow  Camp.

It appears that Stendal, Dulmen, and Limburg  Camps were also used as Dummy Addresses.  There are also reports from a number of Camps of some of these prisoners being returned to these Camps in late October 1918. A Private John Holmes, Kings Liverpool Regiment reported that in October 1918 nearly 3,000 men were brought into Friedrichsfeld Camp, and having been kept behind the lines for six to seven months were in a very bad state.

We can therefore conclude that Private Joseph Riley was captured on the Somme, and was probably kept in one of the many unofficial camps along the French/Belgian border where he died.  It is very unlikely that he ever made it into Germany and was merely registered at Gustrow.


Arthur Wood. For information on Private Joseph Riley     Websites The Long, Long Trail Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Richard Lloyd