In these very worrying times there has been much reference to wartime Britain. For most of us this is a new experience which is not without its challenges. I am still adjusting to the concept of self/social isolation, but it has at least provided the opportunity to get some research done, some of which I will share with you in this edition of Brumration. I hope you find it of interest.
- PRIVATE JOSEPH ADAMS, 6th BATTALION SOUTH WALES BORDERER’S
I was sent by the Archivist at King Edwards School, Birmingham, a copy of the King Edward’s School Chronicle for March 1919. It contained a list of all those former pupils who at that time were known to have died, been wounded or received honours. It also congratulated and listed the seventeen men who had returned safely having been prisoners of war. The three civilians detained at Ruhleben also got a mention.
In one section, died a POW in Germany, there was only one name, Private Joseph Adams. The school Roll of Honour indicates he joined the Honourable Artillery Company Infantry in 1915, was transferred to the London Regiment and later attached to the South Wales Borderers. He was wounded in October 1916 and was captured by the Germans in May 1918. He was reported as being at Friedrichsfeld Camp but died as a prisoner ‘in hospital ‘at Worms am Rhein Camp on 3rd October 1918.
Adams was buried at Worms (Hochheim Hill) Cemetery. He does not have an individual grave and is commemorated along with 113 others on a Memorial Wall at the Cemetery. The Commonwealth War Graves ‘Registration Report Form’ for these men indicates that all 113 men were buried in a mass grave. Over 2,200 other Allied soldiers of many nationalities including Russians as well as French and Belgian soldiers are buried in the cemetery.
There were three aspects of this story I found perplexing. Firstly, in all my researches on First World War POW’s I have never previously come across a prisoner that was held at Worms. This is despite the fact that it was a camp for over 20,000 men. Secondly I was aware that following the end of hostilities, most British First World War Graves in Germany were moved into four permanent cemeteries wherever possible and that there were only a small numbers of graves that could not be moved for various reasons. Thirdly, I didn’t think 113 was a small number, especially when 112 of the men whose names are on the Memorial Wall died between September and November 1918.
I have since discovered the stories of a number of men who were at Worms, none of them seem to have been at the Camp for any length of time and none had anything positive to say about their stay there. In his book ‘The Uncivil Face of War’ Richard Garrett, quotes a Corporal Lawrence Eastwood. On arrival at Worms he said he was disinfected in one of two great barrels and then had all his body hair shaved off by Russian prisoners. The Germans would ‘knock the Russians about’ if they didn’t do as they were told. During his time at the camp they only had the German issue food, ‘We used to weigh each portion (of bread) on a pair of home-made scales. You had to eat your bit quickly otherwise somebody’d pinch it’
Corporal Eastwood described it as a ‘very rough sort of Camp’, and was pleased to be moved to the Camp at Giessen. There they received Red Cross Parcels, and were provided with proper boots and the standard prisoners uniform. The clogs they were given at Worms were ‘very roughly made and hell to walk in’. Like many prisoners whose names are on the memorial at Worms he was captured in May 1918.
The only soldier mentioned on the Memorial Wall who died before September was Private Ernest Henry Freestone 59th Battalion Machine Gun Corps. He died on 6th July 1918 aged 22. Private Freestone is one of one of the 31 on the Memorial where a cause of death is given. He is the only one allegedly to have died of Phthisis. This term was used for any disease that caused ‘wasting of the body ‘but at this time usually referred to pulmonary tuberculosis.
Of the 113 men on the memorial wall, 27 died in September 1918, 70 in October 1918 and 15 in November 1918. Private W Firth 1st/7th Durham Light Infantry died on 11th November 1918, and the last of this group of 113 to die was Gunner R Kemp Royal Garrison Artillery who died on 26th November 1918. On the Graves Registration documents this is the only information on these two men.
There is more information on some of the men. Private Arthur George Scurrah DCM Yorkshire Hussars, died on 23rd September 1918. The London Gazette of 30th August 1918 reported his conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as a stretcher bearer. After others were wounded he spent up to an hour under intense shrapnel and machine gun fire bringing a wounded man back to a dressing station. His Pension Record indicates he died of illness at Worms.
Private Sam Stables Army Service Corps had a sister who was married to a German who had returned to Germany at the outbreak of war. Private Stables had served with the RNVR until February 1915 when he was discharged as being medically unfit. He enlisted in the ASC in June 1915, was captured near Craonne on 27th May and died in Worms on 18th September. Private Percy Rattley Machine Gun Corps was also captured at Craonne on 27th May and arrived at Worms in August 1918. He appears to have survived.
There are only thirty men for whom a cause of death is given and 25 died from dysentery, four from sickness, and one from heart failure. Twenty seven men died in September 1918, 70 in October and 15 in November. Twenty three of these men came from various Yorkshire Regiments and 21 from the Durham Light Infantry. This is a very large number of men to die in a single camp in a three month period.
Perhaps the story of Private Joseph Adams provides us with some clues as to what might have happened to many of these men. His record says he was at Friedrichsfeld but that he died from dysentery at Worms. Friedrichsfeld was widely used as a postal address for those who after capture were held behind the lines as labourers. Mrs Adams wrote to the Red Cross in August 1918 seeking information about her son so clearly no postcard had been received informing her he was a prisoner. In September and October there is much evidence to indicate that as the war was coming to an end those men who had been kept behind the lines were being brought into official camps for the first time. Having had to live off German rations they were in very poor condition. Is this an explanation for many of these 113 men who died at Worms and were buried in a mass grave.
Alison Wheatley, King Edwards School Archivist
WFA Pension Records /Ancestry
Richard Garrett TheUncivil Face Of War 1981