The Forgotten Men of Wittenberg

Happy New Year all.  I bought myself a Christmas present this year.  Well, I kind of bought all of us a Christmas present this year, because I figured that once this twenty-page booklet, published in 1918, arrived, I’d scan it and share it with you lot.

These drawings were made by the French artist Jean-Pierre Laurens, youngest son of the painter Jean-Paul Laurens.  A little research revealed that he was born in 1875 in Paris, and in 1914, with the clouds of war on the horizon, and like so many others from all walks of French life, he enlisted and found himself in action within weeks, although his war would not last long.  Wounded in the leg during the early battles of September 1914 at Rocquigny, near Peronne on the Somme, he was captured and transported to Germany, where he was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp at Wittenberg, fifty miles south west of Berlin.

And it was when I saw the name Wittenberg that I realised that there might end up being a little more to this post than simply showing you a bunch of, admittedly excellent, sketches.  Because Wittenberg camp would become infamous for the typhus epidemic that swept through the ten and a half acre site in early 1915, and would the following year be the subject of a British Government report,…

…which I just happened to scan years and years ago on a ‘this will come in useful one day’ basis.  And so it has now proved.  But before all that, let’s take a look at some of Laurens’ other images, half a dozen of which are given an explanation (in French, of course) at the start of the booklet, so I shall give you a pidgin-English translation of Laurens’ accompanying text as and when we get to them.  The first explanation (all are in quotation marks, although hardly required) accompanies the sketch below of German troops and civilian prisoners in the streets of Peronne on 2nd October 1914.

Civilian prisoners: “The convoy which arrived at the camp of Wittenberg on the night of 7th October 1914, brought French military and civilian prisoners. The civilians were taken around Bapaume. The Germans had emptied the houses of the region of inhabitants, and brought them in columns, along the main road, to the barracks at Peronne. There, after assembling the civilians in the courtyard, they divided them into two groups, pushing the men on one side, and the women and children on the other. Then the men were led to the station under an escort of soldiers. When they had crossed the barracks gate, surmounted by the German flag, a great clamour had risen from the group of women. The women and children remained in the courtyard, guarded by the sentries.”

The school of saluting: “The civilians – the Germans hated them because they were weak. They were irritated by their worn clothes, their misery and also their embarrassment in the execution of their commands. The civilians were mostly old or very young. They did not know how to move in a disciplined manner. The Germans often hit them.  As soon as they arrived at the camp, the rear part of their head was shorn, to specialize them by a sign which designates them to the population in the event of an escape. This gave them a vertical mark the width of the shaver, going from the neck to the top of the skull. They were also taught to salute. The salute which the Germans demand from civilian prisoners is not a gesture of courtesy. They want the man to pass in front of them with his hat in his hand, hat down as if he were following a funeral, his arm thrown vertically and the hat in the axis of the arm. This attitude should be observed six steps before and six steps after encountering a German. The civilians that they paraded before them to exercise them did not understand. They made hesitant gestures, variable according to the measure of their anguish. The Germans were ready to explode. They wanted the execution of their orders done to the last detail. They only wanted the dread obedience of their victims. So the civilians stopped, in distress, not knowing which way to turn. They thought of their scattered homes, their destroyed homes. They told themselves that their wives were perhaps alive and, like them, exiled. For fear of reprisals against them, imagining that their own behaviour could influence the treatment which they underwent, they applied themselves not to increase the anger of which they did not grasp the cause. They passed in silence with downcast eyes. The civilians, when captured, were dressed as the summer workers in the fields were. During the winter most of them died of cold. Clothing distributions took place in spring 1915.”

Plan of Wittenberg Camp showing the eight compounds, six huts in each, holding a total of 15,000 prisoners, and at times more.

Morning roll call.  I would hazard a guess that the man in the front row in the glengarry is a Highland Light Infantryman.  Why?  Because the Highland Light Infantry Chronicle for July 1916 contains the following report:

Dr. Aschenbach – the namesake of the main character in one of my favourite films – is pictured in the inset.  We’ll come across him again in the official report.

 Monsieur le Censeur.

La Schlague: “In November 1914, a canteen was installed. It worked for a month. Every morning from nine to eleven o’clock the prisoners were allowed to go and buy bread, chocolate and margarine. They came in crowds. This provided the Germans with the daily opportunity to crack down on them. In a scramble caused by threats from the sentries, an Arab tirailleur had his forearm crossed with a bayonet. Another time, the Germans, dissatisfied with the behaviour of the crowd gathered around the canteen, took a man at random. He was a French corporal. They grabbed him and led him into the schlague. They use a piece of rubber about thirty five centimetres long, the size of a pickaxe handle. With this instrument, one of them struck the Frenchman with about twenty blows. The next day, the patient’s kidneys were sore. The swelling where he had been struck made contact with his clothes intolerable to him. He could not sleep for a long time. The Germans did not limit themselves to just this example. Other prisoners received the schlague. It was administered frequently to the Russians. French and English also underwent this treatment.”

I don’t care about the Sultan…I don’t know him…I’m French, Sir.’

As well as his German captors, you will have noticed British, French and African faces in Laurens’ drawings (is that not, on the left, our Highland Light Infantryman again?),…

…but there were actually far more Russians in the camp at this time than any other nationality.

And then, in January 1915, the typhus came: “The order came from the commandant, towards the end of November 1914, to mix the Allied prisoners, ‘thus, these people will get to know each other.’ Mixed companies were organized, so that their composition made it possible for each prisoner to have two neighbours of different nationalities. The German authorities hoped that the necessities of daily life would cause, among these men, strangers to each other by language and habits, conflicts useful for the Germans to maintain and to exploit. In fact, typhus alone developed. At the beginning of January 1915, the presence of exanthematic typhus was officially noted. The Germans, anxious to avoid putting their medical personnel at risk in case of an epidemic, left the camp, and prohibited access. Boards were installed against the fence in front of each company. They were inclined planks, one end of which rested at the top of the fence, the other resting on the ground inside the walkway. An external platform allowed the Germans to reach the top of the fence, from where they placed on the inclined plank the objects which they had to transmit to the companies. On the orders of the chief medical officer, all communication between the health service and the lazaretto (hospital) was interrupted, and the right to write letters stopped. Quarantine began. For a month, suspicious cases had appeared among the Russians. The Russians were hungry. The voraciousness of their appetite made insufficient food for them intolerable. They were looking among the sweepings for something to calm the hunger that tortured them. Their physical depression, which was further aggravated by a natural inability to react, offered a wide field of development for the disease. The Allied doctors remained in the face of evil, without the weapons to combat it. A French major had one day telephoned the office of the chief doctor to request remedies. He received no response. He heard only the voice of an employee transmitting the request and the voice of the chief doctor giving the order to hang up the receiver.  The increasing numbers in the typhus room made any attempt at cleanliness impossible. For the first few weeks, the number of beds was no longer sufficient, so we spread mattresses on the floor. The nurses, overtaken by their task and forced to step over the feverish to carry out their care, did not take rest until the disease was killing them in their turn. The number of doctors decreased from week to week. The sick were transported by the walkway to the hospital, lying on planks carried on the shoulders of four men. The coffins followed the same route in reverse, from the hospital to the camp cemetery. The Russians accompanied their dead by chanting prayers. The funeral parade was renewed every afternoon. It lasted until night. We could not know the total number of deaths. In a period of three months, nearly eight hundred identified deaths have been counted. But in the ravages of the beginning, the piling up of corpses and their hasty burial did not allow any control, the lists of names drawn up by the Germans having remained, in their hands, still incomplete. Many coffins contain two bodies. The doctor-in-chief who directed the health service of the camp of Wittenberg at this time is called doctor Achenbach (sic). The epidemic began to decline at the end of April 1915. From this period its virulence decreased. We see what we had not yet seen. Convalescents of typhus. Convalescents often damaged, because the evil, on leaving its victims, almost always left on them indelible traces. The camp remained quarantined until the last days of May. Permission to write a six-line card per week was then granted to the prisoners.”

After the war, James W. Gerard, U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1913 to 1917, who had assumed responsibility for British interests in Germany (much as German interests in France, the United Kingdom and Russia were placed in the care of the American embassies in those countries), and who had visited British prisoners in PoW camps and, I gather, done much to reduce their suffering, had the following to say about Wittenberg, and in particular the deliberate mixing of nationalities in the camp early in the war:

Gerard states in his book that fifty British soldiers and nine British civilians had died during the typhus outbreak.  As an aside, on 1oth August 1914, it was into Gerard’s hands that the Kaiser himself placed a telegram addressed personally to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson whereby he declared that Belgian neutrality had to be violated by Germany on strategical grounds; despite the Kaiser’s wishes that the contents of the telegram be made public, German officials ensured it was sent privately to Wilson and it was not released to the public.  Gerard would be asked to leave Germany in January 1917 prior to the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1st February, retiring from the diplomatic service a few months later.

And so on to the official government report, which is reproduced here in full, but it doesn’t take long to read, and is well worth the time.

Even the great Belgian artist Louis Raemaekers included Wittenberg in his series of hard-hitting Great War cartoons, as the inset above shows.

Back to Lauren’s’ sketches, and as described in the British report, here we see German civilians at the zoo (‘The Curious’); note the brilliant depiction of the lady with the camera on the left.

The Alert – 20th May 1915: “A few days before Italy entered the war, an alert took place. This exercise was often repeated. A whistle was blown by the duty officer, to which the whistles of the sentries scattered around the enclosure were answered. This signal announced the start of the exercise. Under the terms of the posters posted on the walls, the prisoners must return to the huts as quickly as possible. Any violation of this resulted in the death penalty. That evening, at 9 o’clock, the whistles sounded. The crowd crowded the avenues. It was hot. Everyone hurried to the barracks. At this moment, in the covered way which surrounded the camp, a man, coming from the hospital, regained his company. He was a French civilian. He was not informed about anything. A landsturm sentry on the other side of the wire calls out to him to return. The civilian stops. Believing himself to be called, he advances towards the German. He puts his hand on his cap. The German adjusts his rifle and pulls the trigger. The man is killed stiff. The murderer later said that when faced with the threat of the civilian walking towards him with a raised hand, he had judged it his duty to fire. The shooting was like an order for the others. They became irritated to see the instructions of the commandant being carried out without panic. Their comrade’s zeal increased their impatience. Seven minutes had passed since the signal. They opened fire through the gates on the men, some of whom were killed, four wounded, one was wounded in his barrack by a bullet which crossed the wall. When the avenues were deserted, the Germans, in small groups, approached the fence and rang the doors of the companies. It was their usual way of calling the interpreters when the needs of the service required it, without having to enter the prohibited area, where contagion could have reached them. After a conference of a few moments, the interpreters return to their comrades. They transmit orders; men must come out on time and move freely outside. The heat was getting heavier. In the barracks, everyone breathed badly. The order to move was accepted as permission. The doors opened. The avenues filled with people. Soon the density of the crowd seemed sufficient for the Germans to encourage a resumption of the exercise. Suddenly from all the points of the fence, the whistles went off. The prisoners, warned by the experience they had just had, hastened towards their places. Like the first time, the sentries opened fire three minutes before the end of the prescribed time limits. The camp became silent again. Then the ringing of the bells resumed. Along the fence, rising German voices, commanding the prisoners to leave. The order at first had no effect. At the gates of the companies the Germans were irritated, violently pulling on the cords of the bells, declaring in an angry tone that the exercise was definitively over, that there was no longer any reason to fear. Finally, some heads appeared at the half-open doors of the barracks. Little by little, the men began to leave, tired of the atmosphere they breathed inside, driven by a need for air and news. We knew that the first alert had claimed lives. The result of the second was unknown. We wanted to find out. At the fourth company, especially, the commotion was great. It was there that the sentry fire had been most active, and the men of the fourth company were massed in front of their barracks, in the part of the courtyard which bordered the covered way, when a German ranker appeared at top of the plank. It was a feldwebel, an 1870’s veteran. He was 67 years old. From the top of the plank, he began a speech. With outstretched arms, he brandished his porcelain pipe nonstop, in a gesture of threat. Those who spoke German could make out what he said, so angrily scoffed at his voice. Only a few words reached them, disfigured by the intensity of his indignation. The name of God sprang in the disorder of his word. His invectives were mixed with declamatory words, because he had the taste for emphasis and malediction. He said, ‘Take care, you bunch of miserables! German patience has limits! Woe to you, if you exceed it!’ His listeners looked at him without understanding. Then there was a stir among them. Four Russians, carrying a man lying on a board, made their way through the crowd. It was a man wounded during the alert that they were taking to the hospital. The improvised stretcher, loaded with the immobile body, advanced slowly, heads were bowed. We turned away. The carriers gained the covered way, turned in the direction of the hospital. The feldwebel was silent. He disappeared behind the plank.”

Payment of wages to English prisoners.

The Feldwebel: “A few weeks later, the Germans returned to the camp. The blows regime began again. In Germany, beating is not a clearly defined disciplinary measure. It is the essence of discipline. Its use is without reason. The beating for the Germans has real effectiveness only if it is distributed violently and unexpectedly on the men unable to return or avoid it. Sometimes, certain ranks let themselves be carried away by their zeal for the maintenance of order beyond the limits provided for by the commandant. Thus in 1915 an incident occurred, which the general commanding the camp was forced to officially describe as regrettable. An English medical officer, during his daily tour in the companies, received from a feldwebel two sabre dashes in the back. Questioned by his superiors, this non-commissioned officer could not explain the reason for his act. He finally replied that ‘unaccustomed to English uniform he had not seen that he was dealing with an officer. He thought he had before him a simple soldier.’ The English officer agreed to accept the apologies presented to him by the commandant only on the condition that the guilty feldwebel undertook never to strike a prisoner of whatever nationality. In December of the same year, the Germans began to draw up a list of punishments.”

Hospital 1916: The last letter.

Jean-Pierre Laurens would spend several years at Wittenberg before, by then very weak, he was moved to a labour camp in Courland (now in Latvia) and then to Switzerland, courtesy of the Red Cross, before being repatriated to France in 1918. And it was on his return to Paris that he conceived this booklet of images of his experiences and observations whilst at Wittenberg.  He would die at the age of 57 in April 1932.

Two letters published in the British Medical Journal in 1916 which, well, make of them what you will.

A few years after the war, it was decided that the graves of all Commonwealth servicemen who had died in Germany should be brought together in four permanent burial grounds.  Berlin South-Western Cemetery was one of those chosen, and graves were brought into the cemetery from 146 burial grounds in eastern Germany, including Klein Wittenberg Old Cemetery, which contained twenty four soldiers (one of whom was Indian), one Royal Marine, and eight U.K. civilians from the camp at Wittenberg who died in 1915, Klein Wittenberg New Cemetery, where seventy four soldiers (including two Canadians and an Australian) and three U.K. civilians, all of whom died at Wittenberg either later in 1915, or in 1917 and 1918, were buried, and Wittenberg Old Small Cemetery, where two soldiers imprisoned at Wittenberg, one of whom died in 1914 and one in 1915 (during the typhus outbreak) were buried.  The CWGC website confirms these details, and German forms (in a minute) show that men from the camp who died in 1915 were already buried in the above-named cemeteries by 1917.  However, the earlier government report states ‘The dead were buried in a cemetery formed out of part of the camp’, and we have the above photograph of a cemetery at the camp, so who is actually buried beneath the crosses in the picture?  Frenchmen beneath the Crosses of Lorraine, certainly, but what about the others?  Russian?  British?  More research required, methinks.

Anyway, armed with that information, I reckoned I must be able to uncover the names of some of the men who died at the camp, and trundling around the interweb for references to British soldiers who died at Wittenburg during the typhus outbreak produced a few results, which in turn prompted me to check some details on the CWGC website, in particular the Grave Registration Report Forms for the names I discovered who are now buried at Berlin South-Western Cemetery.  So, although most of the names on this first form covering Plot 13 Row C are 1918 casualties, the final name, Private Renells, who died on 28th March 1915, was certainly a typhus casualty from Wittenberg (I suspect that Private Rolfe, the penultimate name on the page, who died a few days earlier, probably also suffered the same fate, although I have no proof whatsoever).

Plot 13 Row D contains three men who definitely died during the typhus outbreak at Wittenberg, Lance Corporals P. Wright & E. Long and Private Joseph Ward.  All three served with The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and all three had volunteered to help the British medical staff at Wittenberg deal with the increasing number of typhus cases, only to succumb to the disease themselves.  Now, bearing in mind that all these men are reinterments, what chance the other six men in the row, all of whom died in April 1915,  were also typhus victims from Wittenberg?  Pretty high, I’d say.

On this GRRF we find the three British doctors, Captains Stephen Field & A. A. Sutcliff (no ‘e’, I believe), and Major Walter Burgess Fry, who died while attempting their hopeless task of mercy, and are buried next to each other in Plot 19 Row C.  Another typhus casualty from Wittenberg, Private George Ramsay, is also buried in this row; again, what chance most of the others?

Another man who volunteered to help those who had contracted typhus and was overcome by the disease himself, Private W. Jackson, can be found in Plot 19 Row D.  Note once again the dates of death on this form; all are February or March 1915, and the fact that there are three men of The Loyal North Lancs and a Highland Light Infantryman (I do hope it’s not our man sketched earlier) listed here strongly suggests that these men are all typhus victims too.

And there’s one other who volunteered to help the medical staff at Wittenberg but who died as a consequence in Plot 14 Row B, although Lance Corporal Arthur McDonald’s date of death, 1st June 1915, must have been one of the last deaths from the disease.  I came across one more name on my search, that of Private John Gormley, another Loyal North Lancs man, who died at Wittenberg on 10th March 1915 during the epidemic.  His body must have been lost at some point, as he is commemorated on the Wittenberg Memorial, and also on the Le Touret Memorial, in the Pas de Calais, on panels 27 & 28.

I promised you German forms earlier, and these are they, a few selected pages, just as examples, from a German Central Evidence Office list of graves of British prisoners-of-war dated June 1917, with the entries from Wittenberg highlighted in pink,…

…as well as the cemeteries in which, at the time, these men were already interred.  All the Wittenberg deaths are from 1915 barring the final highlighted entry above, which appears to be the man mentioned earlier who died in December 1914 and was then buried in Wittenberg Old Small Cemetery.

Two of the three British doctors who died during the typhus outbreak, Captain Field and Major Fry, are listed on this page,…

…and a further seven casualties from Wittenberg are listed here.  For your information, a total of some 165,000 British soldiers were taken prisoner on the Western Front during the war, of whom about 13,000 died, some from wounds received before capture, but many from disease, malnutrition, violence, or simple exhaustion.

French Red Cross report on Wittenberg from April 1916, which I am not going to translate because I have done enough of that for this post,…

…and a postcard showing piles of parcels ready for distribution to the inmates, presumably also taken later in the war, when conditions had improved.

We finish with this fine image which, although not taken at Wittenberg, is an original colour postcard showing British prisoners-of-war in another German camp in Saxony early in the war.  The Great War was the first time in history where the combatant nations had to deal with thousands of prisoners-of-war over an extended period of time; nothing like it had ever occurred before and it is hardly surprising that facilities, especially early in the war, were far from satisfactory.  Nonetheless, the typhus epidemic of 1915 revealed the catastrophic negligence that permeated the German prison camp system, and the German response to the outbreak was little short of criminal. By the summer of 1915 German authorities were engaged in a complete reorganisation of prison camp infrastructure, and a proper system for ensuring delousing of prisoners and their clothing was instigated which proved highly successful – typhus was not seen again in German prison camps during the course of the war, although the perceived link between typhus and Russian PoWs, and what became an obsession with camp hygiene, could be seen as having far-reaching consequences.  As the author Professor Paul Weindling notes in his book Victims and Survivors of Nazi Human Experiments: Science and Suffering in the Holocaust, ‘delousing became routine……migrants and deportees had become conditioned to expect the ordeal of delousing at border crossings, ports, railway junctions and on entry to camps’.  This would continue in the Nazi concentration and labour camps during the inter-war years, and reach its zenith, the product of twisted minds, in the disguised showers at Auschwitz and the other extermination camps, and perhaps in part explains why so many people went seemingly meekly to their deaths.

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7 Responses to The Forgotten Men of Wittenberg

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    What a start to the New Year. A remarkable albeit shocking story. I had no idea the Germans in WW1 treated PoWs so atrociously. Thank you for sharing your Christmas present with us. It must have taken quite some time to high quality scan then assemble your text.

    You mention Auschwitz and other extermination camps – the inhumane treatment also reminded me of the mistreatment of allied PoWs by the Japanese in WW2. The horrors of war. Lest We Forget.

    • Magicfingers says:

      I promise you, Sid, it arrived on 23rd December, and I scanned it Boxing Day and only then realised that it was Wittenberg that he was portraying, and wrote the whole lot since, having no idea at the start where it would end up. I am very glad it seems to have worked. Thanks!

  2. Nick Kilner says:

    Incredible, those sketches are just amazing. Oh to have such talent! Though one can hardly be envious of the poor artist, the suffering must have been almost beyond compare. Hard to believe that it was allowed to happen all over again. Human beings acting with the belief that they will not be held to account can do some truly horrific things.
    A brilliant post, and thank you for sharing your gifts once again. Speaking of which I got the Biox out and had a gentle clean of the gift you sent me. I’ll send you a photo.
    Happy New Year to all

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Nick, I figured you’d find this one of interest. If papers survived WWII, there’s a huge POW project still lurking in the German archives, don’t you think?

  3. Daisy says:

    Hey Magicfingers,

    Horror worse than the war itself… cannot imagine being captured in 1914 and putting up with those conditions for over 4 more long debilitating years. Amazing documents detailing the atrocities but to me the drawings are haunting, spine chilling and some seem to have a pair of eyes which stare right through you and pity overwhelms your senses.

    Those British medical officers all deserve VCs. Unbelievable bravery…

    The above-mentioned Berlin South-Western cemetery had bodies re-interred in 1924-25 from the 146 smaller cemeteries and now contains 20 Australians, many who died after war’s end of illness, likely the Spanish Flu I assume… I’ll tell myself not to check details of those 20 Aussies but I know I will.

    ‘Selamat tahun baru’ to all…

    Daisy in Indonesia.

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