John's real-time WW1 blog: German prisoner-of- war guards ‘proven’ to be barbarous and bungling says the Advertiser

John Dilley
John Dilley

March 12, 1918...

‘Barbarous’ handling of Belgian women in a German prisoner-of-war camp is one of the main stories on the front page of the March 12, 1918, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

One of the many posters produced in all Allied countries depicting the 'monstrous Germans'; and exhorting young men to enlist and save their womenfolk

One of the many posters produced in all Allied countries depicting the 'monstrous Germans'; and exhorting young men to enlist and save their womenfolk

The article, naming Reuters News agency as the source, describes how 30 women were maltreated in a prison at Holzminden.

It is another example – typical of the past few weeks – where there is a little war news involving local men so the Advertiser’s editor resorts to accounts of a broader nature.

It is also another example of how the media in all the Allied countries were not frightened of painting the German nation as ‘monsters’ – although in many cases the stories were proven to be untrue when they were officially examined in the early 1920s.

We have no way of knowing the veracity of this account, however, it would have surely been hungrily consumed by the Advertiser’s readers a hundred years ago.

The story says: “The women, for refusing to make sandbags for the army, were confined in a dark and dirty hut and almost entirely deprived of food.

“They were only kept alive by some of their fellow prisoners secretly smuggling some of their own scant rations into the hut.”

The punishment continued for a further four torturous weeks when the German captors relented and offered to provide food if ‘the women consented to do the work’.

The story says: “As they indignantly refused, all bedding and blankets were taken.”

Fortunately, an official of the Spanish Legation arrived at the camp three days later to inspect the camp – and this forced the hands of the German guards who released the women just an hour before his arrival.

The story of German treachery has come to light because ‘the women succeeded in informing the visitor of the outrages they had suffered’.

There is also more prison news – this time a theatrical breakout by two French airmen who used a scam worthy of a blockbuster movie like the Second World War classics Colditz and The Great Escape.

This time there is no acknowledgement of where the Advertiser editor has sourced the story but it carries the dateline ‘Monday, Paris’ and involves two men called Garros and Marchal, although no other details are given about them.

Their ‘dramatic escape from captivity’ is described in some detail and relies on Marchal’s ‘perfect knowledge of the German language’ and their change of clothes. There is also an implication that they were also helped by the caricature of the bungling guards.

Apparently, the pair simply walked past three sets of sentries. At the first obstacle Marchal cheekily cried out: “One can never take too great care to prevent those dirty Frenchmen from escaping.”

The second line of sentries saluted the duo and waved them through and when the final sentry asked for their papers, Marchal called his bluff saying: “This is the second time I’ve shown them.” He even ‘put his hand to his pocket as if to produce them’ before the sentry again told them to move on.

The made it to a nearby train station with Marchal confidently chatting to German travellers but the following day they were nearly caught when a full inspection of identity papers and tickets was undertaken by police and train guards.

They managed to scramble from the train and had ‘two days of intense anxiety’ before they could cross the Dutch border and gain their freedom.

They both said they will take some time to recover from ‘the most ignominious treatment’ they suffered in German hands – they were apparently kept in a cell ‘about 4 feet long and 3 feet 6 inches wide, something in the style of a dungeon in the old Bastille’.

However, they are determined to fight again. Marchal says: “These are my plans – to have my revenge. That is why I came back.”

The only war news directly affecting Market Harborough comes in a single paragraph of just 28 words. “Three aeroplanes descended in a field near the cemetery on Monday morning, and drew a large crowd of spectators. After a short wait the aviators resumed their journey.”

This is good news of course for those with loved ones in uniform because it means that it really is all quiet on the western front as far as Market Harborough men are concerned.

- This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.

- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.

- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.