07 November 2013

REMEMBRANCE - Holzminden POW Camp

A German, if asked, might know Holzminden as a pretty little town on the Weser River in Lower Saxony. The name might have an entirely different context for an Englishman, an Australian, a Canadian, and others. Today's town seems to function without conscious memory of its own history a "mere" century ago. 
From Neil Hanson's Escape from Germany
Ninety-five years ago my father Lt. Hector Dougall and his colleagues in Holzminden Prisoner of War (POW) Camp received the news of Armistice Day (more on Hector's escapades here). The camp inmates in 1917-1918 were captured Allied officers with some enlisted men as orderlies. In 2013 when we asked a few residents of the town about the old camp buildings and their First World War role, they were bewildered; shared memory seemed barely to encompass the Second World War. The daring (and later celebrated) wartime escape of 1918 in their midst was not on their radar.

The buildings housing the prisoners were constructed as army barracks in 1913 and still exist today, above the town, as part of a German military base. Holzminden was deemed a punishment camp for rebellious prisoners, repetitively described as the "most notorious" of First World War prison camps ― the German Black Hole, as Hanson mentions.[1] Its notoriety was due to the strictest of controls and the reputation of the bullying, brutal, temperamental Kommandant: Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer.
Courtesy of contributor to The Real Great Escape, Michael Melching's website: www.holzminden-camp.com/
The camp conditions may pale in view of later conflicts, but this was probably the last great war of traditional military manners when officers of opposing forces gave due respect to rank.[2] However, Niemeyer flouted the Hague Conventions, treating the men contemptuously as criminals, verbally and physically. Escape attempts were punished with solitary confinement for arbitrary, long periods, disgusting food rations, and denial of medical aid. Real or perceived infractions incurred deprivation and standing for hours in freezing weather. Red Cross parcels and packages from home were pilfered or even withheld. Sometimes Niemeyer ordered the guards to shoot randomly into the prisoners' quarters. The facilities were sorely inadequate for the numbers of incarcerated, so prisoners were usually cold and hungry; by all accounts, there was never enough food and much of what there was, was inedible. In winter, six hundred men shared three stoves for heat.[3]

Judging from their personal diary excerpts, the prisoners for the most part exhibited the plucky, stiff upper lip syndrome and a sense of humour in foul conditions. They mocked and defied Niemeyer whenever possible. Under his very nose the men of Kaserne B dug their incredible escape tunnel. The epic project was well-documented by a participant: the meticulous planning; the inventive details; the coordination; the patience; the courage.[4] Twenty-nine men escaped before the tunnel collapsed, leaving a disappointed waiting lineup and the rest of the camp to face Niemeyer's apoplectic, vindictive anger. Eventually nineteen men were recaptured in a great manhunt effort. They were held in solitary confinement until a court-martial was arranged; fortunately the turning tide of war prevented enforcement of their sentencing.
Wikimedia Commons

Niemeyer has been widely demonized as a dangerous, self-aggrandizing buffoon. His own guards feared and despised him to the extent that some collaborated with the prisoners. When word of the Armistice came, he disappeared; some say he donned a disguise to avoid facing Allied troops. That last month of November into December, the guards also trickled away to be replaced by German soldiers. Both captors and prisoners were ill at ease as political turmoil reigned among the defeated population. Lack of food was an even more serious issue for everyone, including civilians. Time seemed to drag on forever for the weary POWs whose collective expectation of repatriation was dashed several times in the general confusion and logistics failures. It took another month until a train was finally arranged to transfer the men from Holzminden to the Dutch border. As if in a dream come true, hundreds of weakened servicemen were proceeding back to "Blighty." Niemeyer's later whereabouts are unknown: myths arose about "sightings" to feed the fantasies of would-be bounty hunters. 

Holzminden today, courtesy Michael Melching: www.holzminden-camp.com/
 Maybe we are all guilty of collective memory deficit. As the twentieth century rolled on, the evolution of broadcast media and film created modern, indelible wartime images in the public eye. The Second World War and further conflicts became more immediate and visual. Most of us remember Steve McQueen in the movie "The Great Escape," right? And so the original Great Escape was eclipsed.

But now the exciting, gratifying news. The lengthy project called Faces of Holzminden has identified over 500 Allied war prisoners who were "guests" in that camp. This month it gave birth to the Random House (Australia) publication The Real Great Escape (see also the dedicated Facebook page).[4] I rather regret the new title ― it lacks the emotional pull for those of us descendants heavily involved with author Jacqueline Cook ― but marketing wisdom prevailed. Publication coincides with world-wide First World War commemorations.

The tunnel story has been told before. Half the book dwells on it while the rest pays attention to the flesh-and-blood men. To my mind, what distinguishes The Real Great Escape is the generous usage of many prisoners' personal wartime diaries, most of them shared for the first time in public. Daily life in the camp becomes real through their comments, reactions, and struggles. Thanks to the warmly extended interest of Cook and her colleagues, we descendants became a cohesive resource group. It was especially rewarding to make contact with grandchildren of the man whose life Hector once saved.

Hector was not involved in the tunnel operation; due to previous escape attempts he was originally assigned to long weeks of solitary confinement in the wretched basement cells of Kaserne A. He came home to Canada in 1919 clutching the enormous flag he had jubilantly "liberated" after a crazy climb up the camp flagpole. Some of his diary thoughts appear in The Real Great Escape.

Like all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who preceded and followed them, these were once lively young men whose war experience would remain with them and affect them to different degrees throughout their futures. We lost a great many of them.

There are many stories about the Great War. Lest we forget.

[1] Neil Hanson, Escape from Germany (London: Doubleday, 2011), 32.
[2] Jacqueline, Cook, The Real Great Escape (Australia: Random House, 2013), 28.
[2] Ryan Lenegan, “The Great Escape,” Merredin-Wheatbelt Mercury, 18 April 2007
(http://www.merredinmercury.com.au/news/local/news/general/the-great-escape/283988.aspx?storypage=2 : accessed 16 August 2013).
[3] Hugh Durnford, The Tunnellers of Holzminden (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1920).
[4] Jacqueline Cook, The Real Great Escape (North Sydney: Random House Australia, 2013).

© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman

4 comments:

CallieK said...

When I was young, two of my favourite books were The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape - once I was old enough to be able to see the movie version of the latter, I thought it was rubbish. I had no idea there was an earlier great escape and am excited to hear there is a new book that tells the whole story!

BDM said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Callie. Just to make things confusing, there is also a new book out called The Great Escape - A Canadian Story (by Ted Barris) about the *WW2* escape!

Kathie Orr said...

A very moving piece

BDM said...

Thanks, Kath.