Can I go home now please?
The war is over, but getting home to England is complicated
This story picks up where part three left off. If you haven’t read that, it will still make sense if you want to start here. But if you want to begin at the beginning, I suggest you go back to part one.
The First World War ended, of course, on 11 November 1918. When that day came, John Buckland Richardson (JBR, my great-grandfather) and his crew mates, Jack Chalklin and Alfred Tapping, were still prisoners of war.
They had been held by the Germans in POW camps for nearly two months. Not long after midnight on 15 September, the three men had climbed into their Handley Page O/400 heavy bomber at the aerodrome in Xaffévillers, not far from Nancy and close to the front line with Germany, for their second flight of the night. While flying over the German town of Metz, they were hit with anti-aircraft fire, a fuel line burst, and they were forced to land.
They fled into the woods but by the next day they were captured and taken into custody as prisoners of war (read part three for the details of that).
On 11 November they were at the POW camp in Ingolstadt, about 70 km north of Munich. They got word of the Armistice and celebrations ensued, as would be expected. But they were not magically free and they still had to make the journey back to England. It wasn’t immediately clear how that would happen, or when.
On the 12th, everyone had an Armistice feast, and the next day, Jack Chalklin said he and some others bought a goose, an indication that “living has improved wonderfully".
The following few days they went to concerts, and were able to take walks in the countryside in groups. By the 18th, it appeared they might start making their way home after another celebratory feast, but Chalklin also describes “much trouble over cheques & cash.” No one would have had much money, and they were relying on the generosity of locals for food.
The men made their way out of Ingolstadt but only a few kilometres north, to the small villages of Lenting and Oberhaunstadt. Chalklin illustrates how well they are living by the food that can be obtained from the local villages: eggs, rabbits, beef, nice coffee, macaroni, biscuits. He implies that this food is not bought, but given to them by French people.
Chalklin seems to be under the impression that they are about to make a serious move for home, maybe get on a train that will take them across Germany and France to the English Channel. But for now he and his fellow RAF officers are thwarted.
Each day seems to bring hope followed by disappointment, and then worry that the food is going to run out entirely.
On 1 Dec, Chalklin mentions “many disturbing rumours” in his diary, but offers no other details. What could he be referring to? That they won’t get home? That they’ll be killed first? That the Armistice won’t last and the war will re-start?
Whatever he meant, it was juxtaposed with an image of peace and reconciliation: “Today we have been to an Inn where there were French, Russians & German civilians, girls, soldiers & sailors all talking as friends.”
A week later he’s back in Ingolstadt for a concert amid more unspecified rumours. Here Chalklin offers up one of the only descriptive passages of his entire diary. Most of the time he is strictly matter-of-fact:
A most enjoyable afternoon – a strange old fashioned town which seems to be 20 years behind the times – Horse-cabs queer hackney carriages, & clothes different from the English fashions. Some rather fine buildings of old fashioned architecture. We explore & lay in stores of tobacco & cigars for the journey. The town presents a very cosmopolitan scene – English French Austrian Italian & German troops in large numbers.
Just about everyone hanging around these parts is looking for a ride out, which isn’t happening. Day after day, Chalklin keeps mentioning that he hopes this will be his last there, and then it isn’t.
After being stuck in Ingolstadt and the nearby villages for the better part of a month, asking locals for food and trying to stockpile as much tobacco as they can, the breakthrough finally comes.
Finally, a ride to take me home
Chalklin (and I presume JBR and Tapping), along with many other RAF officers who had been held as POWs, board a train on the 17th of December. It’s raining as the train pulls out of the station just before 11 a.m.
The line follows close to the Danube River across southern Germany, and by morning they are at Lake Constance on the border with Switzerland. At the town of Constance they change trains and wend their way through the country to Neuchatel, and then on to France. They make it to St Germain where they are greeted, for the first time, by members of the British military.
This was cause for yet another celebration, featuring a champagne dinner and a party.
The afternoon of 20 December they board a crowded hospital train that they spend roughly the next 36 hours on as it makes its way north through Paris and on to Calais. They arrive on the morning of the 22nd, exhausted.
The next afternoon, Chalklin, JBR and Tapping board a ferry, endure a rough crossing of the Channel, and set foot on English soil for the first time since the summer.
After being sent to an aerodrome close to the front line, flying through the dark to bomb targets in Germany, getting shot with anti-aircraft fire and forced to land, and then being held for months as POWs, they were finally home. By the time, it had been well over a month since the war ended.
Chalklin took another train to London and is home on Christmas Day, with his family eagerly awaiting his arrival.
I don’t know where Tapping went exactly, as there’s no record. At some point he made his way back to Revelstoke, British Columbia, where he had come from.
As for JBR, my great-grandfather, I presume he went to London as well, since that’s where his family was. But there’s no specific record of that. His parents must have been happy to see him alive and well after such an ordeal. But although the reunion was probably joyous, there’s good reason to think that the mood didn’t last. Within a year, JBR was making plans to say goodbye to England forever. His future was in Toronto.
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