Life as a POW in the First World War
As the war drew towards its end, three men were stuck behind enemy lines for months
This story picks up where part two 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.
I have to say, I was reluctant to approach writing this part of the story. Although I was able to piece together an extraordinary amount of detail from the flight in which the three men were shot down (even being able to confirm to the minute when the plane took off, for instance), things get far foggier when it comes to their prisoner of war experience.
Incredibly, there is the diary of Jack Chalklin. He wrote in it almost daily during his service, including when he was shot down and held as a POW. It has great value in that it tells us many things about his whereabouts, what he did, what he ate and so on. I’m grateful that his family shared a transcript of it with me. Many of the details inform the story below. But Chalklin was also matter-of-fact in what he wrote down, and rarely strayed from basic information. Aside from brief moments where he expresses emotion, it offers limited insight into his state of mind. He also doesn’t write much about the other prisoners he was with. I was hoping he might have mentioned his two crew mates from the flight, one of whom was my great-grandfather, John Buckland Richardson (JBR). But there is nothing.
More disappointing is that there is nothing at all to go on when it comes to JBR or Alfred Tapping, the other crew member. Neither wrote any diaries, letters or notes while in captivity, as far as I know, and there are no surviving stories about how they felt being held as prisoners. JBR spoke little to his family about the war experience in later life, and Tapping never had children.
So in reconstructing their time as POWs, this story will probably ask far more questions than it answers.
The three men began their time as prisoners of war after a night-bombing raid went wrong. Sometime around 2.30 a.m., they were hit by anti-aircraft fire over Metz and were forced to land. On the run for a day or so, they were captured and on Monday 16 September, 1918, they were put on a train to Saint Avold, a German town about 45 km away (nowadays it is in France, on the border with Germany) and held in some sort of prison. While there, German authorities interviewed them and Chalklin notes that he saw some British officers he knew.
The next day, late in the evening, they are put on another train and take a longer journey east that lasts all night and into the morning. They travel close to 200 km through Saarbrucken and end up in the town of Karlsruhe, the location of the first major POW camp they spend time at.
A life of relative comfort
When I was young my grandmother (JBR’s daughter) would characterize his POW experience almost in luxurious terms, claiming he was held in a castle and treated far better than infantry soldiers because he was a pilot. She would say things like, “he was a POW, but not really. There was no hardship.” Her story left the impression that he and other airmen were guests of the kaiser or something. I pictured men joyously sitting around a long wooden dining table in a vast room with stone walls and high ceilings, drinking wine under crystal chandeliers and wondering idly when this annoying war would finally be over.
Of course, this is not what happened. Although my grandmother’s characterization was not accurate, there was some truth to what she said. A POW camp designated for RAF officers was on the grounds of Karlsruhe palace (but not in the palace), at the centre of the city.
Jack Chalklin’s diary extinguishes the view that it was luxurious. On the first day, they were held in cells and only let out for one hour a day. There was hardly any food either. Chalklin refers to it as “irksome,” which feels like an understatement.
But then they are transferred to the camp proper, where conditions improve. There are books to read, a tennis court, billiard tables, changes of clothes, parcels from the Red Cross, and better food. They are not confined to cells and seem to have a fair bit of freedom to move around the grounds.
This life of relative comfort lasts for less than two weeks before they are once again put on a train. There’s no record of why they were moved, or how many men it included, although all the documents suggest that the three men in this story all travelled together while in captivity. Did the Karlsruhe camp shut down? Unclear.
On the move again
Whatever the reason, this journey was longer than previous ones. They boarded a train in the evening of 3 October, 1918, and head deeper into Germany. Southwest past Stuttgart, Gunzburg, Augsburg and eventually to Munich, about 300 km away. The journey took until lunchtime the next day, after which Chalklin reports that they are rewarded with “an excellent lunch - the best meal in Germany,” although sadly he offers no details, so we are left to imagine what such a meal might have included. Then they board yet another train for a shorter trip to a camp not far from Munich.
Here the men get a medical examination and are inoculated with some sort of vaccine, which Chalklin describes as “not pleasant”. But beer and tobacco are available, so that makes things a bit better. He makes no mention of what the vaccination is for. By “not pleasant” he presumably means there were painful injections, but I don’t know.
There’s plenty of food as well, which seems to be an ever-fluctuating variable at POW camps. Sometimes they feel deprived, at other times the meals are great. A week after arriving, some men say they’re hungry all the time. At other POW camps throughout the war, many soldiers said they were nearly starved to death, and would sift through garbage trying to find something to eat.
About ten days later, Chalklin makes another mention of inoculations, saying they are now finished, which I take to mean that all the men were given them, but I’m not sure. He makes a puzzling entry in his diary: “I am not affected by it and my vaccination has not taken.” He doesn’t explain what this means or how he knows that the vaccination didn’t work.
On 22 October, they are once again on the move. The group marches to the train station in the morning and is taken to a POW camp in Ingolstadt, about 80 km north.
The camp itself is about 10 km out of town, and the men have to march there from the train station. It’s cold and “depressing” at first, says Chalklin, but the dark mood seems not to last.
By his account, this was the best, most comfortable camp for the entire span of captivity. He says the men became “very comfortable” at Ingolstadt and did not want to be moved again. The scene sounds like camping in the good sense: long walks, pleasant chats, music played around a fire, guys teaching French to one another.
All of this happens around the end of October and early November, and word starts to get around that the war may soon be over. Chalklin says he has great hope of seeing England shortly. He doesn’t elaborate on what information has emerged that would make him optimistic, but clearly the rumours were spreading.
It’s around this time that all the RAF pilots and observers in the camp pose for a group photo. Chalklin is clearly identifiable, almost at the back in the middle of the picture. Right behind him is a man who could be my great-grandfather, but I can’t tell for sure. Alfred Tapping is probably there too but I don’t know what he looks like.
It’s easy to get lost staring at this picture. There are 71 men here, all in RAF uniform. Many can be identified as pilots by the wings on their left breast. The others wear the single wing and O of the observer. Front and centre sits a distinguished older gentleman. He is the only one with a full beard, and he holds some sort of sword.
Some of the men wear moustaches but all are properly shaven, and their uniforms look to be in largely good condition. Tobacco pipes hang from the mouths of some.
The facial expressions are fascinating. There are broad smiles, mischievous smirks, hard stares and a few blank faces. No one looks scared or ill-treated. Undoubtedly they want to go home. But to me, this is a portrait of a group of men making the most of the situation they find themselves in.
One has an overcoat on but no one else does. Where did he get it? Did he buy it off a guard or someone else while in captivity? Many, if not most of these men, would not have had overcoats with them when captured, as they wouldn’t have taken them on board whatever plane they were flying.
I think back nearly two months to when Chalklin, JBR and Tapping were forced down in the middle of the night. Most likely they burned their plane before abandoning it, and then took off with few possessions. On the run for 24 hours before being captured, they had it easier than some others who were shot down, but they still went through a lot. Apparently JBR was covered in petrol when they landed. What did the other 70 men go through? How do they look so good in this picture? How are their uniforms in such decent shape?
The end is near
By 9 November, the rumours of peace were rampant. At a concert in the camp that night, food was plentiful and the mood was jubilant. Chalklin says he and the other men lived in “great comfort” and at that point everyone was expecting to be home by Christmas.
Their state of mind must have changed dramatically since they were captured. Again, I don’t have personal letters or much insight into what they were thinking, but in September, 1918, there was still no sign the war would end soon. As prisoners in Germany, they could have reasonably imagined they’d be stuck there for years. They had no idea how they’d be treated, or even if the Germans would let them live.
Less than two months later, the war was over. But when the armistice arrived on the 11th, it wasn’t as though the prisoners were all magically transported home to England. They were deep inside the territory of a defeated enemy, nearly 1,000 km from London, and no sense of how they would get there.
Home by Christmas? Maybe.
Flying into the Dark is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.