Home   Kent   News   Article

Medway memories of the First World War

Once the natural euphoria and excitement generated by the armistice had subsided, people began to count the cost of all-out war. Of course, there was joy at being re-united with husbands, sons and sweethearts, some still muddy from the trenches. And there was the relief that you would no longer be called up and sent to the front.

But the bloody battlefields of France and Belgium had changed men irrevocably. Many had seen unimaginable horrors. Settling to the mundanity of regular life was going to take some adjustment.

For some the terrors of warfare would never completely go away.

The long and the short and the tall. These men have got their uniforms but are having to live under canvas in the snow, something they would have to get used to (5295827)
The long and the short and the tall. These men have got their uniforms but are having to live under canvas in the snow, something they would have to get used to (5295827)

Among those most deeply affected were the prisoners of war, who had endured starvation, beatings, and long days of arduous work. For Pt Thomas Tree, of Wykeham Street, Strood, the past three years had been a living hell.

Tree enrolled with the Royal West Kent Regiment at the beginning of the war. His first experience of German brutality came the very day he was captured at Loos a year later, after being wounded in the right leg.

He was deliberately shot again by his captors, this time in the side.

Kitchener recruits on the Great Lines at Chatham at the start of the First World War. So many joined up there were not enough uniforms to go round. I wonder how many of those in the picture survived the war (5295829)
Kitchener recruits on the Great Lines at Chatham at the start of the First World War. So many joined up there were not enough uniforms to go round. I wonder how many of those in the picture survived the war (5295829)

After a few days at a dressing station he was put on a train for an 18-hour journey to Valenciennes, during which, all he was given was one drink. But at least at Valenciennes he was put in a hospital bed and his wounds were properly dressed.

Dry bread was given to patients once a day, and Thomas decided to save half for later. But it was stolen from him by German guards while he was asleep.

From Valenciennes he was transferred to Munster, in Germany, a journey by rail in densely overcrowded trucks that took three days and two night - an extremely painful experience for those nursing injuries. Throughout the journey they were given nothing more than a mug of soup.

At Munster, though treatment was better, food was still sparse. “I have seen men on crutches trying to get some extra soup at the cookhouse because they were starving,” said Thomas.

He was particularly outraged by the brutality of a Belgian prisoner who had been put in charge of the ward in which he lay. The man had deliberately picked up a young patient and dropped him on his wound, for daring to ask for help.

As he began to recover, Thomas was transferred to a camp hospital where he asked an officer for a pair of boots, as he didn’t have any. The officer’s response was to give him a thrashing for daring to make such a request.

Despite attacks of rheumatic fever, Thomas was sent out with a working party. Calls for treatment for his illness were ignored, apart from being given a single aspirin. “Had it not been for my chums feeding me with a bottle I should have died,” he said.

Then came another move, first to Poland and then up into Russia. The camp commandant told them: “You are not allowed to speak, let alone smoke.”

Well or ill, the prisoners had to work like slaves.

If their work did not come up to expectations, they were kicked or beaten with rubber sticks or rifles.

One man was bayoneted in the leg and forced to work with the blood gushing from his wound.

They lived on a diet of potatoes and water. Some occasionally stole a mangold from the fields, even though they knew they would be beaten if caught.

In March 1917, Thomas Tree was brought back to Germany, to work in a coal mine. Although it was run by civilians, the brutality was worse than that dished out by the military. Men were thrashed, kicked and set on by dogs.

They would be beaten if production fell short or expectations.

“I was thrashed with iron sticks, lengths of rubber and rifles,” said Thomas. “It will be six months before my back is anything like well again.”

He also carried the marks of an injury to his face caused by a blow from a hammer.

The men worked 16-hour days on a diet of one piece of bread, a litre of soup and coffee made from burnt barley. Since the bread was made from sawdust and potato peelings, the nutrition value was negligible.

Many prisoners died from the effects of overwork and starvation.

But to give them a decent burial, the patients had to pay from their meagre earnings of two or three pence a day.

Discipline remained harsh. One man was attacked with a sword, cutting his hand, neck and head, because he had the temerity to sing a comic song. If prisoners were caught smoking in the barrack room the punishment was 14 days in the cells on bread and water.

Opportunities to keep clean were few. Thomas was only once given soap during the three years of his confinement. Nor was he given suitable clothes.

He attributed his survival to parcels from home. “Without them,” he said, “I would have starved to death.”


For Captain Walter Chant, of Franklin Road, Gillingham, life as a prisoner of war was also tough, although as an officer he wasn’t forced to work. And having been captured in March 1918, he was held for only eight months.

But he did come home with a story to tell. That of meeting the Kaiser Wilhelm, together with an entourage of his most senior officers.

Captain Chant and his men, of the Royal East Kent Regiment – the Buffs – had held out against the Germans for 48 hours during their big spring push. But then the ammunition ran out and they were captured at night on March 22.

By then Walter had received a shrapnel wound, his second of the war.

Despite their exhaustion they were forced to march until 8 o’clock the next morning when they reached Ribemout.

It was during this march that they met the Kaiser.

Accompanied by Ludendorff and Hindenburg, he was being driven in his carriage when he encountered the column of British POWs. He asked Captain Chant where they were captured.

On being told it was at Vendeuil, he replied: “My compliments to you gentlemen. You have fought very well.”

At Ribemout they were packed into a hut, so tightly that they could not lie down to sleep and had to lean against one another for support.

The following day they were given a bowl of barley soup, the first food they had tasted for 48 hours.

They were then marched to Guise, 15 miles away.

At Guise they were put into stables that had not been cleaned out since horses had occupied them.

There they remained for three days, during which all they were given to eat was a slice of black bread.


The next move was to Landreeie, an 18-mile march away.

They received no food for 48 hours and the guards would not let French civilians give them any.

The first night was spent in an open field despite the cold.

There followed another march of almost 20 miles, when the men were crowded once again into huts, with no provision made for those who were wounded.

Some, including Walter Chant, had not had their wounds dressed since they were captured, two weeks ago by then.

In the huts there was no heating and no blankets.

Some wandered about outside the hut to keep warm.

After a few days the men were crammed into railway wagons bound for Rastatt in Baden.

It took three days and all the food they received was some bread and watery soup.

At Rastatt, where they spent two weeks, rations were again sparse and lacking in nutrition.

Officers were reduced to searching the camp for odd potato peelings or anything else that might help keep them alive.

The next move was to Karlsrhue, where the men were housed in an old hotel to be interrogated. The starvation persisted. Walter reported that some men had grown so weak they could not get up the stairs to their sleeping quarters.

But then help came, in the shape of food parcels from home. “It’s absolutely safe to say,” said Walter, “that many of us would never have come back if it had not been for the food we received in those parcels.

"The health of the men improved, and their strength and spirits gradually returned.”

But he added that, however, badly he and his fellow officers were treated, the men suffered far worse.

Several of them did die as a result of starvation and bad treatment.

For Pte Rupert Packer, of Shakespeare Road, Gillingham, who was taken prisoner in April 1918, the greatest danger was exploding shells. British shells.

During the first part of his captivity the Grenadier Guardsman was kept close to the German lines, under continuous fire from the British guns.

British aircraft were bombing day and night. He was forced to work as a stretcher bearer.

A cellar had been turned into a temporary dressing station where both prisoners and wounded had to sleep.

“One night one of our shells came through the pavement and burst in the cellar, killing nine German Red Cross men,” he said.

Only he and another Grenadier Guardsman survived the shell.

A British prisoner of war work party returning to camp. The picture, taken by Germans, fails to show the brutality suffered by these men (5295825)
A British prisoner of war work party returning to camp. The picture, taken by Germans, fails to show the brutality suffered by these men (5295825)

After nine days he was taken back from the line to a POW camp where he was forced to work on German shell dumps.

The work was heavy, and they were kept at it 12 hours a day, with just a small piece of bread and some water to sustain them.

Once the Allied push began, the Germans were forced to retreat. It was at this time Rupert encountered the generosity of the Belgian people, who risked being beaten “in a way too terrible for words” for providing prisoners with extra morsels of food. Men, women and children were given brutal blows with a rifle butt.

Prisoners received the same treatment.

Sometimes Rupert and his fellow prisoners were so hungry that they broke into the food store in the dead of night and stole bread.

For this they were beaten with sticks in which heavy weights had been implanted.

Throughout his captivity, he said, he received neither food parcels nor letters from home, although they had been sent.

And say “thanks” to humanity.

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More