In the Hands of the Enemy

Subaltern Pat Somerville’s account of his capture in Flanders in October 1914 and subsequent imprisonment in Germany. He was captured at Zonnebeke near Ypres. This village and its neighbour Passchendaele was later to be completely obliterated in the bloody battle of  The Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Somerville managed to keep his camera with him and continued to photograph behind the wire at Crefeld (now Krefeld) and in subsequent camps.

Royal Warwicks 1914
British troops of Royal Warwickshire Regt probably on manoeuvres summer 1914

In The hands of The Enemy Part 1

October 1914  From Zonnebeke to Crefeld

Night time October 20th 1914 – up just behind the front line, the only line, by Zonnebeke – seven miles North East of Ypres.  The Royal Welch Fusiliers were holding the line with us in reserve just behind. About 9 P.M. an officer comes running back – the men in front are getting played out, they want help, my platoon is to go up. he points out the way and then rushes back to the trenches.
I have a hurried talk to the platoon – explain the situation, and then we rush up over the rise and down into the line of trenches a couple of hundred yards beyond the crest. it was a miserable night. The front line men had had a bad time and were very thinned out and glad to see us. There was intermittent firing all night. Next morning the enemy bombardment livened up and kept at us all day especially on our right where a sunken road ran right through our position.

1914 Belgian Street, Mons
British soldiers in Belgian Street near Zonnebeke, Flanders

We could see the enemy working their way up in front. – concentrating in various places behind walls and houses. A couple of their charges were beaten off –  and brave fellows some of them were, especially one we noticed  who rushed right up to within forty yards of our line to tend to a comrade with both legs broken.
We also caught sight of the German bayonets with saw-backs, these were were actually used by their pioneer troops for cutting brushwood etc and were eventually discontinued owing to neutral pressure. The artillery and small arms barrage kept on all (day) from the front – our casualties were mounting up – mud and grit was putting the rifles out of action – darkness was coming on – when suddenly there was shouting and yelling from behind us and the enemy charged down on our backs from the direction of our own troops. They had smashed in all our trenches by the sunken road on our right and then advanced up this road unseen to us and so worked round to the rear.

Mons: British soldiers loading
Somerville’s last photo before capture: soldiers loading ammunition, Zonnebeke

We were overpowered and made prisoners in a few minutes. The same thing had happened on the other side of the road.
The trek back to Germany then started. We were disarmed and rushed back across some fields to their Brigade headquarters to be interviewed. The cross-examiners refused to believe my story that I knew nothing about the positions of our other troops and they were most emphatic that we had large reserves of men and artillery between us and Ypres. and were very annoyed at not being told anything. about them. On their side every road and lane leading up to the front was crowded with troops – some marching,  some resting, but all very abusive and bitter against the “Englander”. A well thrown water bottle only just missed my left ear and knocked my hat over a hedge – I was sorry to lose this hat as it had two holes in it, the result of fairly accurate shooting on the part of a German sniper earlier in the day. We trekked back, as far as i remember, for a couple of days, every now and then being joined by others like ourselves. We were famished and food was scarce. Some Belgian villagers gave us some slabs of chocolate and this mixed with mouthfuls of raw turnip pulled up from a passing field formed a welcome meal. We received next to no food till we got to Germany. Some coffee was dished out in a Church. We slept by night in barns  and eventually got to the railway. Ghent was the first railway station I remember and then Liege and on to Cologne. never for a moment were we left without our guard. In Germany the inhabitants were very bitter against us and made a great show of giving our guards smokes and eatables especially to tantalise us who wanted such things most terribly. Eventually – four or five days after our capture we finally detrained and were marched up to the prison camp of Crefeld – our home for the next two and a half years. (To be continued)

French colonial troops 1914
Crefeld (Krefeld) POW Camp, French Colonial troops
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