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A First World War Soldier

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Judge of my surprise when, one morning in hospital at Morogoro, a fellow walked in to see me whose face reminded me of times, two years back, when I was in the Prisoners of War Camp at Minden in Westphalia. He showed a fatter and more wholesome face certainly, he was clean and well dressed, but still, unmistakably it was the man to whom I used to take an occasional book or chocolate when he lay behind the wire of the inner prison there. "It can't be you?" I said illogically. But it was.

But what a change these two years had wrought! Now an officer in the Royal Flying Corps, the ribbon of the Military Cross bearing witness to many a risky reconnaissance over the Rufigi Valley; but then a dirty mechanic in the French Aviation Corps and a prisoner. But in December, 1914, there were no fat or clean English soldiers in German prisons.

And, as I looked, my mind went back to a wet morning when, the German sentry's back being turned, a French soldier, working on the camp road, dug his way near to the door of my hut and, still digging, told me that there was an Englishman in the French camp, who wanted particularly to see me. So that afternoon I walked boldly into the French camp as if I had important business there, and found my way to the further hut. There lying on a straw mattress, incredibly lousy and sandwiched between a Turco from Morocco and a Senegalese negro soldier, I found a white man, who jumped up to see me and was extraordinarily glad to find that his message had borne fruit. Clad in the tattered but still unmistakable uniform of a French artilleryman, three months' beard upon his face, with white wax-like cheeks, blue nose and a dreadfully hunted expression, stood this six emaciated feet of England. Drawing me aside to a sheltered corner he told me his story; how, despairing of a job in our Flying Corps at the commencement of the war, he had joined the French Aviation Corps as a mechanic, and how he had been taken prisoner early in September, 1914, when the engine of his aeroplane failed and he descended to earth in the middle of a marching column of the enemy. Of the early months of captivity from September to December in Minden he told me many things. He and all the others lived in an open field exposed to all the Westphalian winter weather, with no blankets, nothing but what he now wore. They lived in holes in a wet clay field like rats and--like rats they fought for the offal and pigwash on which the German jailors fed them twice a day. Now he had been moved into a long hut, open on the inner side that looked to the enclosed central square of the lager, but well enclosed outside by a triple barbed wire fence.

"Why do they put you in with coloured men?" I asked, as I looked at his bedfellows.

"Oh, that's because I'm an Englishman, you know," he said. "When I came here the commandant, finding who I was, was pleased to be facetious. 'Brothers in arms, glorious,' he chuckled, as he ordered my particular abode here. 'You, of course, don't object to sleep with a comrade,' he said, with heavy German humour. And I wanted to tell him, had I only dared, that I'd rather sleep with a nigger from Senegal than with him."

"How about the lice?" I said, for it was not possible to avoid seeing them on the thin piece of flannelette that was his blanket.

"Oh, I'm used to them now. Time was when I hunted my clothes all day long, but now--nothing matters; in fact, I rather think they keep me warm."

So I was quick and glad to help in the little way I could. Not that there was much that I could do. But I at least had one good meal a day and two of German prison food, but he had only three bowls of prisoner's stew and soup. Lest you might think that I exaggerate, I will tell you exactly what he had, and you may judge what manner of diet it was for a big Englishman. Five ounces of black bread a day, part of barley and part of potato, the rest of rye and wheat; for breakfast, a pint of lukewarm artificial coffee made of acorns burnt with maize, no sugar; sauerkraut and cabbage in hot water twice a day, occasionally some boiled barley or rice or oatmeal, and now and then--almost by a miracle, so rare were the occasions--a small bit of horseflesh in the soup. Could one wonder at the wolfish look upon his face, the dreary hopelessness of his expression? And on this diet he had fatigues to do; but on those days of hard toil there was also a little extra bread and an inch of German sausage.

But I could get some things from the canteen by bribing the German orderly who brought our midday food, and I had some books. So the sun shone, for a time, on Minden.

Nor was this fellow alone in these unhappy surroundings. There with him were English civilian prisoners, clerks and school-teachers, technical and engineering instructors, who once taught in German schools and worked at Essen or in the shipyards. These wretched civilians, until they were removed to Ruhleben, were not in much better case; but they might, at least, sleep together on indescribable straw palliasses. Then they were together; there was comfort in that at least.

By a strange turn of Fortune's wheel this very camp was placed upon the site of the battlefield of Minden, when, as our guards would tell us, an undegenerate England fought with the great Frederick against the French.

Moved to another camp this fellow had escaped by crawling under the barbed wire on a dirty wet night in winter when the sentry had turned his well-clothed back against the northern gale.

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