I broke off last week with our eight hundred internees setting out for the village of Tost in Upper Silesia. I don't know how well acquainted my listeners are with central European geography, so I will mention that Upper Silesia is right at the end of Germany, and that Tost is right at the end of Upper Silesia - in fact, another yard or two from where we eventually fetched up, and we should have been in Poland. We made the journey this time, not in cattle trucks but in a train divided into small compartments, eight men to the compartment, and it took us three days and three nights, during which time we did not stir from our cosy little cubbyhole. On leaving Huy, we had been given half a loaf of bread apiece and half a sausage, and after we had been thirty-two hours on the train we got another half loaf and some soup. It was at night time that the trip became rather unpleasant. One had the choice between trying to sleep sitting upright, and leaning forward with one's elbows on one's knees, in which case one bumped one's head against that of the man opposite. I had never realized the full meaning of the expression 'hardheaded Yorkshireman' till my frontal bone kept colliding with that of Charlie Webb, who was born and raised in that county.
As a result of this, and not being able to wash for three days, I was not at my most dapper when we arrived at Tost Lunatic Asylum, which had been converted into a camp for our reception. But in spite of looking like something the carrion crow had brought in, I was far from being downhearted. I could see at a glance that this was going to be a great improvement on our previous resting places.
One thing that tended to raise the spirits was the discovery that Scabies had been left behind. This was the affectionate name we had given to one of our fellow-internees at Huy. He was a public menace and had given me many an uneasy moment during the five weeks in which we had been in close contact. His trouble was that he had not only got lice but had contracted a particularly contagious form of skin disease, and in his lexicon there was no such word as 'isolation'. He was a friendly, gregarious soul, who used to slink about like an alley cat, rubbing himself up against people. One time, I found him helping to peel the potatoes. Nice chap - it was a relief to find that he was no longer in our midst.
That was one thing that cheered me up on arrival at Tost. Another was that it looked as if at last we were going to have elbow-room. An Associated Press man, who came down to interview me later, wrote in his piece that Tost Lunatic Asylum was no Blandings Castle. Well, it wasn't, of course, but still it was roomy. If you had had a cat, and had wished to swing it, you could have done so quite easily in our new surroundings.
The Upper Silesian loony-bin consisted of three buildings - one an enormous edifice of red brick, capable of housing about thirteen hundred; the other two smaller, but still quite spacious. We lived and slept in the firstnamed, and took our meals in one of the others, where the hospital was also situated. The third building, known as the White House, stood at the bottom of the park, beyond the barbed wire, and for the first month or two was used only as a sort of clearing-station for new arrivals. Later, it was thrown open and became the center of Tost life and thought - being the place where our musicians practised and gave their concerts, where church services were held on Sundays, and where - after I had been given a padded cell to myself for working purposes - I eventually wrote a novel.
The park was a genuine park, full of trees, and somebody who measured it found that it was exactly three hundred yards in circumference. After five weeks at Huy, it looked like the Yellowstone. A high wall ran along one side of it, but on the other you got a fine view of some picturesque old barbed wire and a farm yard. There was a path running across its center which, when our sailors had provided a ball by taking a nut and winding string round it, we used in the summer as a cricket pitch.
The thing about Tost that particularly attracted me, that day of our arrival, was that it was evidently a going concern. Through the barbed wire, as we paraded in front of the White House, we could see human forms strolling about, and their presence meant that we had not got to start building our little nest from the bottom up, as had been the case at Liège and Huy. For the first time, we were in a real camp, and not a makeshift.
This was brought home to us still more clearly by the fact that the reception committee included several English-speaking interpreters. And when, after we had had our baggage examined and had been given a bath, a gentleman presented himself who said that he was the Camp Adjutant, we knew that this was the real thing.
It may be of interest to my listeners to hear how a genuine civil internment camp is run. You start off with a Kommandant, some Captains and Oberleutnants and a couple of hundred soldiers, and you put them in barracks outside the barbed wire. Pay no attention to these, for they do not enter into the internee's life, and you never see anything of them except for the few who come to relieve the sentries. The really important thing is the inner camp - that is to say, the part where, instead of being outside, looking in, you are inside, looking out.
This is presided over by a Lagerführer and four Corporals, one to each floor, who are known as Company Commanders - in our case, Pluto, Rosebud, Ginger and Donald Duck. Their job is to get you up in the morning, to see that the counting of the internees on parade is completed before the Lagerführer arrives to inspect, and to pop up unexpectedly at intervals and catch you smoking in the corridor during prohibited hours.
Co-operating with these- is the little group of Internee Officers - the Camp Captain, the two Camp Adjutants, the Floor Wardens and the Room Wardens. The Room Wardens ward the rooms, the Floor Wardens ward the floors, the Adjutants bustle about, trying to look busy, and the Camp Captain keeps in touch with the Lagerführer, going to see him in his office every Friday morning with hard-luck stories gleaned from the rabble - that is to say, me and the rest of the boys. If, for instance, the coffee is cold two days in succession, the proletariat tells the Camp Captain, who tells the Lagerführer who tells the Kommandant,
There is also another inner camp official whom I forgot to mention - the Sonderführer. I suppose the best way to describe him is to say that he is a Führer who sonders.
The great advantage of a real internment camp, like Tost, is that the internee is left to himself all through the day. I was speaking last week of the extra parades at Huy. In all my forty-two weeks at Tost, we had only three extra parades. The authorities seemed to take the view that all they wanted to know was that we were all present in the morning and also at night, so we were counted at seven-thirty a.m. and again an hour before lights-out. Except for that, we were left to ourselves.
Nor was there anything excessive in the way of discipline and formalities. We were expected to salute officers, when we met them - which we seldom did, and there was a camp order that ran 'When internees are standing in groups, the first to see an officer must shout "Achtung"' - a pleasant variant on the old game of Beaver. 'Whereat', the order continues, 'all face officer at attention, with hands on seam of trousers' - the internees' trousers, of course - 'and look at him, assuming an erect bearing'. The only catch about this was that it gave too much scope to our humorists. A man can have a lot of quiet fun by shouting 'Achtung' and watching his friends reach for the seams of their trousers and assume an erect bearing, when there is not an officer within miles.
Life in an internment camp resembles life outside, in that it is what you make it. Nothing can take away the unpleasant feeling of being a prisoner, but you can make an effort and prevent it getting you down. And that is what we did, and what I imagine all the other British prisoners in Germany did. We at Tost were greatly helped by the fact that we had with us the sailors from the Orama, who would have cheered anyone up, and the internees from Holland.
Many of these were language teachers and musicians, and we had a great organiser in Professor Doyle-Davidson of Breda University. This meant that we were no longer restricted for intellectual entertainment to standing about in groups or playing that old Army game known alternatively as 'House' or 'Ousey Ousey'- where you pay ten Pfennigs for a paper with numbers on it and the banker draws numbers out of a hat, and the first man to fill up his paper scoops the pool. Lectures and concerts were arranged, and we also had revues and a straight comedy - which would have been an even bigger success than it was, but for the fact of the ingenue getting two days in the cooler right in the middle of the run.
It was also possible for us to learn French, German, Italian, Spanish, first-aid and shorthand, and also to find out all there was to find out about French and English literature. In fact, we were not so much internees as a student body. Towards the end of my stay, we had our own paper - a bright little sheet called The Tost Times, published twice a month. One great improvement at Tost from my viewpoint, was that men of fifty and over were not liable for fatigues - in other words, the dirty work. At Liège and Huy, there had been no age limit. We had all pitched in together, reverend elders and beardless boys alike - cleaning out latrines with one hand and peeling potatoes with the other, so to speak. At Tost, the old dodderers like myself lived the life of Riley. For us, the arduous side of life was limited to making our beds, brushing the floor under and around them, and washing our linen. When there was man's work to be done, like hauling coal or shovelling snow, we just sat and looked on, swapping reminiscences of the Victorian Age, while the younger set snapped into it.
There were certain fatigues, like acting as a server at meals and working in the cookhouse, which were warmly competed for. For these, you got double rations. But the only reward of the ordinary chore, like hauling coal, was the joy of labor. I suppose a really altruistic young man after he had put in an hour or two hauling coal, would have been all pepped up by the thought that he had been promoting the happiness of the greatest number, but I never heard one of our toilers talk along these lines. It was more usual to hear them say, speaking with a good deal of feeling, that, next time their turn came along, they were ruddy well going to sprain an ankle and report sick.
It is a curious experience being completely shut off from the outer world, as one is in an internment camp. One lives principally on potatoes and rumors. One of my friends used to keep a notebook, in which he would jot down all the rumors that spread through the corridors, and they made amusing reading after the lapse of a few weeks. To military prisoners, I believe, camp rumors are known for some reason as 'Blue Pigeons'. We used to call them bedtime stories, and most dormitories would keep a corridor hound, whose duty it was to go through the corridors before lights-out, collecting the latest hot news. These bedtime stories never turned out to be true, but a rumor a day kept depression away, so they served their purpose. Certainly, whether owing to bedtime stories or simply to the feeling, which I myself had, that, if one was in, one was in and it was no use making heavy weather about it, the morale of the men at Tost was wonderful. I never met a more cheerful crowd, and I loved them like brothers.
With this talk, I bring to an end the story of my adventures as British Civilian Prisoner Number 796, and before concluding I should like once more to thank all the kind people in America who wrote me letters while I was in camp. Nobody who has not been in a prison camp can realize what letters, especially letters like those I received, mean to an internee.
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