British Prisoner of War Interned in Holland
27660 Sgt Henry Ralph
15th Canadian [?]
No 6 Group 422 Fahrenheit Street
I have been going to write you for a very long time, but somehow my mind has always procrastinated on the grounds of not having your address. The only one I have is the one in Quebec, which would hardly do. However now I have started I will do as well as I can to make it interesting. I must say that after three years of itinerant wanderings in Germany to places mostly of the same rotten degree of [?] and after going through all the excitement & variety of emotions pertaining to our arrival in Holland, it is very disappointing to find, that, in the matter of communication with our friends we seem to be as badly off as ever we were. I had hoped so much to be able to appeal to you for all the information regarding municipal politics or any other kind that's interesting; the people I know, business conditions, whether prohibition is a fact or not, if it is true that you have conscription, why the Pea crackers created such a fuss (if its true what we heard in Germany about them) and every other kind of information that would enable me to 'in some sort of manner' pick up the thread again, for I can tell you its just terrible to have missed three years altogether like that, but I can understand that the Censor is still standing in the way, besides numerous other difficulties, so I suppose its not much use asking you. Jean, bless her heart, tells me a whole lot of stuff about nothing at all most of the time, having, I notice, an altogether too healthy respect for His or Her Censorial Majesty. I did ask her once if she had never heard of Steve Brodie, but it didn't fizz. I suppose you would be interested to know what our life in Germany really was like, but I'm afraid I can't tell you very much about that, as a matter of fact I'd give a great deal to leave it as far beyond the horizon of my memory, suffice it to say, that as soon as I find myself a Prisoner, that is after my mind was clear enough to understand it & after the whole German Army had finished kicking me in the seat of the pants, (only I was wearing a kilt), my soul filled up with humiliation & after three years of thinking it over I find that the feeling has only been intensified, & while I'm not personally responsible for being a Prisoner at all, I suppose we have got to stand for all the indignity attached to that condition, which looks as though it intends to stick with us for the rest of our natural.
It is no use telling you about the battle. You will have read it in a hundred different ways & heard the stories told by other hundreds, each man in battle is a little world to himself & his conception may be entirely different to that of a man a few yards on his right or left, and everyone thinks that his particular fight was the greatest one of the War. I have listened to stories & arguments by the thousands until one gets heartily sick of hearing them, all the boys start to sing 'tell me the old old story' as soon as any one begins to tell their particular yarn, but when all of one Regiment meet like wed did on arrival here, you see a real bee, everybody talking about the battle some with matches laying out the positions, some with Pencils & Paper, & others drawing diagrams on the ground, and you have nothing but: We were here & the Germans there. This was the Horseshoe! We was here when the Gas came over. The Froggies beat it & let us down! Where was you when they got behind us with that Whiz Bang battery & so on and so forth. You people at home are going to be pestered to death for fifty years after this War is finished by stories of how it was done. I guess you are heartily sick if them now, I know we are: but the funny thing is we can't help getting in on it whenever an argument starts. Well as I was saying after being taken Prisoner they marched us to R[?] where a Great General who we thought must be the Kaiser gave us a terrible calling down in a very low voice (& there are some shouts too) in German of course, of which we couldn't understand a word except swine & such like occasionally. We were shoved into the cellar of what was once the City Hall & on the 27th April put into a train 60 to a truck, which gave you just room to stand up, if you got down it was impossible to get up again. We were locked in, & at every big station we stopped & the Germans opened the doors raised Hell in general such as going through the motions of loading rifles fix bayonets, besides general abuse which seemed all to be done on general principles I suppose to cheer us up. But they simply wouldn't let you out to go to a lavatory or anything like that nor give us anything to eat & we had had nothing since April 23rd so you can imagine the plight we were in in that truck for 42 hours when we eventually arrived at Giessen. I was quite surprised to see such a nice place, but soon got disillusioned. We all had to sleep in one hut & there were nearly six hundred altogether of about 30 different Regiments, still with nothing to eat, in the morning we were lined up in fives & given a loaf of bread to each five & some hot ersatz Koffie which was just like the 'Nectar of the Gods' to us just then: after that they split us up in small parties & sent us to different companies. Thats how I got separated from Ern Pay. Then we went through 6 weeks of the most miserable existence possible. We were starved. Vaccinated. Fumigated. Inocculated & nearly fornicated by the time we were finished. On June the 6th I and 29 others were sent after a lot of useless bucking out to work at a place called Runethal. They told us we were going to pick fruit on farms but when we were travelling through the mountainous part of Westphalia we gave up the idea of fruit for there wasn't a spot that you farm at all. They set us to building roads which was Pick & Shovel work for mine. I was all over boils at that time as indeed most of us were And that seems to be a General complaint with all P.O.W. in Germany I also by that time [?] & Verbeten anyway. I was growing a lovely set of Face Jokage, and if you can imagine what I looked like when I tell you that my hair was cut [?] all oever whiskers like a bass broom, with face all boils my Glengarry had no takes (a kind German having cut them off to treat in the dirt as a mark of respect at Konlers) & no time & a pair of duty white pants which had to be held up by a safety pin. Kilks were Steing Verboten there: but we got used to it after a while & stayed there until Nov 1st by that time I had muscles sticking out all over me. I think I counted fourteen rows on my stomach. Were only in Giessen two weeks when out we went again, this time to a freight shed at Ghertakustein right on the Rhine, where the famous Victoria Springs are. only there three weeks, but it was the hardest work I ever hope to do in my time by that time I was beginning to understand a bit of German & was fortunate enough to understand when the chap in charge tried to tell me that I didn't have to stay there unless Voluntery of course I immediately returned to Giessen for Christmas & then we were all send up to Sottan on Jan 20/16. That's an awful place. it's a lump that holds about 50 thousand & nearly 3 thousand secondary Camps under it is the P.O.W. Headquarters for the whole of the North of Germany. & all that part of the Country is nothing but Pine Forest. Sand. & More land. how on earth they make the soil grow anything at all I don't know. but they certainly do seem to grow lots of Potatoes & Rye which is the only grain I ever saw there. we were sent from Sotten to Lichtenhorst which is one of the colony camps which gave me a very very miserable impression there was nothing but heather to be seen for miles in any direction. the Barracks were simply alive with Rats & two of our fellows died in the first week. early in Feb they send all the N.C.O. away to another camp except about a dozen of us who were told off to do what they call Grouppen Furher. our job was to go out with a party of 25 Men & sort of Keep account of the number of hours they worked. it was pretty rotten at first as having no work to do it was extremely cold standing around. but in the Summer time it was fine for us N.C.O. but of course very rotten for the men who were cutting heather with Sythes & Pressing it, & putting up in bales which were taken to the station 15 Kilometres away in a freight Railroad. there was much speculation among the boys as to what it was used for. they used to think the Germans make bread of it, but I think that was rot, we used to go out a 5:30 AM & come in at 3 PM for dinner, but after dinner we used to play baseball Cricket & Football. tho the ground was very limited. altogether that was the best time I had in Germany. We left there to make room for Belgian Civilians on Nov 29 & went to Bohmte, where the boys were Working on a Canal. the Commandant wanted us N.C.O. to work as well, we refused. so he made us drill all day while the others were working & I tell you nine hours a day walking up & down a camp with Bayonets at your seat is no easy job. we carried on that was for about a week & then so many had collapsed that he had to stop it & then I got a job in the Parcel office. but it was an awful camp & we were glad when they told us we were to be send to an N.C.O. camp on Jan 16/17. which proved to be Grossenwedemorn. when we arrived there every one was doing nine hours a day exercise so we had to get in on that too. that lasted for about a month after we got there, tho some of them had been doing it for a year. you see, they told us N.C.O. were not compelled to work & do everything else to make your life miserable to try & get you to Volunteer for work, after that stopped with us we only had 2 hour morning & [?] in the afternoon. then on the 28 of March they suddenly stopped our Parcels & gave us near nothing as possible to eat. which continued until the 21st of April. then the told us orders had come from Berlin that every camp had to be self supporting, & so we must go to work on the land turn it over with spades & so forth to grow our own supplies, we gibbed at that we timed up to the shot twice & firstly ended up by only have to stand at attention for an hour. which is some stint. us fellows fainted & fell down they knocked em up again with their butts, but still we had to parcels & then they took our beds & blankets away. so we finally had to cave in & do their darn old work. so as we'd get our Parcels & not die of starvation. & so we carried on there with news of exchange someday which made you so happy. we could see it coming off in a month & perhaps the next-day something would be in the paper that would seem to imply that it would take years to come off & if it did likly couldn't reach us. between hope & despondency we reached Christmas when there was great Jubilation at the first Party being warmed for [?] still us 1915 chaps were it so very hopeful & when on Feb 4 50 of us were moved to another Camp called Mayenburg. North of Bremen. we felt sure we had no chance as they surely wouldn't move us away up there if we were for it! but that just shows you can never tell what the Germans are likely to do. the morning I was told to get ready. The German came out with all our Cards & so many had been missed that we were all naturally anxious: he had them in alphabetical order all men of April 24th & May [?] he called them all out & [?] R to So God! my heart was so far up in my mouth I was chewing lumps off it & then the last card of all was mine he had them mixed somehow. Gee: wasn't that a whiff. tho it was painful to see the faces of some lads who had been missed.
We had a very tiresome journey from there to Sotten where we were fumigated & examined & searched from there to Hannover & on through the great industrial region of Westphalia across the Rhine to Aachen. which we call Aux le Chapple stay there in a school 2 nights & came into Holland at Verboe on March 23rd and what change it was. we could tell at once by the faces of the little Kiddies we were across and believe me we sure were delighted to be here. Since we have been here we have not found things altogether to our liking. food extremely scarce indeed so much so that we only get two meals a day & we have been here over two months & are still going around in our Gefengenschaft clothes with no prospects of getting any more. we are not allowed to wear civilians, even if we were, we haven't sufficient money to buy any. & when you consider that the suit I have is made of terribly inferior Kind of black cloth with a twill Rand on the arm & striped down the leg & yellow band around that Cap & that I got it last September from the Red Cross. the pants about a mile too short for me & that I have had to wear it in all kinds of weather doing all sorts of rotten dirty work, having of course only to one! you: will understand that I myself do not look any too respectable to send sailing around a fashionable work like this: another of our great troubles is tobacco, simply cannot get anything decent to smoke here.
I think you should be getting pretty well fed up with my troubles although all this especially about Germany is quite superficial. the real stuff Im sure would make anyone with the half of heart at all shed tears of blood to hear about it: but here we are tickled to death to be here & if we could be cured & smoked Im sure we'd make the loveliest kind of Streaky bacon, for we have had long been times & some nice short fat over, "when the Parcels came in a Camp". tho I really am afraid we are putting on a rather long lean streak here. still the Powers that be promise us we may even someday get home. but not that the War will finish. Im sure I for me do not wish to see it finish with the Germans where they are now.
We are last in admiration for the lads who are doing such great things just now & hope that they may be able to hold them for the next few months. It seems a terrible thing that after nearly four years of War that anyone can favour carrying of it further. but I feel sure that every man here realizes perhaps more than the folks at home how absolutely necessary it is that the Germans shall not Win: I suppose that doesn't look very good either coming from a P.O.W. but Im equally as sure that every man here is perfectly willing to get into it again if theres the least possible chance not that anyone hes a liking for the [?] a man is an absolute fool who says he has, but we all have the feeling that it simply must be done and then [?] there is the additional incentive of being able to [?] oneself that is the great thing after nearly four years taken out of ones life. after the four years of slipping backward, after four years of what might have been prosperity, or at least promotion, or glory, or death, to come from Germany fearful of the past & scared to death from the future to be told that you can go in again & make yourself would give [?] to ones being & show us a way out of the awful muddle we find ourselves in, in the meantime I suppose we can only drift & see what Father time has in store for us. but here in Holland as has as being of any use to ourselves is concerned we are just as cramped. just as much shut in as [?] as ever we were while in Germany & so we hope for something further to happen. I do not remember when I wrote you last. it must be at least two years ago, so I must congratulate you on the possession of a baby boy. I would like very much to see him whilst he is small "to one of my chief regrets that Ive missed so much time with mine while they were babies". I have heard from time to time from Jean of your prosperity & I am very glad that your all doing so well. I would dearly love to see you all & hope that it will not be so very very long before I have that pleasure. to your Lady I send my best respects, its so long since I saw any of you & then so little of her. that I feel almost an acquaintance but I do hope that you will all have at least a little place in you scene of life for me, when this great job is ended & if possible helps me to freeze on where I left off for that certainly got to be the Jumping off point. my regards to Ma & Albert when you see them & if possible will you write to me all the local stuff you think likely to help me connect up.
I thank you for your kindness to Jean & my girlies during my absence & I hope this letter "tho neither erudite nor didactic." will be acceptable to you
Yours very sincerely
PS. A funny thing about Holland.
I saw Sabots when we landed at St. Nagaux. Sabots in Flanders. Sabots in Belgium & Sabots all over Germany but here the traditional home of Sabots I haven't seen a single pair.