Heritage: First World War prisoners return home

British infantrymen occupy a shallow trench before an advance during the Battle of the Somme. Photo:

British infantrymen occupy a shallow trench before an advance during the Battle of the Somme. Photo: PA Archive - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

When the fighting ended in November 1918, Havering’s prisoners of war came home. As Prof Ged Martin reports, many had suffered a hard time

By late November 1918, men who’d been taken prisoner during the First World War were returning home.

Caught on holiday in Germany in August 1914, one young Romford man had been interned for four years. He reported that Britain was “much hated” by the Germans.

A few prisoners of war (POWs) got home before the fighting ended.

The Reverend Charles Steer was an adventurous clergyman, a former curate at St Edward’s church in Romford. Serving as a chaplain in the trenches, he was taken prisoner in May 1918.

Since he was a non-combatant, the Germans released him. He was soon appointed vicar of Hornchurch.

Captain Philip Dale, son of the previous vicar, was taken prisoner in 1915. After four failed escapes, he made it across the border into neutral Holland in May 1918.

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When he reached London, George V welcomed him at Buckingham Palace.

Let’s be clear: Germany then is not Germany now. The country was gripped by a harsh militarist culture.

The Allied naval blockade cut off Germany’s food imports. The Kaiser’s armies had captured 2.4 million prisoners. With the Germans themselves close to starvation, POWs were not their priority.

On his release, Sergeant Richard Borer visited relatives in Collier Row. Captured in August 1914, soon after the war began, he was held in a camp on windswept moorland.

German officers removed doors and windows from their huts, and refused to issue blankets. The men shivered through the nights, wrapped only in tablecloths.

“The guards behaved like fiends,” Sergeant Borer reported.

Lieutenant Lionel Mullis, from Manor Road, Romford, was just nineteen when he was reported missing in France.

After weeks of desperate worry for his parents, news came that he was a prisoner.

Conditions were terrible. Food was “vile”. Mullis received one loaf of black bread per week, with a pat of butter on Sunday nights. One consignment was green with mould. The hungry prisoners stewed the loaves and ate them anyway.

Ground-up burned turnip was substituted for coffee.

Officially, the Netherlands government protected the human rights of British prisoners. Mullis and his comrades wrote protest letters to the Dutch ambassador in Berlin. The camp commandant tore them up.

Major Alfred Ruston, from Herbert Road in Emerson Park, had thought about being killed or wounded, but he was surprised when he was taken prisoner, captured in a German raid.

He was having breakfast at the time, and joked that he expected the knock at the door to be a postman, not a German.

Unlike other POWs, he had “no complaints”, only a few “grouses”.

It helped that Ruston had been at boarding school. Camp life was like “a great boys’ school during the holidays, none of the boys having been sent home”.

His experience “went a long way to destroy in my mind the notion of German efficiency.” Officials were fussy and incompetent.

Ruston and his comrades were allowed out for exercise once a week, carefully guarded. Ordinary Germans showed them no hostility.

Once the Armistice was signed, there was even “a certain distinct attempt at friendliness”.

Poorly nourished children gathered around the British prisoners on their walks. Red Cross food parcels included chocolate, and Ruston sometimes made friends with the youngsters by sharing his ration.

“Our captors treated us pretty well,” he reflected. But he was glad to sail home, via Copenhagen and a North Sea gale, in mid-December 1918.

German POWs were housed in a camp at South Ockendon. They were put to work as farm labourers, and became a familiar sight locally.

In the evening rush hour, they could be seen at Upminster Station, under armed guard, waiting for their train on the Grays platform.

They gave no trouble. Local people sardonically concluded that “the Bosche (a nickname for the enemy) knew when he was well off”.

But there was no point in escaping: Britain is an island!