The War Behind The Wire: A Book Review by Primo

The War behind the Wire’

John Lewis Stempel.

Phoenix 2014.

    I have read many excellent accounts of the first World War and the role of the Ulster men (and Irish men ) in that conflict.  I have walked the ground that the Ulster men fell on, and disappeared into, on that fateful 1st July morn 1916. I have walked past the many hundreds of uniform grey headstones in the Somme valley. One of them belongs to a family member. I had the pleasure and privilege to speak face to face with a veteran of the trenches.  However it was only recently that I learned of a large group of men who did not have the banner and victory parade treatment unlike other wars and conflicts. They are not immortalised in song and popular culture.  After 1919 these stories were not taken up by the press because there was a feeling of not upsetting the Germans and everything would be OK.  It only took 20 years for that particular idea to be proved so terribly wrong.   This book is about the British (and other nationalities) who were prisoners of war under the Germans in WW1.

This is an amazing book which must have taken years of research.  The stories are rich and unbelievable.  The book is a roller coaster of colliding feelings and emotions. From the virtual torture of captured prisoners including executions (war crimes) to the humane and lifesaving  treatment of British, Irish, French and Russian prisoners by ordinary German soldiers.  The book covers the class system that ran throughout both British and German society and armies, the ignoring of the rules regarding captured enemy soldiers during hostilities and making captured prisoners do manual work not related to the war effort.

The author tries to get away from the shallow and blasé notion of the second world war films around Colditz that it was a jolly good idea to have a go and escape. Getting home to the UK was a ‘home run’ and all that. The reality for many was terrible. Left to freeze without adequate food or medical assistance. Worked to death in mines.  Locked in railway carriages without food or toilet.   Reminiscent of what was awaiting the Jews (and others) in the Second World War.  The Germans had a particular dislike for the captured Canadians.  They thought them interfering and over paid. Despite the real risk of execution some  prisoners made escape attempts, some successful, some quite bizarre and for some it was their death knell.

This book is not a novel nor is it easy reading. The pages are full of real people, ordinary people, in unreal circumstances. There is heroism and there is comradeship.  There are things that are just wrong. Like Germans convicted after the war, of letting prisoners,  caged and weak from malnutrition, die without help. These Germans would be tried in a German court  and be given a soft 6 months in open prison conditions.

One story of a British POW stands out for its grossness.  The Germans realised that the Irish prisoners had issues with the British at home. The Irish would be released if they left the British army. To their credit only 54 out of 2500 jumped ship to the Germans. One of the Irishman, Corporal R Dempsey , refused to jump ship. He was tied to a post in the snow as used as spitting practice as Germans walked past. (P.102) Imagine the humiliation,  and then, when he returned home he would be regarded as a traitor.

And what of the Ulster men who endured these conditions?  There is very little written about the returning soldiers. Remember that the Ulster Division (and many other divisions) were decimated and worse. It is now over  100 years (9th May) since the 36th Ulster Division, the pride of Ulster, marched past the City Hall to go and train in England before making their way to Thiepval and immortality. However the price of that sacrifice was huge. The depleted Ulster Division would be supplemented by the English, Scottish and Welsh.   It is difficult to say who got home first, the volunteers or the released prisoners.  Some prisoners died on their way home having tasted freedom but not deliverance. They left Ulster with pride but on arriving home in 1919 or 1920 they came home to political upheaval, changes in social attitudes,  huge changes in Ireland, an uncertain future and now with the prospect of deep  civil conflict at home.  And what of the injured – both physical and mental? How where they treated?  How do you live in a society with no social security?  Who supported them?

Who were these unfortunates? Henry Atkin from the Shankill, wounded and taken prisoner;  J Anderson rifleman from the East Belfast, H Bailie,  a private from Frome street,  who died while a prisoner of the Germans and S. Lyttle , a private with the Munster Fusiliers from the Donegall Pass. These four names of over 700 men listed as PoWs. But Ulstermen from all parts of Ulster would end up at the Kaisers ‘pleasure’.  The book dispels the notion of the stigma of being captured, or even worse surrendering,  in order to get away from the atrocious trench conditions. In one German camp there was a higher death rate among soldiers than at the front line of the Somme.

The names of the prison camps are strange, lost to history and certainly not in the public consciousness.   Doberitz, Limberg, Zossen, Holzminden, and many more. (See for a handy list)  Some were hellish places were the worst aspects of the human nature were  expressed. Lamsdorf was one of the largest camps with  90,000 men including British, Russian and Italian. Over 7000 men would perish there.  So why are these names not remembered  the same way as Colditz and Auschwitz ? At the end of World war 1 a  British public, weakened by war and sickened by the grim reality of the eyeless and legless shells that masqueraded for men on their return,  meant they had no appetite and no cause for jingoistic language afterwards.  If you read this book you will learn of a hidden,  forgotten world. But these men, all of them, deserve to be remembered every bit as much as the men who suffered in the trenches. This book is thought provoking, humbling and disturbing in places.  It is a book I will be keeping on my shelf for a long time.

Remember them also.



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