Friday 20 January 2023

The March Into Oblivion by Maggie Brookes

Seventy-eight years ago, in a bitter Polish January, an appalling atrocity of the second world war began, but it is not widely known about. Even in this age of excessive information, some historical events become distorted in the public imagination, and others are totally forgotten within the space of one generation.
Watch tower at Lamsdorf, Stalag 344.

Many people wrote to me after the publication of my first novel The Prisoner's Wife to say, 'I didn't know that happened,' about two different aspects of the book. Some were referring to the use of British PoWs as unpaid labour by the Nazis; others were talking about The Long March, in which perhaps 80,000 allied prisoners of war were force-marched more than 500 miles across Europe in mid-winter.

When I began my research for the novel, I was aware that British PoWs were put to work for the Third Reich. I knew this because my dad had been a Nazi prisoner in Austria and he and his comrades in arms spent a year building a road up to the village of Zedlach. 

The prison guards at my dad's labour camp.

Second world war media representation has established a different narrative about prisoners in Germany. Films like Stalag 17, The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape and The Colditz Story (with its long running TV series spin-off) show PoWs as incarcerated behind barbed wire for years at a time, with little to do but plan escapes and put on shows. But that's not the full story.

The PoWs, (including my dad) who built the road up to Zedlach in Austria

By 1944 the Nazis had established huge prisoner of war camps at the eastern reaches of modern-day Czechoslovakia and Poland in order to keep the captured allies as far as possible from home. The officers were held in camps like those in the movies, but the 1929 Geneva Convention allowed the lower ranks to be deployed into labour camps known as Arbeitskommado. About a third of all soldiers wearing a British Empire uniform were eventually moved to Lamsdorf POW camp (Stalag 344). The German authorities called it Britenlager, the British camp, though the 'Britons' included 271 Indians, 1,543 Canadians, 1,829 Australians, 2,217 New Zealanders, and 1,210 Palestinians, all of whom were Jewish.

Lamsdorf was like a massive labour exchange, supplying workers to keep the Third Reich running. The camp could hold thirteen thousand prisoners at any one time, but also controlled the deployment of twelve thousand additional men into labour camps. If they were lucky, they were sent to build roads or work on the land. If they were unlucky, they were sent to the mines. They were not supposed to be asked to do any work which aided the German war effort, but many were employed in factories and industries which directly supported the regime. In that case, they often found ways to delay orders or sabotage production. They were worked hard, without proper breaks or rewards, but generally found being employed was preferable to endless days sitting around in the camps. And sometimes there was the promise of extra food rations because they were doing physical work. The Arbetiskommando labour camps were denoted with an initial letter E, for 'English.' So when I was told the extraordinary story which became The Prisoner's Wife, my informant remembered that he was at E111 Saubsdorf quarry in Czechoslovakia.

Huts at Lamsdorf, Stalag 344.

I had known about the work camps, but the second element of my novel which people write to me about was a complete revelation to me when I began my research. How was it possible that I had never heard of The Long March across Europe? I knew about the Japanese forced marches, The Sandakan Death Marches and The Bataan Death March, so how was it I didn't know about the forced marches across Europe in temperatures as low as -25 c?

Eye-witness accounts exist of-course, particularly those so meticulously chronicled in The Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell (Penguin 2002.) 

But this cover image is one of very few photographs, and the marches consisted of raggle-taggle groups of prisoners ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand together which took 3 different routes across Europe. The marches have also been known by various names, 'The Long March' 'The Death March' 'The March' 'The Black March' 'The Long Walk', 'The Long Trek', 'The Bread March', and 'Death March Across Germany.' Perhaps it's the lack of a consistent name and visual images which have made it vanish from public memory? And the fact that these men's harrowing experience was soon overshadowed (quite rightly) as the full horror of the holocaust became known, with photographs which burn into our minds.

So, what actually happened? The evacuation of Lamsdorf began on 15 January 1945 when seven hundred sick British POWs were removed by train, just before the mass departures on foot began in the middle of the night on 22nd January 1945. This continued over several nights, in groups of one or two thousand, until 21,867 British PoWs had set off into the blizzards.

January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months of the 20th century in Europe. Poorly clothed, ill-fed men covered about 20km a day in icy conditions, sleeping in barns or out-buildings, or in the open, day after day for week after week, all the way from January through into March or April. A Red Cross official estimated that 80% of the men suffered the additional misery of dystentery.

It is impossible to know how many men died on the Long March because it’s even hard to be certain about the number of Allied prisoners held by the Nazis. In 1944 the number of British prisoners was thought to be 199,592, but at the end of the war, the number of PoWs logged as having returned home was only 168,746. What happened to those 30,846 men? It may be that the first figure was wrong, but many of them may have died on the Long March. According to a report by the US Department of Veterans' Affairs, almost 3,500 US and Commonwealth POWs died as a result of the marches. The records of one working party show that 1,800 men set out on the Long March, and only 1,300 completed it, with 30% dying on route.

Emaciated PoWs at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel, 17 April 1945 The British Army in North-west Europe 1944-45 BU3865.jpg

Why did the marches happen? The Soviet army was closing in on the Eastern Europe camps and the Nazis perhaps feared that liberated prisoners would swell their ranks. There are also theories that Hitler ordered the evacuations so he would have a human shield of prisoners for his last stand in the Baltic or to be used as hostages for a peace deal.

In a way, those theories are more believable than the shocking fact that perhaps 80,000 half-starved, ill-clothed men could be force marched 500 miles across Europe in mid-winter – and that within a generation it would be all but forgotten.

POWs at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel in Germany welcome their liberators, 16 April 1945. BU3661.jpgs

For more information about Lamsdorf and The Long March:
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