Memoirs of a Scottish Prisoner in WW1: Part 1

In this special two-part post we would like to share the written memoirs of Corporal Gordon R. Johnston of the Royal Air Force from Tillicoultry. These letters were originally addressed to his parents who were concerned for his well being on his return home. Passed down in his family, some of which would emigrate to Australia, these letters have found their way back to Scotland to his remaining family in Kilwinning. Shared here on the site not only as a testament to the resiliency of people when faced with horrible circumstances, but as a candid reminder of the brutality of war and the unnecessary suffering it brings.

Dear Parents,

I promised to give you a short sketch of my life in Germany, so I will now try and fulfil my promise. I don’t like looking back on those days, but, here goes.

I left the aerodrome (somewhere in France) on a dual controlled machine with Lt. Jowett as Pilot, with the intention of taking photographs over the German lines. While flying at 6,000 feet between Bapaume and Cambrai, I sighted two “Fockers” making towards us. Being much faster machines than ours, they were soon within firing distance. I opened fire simultaneously with the enemy, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them catch fire and dash to the ground. The other machine swooped down on us and Lt. Jowett was hit in the head, killing him instantly.

My machine started banking over to the right, so I left off firing to try and bring it under control again, but I was not long in finding out that the rudder controls had been shot away, leaving the machine practically useless. We came down from 6,000 ft. in five or six big spirals. When we hit the ground I was thrown out of the machine and landed about 20 yards away. When I recovered my senses, there were about 200 Germans surrounding me; I felt myself all over and was relieved to see that nothing was broken. Except for extensive bruising, I was alright. I went over to the wreckage and assisted the Germans in getting my officer out; shortly afterwards, a red cross car came along and took Lt. Jowett away – the doctor confirming that he was dead.

I was searched, then taken to a dugout and interviewed by a German officer who tried to get all sorts of information out of me. Then I was taken to a small place outside Cambrai where I slept for the night on some straw in a German guard room. The following morning I was taken by train to St. Quentin where I was put in a civil prison. I stayed there for four days; I was in a small stone cell; not allowed to go outside; I thought I would go mad. I put in a complaint to the officer in charge and was allowed out into the prison yard for 2 hours on the 4th day of my imprisonment.

The food here was very good but, as i found out later, half of it was subscribed by the French civil population of the town for P.O.Ws. Up to then I had had no ill-treatment from the Germans; but it was while I was being marched to the station at about 9pm that I saw the first brutality. The group of about 300 prisoners that I was in was made up of all nationalities so, of course, we drew some attention. There was a civilian curfew of 8pm – with blinds drawn across the windows, etc. Well, one lady had pulled the curtains aside to have a look at us, and a big Prussian – one of our guards – rushed up with fixed bayonet and rammed it through the window into the woman’s breast.

All this time, the Germans had taken me for an officer as I still had on my leather flying coat and, so when we got in the train, I was put with some British and French Officers who treated me just like and equal although they knew I was only a Corporal. In the early morning we travelled through the once lovely Louvain district, but which is now severely knocked about. We crossed the Rhine at Cologne and then through the large manufacturing district of Germany (Dusseldorf etc.) We arrived in Gutterslow which is an Officers’ camp at 8pm by which time I was completely fed up, having been on the train for two days and now feeling the full effects of my fall from the machine. So I was glad to stretch myself properly and try to work off the stiffness in my body. At the camp I had a cold bath which was very acceptable.

After three days I was sent to Dulmen which is a camp for N.C.Os and men, a fairly large camp which, seen from a distance, looks like a wooden city. I was very lucky landing in Dulmen, one of the best camps in Germany. Three chaps who had been captured at Mons in 1914 asked me to “muck in” with them until my own packets came through from England; so they kept me from starvation by sharing their home parcels. All the boys were very nice and, of course, I had to give them the news about how the Somme Offensive was going on, and how “Blighty” looked. etc. Being the only ‘flying man’ in camp, I was the authority on aeronautical subjects.

N.C.Os in Germany are not supposed to work, according to an agreement between the two Governments, and in this camp we did nothing but, as I will tell you later, everywhere in Germany is not the same. Morning roll-call is at 7am and working parties of Privates start work at 7.30am. Dinner from 12.00 to 1.00pm and Tea at 5.00pm when they finish work for the day, then another roll-call at 6.00pm. Lights out at 9.00pm winter and 10.00pm summer. Of course, this is only camp routine; where men are working on farms, coal-mines, salt-mines, munitions factories, etc., it is usually work from daylight until dark. Sunday is usually a day off in camp, when there is a church service.

Then we had a theatre run by the prisoners, where I saw some very good turns. We had a good hall which was built by the Y.M.C.A but the only drawback was that, if there was any trouble in camp, the Commandant usually stopped the gaff for a month or so. He gave out the order one night that the theatre would be stopped if any more prisoners escaped. The following morning three chaps escaped so, when he realised that this method was no good, he had to give up strafing us by this method. (Gott strafe England = “may God punish England”)

I had a try for the frontier from here; and was away for three days before being caught. It is only a distance of about 50 kilometres but the frontier is so well guarded at this point, that you have to be very lucky to get across. It will be much easier now than in 1916, as every available man is now on the firing line, and only wounded men are doing frontier patrol now. There was snow on the ground when I tried, so I can assure you that it was not a picnic.

If you remember we had very cold weather at the beginning of 1917; well, during the first four months of the year there were about 2,000 Russians died of starvation in Dulmen. From our compound we could look into the mortuary, and there were naked bodies – piled one on top of the other, just like frozen sheep. During the very cold snap we had, I have seen at least 20 Russians carried across in one day. I once saw a Russian burial party taking some coffins to the cemetery. While passing a cart laden with turnips, one of the turnips fell from the cart – without more ado the Russians dropped the coffins and made a dash for the turnip, and then ensued a free fight.

It was also a common occurrence to see them diving into swill-tubs and eating anything from fish heads to potato peelings and, I have been told, in 1914 – before the packets started coming – the British soldiers were in little better state. Nowadays, the Germans make the excuse that they do not have the food to give us but, whether they had it or not, the prisoners would not have it – because in 1914, before the blockade took effect, the prisoners were starving just the same.

Part 2 will be with you this coming Wednesday, in which Corporal Johnston further explains the conditions and how life was in the other camps he was moved to. Stay tuned!