POW survives horrendous conditions

Name: Justin Dawson
Date: 1917
Unit: 15th Battalion AIF
Location: France, Belgium, Germany

Private Justin Dawson was fighting with the 15th Battalion near Baupaume in France on 10 April 1917 when a 'stunt' went wrong and he was captured by the Germans.

He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in a variety of camps from France to Belgium and finally in Germany.

For most of that time he lived under horrendous conditions, was worked hard by the Germans, dressed in rags, wore wooden clogs and very nearly starved.

When he was eventually released, one of the first things he did was write to his mother describing in incredible detail what had happened to him since his capture. The original letter, although now very fragile, is still in the keeping of the Dawson family.

In Mechlinburg,
Dec 14th 1918

Dearest Old Mother,

We have already entered upon our fourth week of waiting to move on, and waiting to do so any day. Soon after the revolutionists took charge they sent us into the head lager and told us that we would be in England in a few days, but here we are still, and goodness knows when the move will be made. We hoped to get to Blighty for Xmas, but the best we can expect now will be to have it in Copenhagen. Anywhere out of this god-forsaken country will do.

The last eleven months I have been in a small camp of about four hundred men, about ten miles from Kiel, and from the time the packets commenced to reach us, we had a decent time.

However, I will start from the date of my capture, and give you a rough sketch of what has happened since.

On the tenth of April, 1917, we were to hop over [attack the enemy] at a point near Baupaume, but for some reason (I think the tanks not being far enough ahead) or other, though we went up to do the stunt [the attack], it did not come off, and we left the trench in disorder, and made our way back to the camp in a blinding snowstorm, some four or five miles, reaching home about 9am.

We were all dead beat, and lay down wet and slept till 3pm, when we wakened to the glad news that we were to go in that night again. Anyway we went at 9pm and hopped over just before dawn next morning to go some eight hundred yards over some open ground with snow on it, with tanks ahead, but no artillery. Before we reached our objective the tanks were well in the rear, and useless. Fritz hardly fired a shot until we got to the wire, and then he opened up with heavens knows how many machine guns, and simply mowed the chaps down. Somehow or other I managed to get through the wire, with chaps dropping all round me, without a scratch, and then went as fast as the (by this time intolerable) load I was carrying would let me. I fell into the trench, right on top of some poor kid who had been shot through the head just in front of me. The trench was full of wounded with a fair sprinkling of dead, but I was very glad to sit down and rest awhile. To make a long story short, we soon ran out of bombs [grenades] and ammunition, and somewhere about midday Fritz took the lot of us prisoners, and our troubles started. It was impossible to go back. Many of the lads tried it, but were shot down, without exception, within twenty yards.

We were hurried into Fritz's trench and relieved of our clasp knives by an officer with a gun, and then sent on our way to the rear. Unhappily our barrage commenced about that time, and we had a pretty hot time getting out. After doing about umpteen kilometers, we reached the German headquarters, and were searched, abused and after several hours standing in the snow desperately hungry and cold, we were herded into the village church, and introduced to Fritz's war bread for the first time.

To us, at the time, it seemed vile stuff, nearly black and very sour, but in a very short time, we were to learn to value every crumb of it. From this place we made our way in trucks to Solesmes, were bathed and sent on to Quesnoy, where we joined up with a big party, and went straight on to Lille.

We had been fondly imagining that we were bound for Germany, but were soon sadly disillusioned. We reached Lille railway station to find it lined with Prussian police (military) and officers waiting to see the big capture. When we got off at the station, it was quite evident that our arrival had been advertised in advance, for the streets were lined with civilian French and German. We marched right through the city, and the French people threw kisses to us, but the Germans saw to it that they did not make any demonstration in the street. After quite a long tramp, which finished in a cold drizzle, we arrived at the gloomy portals of a French fortress, all more or less underground, and were taken into gloomy dungeons, very damp, with stone floors and no bedding. All that night we walked about to keep warm, and in the morning were issued with boards to lie on but nothing else. (Fort McDonald, three boards to five men so we lay on them crossways).

Here we stayed 6 days and received one slice of black bread per diem, washed down with some of Jerry's substitute for coffee, a vile mixture. There were no proper sanitary arrangements, and the boards to lie on panned out at 3 to 4 or 5 men. They just kept us off the wet floor, and that was all. After a time a German came in and enlightened us as to the meaning of the thing, and read us the proclamation, issued by the authorities, telling us all about the reprisals. I have a copy of it that I will send along. It is interesting reading and was carried out to the letter.

At last, one morning, a party of us were told off, marched to the station, entrained for some place unknown, which turned out to be a partially destroyed village three kilometers behind the German lines. After waiting some hours at headquarters, we were taken into a small barb wire enclosure, with one half finished hut and the material for building more. The snow was still on the ground, but no blankets were issued, and many of us had not even overcoats. The next day most of the chaps went out to work, and the rest stayed, and started into finish putting up the huts and fix up the cookhouse. The work turned out to be varied, from digging deep dugouts to shell carrying, and grave digging - mostly the latter. We were supplied with straw to lie on, but after a few days had to throw it all out on account of the vermin. However at last they allowed us to go round the village and get what we could, we collected all kinds of filthy rags, including old curtains, frock coats, and tall hats. Anything that would keep us warm and the tall hats, and of course other kinds to replace our tin helmets. Up to this time any soup or coffee had to be taken out of our hats, as Fritz never issued us with any gear to eat with or out of.

However we soon got pots and pans in the village. The principal difficulty was to get anything to put in them. The ration was of the slenderest, one litre of the poorest kind of vegetable soup, a small piece of black bread, and sometimes when we touched it lucky, a piece of sausage about the size of your thumb. Without exaggeration, a prisoner's ration in Germany, was never at any time more than just enough to keep body and soul together, and at that no better than pig food. We cooked up anything that we could find including stinging nettle leaves, wild turnip leaves, and mouldy old mangolds out of musty cellars and devoured them thankfully.

A few days after we got settled down a party working on an ammunition dump a kilometre away were caught by an English shell, and seven were killed outright, and four were wounded. All were Australians, except one of the killed. Though the village was often shelled afterwards and small shells dropped even in the lager, nobody was killed or injured.

As the weather got warmer, and time went on, our bodily condition became awful. For eight weeks we never washed with soap, and soon learnt that of all scarce articles in Deutsch land, soap was the scarcest. The lice made our days and nights miserable in the extreme and though we stripped every time a chance occurred, it seemed impossible even to keep them down. Now and again a high officer visited us, and told us we were being much too well treated, and left orders with the guard that things were to be made harder for us. Luckily for us the Sergeant Major in charge did not take much notice of them. I love a Prussian officer, browbeating and starvation are the weapons that they love, and from a fairly long experience of the latter I can say one needs to cultivate a stiff upper lip to retain his self respect after a month or two of it.

However, it is a long lane that has no turning, and after some eight weeks at this village, Brebieres by the way, and about 5 kilos from Douai, which you will see on the map, we were told that our troubles were over, and marched some 20 kilos to a large village on the Belgian border called Orchies and billetted in a large deserted pottery for a few days rest. After a week there I was told off among a party of one hundred, and sent into Belgium to a large Pferde lazarett which means horse hospital! Here we were received cordially by a huge German officer who turned out to be the Vet in charge. We were put into fine quarters and given mattresses, but no blankets. The building was a large Catholic orphanage, commandeered by the Germans and a very fine place. Two priests were still living there, and were very good to us. The veterinarian turned out to be an Alsatian, and was very kind to us, but unfortunately soon afterwards was taken ill and replaced by a big Prussian. This chap did not treat us badly but was just indifferent. Except that we were always desperately hungry and horribly weak, we were well treated at this place, and the Belgium people did what they could for us, which was not much. Poor devils, they had not much themselves. The Hospital was in an old time village called Melles about 5 kilometers from a fine city named Tournai and the surrounding country as pretty as anything I have seen in Europe.

While there I made friends with a Belgian Barrister in Tournai, who supplied me with a toothbrush and hairbrush, articles to which I had long been a stranger, and many other necessities, including that article, more precious than gold in Germany - soap. He introduced me to a dear old Madame and her daughters, who kissed me for my Mother, and gave me a warm scarf and quite a nice parcel of food. The daughters did not participate in the kissing much to my disappointment. I will not forget these people in a hurry, for I can assure you, I was a pretty unkempt looking object, and none too clean. At this time I weighed 8 stone, and my clothes were in rags. The next time they visited us Madame brought me a fine pair of warm riding trousers from M. Frison (the barrister) and from that time out I was easily the dandy of the party, and an object of envy.

We stayed five months altogether at Melles, from the middle of June to the middle of November. The last few weeks were not so bad as the potato harvest was on and we were able to get a good many. Though they filled us up and to a large degree allayed the gnawing, the craving for fats still remained and our stomachs would not be comforted. The want of fats has of course been very acute in Germany for a long time. During this time our rations were altered and we were put on special stuff manufactured for prisoners and disgusting in the extreme.

The meat, which we called sea-lion , was actually fish of that species. All fat was taken from it, and the remainder, beastly looking stuff, quite black and full of salt, was dished out to us. At first starving as we were, none of us could eat it, but in the long run we were glad enough to tackle it, and we were to see the time in the bitter northern German winter when we actually looked forward to sea-lion day for a satisfying feed. The bread at this time was evidently made of sweepings for it was full of oat husks, and very gritty, but we ate that, too, and were very glad to get it. Towards the latter portion of our stay here I took a job of running a horse clipping machine, thereby getting Sundays off, and was promoted from that to looking after the "Veterinar's" two private horses, where I struck one of the kindest of Germans. He was very good to me, and often got me a little extra food, and helped me to pick up my strength quite a lot. The cold weather was setting in, and I felt that I was well fixed for the winter, but it was not to be, and on Nov 14th we suddenly got orders to leave for Germany. I forgot to mention that in Oct. I received one Red Cross food parcel with cocoa and real meat in it. My chum and I had a banquet; nectar was not in it with that cocoa. Fritz's substitute for coffee and tea, were our only beverages, the former only burnt barley, and the latter some kind of grass.

On the morning of 15th Nov. we left Melles at 6am and marched across the border to Marchiennes, a distance of 34 kilos, and I think the hardest march I've ever done yet. By this time many of us were bootless and wearing sabots (wooden clogs). My boots had hardly any soles, but still they were boots, but after 24 miles, mostly on the vile cobblestone roads, we were all crippled more or less. We reached Marchiennes more dead than alive, and were crammed into a disused slaughter house to wait for the train. Altogether there were 600 in this place which, at the outside, was big enough for say, 350. However, the Germans told us that the Russians would arrive next day, and that we would take their train back to Germany. But we stayed nine days, and no boilers being available for soup cooking, the ingredients were dished out to us individually, to cook the best way we could. Before we left half the place had been pulled down for firewood. There were no sanitary arrangements whatever, and after a few days that part of the place was disgusting in the extreme. The Germans said that they were very short of bread, so we got one third of a 2lb loaf for four days, and were ravenous beyond words. We were taken in parties for bath and fumigation to St Amand, eleven kilos away, and there I realised that, compared with many poor devils, I myself had had a good time. Many of them were literally skin and bone, and covered with sores and weak to the last degree.

On the return journey many of the poor devils could not keep up to the stronger ones, but the guards helped them along with the butts of their rifles. I saw one little runt of a German knock down a big chap six feet, three times, because he could not walk fast in sabots, and was very weak. I can speak of wooden shoes with some authority as I wore them for four months, and I can assure you that to any one who has not been brought up to them, they are an invention of the devil. On frozen ground it is very difficult to keep one's feet and the snow always sticks to the bottom, so that every few yards you must stop and kick it off, on the other hand they are very warm and dry, in fact quite all right if you have not far to walk. However, the worst things come to an end and on Nov 26th, the train arrived. Not long before we moved off, a wagon load of RC (Red Cross) packets arrived, and brought 2 for me, and 2 for my mate. Of all the meals I have ever had that one stands out on its own. White bread, butter, beef stew, and cocoa with milk and sugar, we ate till we were satisfied, and that is saying something. We were very lucky, for only about 200 men got parcels out of 600 odd. At 8 o c that night we entrained, and were joined by another party making up to 1100 odd. One dead Russian was taken out before we got in which did not look cheerful.

We got away at last and crossed over the border and up through Belgium, with many stoppages, and at 8am on the morning of the 28th the train ran into a dead end telescoping two carrages, killed one of our chaps, and a sentry, and injured several of our fellows. After some hours, we again moved off, and crossed the German border at Herbertsthal and reached Friedricksfeld early on the morning of 29th, after 53 hours in the train, during which time we were issued with two litres of very thin soup and no bread and nothing else. Of course my mate and I had our packets, but the very large majority had nothing whatever. On arrival in camp we were searched very thoroughly and relieved of all our souvenirs, etc. given some soup and bread, and put into huts made fairly comfortable. Packets were issued everyday, but I was unlucky, and did not get one all the time I was there, excepting clothing, which I was very glad of.

We stayed there a fortnight, and during that time I met Malcolm quite accidentally, and he helped me a lot. Friedricksfeld is a fine camp, and I would have liked to have stayed longer, but on the 18th we were transferred to Gustrow and Malcolm and the other NCOs were sent to another lager. I don't know where. It has been out of the question to keep up any communication with anyone for of course, no correspondence has been possible. Malcolm was very kind to me when I was there, and it was good to have someone to talk home to. The journey to Gustrow was uneventful, some of the scenery was fine, though principally on account of the season, everything being frozen and covered with snow, made it very fine when the sun was shining, but for the most part the country did not look very good. Gustrow, which in the early days of the war bore a sinister reputation, is still a miserable hole, and the surrounding country flat and desolate. I think we arrived here on Dec 18th, but we were booked to move again before Xmas.

On the same date this year there was no snow on the ground, but last year it was bitter, and I remember when we went through the gate, the sentry had icicles hanging to his whiskers. On the 23rd we moved off again, at 4am, armed with a ration of black bread, with a pint of coffee substitute inside us. We had thought on getting to Germany that most of our troubles were over, but we still had the bitterest experience of all to go through. After a journey lasting some 12 hours, we got out at a small station near Kiel, called Gettorf, and walked seven kilometers to the lager. It seemed a long way to me on the frozen roads in clogs. We found them fairly comfortable barracks with large stoves, but soon discovered that the amount of coal issued was just enough to annoy us. We were informed that there would be no work till after Xmas, and we were left alone until then. That in itself was a boon. On Xmas day we got one litre of cabbage and water, and one pickled cucumber.

On Boxing Day we were called at 6am and breakfasted on a special soup that Fritz invented for prisoners. What on earth it was composed of is a mystery we never solved. The lads very aptly called it sandstorm. It looked like sand mixed with water, and tasted like that compound flavoured with kerosine. However, we were literally starving, and weren't particular as to flavour but only trouble was that we could not get enough of it, bad as it was. At 7am out we went into the snow, stood till nearly frozen, and finally slipped and scrambled down the frozen road to the railway and started work. We stayed out and worked till half past two every afternoon half frozen, and utterly miserable with the acutest pangs of hunger gnawing at our vitals, and most days returned to a bowl of soup, largely and sometimes wholly composed of swede turnips, quite unsatisfying, of course, and without nourishment, at 4pm roll call, another half hour in the snow, then bread and coffee, which we ate straight away. To put the tin hat on this we had no tobacco, and could not even buy any. Extreme hunger with tobacco is bearable, but without is the dizzy limit.

This state of affairs continued for eight weeks, by which time we were desperately weak and not able to do enough work to keep ourselves warm. With his usual topsy turvy Fritz drove us like galley slaves. All armed with walking sticks they used them often, shouting themselves hoarse, but the anglische swinehands were not caring, and at last they gave it up. Fritz in the aggregate is always like that when you are down and out. He rarely asks a well fed man to work very hard, but loves to take it out of a poor devil whose spirit is nearly broken. I may say that he did not often break the spirit of the Englanders, though he brought them low enough.

All things come to an end, and at last packets commenced to come from Friedsrichfeld. Then the accumulation of months came in avalanches and we had quantities of everything, & Fritz having a great liking for English tobacco not to mention grub, roared like a sucking dove, and smiled sweetly on the Englander. But there was nothing doing, and the sentries sniffed the smell of frying bacon, and saw all kinds of dainties coming out of tins, and sighed in vain. The tables were turned with a vengeance, and we did not forget to rub it in. From that time out no one did any serious work, and curiously enough, though we were soon strong and fit and able to do it, Fritz never tried his old games on.

In May I was put into the lager post office, and hence forth led a gentleman's life. The summer was glorious, with long sunny days and twilight lasting till 9 o clock and later. We got books and footballs, etc from England and things altogether took on a brighter hue. We were comparatively happy but thanks only to our own people, for without their aid, a great many of us would have never left Germany. Russians who have received little or nothing from outside have died in their thousands, and they are a people used to hard living and the cold. We all had Russian batmen, who cleaned our dishes, and did our washing etc. and in return received food and tobacco. Of course the large accumulation of packets enabled us to do this. Consequently the Rusky's waxed fat and strong like ourselves, respondingly cheeky to Fritz. If ever there were lost souls, these people were they. Deserted by their own people, their sufferings have been unspeakable, and they have been a big factor in Germany being able to hang on so long. Next to them have been, I think, the Italians, who Fritz looks upon as traitors, and treat accordingly.

The summer was uneventful, very little news reached us, but lately we knew that things were going badly with Germany, and some of the Germans spoke confidently of peace before Xmas. Then some began to talk of a possible revolution, an almost unbelievable thing to us, after our experience of the power of officers, etc, but many signs of insubordination and insolence began to show themselves among the German sailors, and we soon saw how things were going. On Nov 5th four days before the general revolution took place, the navy mutinied, and our little lager came under the red flag.

From that time we did no work and were allowed out without sentries. We promenaded all over the country side and into Keil and generally enjoyed ourselves. After 10 months inside the barbed wire, never out of sight of sentries with rifles, it was joy unalloyed to get out at last. We inundated Keil and were treated as friends by the populace, chatted to the girls in vile German and invaded the postcard shops and pub, which all have music as one person said to me there is one thing we have plenty of music in Germany, if nothing else. There was much misery to be seen in Keil, poor little pinched kiddies, who followed us about in the hope of getting a biscuit. All round the district the youngsters look upon us as sort of fairy godfathers, who sometimes had food to give away.

We quite took charge of Keil and nobody minded. I saw a crowd of our fellows marching through one of the main streets singing of all the jingo songs Sons of the Sea and the Germans who understood only laughed. A very short while before this, we got orders to pack up and go to Gustrow for transportation. Of course we thought that we were bound for Blighty straight away, but were doomed to disappointment. We spent a beastly tedious month marching about the camp, and the town of Gustrow. A nice old fashioned town, but being so fed up with everything German, we were not interested.

At last on Dec 20th we went by train to a small place on the Baltic Warnemunde and caught a small boat for Copenhagen. The boat was very tiny and crowded and the trip darned uncomfortable, but we had turned our backs on Germany and nothing else mattered. At Copenhagen we got a fine reception and went into a comfy camp close by where we spent Xmas. The Danish people did all they could for us and gave us a dandy send off. We had a splendid passage over in a fine ship Frederick VIII and landed in Hull. There lots of nice people met us and we talked for the first time for two years to nice English women. Everything possible was done for us, in fact much more than we expected, even to motors to bring us from the station to the camp.

That brings me to the present moment to the camp at Ripon, tomorrow morning we leave for London. Unfortunately, I am only partly rigged up in khaki, so will look a queer object going to London. We are getting 30 days leave and then I understand are to be shipped home. May it be right, it will be good to see you all again. Lots of love to yourself dear and all at home.

Your ever loving son Justin

Justin Dawson eventually returned to Australia, arriving by boat on 17 March 1919.

The material for this article was supplied by John A Dawson of Victoria, son of Justin Dawson.
6/03/2002 9:46:10 AM

Last updated: 16 November 2022

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), POW survives horrendous conditions, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 29 May 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/pow-survives-horrendous-conditions
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