This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

“My platoon was put in an exposed position on a flank to prevent surprise. The enemy were in front and to our left. After a few minutes another machine gun opened on us from the right so that we were swept with fire on showing ourselves. I was hit by a sniper’s bullet through the back of the head and fail to remember anything further until I saw Germans standing over me telling me to march if I could.”

This is how 2nd Lieutenant Frank Gordon Marsden, of the 9th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, describes being taken prisoner at Sebourg, near Valenciennes on 4 November 1918.

Lieutenant Marsden was one of around 200,000 British military personnel to fall into German hands during the First World War. Thousands more Britons suffered this fate in 1914–18 than during the Second World War. Yet, as the millions who’ve thrilled to the sight of Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough defying the Nazis in 1963’s iconic blockbuster The Great Escape will testify, the experiences of Second World War prisoners are much more celebrated than those of the earlier war.

Held to blame

On repatriation at the end of the First World War, army officers (that is, those in authority, as opposed to the rank and file) who had been taken prisoner were required to submit a written explanation of the circumstances of their capture: these explanations were later added to their personal files. Around 70 per cent of these files survive in the National Archives, Kew – and the insights they give us into how the soldiers accounted for their capture are fascinating.

Officers were not informed beforehand how far they would be held to blame for allowing themselves to be taken prisoner. The three former brigade commanders assigned to process these statements sometimes summoned ex-PoWs to the War Office to clarify details in a face-to-face interrogation, or they wrote to former commanding officers for corroboration. On at least one occasion the former brigade commanders resolved themselves into a Court of Inquiry, which might have led to court-martial charges. However, not all the ex-PoWs were able to remember very much about their capture, as Frank Marsden’s dramatic account shows.

Generally, these statements give far more tactical detail, and more precise information about injuries, than would have seemed appropriate in letters written from the trenches to family members, or in postwar memoirs. You may have read any number of first-hand accounts of fighting in the First World War, but probably none as cold-bloodedly – and authentically – graphic as this report by Captain Gerard Orby Sloper, MC, of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, of being taken prisoner by the Germans at Bellewaarde, near Ypres on 16 June 1915.

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“At 4.15am the 9th Brigade attacked. As machine-gun officer I went with the first wave to choose positions for the guns. When I reached a sunken road I found that a Boche machine-gun, which had been reported as laid on the road, had not been silenced. I was hit in the left hand. Across the road I turned to the left and was hit in the nose by a piece of grenade. I stumbled into a sap [a section of trench dug at right angles to the main trench and leading in the direction of the enemy lines] and silenced the gun and shot three of the team.

“Presently a following party came down the trench from my right – which I joined. About five minutes later I was hit on the back of the neck by a piece of shrapnel shell. I went up to the second line of trenches, collected about 20 men of the Liverpool Scottish under an officer and one of my machine guns and proceeded to the third line. I collected and sent back to the OC 9th Brigade all papers in the trench with a memo stating that the trenches on my left had not been taken and asked for 200 men to do it with. I then placed the machine gun in position to cover my left flank and just as I had arranged this a piece of heavy shell hit me on the top of the head.”

‘Boches’ in the trench

Sloper now had four separate wounds – and one is struck, in this as in other accounts, at how officers often continued to push their men forward even when themselves injured. He continued: “Owing to my wounds I am rather vague about the subsequent proceedings until a sergeant of the Liverpool Scottish came to report that his officer said the Boches were in the trench on his right and that he would have to retire. I went to fix things up and found that he had retired. Instead of sending a message for him to come back again I took the machine gun back to the second line. I now consider that was a mistake although our left flank was in the air but I was not in a fit state to decide at the time.

“The next event I remember was a message being passed up that I could not have the men I asked for but that the 7th (I think) Brigade would attack. I therefore considered it my duty to hold on until the attack began although my left flank was still in the air and we were suffering losses. Soon after this the Boches counter-attacked. We held them off until a bombing party came up to the communication-trench from my left rear.” [A bombing party was a team of men armed with grenades, backed up by other soldiers with rifles at the ready: ‘bomb’ was then a common term for a hand grenade.

“I was then hit by a grenade that burst behind me, while I was trying to collect a party to drive them out, and wounded me in the back and left arm and cut a large blood-vessel in my neck. I lost a great quantity of blood but managed to squeeze the blood vessel below the cut and the next thing I remember is a Boche kicking me on the head at the other end of the trench.”

Errand of mercy

Sometimes the former prisoners’ accounts reveal young men simply out of their depth, as is the case with this report by 2nd Lieutenant John Montford Stotesbury, 1/2 Battalion London Regiment, of being captured near Angreau.

“On the 6th Nov 1918 my batt[alion] were taking part in an attack East of Valenciennes towards Mons. The attack started at 5.30am and I was captured about 6.30am in company with CSM [Company Sergeant Major] Harper of my own company.

“The attack got held up owing to difficult country and a counter attack by the Germans on the left where our forces got further forward at the start. The CSM and myself went forward to reconnoitre through a wood to the railway and found ourselves on the railway with Germans each way. Owing to the CSM not being able to recognise them as Germans after I had done so he was wounded in the thigh for his curiosity and appealed to me to bind him up. I consented to do this, and it was whilst engaged on this errand of mercy I was surrounded from the rear and taken prisoner. I have sent an explanation of my capture to my commanding officer in France.”

Stotesbury, a clerk in an insurance office in civil life, had been commissioned only in June 1918 after serving three and a half years in the ranks. The fact that the company sergeant major accompanied him on his reconnoitre suggests that either Stotesbury or the CSM thought he needed someone to hold his hand.

Because of the readership they were intended for, the ex-PoWs’ accounts rarely struck a personal note, though one officer at least sat down to write his self-exculpation with what seems to have been a degree of disenchantment with the military system. Lieutenant Henry William Allason, MC, was with the 13th Battalion East Surrey Regiment, most of which was taken prisoner at Fleurbaix, near Armentières as a result of the collapse of a neighbouring section of the front manned by a Portuguese division.

“About 04.00 hours on the morning of 9 April 1918, the artillery liaison officer Lt RH Booth came to my bunk in battalion headquarters and asked me whether the bombardment which had just started was on our front.

“At 05.00 hours I proceeded to make out my daily report from my own observations on the previous day, the reports from the companies, and those of my snipers. News came through that Lieut Webb, who was in charge of ‘A’ Coy [Company] in the front line, in the absence of Capt WG Price (who was living at battalion headquarters), had been wounded, and about 06.30 hours I received orders from Major West to go to the front line (‘A’ Coy) and find out what was happening. This I did accompanied by a runner, and found that except for a heavy bombardment on the communication trenches and on the line, all was quiet; the sentries were on the outlook but there was a thick mist on. Lt Webb was lying wounded in the dug out and 2nd Lt Oakes appeared to be in command of the company.

“I returned to battalion headquarters and reported. I then proceeded to my quarters to carry on with my report. Whilst doing this I was informed that during my absence up the line, a big shell had come over and wiped out all my snipers including Sergt Hines, in a trench near battalion headquarters.”

Shelling the mess

Note the deadpan manner in which Allason refers to the demise of the battalion sniper team, which he was in charge of and which comprised men who he had hand-picked, trained and got to know quite well, and who might have been with him when they were killed if he had not been relatively safe in a dug-out doing paperwork.

“I continued my report to brigade until another shell hit the mess to which my quarter adjoined and the debris tore holes in the papers on the table on which I was writing. There was only wooden planking overhead and a hole in the roof caused by the shell. I then entered the Elephant Dug-out [a dug-out with curved sheets of corrugated iron serving as a ceiling and walls, like a miniature underground Nissen hut] of battalion headquarters which was adjoining and continued to write up my report, having shewn the torn pieces of paper to the officers there, Major West (in command) Capt Ainger, and Capt WG Price as evidence of my narrow escape.

All Well In Doberitz
A group of British prisoners of war pose for a portrait at a camp in Doberitz, near Berlin 1915. One of the men holds a sign reading 'All Well'. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Whilst writing my report a man came in from the Welsh Regiment (to the best of my recollection) and a cyclist runner from brigade and it was stated in my hearing that the Germans had broken through the Welsh. After completing my report to brigade, I waited to receive orders from Major West as to his plan of action but received none.

“The firing was heavy and there were plenty of gas shells about. The elephant dug-out was closely packed, as the doctor brought in a stretcher case. I heard a Lewis gun firing which appeared to be coming closer, as if retiring from the Germans. I heard no orders given by Major West and received none myself, when suddenly I heard a voice cry Heraus! [‘out!’] and Major West walked out of the dug-out holding up his hands. Capt Ainger, Capt Price and myself and others followed after him.

“Being furthest from the door and occupied in destroying my report to brigade, I was the last to leave the dug-out.

“Before going out, Battalion Sergt Major Lee turned to me and said: ‘Well Sir, we have held out to the last.’ I was thoroughly disgusted at not having had a fight for it and replied: ‘Yes and never fired a shot.’ I then went outside with my hands in my pockets and found the Germans outside the dug-out. I was disarmed and taken prisoner.”

This last paragraph must have annoyed the three former brigade commanders at the War Office, but since Allason was with three officers senior to himself when the dug-out was overrun, there could be no official grounds for finding fault with his tone.

Henry Allason’s report is confirmed by officers captured with him – and it seems to contradict his commanding officer, Major William Gerald West’s explanation that “no information as to what was happening reached me from any source. While endeavouring to get in touch with my Coy commanders, I was rushed and taken prisoner by a German ‘mopping up’ party.” This seems intended to give the impression that West was gallantly making his way between his battalion headquarters and the command post of one of the four infantry companies of his battalion. Allason, however, claims that West was with his staff in the dug-out sheltering his headquarters.

Bitter lessons

A third officer, Lieutenant Louis William Pinnick, appears to support Allason’s version of events, reporting that the Germans arrived at the very moment that Pinnick was reporting the loss of the telephone switchboard to Major West. The three former brigade commanders at the War Office seem not to have noticed the discrepancy.

Some officers seem to have fudged certain embarrassing aspects of their incarceration. The poet FW Harvey, for example, explained, “I was captured on patrol”, implying that he was leading an authorised patrol, which would normally consist of several men. However, a more elaborate account, which he published in 1920, shows that, though he had been ordered to lead a patrol that night, he had decided on his own initiative to slip across the lines during the afternoon to reconnoitre the intended patrol route, a piece of foolishness that led him into German hands.

It has become the fashion in recent years to claim that, having digested the bitter lessons of the Somme, Passchendaele and the great German offensives of spring 1918, the British Army by late 1918 was a finely honed instrument of war. Yet this was clearly not always the case, as is shown by this account by 2nd Lieutenant Frank Oliver Rideout, 1st Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, of being taken prisoner near Gouzeaucourt.

“Three companies of my battalion, ‘B’ ‘C’ and ‘D’, attacked the above position at 5.15am on Sept 10th 1918. On our right should have been the 17th Division, on our left should have been the 38th Division, but to the best of our knowledge the battalions of these divisions failed to arrive at the jumping off point by zero time. However we attacked and a fair proportion of us succeeded in gaining the objective. An immediate counter-attack, however, found the majority of our rifles useless as they were covered in mud.

“The men were new recruits almost to a man and those who were not killed or wounded by enemy fire failed to stick to it and attempted to get back to our lines. I personally held on to my portion of the trench until I had no men left and I had expended my ammunition. I then attempted – too late – to follow the remains of the company who I presumed would have gathered in a shallow trench some little distance in the rear. I was, however, held up in the wire and completely surrounded by the enemy who had gone forward.”

One might have expected, after four years of trench warfare, that troops would not advance with rifles so clogged with mud that they could not fire. However, it is precisely details of this sort, not generally available elsewhere, that make the explanations by repatriated prisoners of war in Kew’s National Archives so compelling.

British prisoners of war in Germany

Just over 7 million soldiers were taken prisoner of war from 1914–18. Germany held around 2.5 million of them, including 200,000 British military personnel who were housed in some of the scores of PoW camps dotted around Germany.

The largest and most celebrated British PoW breakout took place at Holzminden Camp in Lower Saxony in 1918. On the night of 23/24 July, 29 men escaped through a tunnel, 10 of whom made it to neutral Netherlands and, from there, on to Britain.

As the Allied blockade of Germany bit ever deeper, British PoWs increasingly relied on rations sent to them from home. By the end of the conflict, 9 million food parcels and 800,000 clothing parcels had been despatched to British prisoners overseas.

A number of German officers were accused of mistreating Allied prisoners during the First World War, and were put on trial in the Leipzig War Crimes Trials in 1921.

During the war, German kaiser Wilhelm II gave one British PoW, Capt Robert Campbell, permission to return home to visit his dying mother in Kent, on condition that he return to his camp in Magdeburg, north-east Germany. Campbell kept his promise, but soon after attempted to escape from the camp.

AD Harvey’s books include Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars 1793–1945 (Continuum, 1993) and Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence (Cambridge Scholars, 2007).