Prisoners on Cannock Chase -Great War POWs and Brocton Camp.
By Richard Pursehouse, Frontline Books 2020
I declare an interest up front. Having written a similar book, I was looking forward to reading this. Richard Pursehouse has produced a highly readable and interesting account of the First World War German POW Camp at Brocton in Cannock Chase. In our own book “Breaking Stones” we looked at two very small work camps for German POWs at Ladmanlow and Peak Dale near Buxton, Derbyshire. Both these camps were ultimately controlled by the POW Camp at Brocton, so it was interesting to read Richard’s history of the main camp. There were 23 sub-camps of Brocton, and we covered two, so that leaves plenty of room for other local historians to cover one of their own local POW Camps. From his introduction, it seems that Richard literally stumbled across some remains of Brocton Camp while walking in Cannock Chase, which is pretty much how Alan Roberts started researching the Ladmanlow and Peak Dale Camps, so that is an incentive for everybody.
Being familiar with the sources, it seems Richard has done his research very thoroughly. He seems fortunate to have discovered the letters of Private Horace Martin Thompson , who was employed at Brocton Camp as a clerk. I am not sure what it says about Military Censorship, or even Private Thompson’s ability to keep a secret, but his letters quoted here, provide a fascinating and often indiscreet background to day to day goings on in the camp and we are fortunate to read them. Richard also draws on the reports on Brocton Camp by visiting officials of the Swiss Legation and the International Red Cross, which provide a fair , balanced and very “Swiss” perspective on how the British were running their prison camps. We found the Swiss Report on Peak Dale very informative, and it seems that the Swiss visited the bigger Brocton Camp much more frequently and left a good quality of documentation on that camp. The book is extremely well illustrated, and Richard has found some excellent photographs taken at the camp in 1917/1919 as well as printed materials and ephemera. I was reading the Kindle Version, so am sure they look even better in print.
The book provides a narrative history of Brocton Camp from its opening in April 1917 to its closure in July 1919. Apparently, the Earl of Lichfield who owned the land, allowed the War Office to use it strictly on condition that it was not used as a Prison Camp. Once they were in possession of the land, the War Office promptly went back on their word and opened a POW Camp, with the first 800 German Prisoners arriving in April 1917. Presumably, the need to accommodate the huge numbers of prisoners captured on the Western Front outweighed any word they had given the Earl.
Drawing on Thompson’s letters and other researches, Richard gives an entertaining and interesting overview of some of the broad themes of camp life including; the role of the Royal Defence Corps in providing guards; Food and rations ; Cultural Life; work camps and the Hospitals. Apparently, the German POWs, staged a performance of Sherlock Holmes in German in the Camp Theatre. ( Richard has found some terrific photographs of the Camp Theatre productions) .He also provides some interesting background on the British interpreters employed at the Camps. I found Richard to be particularly fair to camp Commandant Sir Arthur Grant, who has received a distinctly bad press in some quarters. Basically, Grant was badly wounded on the Western Front, invalided out of service and the allegation is that this caused him to act in a brutal and vindictive manner to German Prisoners. Richard suggests that this may even be a case of mistaken identity and that one of Grant’s Assistant Commandants may have been responsible for the incidents that led to these allegations. He has also delved deep into the records to find allegations from German prisoners that their property had been improperly confiscated. The German Foreign Office even complained to the Swiss Legation about it. This also seems a bit rich considering that the Germans may indeed have been dispossessed of property “acquired” from unfortunate French or Belgian civilians. Anyway, the Swiss were still investigating when the war ended and the Germans started to taka rather more emollient line.
The bit that struck me most was the unfortunate story of Karl Kobollick of the Bavarian Infantry. He was shot dead by a camp guard, Private Arthur Gent of the 1/4th Northumberland Fusiliers for crossing the wire of the camp. Think “Ives the Mole” in the film “The Great Escape” and I think we get the picture. Unfortunately, Kobollick was shot on 27 February 1919, which is clearly three months after the Armistice. Private Gent had been held as a Prisoner in Germany, so I suppose the implication is that affected his judgement. On the other hand, officers of the RAMC struggled to keep Kobollick alive without success. A British Coroner’s Inquest found a verdict of “Justifiable Homicide” which to me seems a bit lenient ( I suppose we have to be careful not to judge with the benefit of hindsight- but “misadventure” seems rather more apt , the Swiss investigated and were somewhat curious as to whether a proper warning had been issued and whether Kobollick was actually walking back to his compound at the time. In fact, as I found out when looking at the subject, the British and French were determined to hang onto their German prisoners as long as possible for economic reasons. It was not until the Treaty of Versailles, that the British began large scale repatriations to Germany. It seems that both Kobollick and Private Gent, were both caught by a political decision, with unfortunate consequences for both.
Writing this, as COVID19 cases start to rise again, I cannot avoid mentioning the Spanish Influenza and again Richard Pursehouse covers this well. The Spanish Flu had probably come to Europe through American Military Camps, a large Prison Camp like Brocton provided ideal circumstances for its propagation. You only have to visit the nearby German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase to see how many German prisoners died at Camps throughout the UK in October and November 1918. Again, had the British repatriated German Prisoners earlier, some of those consequences might have been avoided. At least as Richard points out , the British buried them with full military honours at least until the Armistice or the numbers became too great to handle.
The story ends with the camp closing in July 1919, Commandant Grant has some queries about his pension, the Earl of Lichfield has to engage solicitors to get his land back from the War Office and the contents of the Brocton Camp are auctioned off- the huts, beds and especially the barbed wire. Apparently, the barbed wire was much in demand with local farmers.
I found it a fascinating and entertaining read and a substantial contribution to the historiography of First World War Prison Camps. As you can see, I had a prior interest but I am sure that any general reader with an interest in Staffordshire, World War One and history in general will find it an interesting read. And if you do find, it an interesting read, our own book “Breaking Stone” might make an interesting companion piece.