Dieser Internet-Auftritt verfolgt das Ziel, möglichst viele Informationen über das Internierungslager auf der Ile Longue zusammenzustellen, damit Historiker und Nachkommen der Internierten sich ein Bild von den Realitäten dieses bisher wenig bekannten Lagers machen können - nicht zuletzt auch, um die bedeutenden kulturellen Leistungen der Lagerinsassen zu würdigen.
Le but de ce site est de prendre contact avec les familles des prisonniers allemands, autrichiens, hongrois, ottomans, alsaciens-lorrains... qui ont été internés, pendant la Première Guerre mondiale, dans le camp de l’Ile Longue (Finistère).
The German engineer Carl Wilhelm Hubert Doetsch left a report that describes how Germans who were imprisoned in Africa were taken to Île Longue.
For the captured Germans this meant quite an ordeal. Out of a total number of 270 Germans who were detained by the French, some 80 would finally reach Île Longue – after an odyssey lasting almost two years that took them through several stations in Africa, followed by Marseille and Uzès.
It would take three more years before they were released to Germany.
Doetsch relayed this odyssey and the ensuing years of internment in moving terms. His report was published six months after his final return in the “Telefunken Zeitung” (the company magazine of Telefunken, a German radio and television apparatus company) (http://www.radiomuseum.org/forumdat...).
We are deeply grateful to the operators of the website http://www.radiomuseum.org, especially to the editor, Thomas Günzel, who transformed the texts into PDFs. Thank you so much!
by Carl W.H.Doetsch
After the official handover negotiations, the English and French marched into the shortwave radio transmitting station of Kamina, which we had destroyed just in time, advancing from three sides. The victors inspected their prize. Accompanied by Major Gosling, an English expert for wireless messaging in the colonies, I pace the station’s compound. The slim towers lie on the ground, like the twisted ribs of umbrellas. We stumble everywhere over steel cables and the bronze wires of the antennas. Just a few days ago we had looked up to the latter full of confidence and were satisfied. In the boiler-house are three gaping bent craters – the result of three blasting cartridges. The instruments of the boilers are hanging in the air, seemingly superfluous. In the powerhouse the turbines’ control boards resemble the outstretched arms of two heavily injured, lying on the ground and begging for mercy. It is almost insulting to see the switchboards (Illustration 1) and the smashed, used gauges. Parts of burnt wireless telegraphy equipment, switches, bent lamps and torn wires are strewn about, two burnt out converters seem to grin at us. Our piece of pride, the switchboard – which used to be the station’s brains and was called “Sabbibox“ by the natives – makes even my companion shake his head and sigh “That’s pity, pity.“
My tears have long dried, while he, being a true techie, is still crying. - Wherever you look outside you’ll be bound to see the same sad view: destruction. We disturb a black man stealing copper. He quickly vanishes behind the huge cooling tower that has now turned cold and useless and dominates the devastation like a huge exclamation mark.
Any reconstruction work is absolutely inconceivable! The glaring light of Africa’s midday sun adds a touch of irony as it will make sure the sad ruins of our station will be buried soon by tropical plants.
From now on all the whites are POWs – the only exception being those gentlemen who stayed on the coast in order to hand over Lomé to the English.
Under a glaring sun we stumble to Atakpane. Much of our luggage has to be left behind and even more becomes lost on the way. In Atakpane we are housed in the German factory buildings. The next morning – August 28th, 1914 - orders are: “To the coast!” We proceed to Atakpane station and while the time away, sitting on our various chests, boxes and suitcases. Right there in the station the English hold an important ceremony: all of us, even the ladies, have to commit ourselves to abstain from fighting the English or their allies in this war from now on.
The train leaves; the English have brought along sufficient staff from the Goldcoast. In the afternoon we stop at the first blown up bridge. Circumstances permitting, everyone finds something to eat and spends the night in the train’s carriages. The next morning it is a short march along the embankment, then across a river (the bridge having been blown up as well), and to a train awaiting us. It will be able to carry us right to Lomé since the English have managed to temporarily fix the rest of the blown up crossings. Around noon we arrive at Lomé’s pier. It has remained completely intact. Our cranes swivel around and we are lifted into landing boats.
The Negros from Ewe quickly row us to the steam ship “Obuasi” of the Liverpool-based Elder-Dempster-Line. We are divided into groups: first class cabins for ladies, officers and “prominent people”, second class cabins for non-commissioned officers and privates.
The captain is a vigorous person who knows exactly what he wants. He does not care for Nigerian riflemen on board as guards. He has transported POWs quite often; during the Boer War, when the Russians fought the Japanese, and, later, when Americans did in the Spaniards. Now it is our turn – and who is going to be next?
We continue to lie at anchor off Lomé, almost completely isolated from the outside world. However, we still have learned that somewhere in France our advance is rumoured to have come to a standstill. Life on board is monotonous; the same goes for the food: mutton chops, kippered herring, porridge and repeat.
Every now and then the captain talks politics with us. For him, there is not the shadow of a doubt that we are going to lose the war, since, as he puts it,
“We don’t want to fight,
But by Jingo, if we do,
We’ve got the men
We’ve got the ships
We’ve got the money, too!”
It is by mere instinct that most of us are content to be in the hands of the English. This changed when the commander of the base at Lomé appears one day accompanied by a French captain. A roll call follows and we are handed over to the French since France and England have signed a treaty regarding the conquered colony of Togo – in the future, Kamina was to be administrated by the French. This included us, too. Our ladies are permitted to leave for Germany if they wish to do so. However, the English make it quite clear that they will not guarantee their arrival in Germany. That is why the ladies decide to follow their husbands to Dahomey where the French plan to move us.
On September 28th, 1914, it is off to Cotonou, Cotonou, the capital of French Dahomey. On our arrival both the beach and the pier are crowded by Frenchmen and women alike, every single one of them victors, clad in gossamer clothes, toting colourful parasols, ready to feast their eyes on us.
But our captain signals to the port that he will make us prisoners leave the ship at 5 am the next morning. “No way French women worth their salt will be up at that time,” he says cunningly. We are grateful – not only for having been spared to run the gauntlet but also for the last civilized night in a bed, the last one for five years of imprisonment to come. We were on the mysterious threshold to a country that should house us for a long time and that may claim the dubious fame of having tortured, tormented, mistreated, and abused wretched and helpless POWs in a way likely singular in the world’s history! - We entered France and left civilisation behind.
We are accommodated in a hut constructed from palm leaves. In the course of the day, we are offered “native-style” food. From then on, we never stopped wondering; indeed, we had entered France!
For our stay in Dahomey, everyone is assigned a Negro’s mat subbing for a bed, a plate and a spoon. Some are assigned a drinking vessel – to equip them for a march to the utmost Northern border of Dahomey, on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, more than 800 km off the coast!
The French major Marrois informed us that we are to be moved to Gaya, a small post situated directly on the Niger river, in the Niger military territory. The first leg – more than 260 km from Dahomey to Save – will be covered by train; the rest - from Save to Gaya - on foot. Married prisoners are allowed to remain on the coast with their wives.
At first we believed this to be a rather bad joke. The next morning, however, we – meaning some 170 prisoners, officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted men – are put onto the train to save which it reaches by nightfall. We are housed in freight sheds and in the nearby station. Our walk through hell is scheduled to begin in some days’ time. Our doctors protest to the French doctor who accompanies us, write a petition submitting reasons tenfold, appeal to French generosity and humaneness, refer to our general state of health, our defective gear and the impossibility to perform such a march without blankets, partly even without mosquito nets, mostly without adequate footwear – alas, in vain! Everybody has to be moved to Gaya. A last reference to the sick, the weak, the elder gents – the French doctor tacitly starts to screen us and deems everybody to be fit to march to the Niger.
Officers are allowed 30 kg of luggage each, non-commissioned officers and enlisted men 15 kg. Cars transporting the French escorts and black porters are supposed to transport it later.
On September 23rd, 1914, the first transport is off, to be followed by the second on September 25th. I am with the second group. Our route follows a recently opened road from Save to Niger. We march in the manner of the French troops – at night, with a 10 minute break after every 50 minutes of marching, covering distances between 20 and 30 km per night.
At that time of the year, nights are pitch-black. We follow the lantern dangling from the rifle of a Senegalese rifleman who, with seven more blacks, leads the march. Eight more Senegalese riflemen bring up the rear of the miserable marching column that tends to be increasingly longer towards dawn since many suffer from foot sores, are exhausted, are not used to marching, or are ill. When resting, they are told by a frosty French doctor “Must march, some” which means they have to cover the same distance as the healthy. Our footwear defies description. Whereas some march in brown shoes, others sport light mosquito boots; next to me, an assessor walked in patent leather boots. The drinking water is unboiled and unfiltered for lack of any filters. At our first resting place the thirsty drank water of a clay color in which larvae and tadpoles were merrily swimming around. An ox (which is worth some 30 or 40 francs) is butchered during every rest. Its meat is then cooked in two iron pots that are transported by car, together with the filthy black cook. The Senegalese riflemen chase away or sometimes even thrash any natives who want to sell us chickens, eggs, or fruit.
The transport is led by French captain Gastin who also participated in the battle of the Chra and the conquering of Togo. After three nights had exposed the cruelty and barbarity of this endeavour, he told me: “I would have preferred having been killed near the Chra in Togo over being given this miserable order to lead you lot to the Niger.”
We cajole him into telegraphing his superiors to explain them how senseless, inhumane and impossible this march is. These results in him are being relieved in Parakou. Captain Bosch takes over this executioner’s job. - Again, the order from Dakar is to reach the Niger, “coûte que coûte” (at whatever cost).
What is the reason behind this walk through hell? For what reason had Gaya been selected as the place of our internment? Gaya, which the French doctor coolly pronounced to be famous throughout the colony for fever and dysentery? We pondered this over and over and always came up with the same dismal answer to the question tormenting us: the French want to destroy us. It is not only that they want to parade us as defeated men in front of the natives, no, they want to torment us slowly and humiliate us before finally making us perish miserably.
Our doctors did whatever was within their power to alleviate the sufferings of the marchers with the help of the meager stock of medicine and dressing material they had been able to take with them from Togo. The French did not have any medicine.
Captain Bosch tackled his task quite vigorously. He even ordered shoes from the coast by cable and finally had to agree to a longer rest in Kandy since too many people had fallen ill. Eventually he, too, had realised the march was outrageous, if not cruel, and probably reported accordingly to the authorities in Dakar.
We arrived in Kandy on October 10th. It was here that orders arrived to select the 80 strongest men –but only officers- and to move them up to Gaya, some 300 km away. In our present state Gaya sounded like imminent salvation. Finally we would get some rest.
The 80 of us arrived in Gaya on October 27th. Some 22 huts had been erected from straw in the sand, which was one foot deep. These huts were surrounded by a thornbush kraal. - The desert internment camp Gaya! The huts were empty save for two native-style earthen jugs. The mats which had accompanied us on our march were spread on the sand – according to the French, everything had been done to offer white POWs in Africa a humane accommodation for months, if not years, to come.-
The French physician had been right. Gaya was a first class location to catch dysentery. Black chain gangs – the existence of which highly civilised France would love to deny – brought our drinking water in earthen jugs. The water had simply been scooped from the Niger River. There were no filters in the camp, and it was difficult to boil the water. So it did not come as a surprise that some 50% of the camp’s inmates suffered from dysentery.
The little medicine the German doctors had with them was soon used up. After much urging, the French provided us with some medicine, however, the amounts were not sufficient at all. Well, at least they would say no more was to be had. The quinine we were administered was often spoiled due to the transport and thus proved to be ineffective. Nobody could tell if the only medical thermometer was accurate. There were no dressings. Neither was there a hospital or something resembling one. The sick lay in huts, tended to by their comrades as best they could.
The privies – three open ditches dug into the sand inside the thornbush enclosure – were but 5m away from the so-called kitchen, consisting of the two iron cauldrons -previously mentioned- beneath a roof of grass. The diet for both healthy and sick men regularly consisted of yams and beef hailing from the ox (27 francs) slaughtered every day. This ox also feeds the 80 Senegalese riflemen guarding us. After much complaining the administration deigned to deliver rice, a few eggs and some milk albeit in such small quantities that on any given day, only one in four sick men could be fed a diet fit for invalids. It would take almost two months for our diet to become a little more varied. Dakar had sent the prescribed rations of sugar, coffee and spices. Later, flour was delivered as well, however, it often turned out to be old and had a foul smell. We would use it to bake bread in an oven we had constructed in our camp. Before coffee and sugar were dispensed we had collected lemon grass to brew a drink to quench our thirst. We were never given potatoes. Although meat was quite cheap, we were never allotted more than the prescribed ration, and there never was any change to this. We had to make do without beds, chairs, tables, and so on. We had managed to obtain old wooden crates of the administration – after much begging – which we would use to build contraptions we deemed tables and chairs, and for our sleeping mats we would construct grids from thin stems we found close to the camp. The only tobacco available was the natives’ tobacco which had been fermented in horse piss – and we had to pay a lot to obtain it! The natives also sold us their soap made from oil and charcoal ashes. All things considered we lived just like Negros. We, however, were keenly aware of our humiliation, degradation, and that we were deliberately insulted.
Many of us had to make do without mosquito nets for months, some with just the one blanket they possessed – no additional blankets were furnished by the French, although nights in Sudan can be quite chilly. Our persistent and increasingly urgent submissions regarding the deplorable health situation in camp Gaya addressed to the governing authorities of the French colonies in Dakar finally proved to be successful: a French doctor, Dr Bonrepeaux, was dispatched to Gaya to check if our allegations were true. The extremely unfavourable impression he received caused him to muster his full authority as a doctor and to fully support our demand to close camp Gaya and be moved to a European climate. This as well as increasing problems to procure provisions – the cattle plague was rampant all over Sudan which made it difficult to purchase a Gayan ox every day – were enough cause for at least the sick to be moved to the coast, to the hospital in Cotonou, as we had desired.
That is how I and two comrades finally arrived in a hospital where my chronic dysentery could be treated, although not cured. On March 25th, we went up the Niger by canoe until we reached the Dahomey road terminal. This journey would take four days, and the three of us – two men suffering from dysentery and one from appendicitis – had been allotted nothing but six yams! We reached the hospital in Cotonou on April 1st 1915 after a car trip that was quite uncomfortable but proved to be quite restorative compared to our miserable march to the Niger. There was the comforting prospect of soon being moved to a place offering European conditions.
In the hospital of Cotonou we met some of our sick comrades from Kandy – half of the Telefunken staff having been interned in Gaya, the other half in Kandy – who had suffered strongly under the harsh treatment of the French. We had been left in peace, in this respect, probably because the simple fact of interning us in the middle of Africa in an infamously unhealthy location, making us live like Negros and employing Negros to guard us, was considered to be sufficient punishment for the Boches. - Meanwhile Cameroon had been conquered and those made prisoners had been accommodated in the former, now uninhabited, royal palace of Behanzin, the bloody tyrant in Abomey who had died in French exile. After the camps Gaya and Kandy had been closed down and some invalids had been transported to the coast, the officers were moved to Whydah, whereas non-commissioned officers and enlisted ranks joined the prisoners from Cameroon in Abomey.
The camp in Abomey undoubtedly was one of the most horrid French camps that have ever existed. Reports about the way prisoners were routinely treated are likely to make every German who had to suffer this treatment turn red in shame and disgust. Supervised by a mulatto having reached the rank of Major, who in turn was assisted by a bunch of creatures whose sadistic brutality, atrocities, whippings and so on easily surpass every incorrect treatment of prisoners ever possibly having occurred in any German camp (illustration 3).
On April 17th, I and twelve other invalids embarked on the steamship “Tibet” scheduled to carry us from Cotonou to Marseille. The evening saw us off the coast of Cotonou, looking across to Dahomey, where hundreds of our brethren were still subject to the brutish treatment by French colonials. Dahomey, Behanzin’s country, the signature country of African cruelty - even the darkest years of our Dark Ages were nothing in comparison. Although Behanzin was dead, his spirit lives on. Even further in the North, in Abomey, the former “Royal Palace” of Behanzin the tyrant, had been turned into a camp for colonial prisoners thanks to a twist of the devilish French fantasy. My German brothers had to sleep there, blessing the nights that offered some repose from the tormentors of daytime, muttering “Oh Africa! Oh Golgatha!” Their home country, however, would not listen. It was but later that the German government threatened to impose reprisals. This resulted in the evacuating of the camps in Western Africa, those noble sites of French humaneness. However, it did not result in transporting our compatriots to Europe, which had also been demanded by the German government - non-commissioned officers and enlisted ranks were moved to Morocco, commissioned officers, in some cases accompanied by their wives, to Algiers. Further, more outspoken threats by the German government would be required until no more German prisoners were kept on African soil. Till then, colonial prisoners, especially those in the camp of Mediouna in Morocco, were housed, treated and fed anything but well. Again, French-African discipline ruled supreme. As a punishment men would be forced to lie in very low so-called “doggie-tents” (illustration 4), usually without a blanket. That is a far more brutal punishment than lashing men to poles which is common in German camps and about which the French press kicks up such a shindy! Humaneness does not seem to be universal, does it?
Upon their arrival in Mediouna or Casablanca (Morocco) the long-suffering colonial prisoners would be exposed to indiscriminate reprisals: for lengthy periods of time they would receive neither parcels nor money nor, probably most detrimental, no mail (which used to arrive in Africa rarely enough). We owed this to gracious catholic Father Nee, whom we had got to know as a stern censor in Cotonou. On the march across Dahomey, where this valiant man of God served as official interpreter, we had experienced his good will, “humaneness”, and “Christian love”.
The time we colonial prisoners spent in Mediouna saw the closing of negotiations regarding the possible internment of prisoners in Switzerland. Based on the most thorough assessments of doctors specialised in tropical medicine who had also experienced our time in West Africa and who, being medical staff, had been lucky enough to be exchanged, the Imperial Colonial Office had required the French government to release all colonial prisoners to Germany or at least move them to Switzerland on the grounds of their illness or having been humiliated and tortured. Only a very few would be among the lucky ones! In the Île Longue camp alone 65 of us colonial prisoners would have to drain the cup of sorrow to the dregs - meaning we would not be released until the end of October 1919.
We arrived in Marseille after a passage of five weeks, which turned out to be truly restorative. The absence of regulations, orders, principals, and evil-minded and vindictive colonial French in general meant that life on board was comfortable enough. We were but a few invalids appreciating being left alone, not wishing to violate possibly existing rules. Our transport was headed by Meyer, a lieutenant of the French colonial infantry on sick leave. We asked him to inform us of the code of conduct for the duration of the passage which he did. Should we disobey his orders - which were easy enough to follow - there would be three levels of punishment, namely:
1. Withdrawal of one or several meals
2. Up to nine days of detainment
3. Corporal punishment
French colonial Africa obviously extended its fangs right onto a ship transporting sick men! Upon our arrival in Marseille an old military surgeon asked everybody how they were, put his stethoscope upon our coats, mumbled “C’est bon” and vanished.
In the evening a vehicle known to those from Berlin as “Black Maria” arrived to transport us across Marseille and up a hill. When the car stopped after a lengthy drive, us innocent passengers thought we had been moved to a hospital, but - keys jangling and gates creaking - the military prison Fort St. Nicolas received us. We had to spend 16 nights there without anybody caring in the least about our being invalids. On June 8th, a small steamship moved 10 of us to the infamous “Ponton Prison”. This turned out to be an old floating coffin dubbed “Pontoon” by the soldiers. In former days it had served some shipping company as a warehouse or office but now it housed some 2,000 German POWs who either worked in the harbour or awaited being transported to Africa. We were quite concerned about being returned to Africa - to be finally “cured”. After all, the “Ponton Prison” housed many men on sick leave that were scheduled to be moved to “Africa’s balmy air” in order to be cured. Regarding accommodation, meals, and hygiene, the “Pontoon” turned out to be a signature French prison camp. Even today thinking of the “Pontoon” makes me shiver - sleeping accommodations were inadequate, unwashed soldiers worn out by their work as wharf rats being packed like sardines on chopped rotten straw, poor chaps trying to scantily wash themselves using their mess tins as basins. The privies on this floating galley were so horrible that they were matched only by their equivalents from the Dark Ages. It was so bad that Africa, which all of us positively hated, did not seem to be as bad. A profound lethargy would take hold of those of us who had actually expected something, even if it had not been a lot, of Europe. But actually European France should not have come as a surprise to us!
After we had passed 8 days in the Ponton Prison our fate was decided. June 16th, we were moved to Uzès (Département Gard in the South of France) where the barracks of the 10th infantry regiment had been converted into a prison. There was a reason for this camp being called “Camp Special” - there, the French had corralled all those of our compatriots captured on the Mediterranean. They had embarked from Spain to Italy (neutral at that time), planning to go on to Germany from there. In addition there were Greeks, Turks, Austrians, Hungarians and so on. Most of the internees were civilians, which did not keep the French from rating them as POWs - they had planned to reach their respective home countries in order to become soldiers, after all!
While conditions in Uzès were bearable at first, this would change abruptly after two months when a new inspector arrived who believed the whole organization of the camp to be insufficient. A new and energetic commander, Dailleux, took over and from then on, there would not be a moment’s peace – we were positively flooded with orders, roll calls and punishments. Life became quite unbearable, especially for all the elder, often sick, gents who, never mind their being 60 years or older, were treated worse than rookies. Our hair had to be shorn (1mm length) – mark that this order was issued on the very day [German chancellor] Bethmann Hollweg had declared in the Reichstag: “Woe if even a finger is laid on any German who is abroad!”
Pants and sleeves had to sport red stripes some 5 centimeters wide and we had to sew the letters P.G. (Prisonnier de guerre) onto both sides of our collars. On Christmas Eve 1915 French non-commissioned officers tauntingly presented us with hats resembling the visorless field caps issued by the Imperial Army – “Have some Christmas gifts.”
In the dorms, all of which were crowded, military discipline ruled supreme. It would take us weeks to succeed in performing the so-called “paketage” which is a special way of arranging one’s possessions on a shelf. The “Paketage” itself has become famous through Erwin Rosen’s book “In the French Foreign Legion”. Every Saturday, without fail, the commander inspected the dorms, surrounded by his officers – both commissioned and non-commissioned. And every Saturday, without fail, the “cachot” [detention cell] would receive new inmates. The “mulatto” or “sleazeball”, as we had dubbed the commander, punished indiscriminately and to his heart’s content. He probably spent days at a time conjuring up new measures, rules and regulations to torture us.
It was this permanent rush that turned our stay in Uzès into an unbearable ordeal. We left no stone unturned to be treated better or at least more reasonably. We even mobilised the home country and, finally, a representative of the protecting powers, which at the time was North America, came to Uzès. In the presence of the “mulatto” we unburdened ourselves, demanding to be treated in the same way as our comrades in Île Longue (illustration 6)
Île Longue was also home of a special camp, housing the same type of prisoners as the camp in Uzès, namely largely members of the reserves that had tried to reach the home country and had been captured on the Atlantic or in French ports. Some 750 of them had been on board the steamship “Nieuw Amsterdam” of the “Holland-Amerika-Linie”. As far as we had learned, prisoners on Île Longue were treated well. They even had the possibility to participate in physical activities like sport and games (illustrations 7 and 8). Even if the accommodation in barracks (illustration 9) seemed to be inferior to that of a building of stone, we were keen on fleeing the unnerving monotony in Uzès and the tiny courtyard that was far too small for such a big number of prisoners.
Put under pressure from both the German government and the report of the Americans, the French government decreed the camp in Uzès should be merged with the camp on Île Longue and on July 4th the first 150 men, including me, were moved there. Now this transport was quite a peculiar matter. A Swiss commission to select invalids to be moved to Switzerland was expected again in Uzès. In the course of the first visit of such a commission, the commander had been present while the Swiss doctors examined the men, making his interpreter proclaim whom he deemed “deserving” of a stay in Switzerland. This resulted in a ridiculously low number of invalids being moved to Switzerland. Naturally we had rallied against this arbitrary behaviour of our commander, which in turn led to a second inspection of the camp in Uzès. Unless I am mistaken, this second inspection had been induced by the German government. Through some “fiddling”, the French government managed to prove the propriety of its acting brilliantly. With the liquidation of the camp and our transportation to Ile Longue being in limbo, it was decreed to get the first transport off the ground as fast as possible. Furthermore, it was decreed that for said transport the following groups of prisoners should be selected: invalids, habitual invalids, men that might be invalid, everyone who was someone in the camp, and those deemed to be “meneurs” [ringleaders]. This transport took place July 4th, while – surprise! – the inspection was scheduled to take place on July 5th. There were no more invalids in the camp and the Swiss doctors inspecting the men had to bend the rules in order to come up with at least some invalids scheduled for Switzerland. These few would be inspected a second time in Lyons by a different commission. Most of them were rejected since they were healthy, and moved to Île Longue. It was there that we learned of the tricks employed by the French government.
Once the examination for Switzerland was over, some time passed. It was not until one month later that the remaining internees were moved to Île Longue.
A substantial step towards the improvement of our situation took place soon afterward. The military administration turned us over to the responsibility of the civil administration. Beginning with August 1917, we were subject to the Interior Minister which in our case meant the Prefect of Quimper, to be even more precise, the Subprefect of Brest in Britanny (Finistère Department).
A civilian commander was installed in the Île Longue camp, the non-commissioned officers were replaced by so-called “surveillants”. Only guarding would still be performed by French soldiers.
Any amenities of the camp that might contribute to our physical or spiritual well-being, even a trifle like the “daily consumption of water” - a decidedly minor aspect of French private life - had to be fought for - in slow and dogged disputes, sometimes by sheer obstinacy. I might list dozens of examples proving that the French authorities were not in the slightest interested in our physical and spiritual well-being. Every now and then we even resorted to that most modern means of industrial action, the strike - for example after an “economical” subprefecture had reduced our daily bread ration from 400g to 350 g for months.
The barbed-wire psychosis which attacked us with might was relieved, thanks to the tireless and exemplary work of the internees serving on the “German Aid Committee” (Deutscher Hilfsausschuß). This committee organized concerts, social and dialect evenings and sportsdays. Cabinet-makers, cobblers, carpenters and plumbers opened shops. There was a kitchen to prepare both coffee and soup. A theatre company, the “Inseltheater”, was endorsed - it performed “The Sunken Bell” by Gerhard Hauptmann, quite a highlight!
Artists living in the camp were supported, allotments in which internees might grow their own fresh produce were made possible, a small plant manufacturing clogs was opened. All this offered plenty of possibilities to those internees willing to stay bodily healthy and mentally nimble. But whatever perks life behind barbed wire might offer - they cannot possibly make up for the loss of the greatest good mankind has to offer, namely freedom, for which the very nation where we had to spend five years in undesired hospitality, wants us to believe they had fought for with cheap words and French phrases.
Finally, by April 1918, the Berne Convention was ratified. It stipulated all civilian internees should be speedily transferred to their respective home countries. The French, however, delayed the actual execution of the articles of this convention for such a long period that, after having waited for months, suitcase in hand, on November 11, 1918, at 11 o’clock, orders “Back to the camp!” were issued. Armistice had just been agreed upon! To us this meant back to stifling and uncertain misery; it meant the danger of succumbing to despair.
To me the year that would follow meant a concentrated imprisonment. News of what happened back home arrived, causing hopes, concepts, ideas, and even worlds to vanish. On our island, we suffered with our people back home - even suffered double since the souls of men behind barbed wire are more vulnerable.
With the help of humanitarian blubbering, the French managed to keep us interned in France for almost a full year after Armistice. Actually nobody trusted their ears when this transport was announced in the camp, shortly before we were moved back to Germany on October 20th, 1919. We had ceased to believe French promises - the more pretentious they were, the more disreputable they had become.
But finally our train left and it was but after several days’ travelling through France via Strasbourg and Mainz that we witnessed the ugly and harsh realities afflicting our beloved, sad, wrecked fatherland - a country most of us had proudly left before the war in order to give new esteem and prestige to the German name. But nevertheless - we were finally Germans on German soil ... to work even harder, as the fatherland needed everyone.
If this simple thought had originated in the long and contemplative hours of solitude, in the musings of a prisoner, those years would not have been for naught - even if it seems hard to believe.