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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Marches

page 29

The Marches

AS THEIR DEFEAT came closer the general tendency of the German armies was to retreat into the centre of Germany, taking with them not only their supplies but their prisoners as well. Thousands of German refugees streamed towards the West in the face of the advances of the dreaded Russians. Thousands of prisoners of war followed them in long, dreary columns on foot. The motive for this mass removal of prisoners is a little obscure. In January 1945 the Germans might still have deluded themselves with the hope of making a peace by bargaining, perhaps by playing off the United States and Britain against the Soviet. In March and April it was apparent that the German armies could not drive back the Allies, nor could Germany hope to make a negotiated peace. The progress of the fighting had already destroyed the value of prisoners of war as hostages before they began their terrible compelled marches. But in Germany an order, once given, tended to continue to be carried out long after the reason for giving it had disappeared.

By early 1945 the German railways had been heavily bombed and petrol was in short supply; if prisoners of war had to be moved they had to go on foot. It is difficult to generalise about the routes of these marches. Men in the eastern parts of Germany or German-held territory were earliest on the move, but camps in the West were also evacuated to the East and the North. Some camps in the South were left undisturbed until March or April, when they were evacuated farther south only a few days before the liberating armies appeared. The longest marches were from the East to the West, from Poland, Silesia, or Czechoslovakia into central or southern Germany, and the actual distances covered were increased by the general use of back roads and country lanes to avoid the congested main thoroughfares. One good result of the marches was that many men who would otherwise have come into Russian hands were liberated by the Americans or the British.*

In late January 1945 the prisoners in Lamsdorf, near the borders of southern Poland, were marched off in batches of about a thousand men to Gorlitz, fifty miles east of Dresden, covering 260 kilometres in fourteen days. After a few days in crowded discomfort in this camp, which had, of course, its own prisoner-of-war population, the prisoners from both camps resumed their journey and marched for a month, with three single days of rest, to Duderstadt, about thirty miles east of Kassel. The columns had been billeted en route mostly in barns or empty factories, occasionally in German military barracks. At these barracks the prisoners always got a hot meal; on the farms they were dependent on the charity of the farmers, many of whom were openly hostile. At Duderstadt the marchers were lodged in a brickworks building, in which 4500 men were crowded into insanitary, waterless quarters where the air was filled with a fine red dust. After a week there under the care of guards becoming more and more jittery and savage, they moved on north, reaching Braunschweig in five days; here they were lodged for about a fortnight in barracks evacuated by political prisoners but not by lice. On 10 April a new march began, but it had lasted only three days when tanks of an American armoured division overtook the column.

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These prisoners had been on the move for two and a half months. They had been scolded on by nervous guards who clubbed those who fell out and shot men who scavenged for roots in the fields. One guard who personally shot four prisoners was afterwards ‘dealt with’ summarily by the American troops. The fifty guards who accompanied each column of a thousand prisoners took part in the march, but many of them had bicycles, they had better food than the prisoners, proper billets, and their gear was carried for them in waggons. Yet many of them were in almost as bad case as those they guarded. In some of the guards the accumulating evidence of defeat induced only apathy, in others a neurotic brutality which caused many atrocities.

Food was the gravest difficulty. There was not much of it and its distribution was irregular, men sometimes going two days without any being issued. Some guards angrily repulsed civilian attempts to trade with the prisoners, most of whom still had kit, such as woollen scarves or gloves, which civilians were eager to buy. Most men, remembering losses in previous moves, began the march loaded with as much personal gear as they could stagger along under. German civilians gave them food only in exchange for something. ‘At no time did I see even a drink of water given gratuitously to a sick man,’ said one prisoner. The Germans no doubt were hardened to the sight of sick and starving men being hounded through their streets. Sometimes food was issued to prisoners on the move and they had ‘to wolf it down while still marching, to the intense curiosity of the Germans, who looked mildly disgusted at such a display of hunger….’ Czechs, however, gave food to prisoners as they passed, unless prevented by the guards.

As Red Cross supplies had failed in most camps during November 1944, most of the men began their marches in a weakened condition. The meagre diet on the march and the intense cold, together with the fatigue of marching in all weathers over all types of going from mud to ice, in boots falling to bits, caused widespread and increasing sickness. The men had practically no opportunity of washing either themselves or their garments, and most of them wore the same clothes unchanged for two and a half months. The Germans made little attempt to treat the sick: only the fortunate few were admitted to hospitals. A column of a thousand might have a hundred cases of dysentery, malaria, pneumonia, influenza, crippled feet, or frostbite trailing along behind the main body in a special slow-moving ‘sick column’. Some columns provided horse-drawn transport for these men, but numbers of them died.

Many men escaped from these columns and found shelter with friendly foreign workers until the liberating troops appeared. ‘One of the most unpleasant details was lack of knowledge of the column’s ultimate destination. It was impossible to discover whether the march would continue for five, fifteen, or fifty-five days.’ Many had the encouragement that they were marching in the general direction of England.

It might be asserted that, in view of the diminishing resources at their disposal and their acute transport difficulties, the Germans did the best they could for the prisoners on these marches. Though this might explain, without excusing, the scanty food rations, it does not dispose of the responsibility for the marches taking place at all. Not only were men killed by starvation and the bitter weather, but they were also exposed to the brutality of guards remote from their superiors and to the hazards of war. For many men the marches were by far the harshest treatment they received in Germany, where the treatment of British and American prisoners of war was on the whole reasonable. It was the order to march which was criminal, and the incidental miseries and abominations flowed from that initial order.

* British prisoners liberated by the Russians in Eastern Europe were very critical of their treatment. The governments of the British Commonwealth considered making protests to the Russian Government, but decided that the hardships suffered by liberated prisoners of war in Eastern Europe were due to the drastic conditions of the time. It appeared that by their own standards the Russians had treated our prisoners as well as they could, while the virtual re-imprisonment of the men was probably due to an oddly applied sense of responsibility for their welfare. About 170 New Zealanders were repatriated by the Russians through Odessa.