Stories of Great War’s prisoners yet to be told

Films and books about British prisoners of war are numerous. You only have to think back a few years to recall that if the 1963 movie The Great Escape was being shown on the BBC, it must be Christmas.

You know the film.

It starred Steve McQueen as a captured American GI attempting to escape from a German prisoner of war camp, most famously at the end of the film on a solid motorbike of German engineering, attempting an Evel Knievel-type leap over barbed wire.

Before that there was 1950’s The Wooden Horse, so named because a vaulting horse was used in the middle of the prison camp’s parade ground, cunningly covering the entrance to the escape tunnel.

And who could forget 1981’s Escape to Victory, starring Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone? It included, bizarrely enough, some of the greats of world football – such as Pele, Bobby Moore, Mike Summerbee and Ossie Ardiles – and centred around a convoluted escape during a match. Sly was the goalkeeper. Hollywood, eh?

A very popular tv drama series in the early 1970s was Colditz, based on the true story of Allied prisoners of war incarcerated in Germany’s most escape-proof prison camp, inside the formidable walls of Colditz Castle.

All those stories were set during the Second World War. Not so well known or well documented are the stories of British prisoners taken during the First World War, some 30 years earlier.

Not as much media, film or otherwise, has been expended on those British prisoners from 100 years ago. Theirs is a much-neglected story.

Recently, one of the volunteers from the Northumbria World War One project, when visiting his daughter in Germany took a short train journey to Cologne Southern cemetery and was able to photograph the graves of some of the British soldiers from North Tyneside who died there while imprisoned.

More than 12,000 Allied prisoners died in captivity in Germany during the Great War, and nearly a quarter of them are buried in the cemetery at Cologne.

Many died of wounds already received on the battlefield. The most common cause of prisoner death, however, was disease. Prisoners weakened by wounds, poor diet, or fatigue were particularly susceptible to the effects of disease, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 having a particularly devastating toll on the Allied prisoner population.

As the Royal Navy blockade of the North Sea took effect, cutting off food supplies to Germany, the population starved.

The end of 1916 and start of 1917 was known in Germany as the Turnip Winter.

The last year of the war was worse again. If there was little or no food for the indigenous population, what chance did captured soldiers of the enemy have of avoiding starvation? Nearly half of the 2,463 prisoners buried in Cologne Southern cemetery died in 1918.

Among them are men from this area including 19-year-old Private Heads, of the Lincolnshire Regiment, who lived in Marine Avenue, Whitley Bay; 2nd Lieutenant John Anthony Gibson, of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, whose mother lived in Monkseaton; Able Seaman Thomas Patterson, of the Hood Battalion, of Burn Terrace, Rosehill, Willington, and Private Robert Weddle, of Edwin’s Avenue in Forest Hall.

All these men are currently being researched by volunteers at the project.

Another soldier to die as a prisoner, but under very different circumstances, was Private William Hunter, of North Shields.

Previous research indicated that William was shot for desertion, and his story was turned into a thought-provoking tearjerker of a play Death at Dawn by Cullercoats playwright Peter Mortimer.

Following the premiere performances of the play in September 2014, new productions will be staged at Wallsend Memorial Hall from February 19 to 23 and the Discovery Museum in Newcastle from February 26 to March 2. Tickets cost £10, £8 for concessions. For details, go to www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk