Private A H Atkins, 2nd Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers was interviewed by the Thanet Advertiser and Echo in January 1919, having returned home after four years in captivity.
The German Prisoner of War camps or Kriegsgefangenenlager during World War I were run by the 25 Army Corps Districts into which Germany was divided. There were four different types of camp as follows:-
• Mannschaftslager for private soldiers and NCOs, such as Sennelager
• Offizierslager for commissioned officers.
• Internierungslager for civilians of enemy states, such as Ruhleben
• Lazarett, military hospital for POWs.
Private Atkins was one of the “Old Contemptibles” who went out to France soon after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. He was part of a group of men waiting in the dark who suddenly realised that they were surrounded by Germans. Pte Atkins and his comrades fired some shots at the Germans but then received the message that if another bullet was fired all the English soldiers would be shot. They were compelled to surrender and ordered to remove their packs. They were then marched between long lines of Germans often being kicked as they marched.They were locked into a brewery cellar overnight. For breakfast they were given a little soup. They were very hungry but all they received that day was a little black coffee and later a little soup.
On the third day Pte Atkins was told to go and fetch water from a nearby house. The French family fed him what they could so he felt stronger. After eleven days the wounded were placed in wagons and the party had to march for ten kilometres. A French women tried to give the British soldiers a loaf of bread but the sentries hit the soliders on their backs with a rifle. Later they were herded into trucks to begin the long train journey eastwards into Germany.
At 6am on September 11th the party arrived at Sennelager camp near Paderborn, where they were detrained. Pte Atkins might be one of the prisoners in the above photograph taken at Sennelager in 1914. After being subjected to much abuse from the German troops they were marched through the barracks to a large marquee, the wounded being taken to hospital. Many prisoners had arrived before them, both French and English soldiers. After a meal of barley soup they were marched away to an interment camp containing about 3,000 men. After being given a blanket and a drink of black coffee Pte Atkins was sent to the only tent in the camp, but this joy did not last long as it rained hard that night and the rain poured into the tent, which the men nicknamed the “cabbage strainer”. Everyone was wet through but no one dared strike a match because the sentries had orders to fire upon them if a light was shown.
After cleaning up the camp the following day they were given some straw to lie on and a piece of sausage to eat. Two days later they were taken out by sentries to dig roots for the camp.At the least sign of slackness the men felt the butt end of a sentry’s rifle on their backs. Upon their return Pte Atkins managed to have a wash but as no soap or towel was available he dried himself on his shirt and lay in the sun to dry out.
In the camp he met Pte Haggis RAMC from Ramsgate ( his story will be told in a later article) and later Pte Crickett whose parents lived in Margate. The men were suffering horribly from their verminous surroundings where it was impossible to keep clean or decent. The men were gradually getting thin, ill and weak and one poor fellow died of starvation.