The set up to my short story, “When the Boys Came Home,” relies on a Canadian Prisoner of War turning up in England. Here’s a little background on that often forgotten contingent of men. The story is found in the anthology Dreams and Promises.
Mistreatment, malnutrition, forced labour, and disease were standard among the POW camps in Germany. Food scarcity, bad food, and inedible food were the greatest complaint of the prisoners. Most sources agree that without care packages from home, either from relatives, or the Red Cross, or other organizations, many allied POW’s would not have survived their incarceration.
Canadians were known as tough fighters but 1400 were taken prisoner in a single day in 1915 when they were gassed by the enemy during the Second Battle of Ypres.
Once taken prisoner, soldiers were expected to resist aiding the enemy and do their best to escape. Such action often resulted in even harsher punishment, including beatings, being forced to stand at attention for hours, being tied to a post and food deprivation.
Unlike WWII, where liberating armies marched into the camps at the end of hostilities, and freed the prisoners, in 1918 there was no such liberating force. Once the armistice was signed, German guards at the prison camps went home, leaving the POW’s to fend for themselves. Already physically weakened, these men had to make their own way, with no co-ordinated transportation. They mostly headed for France aboard trucks, trains or anything else they could board. Some walked. Many died from exhaustion along the route.
When British or Commonwealth soldiers were picked up they were sent to reception centres in France where they were fed and clothed. From there they were sent to channel ports and from thence to Britain. Captured officers were expected to write a report on the circumstances of their capture and why they’d been unable to avoid it. . A true soldier, it was believed, would fight to the death rather than surrender. There was a popular suspicion that prisoners had an easy war, sitting about in a camp, away from the danger and that those captured were cowards
Once POW’s returned home and were able to tell their own stories the truth became clear. Being a prisoner of war, far from being safe, was one of the most dangerous conditions a soldier could find himself in.
When soldiers finally made it back to their hometowns in Canada many were afflicted with “barbed wire disease,”, a disorder brought on by complete lack of privacy, an ignorance of the duration of captivity, irregular communication with friends and family and restrictions on all aspects of human activity. Symptoms include irritability, inability to concentrate, restlessness, memory loss, violent mood swings, insomnia, nightmares and impotence. See A.L. Vischer.
Once the prisoner made it safely home, some of their families wanted a brass band welcome, but most soldiers just wanted to quietly reintegrate into their old lives with as little fuss as possible.
While “When the Boys Came Home” doesn’t feature a POW, an understanding of this group of soldiers will help the reader more closely relate to the characters involved.