Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Harris narrative of the capture of S.S. Matunga and experiences as a prisoner of war, ca. 1918 / Keith Harris
Diary written by Keith Harris (born on 7th May 1902) and commencing on 27 July 1917 when he left Sydney on the S.S. Matunga as a Deck Hand. He was 15 years old The Matunga was captured by the German ship the "Wolf" near Rabaul. The crew and passengers of the Matunga were taken on board and eventually landed at Kiel, Germany, some six months later, and interned at a POW camp at Gustrow, Germany. Keith Harris remained there until he was repatriated to England in December 1918. He sent a cable stating "London Well – Love Xmas Greetings" to Mrs Harris, Northcliffe Street, Milsons Point, Sydney. The diary concludes when he arrived in London on 20th December 1918.]
I left Sydney on the 27th July 1917, in the S.S. Matunga, bound for Newcastle, Brisbane, Rabaul and Islands. She was a ship of 1800 registered tonnage.
We arrived at Newcastle on the 28th July at 6.30 a.m. and took 900 tons of coal for Rabaul. We sailed at 10 p.m. the same night for Brisbane.
We had good weather and arrived at Brisbane on the 30th July, at about 5.30 p.m. and sailed at 11 p.m. that night for Rabaul.
Nothing of importance happened until the 6th August and twelve hours steaming from Rabaul. It was a fine warm morning on the 6th at about 6 a.m. when we sighted the mast tops of a strange ship on our port quarter steering the same direction as us. She came well in sight on the horizon and then slowed up, then she altered her course and steered across our bows. Then she turned about and headed straight for us. She came to within a distance of about 300 yards, turned broadside, and fired a shot across our bow, at the same time hoisting the German ensign and ordered us to stop. This we did, and the Captain gave orders to lower the life boats. We provisioned the boats and swung them out ready to lower, but the Germans sent orders over to us and told us to haul them in again. We then saw a motor launch leaving the Raider and making for us. Then we also saw a seaplane directly above us.
The motor boat came alongside us and a Prize Crew came on board. The first words the German Officer said were "Good morning, you are late". So we were. We were about half a day late. We afterwards discovered that the Huns knew our every movement from the time we left Sydney.
Well all hands were mustered and ordered to hand over all arms, and then informed us that we were Prisoners of War, and we were to take orders from them. Our Captain, Ships Officer and Soldiers were taken off to the German Raider "Wolf" but we were left on board to work the ship.
We were left aboard the "Matunga" until the 14th August, when we arrived at a harbour in Dutch New Guinea, which we afterwards named, "Matunga Harbour".
On arriving at this harbour we were given an hours notice to pack our belongings and get on board the "Wolf". We were examined and sent below in the ‘tween decks with the crews of 9 other ships, men of all nationalities, 210 men all told, and I can tell you we were packed together down there. We slept in hammocks three tiers high. Nothing exciting happened until the 16th August. But first I must give you an idea what it was like in the ‘tween deck of a German Raider.
The only entrance was a ladder three feet wide, the deck holding, as I have said, 120 prisoners of mixed nationalities, the crews of ships:- S.S. Turritella, English, captured on the 27th February 1917; S.S. Jumna, English, 1st March; S.S. Wordsworth, English, 11th March; Barque Dee, Mauritius, 30th March, the crew all blacks; S.S. Wairuna, New Zealand, 2nd June; Schooner Windslow, American, 16th June; Barque Beluka, American, 9th July; Schooner Enchore, American, 13th July; and then the poor unlucky S.S. Matunga.
We were told by our fellow prisoners that the "Wolf" had intercepted our wireless from Sydney, saying when we were leaving Sydney and what our cargo consisted of. From Brisbane we sent another wireless, saying we would be at Cape Moreton at Monday midday, 30th July. On the 5th August sent another wireless to Rabaul, to say we would be in late on the 6th.
The first wireless the "Wolf" intercepted, she cruised around waiting for us. The next one she still kept cruising but the third was the one that was to blame for our capture. It seems that the "Wolf" was out of our course, and would have missed us only for our wireless on the 5th by this she carried our bearings. That night she sent her seaplane up to
have a look around, and they sighted the lights of our ship, and no wonder, for we had a cluster of electric lights on our No. 3 hatch, masthead light and all cabin lights alight. And so the old "Matunga" was captured.
Now to get on this exciting time we had on the 16th August at "Matunga Harbour". It was about midnight, and everything was quiet in the ‘tween decks, when the sentry below fired his revolver and rushed on deck (at the time of this happening the weather was very hot, so the Germans had taken pity on us and taken the hatch covers off and placed a mosquito net across). Immediately we heard machine guns spitting away and saw the star shells and search lights all over the place. We all wondered what was the matter. This din continued for fully half an hour and then died down to silence once more. Then all the prisoners were mustered but none were missing. So the Germans came to the conclusion that they had been wasting good ammunition on crocodiles.
On the 22nd August, I saw the real strength of the "Wolf". 7 six inch guns, four torpedo tubes, machine guns, 3 pounders, 2 searchlights, and a seaplane and a crew of 300 men. One gun on the poop was arranged to look like a ships derrick with two sampsons posts. The gun position was on the hatch on the poop and about a third of a derrick from the sampson posts, touched the gun breech, and a steel cap was over the muzzle. When she went into action the cap was taken off and the part of a derrick swung aside and so the gun is cleared for action.
On the 23rd August, the "Wolf" had torpedo practice, and it was then that I saw a torpedo fired from each of her four tubes and were picked up by the "Wolf’s" motor boat.
On the 26thg August the "Matunga" was taken out and two bombs were placed on board and some minutes later bang went the first bomb. This gave her a list to starboard, then the second bomb exploded. This righted her a
little. Then she slowly started to settle down, her stern deck was just awash and then the old "Matunga" gave her last dive. She dipped her stern and up went her bow in the air. She stood almost upright and then took her dive to the bottom, and so ended the career of the old "Matunga".
Nothing exciting happened until about 10 p.m. on the 5th September. We were steaming along easily when bang went the ships sides. We waited expecting to hear shots fired but nothing further happened. That same night the "Wolf" laid her last mines off Singapore, 111 in all. When the last mine went over the Germans gave three cheers.
The next day we were told that on the previous night we had passed a cruiser and the Commander of the "Wolf" said that only that he had mines on board, he would have launched a torpedo into the cruiser. I am jolly glad he didn’t because I knew what would have happened to us.
At about 4 p.m. on the 6th September, we steamed past Batavia and through the straits into the Indian Ocean. We could see the township and several steamers and sailing ships laying in the harbour. We were so near and yet so far from freedom. After the mines were finished, the Huns were rather busy, lifting mine rails from the deck and the next hatch to us, and cleaning the ‘tween decks ready for more prisoners. Meanwhile the seaplane was also under deck. Work carried on as usual, the ‘tween deck was all ready for painting and we were thinking who would be the next to occupy that ‘tween deck. When on the 26th September the seaplane was taken on deck and placed together in a hurry and up she went. She stayed away until 12 noon and all was excitement amongst the Huns. At 2 p.m. we sighted smoke on the horizon, and the prisoners were ordered under deck. All the hatch covers except two were put on. Through the opening in the two we could see to the top of the main mast.
The "Wolf" was steaming full speed, and at 3 p.m. we heard the ships sides drop with a bang and watched the German Ensign hoisted to the mast
head. Then bang went the gun aft. We all said "Another poor beggar gone". Then another bang!! Hullo whats this. Then a broadside, which smashed every electric globe in the ‘tween decks and lifted several hatch covers on top of each other with the vibration. Then bang!! Again, another broadside which sent a shower of rubbish and a great flash down amongst us. This put the wind up us. We rushed into two rooms partitioned off for our ships officers and laid flat on the deck, waiting (as we thought) for the end. For we thought we had struck something better than ourselves. A third broadside sent another flash down to us. At this a boot fell on one of the lads. He thought he was wounded and said "Oh, I am hit". He was hit, but he was glad when he found he had only been hit with a boot.
While the firing was going on there were 20 sentries and an officer on each side of the ladder, armed with mauses pistols, a bayonet and hand grenades, in case we tried to escape, so we stood a fine chance.
The firing continued until 4 p.m. and then silence. The Huns told us the other ship was sinking and all the people were in the boats or in the water. At 5.30 p.m. we were allowed to go on deck to our stores, I being one of the orderlies. I saw the ship with 5 holes in her stern above the water line. She had a gun mounted on the poop. We went below and told the rest of the men who mostly shaking from the shock. I know, I was. I never wish to go through another hour like it again.
We could see some of the crew on the deck near our hatch. They were all Japanese. They were put in the next ‘tween deck to us. We removed several bolts from the steel bulk head and got full particulars from them.
That night when we went to draw out tea, we saw about eight bodies laying on No. 3 hatch covered by a Japanese flag.
That night at 7.30 p.m. the dead were buried as many as five bodies were lowered in one canvas. The German Commander and his officers
attended in full dress uniform. That is the only case which they deserve credit.
This finished we steamed for the "Maldave Islands". The other ship with a prize crew on board following.
Below we were straightening things up from the afternoons happenings. We arrived at the "Maldave Islands" at midday on the 27th September and there the ship came alongside. I shall never forget the sight I saw then, my first grim realities of war. She was a Japanese Mail Boat named, "Hitachi Maru", one of the Nippon Yusen Kaisha line. Part of her stern was blown away, and there was blood and pieces of men all over the place. Where three Japs had been blown to pieces, the blood had been running into the scuppers. The decks were all torn with schrapnel, and there was a large hole blown in the deck on the starboard side, by a bomb from the seaplane. She also had half her funnel blown away by another bomb.
The reason of all the trouble was that the "Hitachi Maru" had a 4.7 gun on her poop, and when the "Wolf" fired the first shot, a gun crew was sent to man the gun, but they were killed or wounded by a shot from the "Wolf". Then another crew was sent up. But the same fate befel them. She then tried to use her wireless but another well directed shot put an end to this and killed the wireless operator. Then started a panic amongst passengers and crew. They manned the boats, but only half reached the water safely. The other half capsized before reaching the water. The total casualties on the Japs side were 15 killed and 35 wounded.
The Germans decided to keep the "Hitachi". So they began patching her up. She was finished on the 6th October, and the women and their husbands the men over sixty, and the boys under seventeed, were put on board her, and she was sent away with orders to meet the "Wolf" at a certain place on a certain date. Meanwhile we were given our boat stations in case we met anything. Had we have done so the Jap was to be blown up and every-
body take to the boats. We only had one alarm and that was when we met the "Wolf" about a week later. She only came to see how things were and they told us she was going to look for coal. So away she went, we all hoping never to see her again. Hoping we would meet something and so be recaptured. But no such luck for us. Things went along smoothly. The boys (six in all. Eric and myself and four niggers all sharing the one room), doing odd jobs, deck work, coaling the galley, peeling potatoes and teasing the cooks. I had several narrow escapes from a lively time with the Jap cooks. One was: I was sent to the galley (kitchen) with a dirty dish from the second class saloon, and the cook told me to wash it, but I said no. And away I went with the cook after me with a long broom. He chased me all over the after part of the ship until he got tired and then gave it up. I was jolly lucky he didn’t get me.
Another one was: Eric and I had to carry water from forward to the galley. One day we were doing this, and for each bucket full we put in the cooks took one out. We said nothing for about twenty minutes and then we started to kick about it. But the Japs only laughed, so we refused to carry anymore for them that day. A Jap came over and hit me and then picked up a knife, but I was away when I saw this and I kept low until I thought he had cooled down and so had another escape.
We met the "Wolf" again about a week later. She reported having failed to find any ships. Although she had scouted all over the seas. So the only thing to do was to take the coal the "Hitachi" had and sink her, so we steamed to the "Seychelles Islands" and then we were once more taken on board the "Wolf", the 7th November. The next day the 8th, the "Hitachi Maru" was taken out with the German Ensign floating over her stern. Three bombs were placed on board her. The first explosion made her list. The second righted her, and the third, we could not see what it did, but shortly afterwards she sunk a few feet and then stopped. It was
twenty eight minutes from the time of the first explosion, till she took her last dive. It was a beautiful sight to see a fine big ship like her going down. She dived her nose under, and stood almost upright with her stern well in the air showing her twin screws, and then dived out of sight. Another good ship gone to Davy Jones’ Locker. Then away we went again.
Two days later, the 10th November, we were awakened at about 6 a.m. by the dropping of the ships sides, but no shot was fired. Later when we were allowed on deck we saw a Spanish ship named "Igotz Mendi". She was carrying 5800 tons of coal, and also live stock. When she came alongside the Spanish Officers shook hands with the Germans and looked over at us prisoners and smiled. The "Wolf" took what coal she wanted and then put a prize crew and the women and husbands aboard and sent her away.
Before I go any further I must not forget to mention that the Carpenter of the "Matunga", a Russian Fin by birth, who had lived in Australia for twenty years, on being asked his nationality by the Germans had declared himself neutral and had worked on the "Hitachi" for the Germans, and lived with the German sailors on the "Wolf".
Well to get on with the story. The "Wolf" and the Igotz Mendi" met at different times and took coal.
Things went on as usual until the 30th November. The order came "All Prisoners under deck" and about an hour later a shot was fired and another ship captured. She was an American three masted Barque, "John H. Kirby". She was carrying 300 motor cars for the Army. She was sunk the same day with half her sails set. She sunk in 3½ minutes. It was a sight worth seeing.
Nothing of importance happened until the 14th December, when we sighted a sailing ship at about 7 p.m., but it was too late to take her that night so we followed her up until morning. At dawn we heard a shot fired.
Another ship to go to the bottom. She was a French four masted Barque named "Marshal Davout" with wireless and two submarine guns. These the "Wolf" took before sinking her that same day. She sunk in two minutes.
Then the "Wolf" intended to make a run for Germany, but she first had to take coal, so she started to steam for "Trinidad Island". She was a few days run off when she intercepted a wireless message from two English cruisers talking to each other. One reported that "she was at Trinidad Island" and the other reported "she would be there the next day to coal". Of course when the "Wolf" heard this she steamed well away from "Trinidad Islands". She met the "Igotz Mendi" several days later and coaled in mid ocean. This was about the 20th December.
On the 25th December, "Christmas Day" we were still in the same place. We had a fairly good Christmas. The Commander gave us a cigar, 3 cigarettes and a glass of punch to each man.
On New Years day we were near the bottom of Africa.
On 4th January, 1918 we sighted a four masted Barque, and the prisoners were ordered below. It was 2 p.m. before we were allowed on deck again. On our starboard side astern was the smoke of a steamer and on the Port side the masts and sails of a sailing ship. A Hun sailor was standing on the boat deck of the "Wolf" with a pistol in his hand, ready to shoot anybody who tried to make signals to the sailing ship. We then signalled the steamer "Igotz Mendi". At 2.30 p.m. the "Wolf" turned completely about and at 4 p.m. we sighted the sailing ship again, and at 5 p.m. she was a prisoner of war. She was a Norwegian four masted barque named "Stere Brere" meaning "Big Brother".
When her crew came aboard they told us they had reported to the steamer (which was the "Igotz Mendi") having passed a German Raider and warning her. The "Igotz Mendi" rushed full speed to the "Wolf" and reported that was the reason why the "Wolf" went back.
The "Stere Brere" was sunk that same night at about 11 p.m. The Huns placed 3 lights on board, and when the lights disappeared they knew she was gone.
We crossed the Equator about the 10th January. After crossing the line we were not allowed on deck after 5.0 p.m. and "Oh Lord" wasn’t it hot. Just try to imagine 480 prisoners in two ‘tween decks, hatches closed, and all packed together with hardly enough room to move, and one kettle of warm water between 14 to 20 men.
We couldn’t wear any clothing when we went to bed, and yet we were sopping wet all the time. But thank God this only lasted for three days, and then started the cold weather. On the 27th January we ran into our first bad weather. It started to blow the night before and during the night mess tables and seats were all knocked down by the rolling of the ship.
The next morning the waves were mountains. High. One minute we were on top of a mountain and the next down in the valley. The sea was white with foam. We were shipping seas all over. The poop was awash. All the time we had three accidents amongst us. One chap got in the way of a falling mess table and got a nasty gash in the shin which took thirty stitches to make it look a bit respectable. Another chap had his foot hurt by the same thing. The other hurt his wrist. This weather lasted for three or four days and then all was calm again and I don’t think anybody was sorry to be able to stand upright again and not have to lean to the roll of the ship.
Early in February icicles started to form in the riggings and we had a fall of snow. We had some sport snowballing each other. My first experience with snow, so I made the best of it, but I was doomed to see more snow than I wanted under different circumstances which we will come to later.
A few days later we ran into ice-fields, icebergs. What a change from the tropics. In the midst of this the Captain of the "Hitachi Maru" committed suicide by knifing himself and jumping overboard, but the Germans didn’t know until the next day. Neither did we. The first we knew of it was the appearance of German Officers with electric lamps. They asked us if any of us had seen the Japanese Captain, but none of us had seen him. All the Japs were going about with arms folded and talking in whispers to each other. Then lots of rumours went around. One was that the Jap skipper had gone into one of the magazines and he was going to blow the ship up, but the next day on searching the Jap Skippers cabin a letter was found addressed to the Japanese Chief Officer. It said "I would have done this before, as it is the custom of my country on being captured by the enemy, but I only waited to make sure that my crew were safe and now the time has come". There was also a letter for the ships company. The next day the Japs had a memorial service as follows:- The Captains cap was placed on a table with his photo alongside it, and each Jap in turn marched to within 3 paces of it, saluted and bowed. Then bowed again and returned to his place. Then a service was held. My word the Japs did mourne for their Captain.
About the 7th February we were as far as 75 º North around Iceland. We then turned round the bottom of Iceland and cut across to the Norweigian coast. The anxiety then was terrible every night, as we went to bed we expected it to be the last and to make things worse we were not allowed on deck at all. The nearest we got to the deck for six or eight days was as far as a door under the poop, where we had to wait for the Germans to bring us our food, then we saw the coast of Norway covered with snow. The Huns were dressed in Civilian caps and bent double as they walked along the decks. All officers had civilian clothes and cap. At this time we were having beautiful weather, the opposite weather the Hun
Commander wanted. He made his big dashes at night. There were very few of us who wished him to meet anything like a cruiser. It was no use. He had done all the damage he set out to do. What was the use of sending 480 prisoners to the bottom.
Well we arrived in safe water on the 16th February, and the next night the 17th February, we dropped anchor, and I being an orderly this night saw the searchlights of several ships, destroyers and patrol boats directed on us. I was just coming back with the tea when a Hun engineer stopped me and pointed to the ships said (Look my boy, the German Blockade Britania Rules the Waves, eh?". I didn’t answer him but I would have liked to have killed him and that laugh of his. I wished him a nice death if ever the "Wolf" went on another raiding trip.
I forgot to mention that at this time we were bad with "Scurvy" through no fresh vegetables we had six cases in all.
We stayed at this anchorage quarantined for a week and then on the 24th February we steamed for Kiel. We of course being under deck until we passed through the mine fields guarding the entrance of Kiel harbour, and then we were allowed on deck, so that the Germans could see the English pigs the "Wolf" had brought back after being away for fifteen months.
She got a fine welcome. Kiel was full of warships, cruisers, dreadnoughts, battleships, destroyers, etc. The "Wolf" steamed along the line and as she passed each ship the men of the different ships gave three Hun cheers and a band struck up. There were seaplanes and aeroplanes flying above us and submarines around us. Also launches full of people came to see the prisoners.
The next day the Kaisers Brother, Prince Henry, came on board and spoke to a couple of our chaps. He said "I didn’t think America would have come into the war against us, but never mind, we will see it through"
(later when the revolution started he was the first to try and run away, but he was wounded trying to get into Denmark)
We stayed on board the "Wolf" until the 2nd March, during which time I saw several things really worth seeing, such as U. Boat practice. The U. Boat submerge and fires a torpedo (you can see the wake of it but the torpedo is fifty or sixty yards ahead). Then a fast torpedo boat destroyer starts off to pick up the torpedo as soon as it comes to the surface. I also saw different Admirals and High Officers, but we took no notice of them than of a dustman.
On the 1st March we were told to get ready to move off at 2 a.m. the following day, and I was told that we would get plenty of food on the way.
Well we were transferred into a ferry boat a 2.30 a.m. on the 2nd and Oh Lord wasn’t it cold. Enough to freeze anyone to death. We reached the landing stage and marched to a station with a row of sentries on each side of us. It was a funny feeling to feel my feet on solid land again after seven months, and to make matters worse the cobble roads were coated with ice, and I nearly went down on my face. We arrived at the station and we were formed up in fours, with sentrys all around us. We were still standing at the station at 6 a.m. By this time we had quite a crowd of working people gaping at us and laughing. It took the sentries all their time to keep the crowd back. At 6.30 a.m. we were marched on to the platform, and put in a train with all 4th class carriages. Each carriage has three compartments and each compartment holds twenty persons. 9 sitting and 11 standing. There were two sentries in each compartment with us. Well the train started at 7 a.m. and I can tell you we had a nice very breeze through a couple of broken windows. We were travelling stopping and shunting all the way. It was 3.30 p.m. before we got anything to eat and when we did get it we had to march nearly a mile
for it, but it was welcome, and I could tell you I felt like it. No food since 2 a.m. the day before, eight hours train travelling through fields of snow and then the mile march through snow. All for a plate of Hun soup. This livened us up a bit. Then we had the march back to the train. I shall never forget the name of this place where I had my first meal in Germany. It was a little place called "Bad Kleinen", from there we started off again through nothing but fields of snow as far as the eye could see. (I was already seeing too much snow). That night at 7 p.m. we arrived at a little place named "Fremersberg". Here we left the train and had to stand out in the cold wind – waiting for orders, and then to cap things it started to snow, until I couldn’t see a yard in front of me. At last we got marching orders. We crossed the railway line and headed for some lights about two miles away. My word I shall never forget that night. That long march through eighteen inches of snow, snowing all the time, and a freezing gale blowing, besides carrying our bags.
By the time we reached the camp, we were dead beat. The Huns halted us and kept us standing in the cold for about a quarter of an hour. Then marched us a little further then another halt. They kept this up until we were nearly at the end of the camp, and then a German Officer came along and started to row at us. Then we were marched the longest way round to see the Doctor. We had to pass the doctor. Then we were attached to our barracks. Plain wooden barracks and wooden bunks with damp straw racks for mattresses. We then were issued with two blankets per man. Hold these to the light and one could see through them and to make them worse they had been dragged through the snow as they were wet. We then got a dish of skilly, really nothing but hot water. We were glad of anything hot.
I was just going to turn in when an Aussie came into the barrack and
asked if there were any Australians. Some of the chaps sent him over to me. He was a chap from Mount Druit by the name of Frank Abbott. He told me to come to his barrack the next morning for breakfast. I turned in without undressing, and as bad as the bed was I slept through, but the next morning didn’t we all feel rotten. Every man in the barrack had a terrible cold (which I for one never lost the whole time I was in Germany). Then the Huns marched us to the bath house, clipped our hair as close as possible. The rest of the hair on our body was burnt off by a chemical like blue grey paint. We then had a hot bath. Meanwhile our clothes were being fumigated, then we were marched back to barracks. That bath didn’t improve our colds. Well I went and had dinner with Frank. I had a fine dinner. He was with four other English, all very nice chaps, and I can tell you I had a jolly good time while I was in the camp. I had all my meals with them.
The first two days in camp I went out with the others to work, and hard work it was. We were used as horses, pulling big wagons about, with 18 inches of snow and slush on the ground.
On the second night Frank Abbott told me to drop out of the ranks as soon as we were counted and come up to his barrack. This I did and escaped work.
On the 19th March we were marched to a clothing magazine, and the Huns told us to take off our civilian clothes and they gave us paper clothes with brown stripes down the trousers and a brown band on the arm in exchange for our good clothes. They made us change in the open in view of everybody, and by jove it was cold.
On the 20th March we were formed into transports of twenties to go out and work. Of course Bill Brookes (my mate) and I got together as usual, and at 4 a.m. on the 21st March we marched off. It was raining and it was as cold as ice, and pitch dark. We arrived at the station,
"Fremersberg" at 5.30 p.m. just about dead beat. My bag was jolly heavy a quarter full of clothing, and three quarters full of stores given me by Frank Abbott.
Before I go any further I must not forget to mention a little incident which happened on the 18th March: We were mustered as usual at 7 a.m. I was surprised to hear my name called and I was told to pack my bag and get it on the train to go to "Holzminden" with the passengers of the "Matunga" and "Hitachi Maru". I couldn’t make it out why I alone had been picked and I wasn’t exactly struck on going, but I packed my bag and put it with the passengers luggage on the train. The three passengers from the "Matunga" were pleased I was going, and they asked me how it was that I alone was going with them. I told them I had not the slightest idea. Well I went up to Frank and told him I wasn’t at all struck on going. I was to go the next morning. Well I was sitting talking when "Sid Rae" a chap from the "Matunga" came in and said "It’s all right, you are not going with the passengers". I was glad in a way but my bag had already gone on so I gave it up as lost. I put the mistake of sending me away with the passengers down to this. We had all been given forms to fill in stating full name and occupation, for my occupation I put "Clerk", so they must have taken me for some kid. After I had found I was not going I also found the reason why. It seems that one of the passengers of the "Hitachi Maru", a chap named "Dempsey", disliked by all who met him, had been a soldier and was going home on leave. He had been left out of the list and when he found I was in his place he went to the Huns and told them where they had made their mistake. The passengers vowed revenge on him and said he was not entitled to go with them as he was still a soldier. By the way the passengers spoke he was in for a bad time with them. One of the "Matunga" passengers, a chap named "Macanally" told me he would readdress my bag if they could get it for me.
Well now to get on with my departure to work. At 6 a.m. the train came along and away we went.
We reached our destination at 1.30 p.m. the same day and set off to our barrack.
The place was named "Frenholz", a country station.
Well we reached our barrack in "Klein Boden" at 2.30 p.m. and we were issued with a sack, a spoon a basin, 2 blankets and a washing basin. We were taken to a farm house and filled our sacks with straw and then back to our barrack and this is the kind of barrack we were put into.
We were to live in what had once been a hay loft, until it got too damp for hay. Underneath were 18 pigs, a few dozen fowls, 3 rabbits, a goat, and a small pen full of rotten turnips for the pigs. The Germans called us "Swines" "Pigs", so it was "German Swines" underneath and "English Swines" above.
The next day we were awakened by one of our sentries who came up and called out in German "Auf Stahen" which means "Get up". It was 5.30 a.m. and the windows were all frosted. We were on the way to work at 5.45 a.m. wondering what our work would be. Well we soon found out. After we had walked for three quarters of an hour, with the three sentries telling us to go faster, we arrived at our work, and found we had to dig the stones and sand from between the sleepers on the railway lines, and take the sand from underneath the sleepers, and put fresh stones in the place of the sand. We finished work for dinner at 12 noon, and it was enough to make ones heart ache to see what we had to eat. It was plain turnips cooked in water and dumped into cans as it was cooked. Also the turnips were the kind generally given to cattle, in any civilised country. We started work again at 1 p.m. the sentries watching us like a cat watches a mouse, and if we stopped work you were liable to be struck with the butt end of a rifle, or a bayonet.
I remember several occasions when our chaps got a belting. One was: We were forking stones between the sleepers when our "boatswain" Perryman stopped and sang us a little song entitled "The Death of Nelson". He reached the part where Nelson died, when one of the sentries rushed up and struck him on the back with his bayonet still in its sheath. This didn’t hurt enough for him so he drew his bayonet and struck him about six times across his back. My word didn’t our blood boil, but it was no use. We could do nothing.
Another occasion was:- An Irishman named Gordon stayed in bed sick one morning and two sentries came up and told him to get up and go to work. He said "no I am sick", so the big sentry, a Dane, got on one side of the bed and "Ned Kelly" (as we afterwards called him) on the other. Ned Kelly struck him with his rifle and the Irishman turned to speak to the Dane. As he did so the Dane hit him in the face with his fist and then hunted him out.
My word, "Ned Kelly" was a terror. He was as mad as a hatter and also dangerous.
I remember once when we were working above a sewer under the railway track. "Ned Kelly" was sitting quietly on the bank. Then all of a sudden he jumped up and ran under one side of this sewer and came out the other, and then gave a satisfied grin at us. He also used to salute and say good morning to horses, cows and goats. He used to tell us how he had killed several Russians, and it was a wonder he didn’t kill some of us.
Well I carried on the work like this with the same food all the time. At the end of a month I and all were feeling pretty weak and done up. One Sunday we heard a shot and went out side and found that somebody had shot a big cat. We jumped on this, cooked and ate it, and in the state we were in, enjoyed it. About a week later we caught another cat, and
also killed and ate it. My word weren’t we hungry. I was a bit luckier than the others. An old woman was good to me. She used to give me a plate of Buttermilk soup. Now and again also a few potatoes.
On the 4th May I received my first packet of bread from Denmark. It was mouldy green but I kept it. On the 6th May, a Sunday, Bill Brookes an American, and myself bought a piece of soap from one of the Englishmen with us. He charged us 5/- for it (the price the Germans would have paid for it) and got away from our barrack without being seen and went to a house we know to change soap for bread. The woman offered us a small piece of bread for it, which we refused and told her it wasn’t enough. She had beat us before on the same thing and we wanted revenge, so when she went inside to get more bread, we stole a pot of jam each. When she came back she looked at the jam shelf and we were getting ready to run if she said anything, but she didn’t notice it, but she gave us a jar with a half loaf of black bread. We went away and made for some woods, and there sat down and finished out pot of jam and about half the bread. We then made for home and made a bread pudding with the mouldy bread and the jam and water. We intended it for my birthday, 7th May, the next day, but when it was cooked we couldn’t see it stand, so we ate it straight away. It tasted good to us. The next day, my 16th birthday, I went into a hut to warm the coffee (ground acorns) for breakfast. It was about half past seven. Up went a patent coffee pot full of boiling coffee. All this went over my face. Oh I was a pretty looking creature.
I walked up and down in agony with the skin hanging from my chin and nose. the sentry gave an occasional look and then went on with his breakfast. at last when he had finished, he took me to a small house along the line and the woman there put some oil (pre war oil) on my face, which gave me a little ease. I was then taken back to barracks, where an old German woman (aged 69, and always called Grandmother by all the prisoners) put some more oil on my face and at 12 noon I was taken to a doctor at a place named Bad Oldesloe and he ordered me straight away to hospital.
I arrived at hospital Lubeck at 2 p.m. I was given hospital clothing and my own were taken away. I was then told to go to bed which I did.
It was not until the following morning that a doctor looked at me. My bandages were then stiff and sticking to my face. I was taken into the operating room and my bandages were wet and then almost dragged off my face then my face was covered with boracic powder.
For ten days I could not see out of my left eye and I could anything I ate had to be broken up and pushed between my lips.
While in hospital some recently captured Tommy’s came in wounded and told me that the British and French
were being driven back, and the Germans advancing like wildfire.
Another few days and my face was much better. I was then sent to work to saw and chop wood for the hospital. hours from 10 a.m. till 12 noon and 2 p.m. till 5 p.m.
On the 27th May my sentry came for me and found me in bed with an attack of biliousness through eating some fat given my by an Englishman and not being used of it. That morning the doctor had taken my temperature and ordered me to go to bed. But that didn’t matter I had to get up and go with my sentry. I was sorry to leave because the food in hospital was much better than we were getting while we
We caught a train from Lubeck to Oldesloe at 4 p.m. and at Oldesloe the sentry told me we would have to walk the rest, a steady two hours walk. I arrived at the barracks at 7 p.m. dead beat and as hungry as a hunter. The other prisoners were out to meet me, and then the old Grandmother took me into her kitchen and gave me a plate of soup. After finishing I went into the barrack and I was rushed for news. I had very little but what I knew I told them, what the Tommy’s had told me, but we hoped for the
The following day I had to go to work with the others on the Railway although I was sick.
A week or so later I became friendly with a German woman who afterwards insisted on me calling her Mother. She had two young daughters and one son, her husband being at the war. She was not at all like the average German woman. She used to wash and mend my clothes and I was always welcome at her home, but I had to be very careful not to be seen going to or coming from her house. If I were seen it meant trouble for both her and I but she didn’t
care who knew I went there, and I am sure I didn’t either. She used to say she didn’t care who won the war and I don’t think she did.
I only had one fight while I was a prisoner and that was with an American and this is how it happened. Every day four men were taken to the barrack to carry the food to the men working on the line. There were two big milk cans and two men carried one of these on a pole, and at night, one man was to carry the empty can half way home and then the other was to take it and carry it the rest of the way. There was always a rush to go because the carriers used to get a plate of potatoes at the barracks from the old Grandmother. Well this day
I was carrying it with this American. When we had finished dinner some of the Germans took the cans on a wagon and dropped them nearly half way. At night going home the American rushed ahead or at least sent somebody else ahead to get the can and he carried it as far as the half way line – a distance of about five hundred yards from where the can was when he picked it up. Then he dropped it and told me to carry it to the barracks and when I protested the American came along an told me if I didn’t carry the can he would not let me come for the dinner again. I didn’t say much there
but when we got back to barrack I told him what I thought of him, then one word led to others and finally we came to blows, but it didn’t last long because some of the men stopped it, but he remembered it for a few day by a black eye. I was lucky I was unmarked.
Towards the latter end of June I received my first food parcel from the Australian Red Cross and after that things were much brighter. We began to get stronger and very soon everybody had packets coming. The work didn’t seem at all hard then. Needless to say
we left off eating [indecipherable].
In September we were taken to work at Oldesloe. This meant a ride one station in the train morning and evening. Oldesloe was a railway junction and we often had to transfer vegetables from one truck to another and we used to steal everything we could get from the Germans. My word there trucks used to be much lighter after twenty six men had had a share of them. The penalty for this stealing if caught was 14 and 28 day solitary confinement but as luck would have it we were never caught.
In Oldesloe we were
often in trouble for not saluting N.C.Os. and Officers. A Lance Copo Corporal or any N.C.O. in Germany is like an officer and must be saluted, but we were not at all anxious to salute them.
We were badly treated until the middle of August 1918, and then the Germans were being driven back, more and more each day, and the Germans began to lose heart, and treated us much better.
About this time we sometimes managed to buy an egg or two at 1/3 each and we were lucky to be able to get [indecipherable]
at all. All the while Germany was getting weaker and weaker each day, and my word the German people used to envy us our Red Cross parcels.
Paper was a substitute for mail bags, sand bags, string, leather, boot laces, and a hundred other things and every single thing was rationed and only procurable for ration tickets. A set of clothes costs about £20 to £25 and real leather boots were things of the past.
Everything went on as usual until the end of October, when Germany sent to America for an Armistice and we were all hoping she
she would get it, but a few days later, we were sitting having breakfast when one of our sentries came in and and told us America would not give them an Armistice. We felt pretty glum, but we did not let him see that we cared.
After this everything began to liven up. Everybody wanted a peace, and on November 4th 1918 a revolution started amongst the Navymen at Kiel. The German Navy was ordered out, and the men knew that the British were waiting for them and they
refused to take the ships out. The authorities tried to force them to go, but this only made the men worse, and at last, the crew of the flagship "S.M.S. Koenig" (H.M.S. King) threw their Commander overboard, killed several Officers and anybody who went against them, then hauled down the German Naval Ensign and hoisted the Red Flag to the mast head. All the other ships followed suit and then the men went ashore, and made things lively. They commandeered trains to take them home. While this was on we were
travelling in the same trains as them, to and from work, and they told us all about the revolution and said that if the war didn’t soon end there would be terrible trouble in Germany.
The following day, November 5th, Navymen were patrolling all the stations and were armed with a pistol an bayonet, and all wore a red arm band a red cap band and a piece of red ribbon in their buttonhole. Anybody wearing the German colors in his cap was made take them out and he would
not, they were taken out for him. One of our sentries left us and joined the revolutionists so then we only had two sentries.
At last came the Armistice then we were all happy, but the German people were very quiet about it and said very little. We were still kept working, but we were not locked in our barrack, but we were supposed to be in barrack by 9 p.m., but one night an English lad and myself heard there was a dance about three miles away, so we made up our minds to go. We borrowed
civilian clothes and went. We had a good time, as we could both speak enough German to make us understood. at We arrived back to barracks at 2 a.m. and found our beds full, so we got in with somebody else, and went to sleep without much rocking. [indecipherable]
When we awoke again we found that it been arranged amongst us that we were going to refuse work. We also saw that there were six extra English Tommy’s in the barrack from farms several miles away. They were also going
When the sentry came to hunt us out to work, we refused to go, on account of the armistice. He said very well, we would get no food from them, and we would be locked in the barrack until we did work. He said we could have our parcels if they came. He then went away to report to an officer.
The next day, an Officer and a Sergeant came to our barrack. The Officer drew his overcoat aside and showed us a revolver, and asked us were we going to work. We answered absolutely
"No". He then offered us more money but we were determined not to work for them, and at last he went away again. Our food stopped, but we were not locked up. A couple of days later we received two food parcels each, and then we had a fine time, until the 28th November when we packed up and started for Parchim internment camp homeward bound.
We arrived at Parchim station at 3.30 p.m. and started off for the camp through a snow storm the snow was coming down in sheets and
by the time we arrived in camp we were walking through about a foot of it. On entering the camp we were met by a lot more of the prisoners also captured by the "Wolf" who had come into camp the day before us.
We stayed at Parchim until 8th December (during this time we had full and plenty to eat from the Red Cross) and then and then began our second stage of the Journey to "Warnemunde" (Germany) in box cars or cattle trucks, at 2 p.m., we arrived at Warnemunde at 7 p.m. that same night and we were
put into barracks inside Germany’s largest test flying station to await transport to Denmark.
We stayed at Warnemunde until 12th December, and enjoyed our stay there as there were lots of things of interest there watching the Flying machines and Sea planes. Well on the 12th a 150 of us we put on board a small steamer named "Niels Ebbesen" a Danish steamer, and that night we steamed outside the breakwater and anchored until morning.
Very early next morning we got under way bound for
Copenhagen (Denmark) and I cannot explain our feelings to see the coast of Germany slowly fade away and to think that we were free men once again. We could not realize it for some time.
We arrived at Copenhagen at 3.45 p.m. on December 13th, got into the train waiting, a double decker train, and started for a place named "Laastrup".
We arrived at Laastrup" at 4.30 p.m. and then began a march of six miles to a camp named "Grevelejren". On our arrival we were served with what we needed mostly, a good meal, and we did
did it full justice. We were then put into barracks, and found our beds all ready for us with white sheets and white pillow slip and good warm blankets. I think I had the best sleep I have ever had that night, and I think most of the others did too.
The following morning we had a good breakfast and we were then marched out on to the parade ground, then the Danish Camp Commander gave a speech and said he was very glad that the Allies had won the war and informed us that we were no longer
Prisoners of war, but guests of Denmark and that after two days quarantine we would be allowed in the town.
15th December. I went to a church service in camp. The Chaplain was a Dane, but he spoke very good English. After the service a Military Band from Copenhagen played all English patriotic pieces, Britania Rules the Waves, etc., and then in the middle of it all at Sergeant came in and announced officially that our transport was to leave for Scotland the following morning. This speech was greeted with cheers, clapping
whistling in fact anything that made a noise. This lasted for fully twenty minutes, and when at last we got a bit quiet we carried on with the songs.
The next morning we left camp at about 9 a.m. and arrived in Copenhagen at 10.30 a.m. and after some delay, we were shipped on board the English ship "H.M.S. Plassey" and at 4 p.m. we left the wharf. We had a lovely send off, thousands of Danish people on the wharf cheering us and wishing us a safe voyage and we returned it with cheers and songs.
When we got outside we were ordered to wear our lft life belts from 8 p.m. that night until 6 a.m. the following morning on account of the danger of floating mines. We also had boat drill.
We had a Cruiser escorting us on account of the ships firemen. They all got drunk and mutineed, also slashed several of the crew with knives, and it ended by five of the mutineers being taken on board the cruiser and put in irons, a about twenty Naval Marines we put on board the "Plassey" to keep order.
On the 17th December we passed a floating mine, only about 200 yards away. When we were at a safe distance the cruiser went back and exploded the mine. It was a fine sight and well worth seeing. Later in the day we passed three more mines within an hour all of which were sunk by the cruiser. To wards evening we came abreast of another mine and the marines from our ship began firing at it with rifles but the were unsuccessful. The cruiser did not go back and explode it either.
We arrived at Leith (Scotland) at 11 p.m. on the 18th December and dropped anchor, and waited for the tide. We did not go alongside the docks until 2 p.m. on the 19th December. There were two Scotish band on the Docks to meet us and hundreds of school children and lots of other people. We didn’t get a chance to cheer, we had to be content to listen to them.
We went ashore at 5.30 p.m. and we were given something to eat by the Red Cross, and we were given railway passes to London. On the way to the station lots of kiddies flocked
around us for souvinirs. We gave them what we had and then my mate and I caught our train for London. We changed trains at Edinburgh and at 9 p.m. started for London. We arrived in London at 8 a.m. the following morning after a tedious journey feeling very tired. We had a wash and brush up for 2d. We then parted, my mate going to Tonbridge, Kent and I to Earlscourt, London.
[Transcribed by Judy Gimbert, Adrian Bicknell for the State Library of New South Wales]