By 1918, the Allies on the Western Front were overstretched, short of troops, and experiencing low morale after years of fail campaigns. The German troops, conversely were bolstered by the arrival of additional troops from the Eastern Front and preparing for a strategic attack, Operation Michael.
Richard Tobin, who was on the Western Front in March 1918, recalled, “In the trenches at night, when the wind was in the right direction, we could hear the German trains and transport rumbling up their great army that was going to sweep us into the sea. We were grim, we were determined. Behind us lay the old Somme battlefields, every yard soaked with British blood shed through almost two years of hard battle.”
In the early hours of March 21, the Germans began bombarding Allied lines. The firepower of the Germans was incredible. Soldiers rose from their bed to deafening explosions and shaking ground. Dugout barracks in the trenches crumbled around them. As the bombing continued, communication was cut with Allied headquarters.
The early morning fog had not lifted when the German bombardment stopped and soldiers crossed no man’s land to make a surprise attack on the Allies’ trenches. The Allies had no choice but to fall back.
Twenty-one thousand British prisoners were taken on the first day of the Spring Offensive. Reserves from stationed nearby were rushed to support their countrymen over the following days. It was no use. Troops were retired. Orders were disorganized. Soldiers were confused and exhausted. Ultimately, the Germans would push 40 miles into Allied territory.[i] However, as the Allies gained reinforcements, the German attacks were contained and subsided in April. The Allies lost 328,000 men and the Germans lost 348,000. The same spring, the Americans would enter the Western Front, turning the tides of the Great War for the Allies.[ii]
When prisoners of war were captured en masse, the captors were often overwhelmed with processing them all, so they were held in outdoor compounds, awaiting director and accommodations.[iii] Prisoners of war were often put to work in mines, quarries, factories, or farms away from the actual camp.[iv] The work was not supposed to be connected to the enemy’s war effort, but that rule was not always followed.
Conditions for prisoners were, as one can imagine, poor. Food was meager; sanitation was sparse, causing lice and infectious disease to become rampant. The Red Cross would deliver food, tobacco, and essentials every other week or so, which was a welcome relief for prisoners like Thomas.[v] Though there are reports of brutality in prisoner of war camps, post-war interviews and reports of neutral delegates, like the Red Cross, conclude that this was infrequent.[vi]
A British prisoner shared, “The quality of the food was extremely poor and very meagre. It was about one meal a day. Which consisted of a piece of black bread about half the size of the palm of your hand, which was the whole day’s ration of bread; and that was black, a sort of rye bread. The main meal would be something like a plate of sauerkraut – as you know is sour cabbage. And then there was a cup of this, so called, coffee. To give you some idea of the effect of the lack of food: malnutrition and so on meant a considerable loss of body weight in the majority. And to give you an indication of how weak one became; there was a flight of stairs – not very steep stairs – up to my particular bedroom and after a while I could negotiate the first two steps standing upright. The remainder of the stairs I had to do on my hands and knees because I hadn’t got the strength to walk upright up the stairs.”
When the Armistice came on November 11, 1918, POWs were not immediately release. Many prisoners did not hear the war had ended for many months upon release in early 1919.[vii]