Since ancient times, the story of a soldier's life is often a tale of long days of boredom interrupted by brief moments of action. But that monotony became an interminable ordeal for any soldier captured by the enemy and held as a prisoner of war. In the Great War of 1914-18, over 6 million men were confined to hundreds of prison camps scattered around Europe. In Germany alone there were over 2,400,000 POWs, with over a million more imprisoned in Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey.
In some of these prison camps, the captive soldiers were allowed to have musical instruments and form small orchestras as a way to provide a small comfort from the dull routine. This photo postcard shows one such POW orchestra from a camp in Münster, Germany, with soldiers dressed in a mixture of British, French and Italian army uniforms. The French soldiers wear the distinctive Kepi hat, and the Italians have stars on their coat collar. The 18 musicians are posing outdoors with their instruments arranged on the ground in a typical military fashion by leaning them against each other. There are 4 clarinets, a flute, a horn, 6 violins, a cello, and a double bass on the far right.
Mr. Fred Parkin
With my kind regards
The name Fred Parkin unfortunately shows up too often in British military records to make a proper identification as the search term captured, POW, or Münster is not part of the data base. According to the dealer from whom I acquired this set of photos, Fred Parkin may have been the camp photographer.
Any suggestions on the inscrutable signature are appreciated.
Here is a larger view of Fred's Münster camp showing the prisoner barracks, a larger assembly building which might have been the orchestra's music hall, and what appears to be a formal garden park with several dozen men scattered around. There were actually 4 Münster camps built during the war around this city of 100,000 in North Rhine-Westphalia. One had previously been a race course and another was built on farmland. This has the look of a rural landscape but there are no markings to indicate which camp it was.
In 1914, all of the military forces expected that the war would last no more than a few months, so there was no planning made for captured troops. The first prisoners who were taken often endured very harsh conditions, and the international rules for maintaining proper care of POWs were often not followed for various political and logistical reasons. Enlisted ranks were required to work, which sometimes meant rebuilding enemy trenches and collecting bodies from the battlefield.
This second photo of a POW orchestra came from the same collection and is undoubtedly the same camp. This time 16 musicians hold their instruments, and three men who were on the left in the first photo are now standing on the right. The Frenchman with the marvelous mustache has changed his hat for a cap and holds a horn. Another Frenchman in front of him has a saxophone. They are arranged around a piano and I would guess that the British soldier seated in the center with his hands crossed is the pianist and maybe even the orchestra conductor.
There is very little archival material online that pertains to POW camps in the First World War. This POW orchestra is one of several that I have acquired, and last year I posted a story on a similar Army Orchestra from 1917 that I believe came from an Austrian POW camp. That postcard inspired my search for more information about this unusual kind of ensemble as each photo brings up the same question. Where did these POWs get these musical instruments? A cello is not ordinarily taken into combat by an infantryman. Maybe a viola, but never a cello. So how did a cello come to be photographed in a prisoner of war camp? Surprisingly the answer is the YMCA.
This week I found a superb book on the history of the POWs in WW1 that seems to be published online for free, Pursuit of an 'Unparalleled Opportunity' by Kenneth Steuer with the subtitle: The American YMCA and Prisoner of War Diplomacy among the Central Power Nations during World War I, 1914-1923. In his eBook history, Steuer explains in great detail how the American Young Men's Christian Association became the intermediary for providing welfare to the millions of allied soldiers imprisoned by Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
Shortly after the start of the war in 1914, President Wilson felt the United States should avoid becoming entangled in the conflict and instead remain a neutral country like Spain, Sweden, or Switzerland. But as the war continued to expand and more POWs were taken by the Central Powers, public concern for the captured soldiers grew, so the American government agreed to monitor the prison camps on behalf of the allied nations. But the US military and civilian authorities had no experience in providing this kind of social welfare support, so instead the American YMCA accepted the mission to organize and provide for the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of war prisoners.
One of their first efforts in 1914 was in distributing Christmas parcels that included games, cigarettes, candles, and musical instruments as well. Even the prison camp guards were given gifts, as they were "just as lonely and homesick as the prisoners of war".
This section from Chapter 8 of Steuer's book details the importance given to music as a solace for the war prisoners.
Another important element of the Association's Four-fold Program was entertainment for POWs. Mental diversions allowed POWs to temporarily forget about the situation they faced. Music was one of the most important parts of this service. The American YMCA provided a variety of musical instruments and sheet music so that the POWs could organize orchestras, bands, and choirs.
Between March 1915 and June 1917, the American YMCA spent twenty thousand Marks on musical instruments for POWs in Germany. Once organized, bands, choruses, and orchestras provided evening performances for the POWs and the guards, as well as music for religious services, at theatrical performances, and at funerals. Most camps had talented musicians among the ranks who worked hard to develop the music programs. Not only did they lead the bands and orchestras, they offered lessons to POWs, who were eager to learn how to play a variety of instruments. The prisoners could draw up a wish list of instruments and musical scores and send it through the YMCA field secretary to the WPA Office in Berlin.
At Döberitz, the POWs organized the "Prisoners' International Orchestra," and the Association provided a cornet, flute, French horn, violoncello, castanets, and a tambourine to fill out the orchestra. The Association sent an organ and stringed instruments to the officers' prison camp at Werl for Russian prisoners. At Königsbrück in Saxony, Jacob equipped a Serbian gypsy orchestra, while Michel organized and equipped an orchestra at Worms. The YMCA also provided sheet music for the chorus at Schneidemühl, which allowed the prisoners to produce a show that greatly helped improve camp morale. Often, the musical talents of field secretaries helped ease prisoners' suffering.
Michel reported that POWs at Friedberg took special comfort in his music. The benefits of music could even be extended to far-flung labor detachments by sending musical instruments and scores to POWs at work sites. Michel pointed out that "music, especially singing, had charms to soothe, cheer, and bless" the hapless prisoner of war.
After the United States entered the war in 1917, the American YMCA recruited replacements from the neutral nations of the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. This organization was then named the War Prisoners' Aid or WPA.
Musical entertainment was a critical element of this relief. By June 1917, the YMCA had equipped twenty-seven orchestras in prison camps and provided harmonicas to 120 labor detachments. To meet the heavy demand for instruments, the Association developed a business relationship with a musical instrument manufacturer in Leipzig. The relationship evidently flourished, since the WPA Office in Berlin received a single bill for 504 mouth organs. Red Triangle workers provided sheet music and orchestral scores upon request.
The YMCA and WPA arranged for POWs to get material for other activities like handicraft shops and sports. In this view of the same prison camp park we see curving walkways, flower beds, and rustic benches that were probably a product of the POWs using tools provided by the YMCA. With such an odd mix of British, French, and Italian design, I imagine that the men's garden club discussion could get pretty heated. And in multiple languages.
This last photo postcard is of a group of 22 British servicemen from the same Münster camp. The back of the card includes a photographer's imprinted name and address and is the only evidence for the location of this POW camp.
Carl Dülberg, Münster i/W, Steinfurtherstr. 9.
I count over 13 different regimental cap badges, including one sailor. His cap has his ship's name but despite my best efforts I just can't decipher it. I was unable to find many instances where the Royal Navy lost ship crews that were taken prisoner during the war, but I did discover the 63rd Royal Naval Division which was an unusual navy reserves unit which fought on land and had many sailors who were captured. But that is a story for another time.
The POWs did have a postal service to receive letters and packages from home, and I believe that these postcards were produced by the soldiers for their own mail, though it was subject to German military censors. Without postmarks and messages there is no way to completely identify the who, when, and where of these photos which are part of the vast complicated history of the Great War.
But on November 11th, 1918 - Armistice Day - I expect that the Münster POW camp orchestra gave a rousing performance that all of these soldiers would rejoice and remember for the rest of their lives.
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday,
where the phones are ringing with new stories of old photographs.
where the phones are ringing with new stories of old photographs.
UPDATE: For my readers who like puzzles, here is an enhanced detail of the sailor in the last photo. The cap letters look to me like HMS Pembroke but there was no ship by that name in WW1. But let us hope he eventually made his way back to his home port.