This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

A WW1 Prisoner of War Camp Orchestra

09 November 2012

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.

On the back of the card is an inscription: 
Mr. Fred Parkin
With my kind regards
{unreadable signature}

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. 

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.


Alan Burnett said...

Another perfect combination of words and images.Mike, this really is blogging at its very best. It is a pleasure to be back on dry land (and wi-fi land) so that I can look forward to posts like this again and again.

Bob Scotney said...

Fascinating from start to finish. I was surprised to see the sailor in the last picture too. If it weren't for the numbers on their uniforms you would not know these were POWs.

Postcardy said...

Fascinating history. I never would have expected that there would be musical groups at POW camps or that the prisoners seemed to be treated so well.

Peter said...

Mike, the best I can make of the name on the sailor's cap is HMS Tintagel. It was an existing ship's name during WW1 but that's about all I have been able to find out.
Almost forgot to mention that I am getting used to your outstanding posts! It is as if I am getting my weekly dose of history. They should be published! and if you do, I'll be your first customer!

Kathy said...

So interesting! Thank you!

Mike Brubaker said...

Thanks, Peter. I really appreciate your praise and enthusiasm to work on my history puzzles. The name Tintagle is a good fit for the fuzzy letters, the 1st letter looks like "T" or "F" and the 2nd, 3rd letters could be "IN" or "IM" . But unfortunately the HMS Tintagel was a Castle class corvette in WW2, and not WW1. But still a good try.

21 Wits said...

You always amaze me- with your photos and the source of information. I believe my most favorite photo is of the camp- when it's enlarged you can see that everyone seems to be focused on the photographer! An amazing capture!

Peter said...

There was a destroyer with that name at the end of WW1. Please see The name is shown in the June 1917 order. But indeed it was not active during WW1.

Mike Brubaker said...

Thanks Peter. I'd missed that. Since the name on the sailor's cap is unclear and there are so many names of ships, I tried a different method to sort them, looking for any ship that was sunk AND had crew captured. But there are very few ships in WW1 that fit that description.

Then I found the information on the British 63rd Royal Naval Division which participated with land forces in the early part of the war. There were 12 battalions in the Division but I don't know if sailor caps bore the names of these units.

I've added a closeup of the sailor if anyone else wants to try this puzzle. The sailor does stand out, if you pardon the expression, like a fish out of water.

Peter said...

HMS Pembroke? Could very well be, clever find! There is a Pembroke II mentioned here but I am not sure that one ever went out to sea.

Tattered and Lost said...

It's amazing how many people fail to understand the importance of music to our soul. And how stupid it is that music is one of the first things cut from schools.

Mike, I hope you saw this:

Mike Brubaker said...

@T&L - Yes Thank you. I listened to the story of the WW2 veteran and his unperformed symphony on NPR yesterday. It was very moving.

@Peter - This is becoming another adventure in history. HMS Pembroke II was a land base in East Chatham for the Royal Naval Air Service in WW1. The RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps were separate forces, and the navy provided seaplanes, balloons, and airships as part of the war effort. So this sailor could have been captured from the air so to speak.

I also discovered that there were Royal Navy Units that devised the first armored cars that were used early in the war in Belgium. This was before the idea of a tank was invented. And those first tanks were called "land ships" and used naval guns and ship armor technology. So the sailor may have been captured while driving too. There were a lots of ways for a seaman to see combat besides being on a ship.

Unknown said...

Mike, thoroughly enjoyed this post and marvel at the number of fascinating postcards you have accumulated and the even more interesting stories behind them.

Peter said...

I think I'll close file before being regarded as an expert of British military history :)

Wendy said...

Now see -- I never realized anyone was supposed to care whether POWs were bored. You are forcing me to rethink "Hogan's Heroes" as documentary rather than ridiculous sitcom ;-)

Unknown said...

Wow over 2 million POWs in the WWI! This was a wonderfully historical post with so much information and the photos....the sotries really add to the postcard photos.

Kat Mortensen said...

I, for one, love a mystery, and I think I'll be spending a good chunk of the rest of my day trying to track down Mr. Fred Parkin (already have found a report of one's death on Ancestry (news clipping), and will also be pursuing the mysterious, "H.M.S. Pembroke".

Thanks! I love it!

I've seen a few P.O.W. films in my time; "Stalag 17", "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Great Escape" come to mind, of course, but there are a few Jewish P.O.W. films that are superb. Most recently, "The Counterfeitors" is a brilliant example.


P.S. I don't think it says, "Tintagel". Sorry Peter.

Kat Mortensen said...

It looks as if the Wiki link that Peter found indicates that the HMS Pembroke was used as the name for a number of shore barracks at Chatham, Harwich and on the Forth.

"A number of ships were renamed Pembroke while serving as base and depot ships for the establishment: ...

HMS Trent was HMS Pembroke from 1905 until 1917."

Not sure if the fellow in the picture could have been from this "HMS Pembroke".

Bruno Laliberté said...

This is what I came across but it is something you already know, judging by the comments with Peter:

"HMS Pembroke was the shore base at Chatham Royal Dockyard, Kent. Those who died while serving there are buried in the woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham. HMS Pembroke is now the Medway Campus of the University of Greenwich."

Good luck on your quest for answers!!

Brett Payne said...

Thanks for letting me know about this post, which I did indeed miss. I also think the name on the naval cap looks like HMS Pembroke. Great story. Like, you, I have lamented on the lack of POW records online, both for the Great War and WWII. They will come eventually, I guess.

NewtonAbbotFan said...

We have a small Museum in Newton Abbot which creates micro-history packs. One of the WW1 stories they are writing at the moment is about a local lad captured and sent to Munster 1. Could they use your image of the camp group, please? The pack sells for £2 for 20 stories.

Mike Brubaker said...

Please contact me through my email address on the sidebar under about me.

Unknown said...

There's a section on live in WW1 PoW camp in Veteran Volunteer, Memoir of the Trenches, Tanks and Captivity 1914 – 1919 by Frank Vans Agnew (Ed. Jamie Vans). My great uncle kept a diary for more than a year and I have several photos of camp theatricals - camp in both senses of the word too!

He wrote quite a lot about these productions; he thought the French were the best!

Two extracts:
Heidelberg, Monday, 18 March 1918
Was invited to the pantomime tonight by members of British Amateur Dramatic Society (BADS), to see Sinbad, the Sailor. From 7pm to 10.15pm. Good orchestra, mostly French, but conducted by Lieutenant Bullock who composed much of the music and songs.
Tuesday, 19 March 1918
A really good performance with good costumes and well staged. Scenery carefully prepared and painted. The chorus girl imitations most lifelike, likewise the girl programme-sellers.

Veteran Volunteer is available from Pen and Sword see and from Amazon.

Frank was a remarkable man:

He was 46 when he travelled from America in 1914 to enlist, having been a veterinary surgeon, a farrier in Roosevelt’s Roughriders, an assayer at gold and copper mines in Western Canada and Kazakhstan, and an orange grower in Florida.

Posted to the front in May 1915 Frank was soon in the thick of the action and in 1917 was transferred to the Tank Corps, winning an MC at Messines. He was wounded and captured in November and spent 13 months in POW camps before a spell in Copenhagen helping to repatriate British soldiers.

His later career saw him in Belize, prospecting for chicle trees, ranching in New Mexico and growing daffodils in Cornwall before his retirement, which was interrupted by two years in the Home Guard and three in the Royal Observer Corps.

He died in 1955. I only met him once, about a year before that..


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