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 }

Music for a Desert Island

04 December 2015

This man is a castaway. He was engulfed in a terrible great storm, overwhelmed by terrifying forces, torn apart from friends and family, and yet he still managed the wistful smile of a castaway glad to have survived a tempest. He may be safe from harm now, but sadly he is marooned far away from his homeland. Cast up on a foreign shore not unlike a desert island, in a place so strange he could never have imagined it.

There are many more castaways with him, but it's his tale I wish I could hear.

{click any image to enlarge}

It is some time between September 1914 and November 1918, the years of the Great War, tragically known as World War One. The man is an African soldier of the French colonial forces, and he lies on the ground in front of 24 fellow prisoners held captive in a German prisoner of  war camp. There are Russian soldiers, French soldiers, and Belgian soldiers all wearing an assortment of rumpled military uniforms and caps. But there is only one black face in the group. Only one man who is truly a very, very long way from home. The men stand in front of the open doors of a barn or garage building. There are some packages on a bench, probably just delivered from the Red Cross.

I usually buy photos that include musicians, bands, orchestras, or musical instruments, but here there are none. This photo postcard caught my attention because it offered an opportunity to rescue a man lost in the sea of wartime. An African soldier who smokes a pipe with a contented smile. 

The dog in the foreground came as an added bonus.

The back of the card was addressed to Monsieur et Madame Cheylus of 18 Rue Amelot, Paris, France. There is no message, only a name in the upper left corner – H. Louis Brocard (?) who is presumably one of the French soldiers in the photo. Unfortunately he did not mark his place in the group. M. and Mme Cheylus lived only two blocks up from the Place de la Bastille, where today there is a large apartment block.

Stamped along the top of the card is a German phrase: 
Kriegsgefangenen - Sendung!
Prisoner of War - Mailing!
Gefangenenlager Müncheberg (Märk)
Prisoner Camp Müncheberg (Märkisch-Oderland)

The small town of  Müncheberg was one of over 180 prison camps scattered across Germany to contain the hundreds of thousands of Belgian, French, British, and Russian soldiers captured by German forces during the war. Müncheberg is is located just east of Berlin halfway to the border with present-day Poland. The camp was identified in a catalog entitled Map of the Main Prison Camps in Germany and Austria, a small pamphlet produced in 1918 by Mrs. Pope-Hennessy for families of British prisoners of war.

The prison camp, four acres in extant, is in the town and is surrounded on three sides by houses. American prisoners here. 3rd Army Corps. (British)

At the end of the war in 1918 over seven million POWs were held collectively by the nations at war. And of that number, 2,400,000 soldiers were imprisoned by Germany. Though the United States declared war in April 1917, American soldiers were really only exposed to battle in the last 4 months of 1918, and suffered much fewer captured soldiers.  

Map of the Main Prison Camps in Germany and Austria
by Mrs. Pope-Hennessy
Source: State Library of Victoria


As the war expanded in 1915, France began to utilize troops from all its vast colonial empire. This postcard image produced as propaganda by the German war department shows soldiers from Senegal, Guinea, Somalia, Tunis, Anam (Vietnam), Sudan, and Dahomey. The Kaiser hoped to sow seeds of rebellion among the native people in the the British and French colonies.

French colonial troops from North and West Africa
Source: Wikipedia

German photographers produced many variations of this type of postcard. This next image comes from my collection and shows a group of ten POWs representing the allied nations at war with Germany. On the left is a French Zouave soldier from North Africa dressed in this colonial legion's distinctive white pantaloons, embroiderer jacket, and fez. Then two Russians with two different army hats, another French soldier holding a cane, a Belgian, two British soldiers from different units, the one at the back may be from an Irish regiment judging from the harp shaped cap badge. The soldier on the far right is Italian and he has his hands on the shoulder of another Frenchman I believe, who wears a Red Cross armband. And seated center left is an African French colonial soldier, the only one of the ten soldiers who looks somewhat defeated. In fact his cane may indicate he was wounded or injured during his capture.

It is impossible to know to what degree they were comrades, but their brotherly expressions look genuine. Even though the photo is printed on a postcard in a much smaller format, the camera caught a lot of detail. Unfortunately the postcard lacks any marks to establish where or when these men sat for the photographer. Perhaps the image was intended as propaganda that might convince allied soldiers to surrender rather than fight. But 100 years later they look as if they are modeling for a military uniform catalog.


Just to the north of Müncheberg, at the mouth of the River Oder, was another camp at Altdamm. This town of 7,300 inhabitants was once part of Prussia but now lies in Poland. In 1918 Mrs. Pope-Hennessy said it had

three camps with capacity for 15,000 prisoners. Built on a sandy drill-ground amidst pine woods. A few naval and civilian prisoners of war here. The centre of a large number of working gangs employed in the neighbourhood on estates in forestry, factories, hotels, etc. 2nd Army Corps. (British)

 This camp held another castaway faraway from his home.

He stands to one side of a small orchestra. He is the only African face amid French, Belgian, Russian, and British soldiers. He wears a French Regimental number 159 badge on his collar. He has no instrument but I think he is one of the musicians. There are three cornets, two with Central European rotary valves, and one with British/French piston valves. One Russian soldier holds a fine blackwood flute.

Each of the nationalities represented in this orchestra have very distinctive mustaches and hat styles. It is quite easy to see the difference between Russian, English, and French. The subtle difference between Canadians, Irish, Polish, Ukrainian, etc. are more difficult, but each man had a story to tell and a tune to play. The orchestra's conductor sits center with a baton but without a cap. I believe he is French.

There are at least 10 string players, including a cello and double bass. There is a pair of clarinets and a pair of trombones, each allied with one Russian and one British player. Another British soldier has a small tuba. The Red Cross and the YMCA both distributed musical instruments to the POW camps. Altdamm and Müncheberg were camps designated for enlisted ranks, who could be assigned limited work duties. Officers were held in other camps and were supposedly prohibited from doing anything that might contribute to the German war effort.

The Altdamm POW camp orchestra is posed on sandy ground with pine trees in the background, exactly as described by  Mrs. Pope-Hennessy. Though some of the 25 musicians do not show their  instruments, it is likely the orchestra still made a good sound.

And what did the African soldier play? If you look at the snare and bass drums in front, there are caps placed atop them. The soft hat has numbers that I think match the collar badge No. 159, and it is very like the African soldier's cap in the previous group of POWs, so I believe he is one of the drummers.

The card has a very lengthy message written on 15 XII 17 or December 15, 1917. The language is German which demonstrates that some POW camp postcards were used by the German guards. The blue pencil is difficult to decipher, but it does refer to Weihnachten or Christmas. Perhaps the orchestra was preparing for a special Christmas entertainment.

In 1914 before the war, any European could have easily traveled from London to Paris, or Brussels to Berlin, or Vienna to Moscow. But few Africans would have dreamed that within the next few years a great number of them would take this frightening grand tour of Europe. The native colonial military forces made a great contribution to the war effort that is poorly recognized in histories of  WW1, and it deserves to be better known.

What intrigues me is the mix of cultures in these images. What kind of music did an African drummer play when his fellow musicians spoke dissimilar languages and marched to the step of different march tunes. The French, English, and even Russian prisoners of war would expect letters and packages from home. But could a soldier from Senegal take heart that his family knew he was safe and alive?

Or was he like a castaway waiting for rescue? Always hopeful that one day he would return home. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where we are all trying to find our way.


Anne Young said...

I wonder how they got so many instruments in the camps. I think it was through the Red Cross and similar organisations. The prisoners must indeed have felt as castaway as Crusoe.

Jofeath said...

Great collection of photos and accompanying history. I wonder if the African soldier in your first card is lying diwn because he is injured. I fully expected you were going to identify him in the end!

Bob Scotney said...

Fascinating photos with so much for us to wonder about. I was captivated from the beginning with that dog. I hope it belonged to the African.

Alan Burnett said...

As always Mike, a feast of a blog post - pleasurable, satisfying and informative. But there was one half-sentence right at the beginning - "the years of the Great War, tragically known as World War One" - which made me stop in my reading tracks for a while and reflect on the truth of those words.

Kristin said...

I hope they all made it home.

Anonymous said...

The castaways of war, an interesting way to look at the photos. No sign of any Australians in those particular camps though there were nearly 4000 Australian prisoners of war in all. A most interesting post.

Sharon said...

My favourite post for the day!

Well written and very interesting.

Thank you.

Little Nell said...

A poignant reminder that wars have always generated 'castaways', right to our present sad times. I agree the dog, as in life, is a bonus.

La Nightingail said...

As always, you managed to come up with an informative, thoughtful, & thoroughly interesting post to fit the theme!

Tattered and Lost said...

Brilliant post opening a whole new perspective for me. I am also fascinated that their uniforms, though prisoners of war, seem in such good condition.

kathy said...

A great post. Would love to be able to hear them perform. Music brings people together no matter what language they speak.

Wendy said...

Your post makes me think of the story behind "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" in which the cellist played his music while his city was being bombed just to show that humanity was still alive. I think that's how prisoners managed to play too.

Anonymous said...

Your first photo show the Post-team of the POW camp of Müncheberg in September 1915. My grand-grand-father, Francis Lockner, is the man with the white jacket on the back. On the Red Cross International Comitee site, you will fing several african soldiers' names on the list of Müncheberg prisoners (share P 29856 to P 29890). One of them is your smiling man. Sincerely. Dr Pierre Vautrin, néphrologist at the Hôpital Nord franche Comté (France).


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