A Sussex Prisoner-of-War

Thomas Reginald Charles TOMPKINS was born in West London on 11th August 1898. He was the son of James and Mary Tompkins. His father was a decorator.  The family lived at 4, Bayham Road, Ealing and he was baptised at St John’s Church , Northfields on 25thSeptember 1898.

During the Great War, Thomas joined the Royal Sussex Regiment.  He served, first in the 13thBattalion and later in the 17thBattalion as Private G/17419.   He was promoted to Corporal during training.

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Thomas (top left) possibly during training.

 

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Thomas (front row 4th from right) in the Royal Sussex Regiment

At some stage, probably Spring 1918, Thomas was captured as a prisoner-of-war. The circumstances of his capture are unknown but reading the war-time diaries of the Royal Sussex Regiment, men were usually captured either during enemy raids or in ‘no-mans-land’ whilst conducting wiring party operations. It is likely Thomas was captured during the Somme offensive of spring 1918.

Thomas was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in the city of Merseburg, Saxony in eastern Germany. The camp was designed to hold 10,000 men and prisoners which were a mix of French, British, Australian, Russian and even Arab servicemen.

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The Red Cross visited the camp on 16thMay 1915.  At this time there were 12, 995 internees of which the majority, 10,305, were French.  The prisoners were kept in huts of 150 men although the Red Cross noted that not all had beds and some had to sleep on bench-tops or in straw on the ground. Groups of huts were separated by barbed wire and it seems that the main complaint was that men were not able to contact friends or colleagues who were in different parts of the camp.  There were three meals a day which the Red Cross deemed sufficient. Food included sausage, herring and cheese. The health of the prisoners was generally good although there had been some reports of tuberculosis.

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The Merseburg Canteen

Some of the prisoners worked on construction-sites away from the camp but if they did, they got extra food and were paid. This at least is what the Red Cross was told; a Scottish soldier, Lance Corporal Dickson died in Falkirk in August 1916 due to the ‘inhumane treatment received at Merseburg Camp’ where he was ‘forced to work in a salt-mine on a diet of potato peelings’.

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Sections of the Merseburg Camp were separated by barbed-wire fences.

In May 1916, the Under-secretary for War, Harold Tennant MP mentioned the work parties sent out from German prisoner-of-war camps in the House of Commons. He called  work ‘slavery’ although German prisoners-of-war in England were also forced into labour. The main complaint that the Red Cross had with the camp was that that of punishments. This was solitary confinement in either a lit or darkened cell or being tied to a post for up to three hours which the Red Cross said was rare in other German PoW camps. A report in the Globe in May 1916 reported that a prisoner-of-war from the 139thInfantry Regiment had been punished at Merseburg by being hung by the wrists from a beam for two hours. The report said the prisoner’s head was thrown back and his toes were barely touching the ground.

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Merseburg Camp

The camp was visited again later in the year, this time by representatives of the American Embassy in Berlin. By this time (December 1916) the number confined in the camp had risen to 19, 839 prisoners of which 340 were British. The camp was now at nearly double capacity although when the visit was made over 13,000 men were away from the camp working on various construction projects. The Americans said that the atmosphere of the camp was ‘not cheerful’ (what did they expect!) however the prisoners seemed to have no major complaints. Unlike the other prisoners, the British all seemed to have a full sets of uniform. Some men were seen to be injured but when questioned admitted that the bruises were as a result of a camp boxing competition. The British had their own medical officer and the British chaplain in Berlin frequently attended the camp to hold religious services.

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French Medical Corps prisoner at Merseburg Camp.

Thomas was probably not at the camp when it was visited by the Red Cross but he was certainly there in 1918 and at the time of the Armistice. One document seems to have the date 27-3-18 which may indicate that he arrived in the camp in March 1918.

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Thomas Tompkins (second from left) at Merseburg Camp

At the camp Thomas was allocated a PoW number (6136B) and was issued with two metal badges.  When wearing his tunic he had to wear an arm-band. His was stamped “XI / IV” and  “P1 – 880”.  ‘6136B TOMPKINS T Cpl’ is written on the back. The roman numerals probably relate to the hut he was confined in.

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Thomas’s dog-tag and PoW badges

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The Red Cross report said that that postal service for letters and packages to and from the camp was ‘adequate’.  A local photographer, Arthur Schreiber, was allowed to come into the camp to take photos of the camp and men. Some of these were made into postcards by George Nommel. It seems odd today that there were postcards of a prisoner-of war camp. One incumbent at the camp was Frenchman, Andre Warnod, who spent nine months at Merseburg and wrote of his experiences with the postal service… ‘A layer of dust slowly settles on the postcards and the Boche censor takes them one by one, reads them line by line, word by word, wasting a quarter of an hour  looking up a word he suspects of a double meaning he does not understand in a dictionary. Letters have to undergo the same examination. Every word is weighed and that takes a long time but it does the Germans very little good as families often use codes or ingenious combinations of words.’

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Merseburge PoW Camp – Thomas is top right.

Warnod also wrote about the camaraderie inside Merseburg Camp. “The Germans thought mixing the allied nations would cause them to quarrel and fight but exactly the opposite happened. The prisoners formed an international society from which Germany was excluded. In the evenings there was the beat of a single heart in the huts – the heart of the allied army. The native Arab troops were like tropical birds and bought colour and ritual to the camp.”

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Prisoners-of-War at Merseburg Camp. Russians playing dice?

The camp had its own currency and pfennig notes were issued to the men.  Thomas kept some of these notes and they are to the value of 1, 5, 10 and 50 pfennig.

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Thomas would have used some of the camp money to attend the British Variety Concert’s held on 8thSeptember 1918 and 3rdNovember 1918, just a week before the armistice. The programmes, priced at 20 pfennig, are light hearted with some mock advertisements. The advert for the  ‘Siberian Dish Washer Company’ (their representatives pass through the barracks each day) and may relate to the Russian prisoners held elsewhere in the camp.

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The war ended just ten days after the last concert, however it is clear that Thomas remained in the camp for a few weeks later as a pen and ink drawing of Thomas looking serious and smoking a pipe was drawn in Merseburg in December 1918 by a fellow officer Charles Bushly.

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On being released Thomas was given a printed note ‘A Parting Word’,  telling him of the ‘new Germany’ and wishing him well.  The note also mentions the ‘hardships’ suffered by the German nation – a land of arts, science, model cities and beautiful scenery although it admits that ‘a barbed wire enclosure’ is not the best place to survey a ‘great nation!’. He was also given a postcard of showing a young (French looking) woman holding aloft, not a tricolour, but a red flag.  The postcard was issued by Bruno Buerger & (Carl) Ottilie of Leipzig.

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Thomas probably got back home in late December 1918. On 30th December the steamer SS Plassy arrived at Leith Docks having sailed from Copenhagen with about 1,300 soldiers who were mainly from the camp at Merseburg.  Most had been captured during the Somme offensive in Spring 1918 which verifies the documentation which has survived. It was said that the men looked well and were in capital spirits. Corporal Thomas Tompkins returned to London and left the army.  He was sent a pre-printed letter from Buckingham Palace wishing him well.

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In the Second World War, Merseburg became the site of the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag IV-B. This time over 30,000 were crowded into the camp of which over 3,000 died. One of the occupants who survived this camp was the American science-fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Thomas married Doris Emilie Stammer at Wimbledon on 10th July 1926. It seems they travelled to the USA (New York) in 1937 but returned to London as in 1939,  Thomas and Doris were living at 47, Beresford Avenue, Kingston upon Thames. His occupation was ‘merchandising”.

Thomas and Doris had one son, James Reginald, who was born in 1935. He died in 1957.  Doris died in Surbiton in 1963 and it appears that Thomas moved down to Eastbourne where he died aged 82 in 1981.

I wonder what Thomas thought of his capture and subsequent imprisonment?  In a strange way it was probably much safer in the camp than facing the horrors of the Western (and indeed the Eastern) front. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen, he survived the war and led a long and hopefully fulfilling life.

My thanks to Dave Lester, a Royal Sussex Regiment historian for lending me    fascinating rare documents and items relating to Corporal Tompkins.

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