By Hamish Ross, Author of ‘Archie Bowman: Foot Soldier, German PoW & League of Nations Man’, 2018
When C Company 10/11 HLI was given the order to surrender, Lieutenant Archie Bowman found it hard to take: ‘My vote was cast for a fight to the finish, but Mr Cuthbertson who was in command ordered the surrender. I do not blame him. He is a splendid fellow, and was wounded in two places. But to me the act of surrender was almost unendurable.’
So swift was the enemy advance at the battle of the Lys on 9 April 1918 that their haul of prisoners had to suffer a two-march to reach a railhead to be transported to prison camps in Germany. The pace of the long file of prisoners was slow because of the wounded; it looked like a huge funeral procession, only, Bowman wrote, they ‘left behind the dying and the dead.’
They spent the first night in the open, in the ruins of the village of Aubers, where there were no medical facilities. Regardless of rank those who were fittest helped the wounded. The next day was even more gruelling: they had to cover about 12 kilometres to reach the citadel of Lille. It was no prisoner of war camp that awaited them but Le Fort de Mons, one of a line of fortifications the French had built after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. British troops called it the Black Hole of Lille, such were its appalling conditions.
From there he was sent to Offizier-Kriegsgefangenenlager Rastatt in Baden, and his first priority was to write to his wife Mabel to tell her he was safe and well and a prisoner of war. He told her he was allowed to write only 4 postcards and 3 letter cards a month on the official stationery. He wrote that card on 16 April, one week after he was captured; it had to go through the German censor and then to the mailing system of a neutral country – Denmark; and Mabel did not receive it until 23 May.
Archie had expected prison camp to be ‘a living death’. But he overturned that assumption with his own strength of spirit and the impressive range of his mental resources. In this early letter-card to Mabel he told about his day:
My Most Dearly Beloved,
If I only were sure that you knew by now that I am alive & well, I’d be positively happy. I long to hear from you & to know, Dear Heart, that the agony of your suspense is over. How much more awful it is for you than for me. Neither the battle nor the horrors of the succeeding night nor the imprisonment that now holds me can approach the sum of your sufferings. But the dawn must be at hand my Love, & I know that God’s blessing has followed you all the way in your darkest journey. — I am in absolute topping form, & though a prisoner, am as busy as the day is long. Ever since I was taken I have acted as interpreter and intermediary between the English officers & the German authorities, & in that capacity I have a great deal to do here — e.g. to attend in the canteen while the day’s purchases are being arranged between the English & German authorities, to attend at all issues of pay, translate all complaints & explain all the points that arise as to rates etc., to interview the General from time to time (I was summoned by him today), & generally speaking to help everybody who has any difficulty. I am also chief lecturer to the camp. The demands on me for lectures are simply enormous, & the appreciation of the men almost pathetic. They waylay me night and day with entreaties & offerings of thanks. I even get presents of food. Have lectured on Russia and Germany & twice on America, & practically everybody turns out to hear. I am also newspaper-translator, general authority for referring all such questions as the possible duration of the war. And when you consider that in our compound alone there are 600 to 700 officers all mixed up together behind barbed wire you can understand that my position here is no sinecure. But it is a joy to be able to do something for my comrades. Alas! All the HLI leave for their permanent camps on Monday, & I am being left behind — why, I do not know. The German authorities treat me with every mark of respect and courtesy, & probably they wish to use me a little longer here.
In Rastatt he also began to write a series of poems (that would be published after the war as Sonnets from a Prison Camp). He started the sequence with his experiences at the battle of the Lys, his capture and the march into captivity. He dated each one, and he worked at a pace. Then, out of the blue on 12th May he was told he was being transferred to a permanent camp and given time only to ‘shove my belongings into my pocket and go’; but the camp authorities confiscated his notebook with his poems.
He was transferred to Hesepe in Westphalia, a make-shift prison camp that would not be suitable for the winter. He extended his portfolio of subjects on which he lectured. An Anglican chaplain, Rev Arthur Karney (who later became Bishop of Southampton) was also in Hesepe and he said, ‘he lectured on psychology without any books, on Shakespeare’s tragedies . . . He gave a long course of philosophy, and took the higher German class – all without any books.’
Not only that, however: he continued writing sonnets, but at a more leisurely pace and on subjects other than his own battlefield and subsequent set of experiences. The war is still very much a reality though: ‘God blazes at the world. / Hell gapes for joy. /And Europe whitens with those nameless tombs.’ But amid the background of carnage, there were vestiges of chivalry between enemies: Archie Bowman found an affinity with the camp Commandant – a fellow academic, a professor of History – and he wrote to Mabel,
The Commandant has been very kind & has exerted himself to recover my poems from Rastatt, & these are now promised in due course. This will enable me to complete my volume . . . I am deeply grateful to the German commandant for his efforts & for his sympathy.
At one level, life of the mind could sustain him, but conditions in the camp were primitive – there was insufficient food (the German population also suffered) and all Archie Bowman had to wear was what he stood in when he was captured, so parcels of food and clothing were vital; and in some respects Mabel, now that they were in contact, had a third child to feed and clothe.
In Hesepe a prisoners’ committee was constituted to urge the German authorities to move them to some suitable camp before winter came, and Archie Bowman was elected its secretary and spokesman. The authorities responded, and in early October the prisoners were moved to Cologne; and it was from this city that he would leave the following month, after the Armistice, to arrive in Glasgow to be reunited with Mabel and their two children, Ian and Maisie, on 30 November, St Andrews Day.
For the centenary of the First World War, the University of Glasgow has been publishing the letters of Archie and Mabel Bowman on the anniversary of the day they were sent. You can follow these letters on Instagram at lettersfromaprisonerofwar1918.
To read more about the letters and the circumstances of Archie Bowman’s capture, you can read our previous blog ‘The Bowman Letters: Letters From A Prisoner of War‘ by Petros Aronis. Also Kate Gordon’s A Tale of Two Bowmans about the digitisation project behind the letters.
For more on Archie Bowman’s life you can read his biography on the University of Glasgow’s Online Roll of Honour.
Hamish Ross’ new book, ‘Archie Bowman: Foot Soldier, German Pow & League of Nations man was published in June 2018 and is available for purchase direct from Pen & Sword as well as other online and high street stores including Amazon and Waterstones.