Exhibition shows Scots tales from German POW camps in WW1

First-hand accounts of Scottish soldiers' audacious escape attempts are to be revealed in a powerful exhibition on life in German prison camps during the First World War.
Prisoners of War in Germany.Prisoners of War in Germany.
Prisoners of War in Germany.

Previously unseen prison diaries kept by soldiers, their letters and photographs are to be put on show by the National Records of Scotland next week.

The exhibits include vivid descriptions of the homesickness suffered by prisoners of war as well as their courage, resilience and insistence on making things difficult for their captors.

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The “For You The War is Over” exhibition includes the sardonic diary kept by Lt Hamilton of the Gordon Highlanders who was caught at Le Maisnil near Lille in August 1914 in one of the early battles of the First World War.

He was wounded several times in the arm, back and leg and was held in Burg-bei-Magdeburg Officers’ Camp, where he remained until April 1917.

Lt Hamilton was involved in several escape attempts, including one in which he was free for ten days before he was recaptured.

His diary, which appears courtesy of the Hamilton family, includes a memorable description of a mass escape attempt through a “coke chute”, which was foiled by the Germans in 1915.

“At Munden there was a coke chute – a circular tin thing, leading from a small room over the tailings to a small out house,” wrote Lt Hamilton. “They made a hole behind a piano in the partition of the wall into the small room from which the coke chute led. About ten Russians and [Lt] Templer then disappeared down this one night, ran the gauntlet of a sentry under an electric light and so out, cracking a civilian on the head with a beer bottle en route. They were not discovered next day, and so next night nearly all the Russians in the camp decided to go. They were surprised in the act by the Germans, the outhouse containing a dozen of them at that time, the room about sixty, and the tube three, one fat old major having successfully blocked the passage – being with difficulty extracted at the point of a bayonet.”

Lt Hamilton also describes Hogmanay celebrations which included eating haggis and Scotch buns, but were regrettable for a lack of whisky.

“Afterwards we danced reels in the passage to the delight of the Russians and the annoyance of the French in the room below, and ended up with a wee Dock & Doris and Auld Lang Syne. Quite a merry evening,” he wrote.

Excerpts from diary of Private Andrew Clingan, 12th Battalion, Royal Scots, recount thoughts of home and thoughts of “escaping – the prisoner’s dream, the one thing behind all others for which he lives, and the great thing that keeps one alive in prison.”

“For You the War is Over” opens on Monday at General Register House, Edinburgh, and runs until November 23.