Grand Manan and the Great War (Part 30)

Part 30- Life of a Prisoner of War

Griffin – Update

            Since the publication of Part 21 in the June, 2015 issue of the Island Times about the Griffin brothers, I have discovered other details about their service which throws light on the life they faced overseas in the trenches. Arnold Griffin was not yet twenty-three when he enlisted with his brother, Fred, who was three years younger. Yet, as young men who had not travelled much further than Lubec, Maine, by this time; a whole new, exhilarating and dangerous world would open up to them.

For Arnold, it was facing the prospect of survival after his capture at the Battle of Ypres in June, 1916, and imprisonment as a prisoner of war for more than two years inside Germany. Fred, on the other hand, suffered terribly from the effects of poison gas and wounds during battle which kept him in and out of military hospitals across France and England. It must have been a severe shock to his parents, Charles and Carrie Griffin, to learn that both of their sons had suffered at the hands of the enemy in the same month.

On the 2nd of June, Arnold became an unofficial POW in the German camp in Dulmen and then transferred to Friedrichsfeld, just north of Dusseldorf. Here he was to stay for almost the duration of the war when on April 10, 1918, he was moved to Munster, Westphalia. As camps go, these POW locations were considered good when you compared them to others near the Western Front based on living conditions and the general operation of the camp. The prisoner population increased dramatically after August, 1915; from about a million internees to 1.6 million within a year and jumping to 2.4 million by October, 1918. Throughout the war it is estimated that 3,842 Canadians were taken as prisoners of war. As one camp inspector put it in describing a good vs. bad camp was “the difference between day and night, between heaven, relatively, and hell absolutely.”

I am informed by his grandson, Robbie Griffin that Arnold tried to escape twice from the camps. By the time of his capture, conditions had declined dramatically for POWs, so little wonder that attempts were made. Often prisoners were housed in barracks of about 200 prisoners with double-tier bunks, mattresses of grass or straw, and two blankets. While German regulations provided that each prisoner get a suit of clothing including necktie, cap, shirt, socks, underwear and “good shoes” along with a woolen overcoat and blankets; in practice they were lucky to get a thin blanket and wooden clogs, particularly as German wartime shortages increased after 1917. Attempted escapes usually entailed trying to reach a neutral country such as Denmark, Switzerland, or the Netherlands. However, re-capture of prisoners could mean a sentence of fourteen to thirty days in solitary confinement. Often this entailed being locked in a pitch black unheated cell with a daily ration of soup, bread and water. One report said some escapees might be allowed an exercise period about every fourth day. Considering Arnold had made two attempts to escape, his punishment must have been very severe. Military historian, Desmond Morton, calculated that twenty-six of the original Ypres prisoners escaped.

As the war drew to a close there were more prisoner exchanges, internments in neutral countries like Switzerland, and repatriation programs. The last example resulted from an agreement reached by Britain and Germany in early 1918 to repatriate older soldiers and Non-commissioned officers over the age of 45, those over 40 with at least three children, and those held in captivity for more than eighteen months. Arnold fell into the last category when he was moved to Munster but did not get formally repatriated until Dec. 2nd when he was transferred to a POW reception and dispersal camp at Ripon, England. After receiving a medical and debriefing, the authorities saw fit to allow Arnold a furlough in London where he stayed at the Maple Leaf Club. These social clubs were established by Canadian philanthropists between 1915 and 1919 for recuperating soldiers who were being discharged or waiting orders for transport to Canada.

In the meantime, he was attached to a reserve unit at Kinmel Camp, North Wales where he probably witnessed the boycotts and strikes by thousands of idle Canadian soldiers waiting for troop ships to repatriate them home between the Armistice and March, 1919. Known as the Kinmel Riots, the worst disturbances occurred after Arnold departed, when soldiers rioted over living conditions and food shortages. Little did they know that with the end of conflict, Canadian Pacific Lines, which provided many troop ships, were allowed to return to peacetime passenger travel. This left the military without sufficient transport for returning soldiers to Canada.

Luckily for Arnold, he got booked on the SS Carmania which took him to Halifax on 9 Feb. 1919 and then by train to Saint John. At the Armouries in the south end of the city he received his formal discharge from service on the 27th after a final medical examination by the Military Standing Medical Board. He stood at five feet, six inches, and weighed in at 138 pounds. Not content to let him go without further discomfort, Arnold had to suffer through four tooth fillings before his release. During his two year incarceration as a POW he continued to receive his monthly pay as a private at the princely amount of $34.10; an amount which had been forwarded by the military to his father, Charles, in North Head.

Fred Loydal Griffin

Physically, of the two brothers, Fred may have suffered more long term effects of the Battle of Ypres than Arnold. On June 2nd, 1916, he fell wounded in his trench probably as his battalion went “over the top”. He suffered a significant gunshot wound to the right side of his neck and head area. When stretcher bearers found him, German artillery had unleashed a savage barrage on the line which resulted in burying Fred in the trench. After a quick examination by doctors in the casualty clearing station, on the 7th he was moved immediately by field ambulance -which may been horse-drawn or motorized- to No. 3 General Hospital behind the lines at Boulogne. This facility could have been administering to upwards of a thousand casualties after the battle. Here the staff found him “dangerously ill” and performed an operation on his neck to remove a large piece of Shrapnel.

Five days later Fred found himself back in England at the 3rd Northern General Hospital at Sheffield for further treatment of the wound and convalescence. At this point it was obvious that he was suffering from shell shock due to his exposure to the poison gas attack at Ypres and subsequently being buried alive in the trench. Along with his wound, Fred began to experience vertigo, dizziness, breathlessness, fatigue and irregular heart beat. To add to these ailments he also contracted bronchitis. After forty-five days in treatment, he was transferred to Woodcote Park Convalescent Hospital in Epsom where he underwent physical therapy in order to rejoin his unit. At that time the effects of shell shock or post traumatic syndrome, as we term today, were not recognized by hospital officials. In many cases it was determined that the best that could be done for a patient was to get them back into the routine of military life and action.

As a result, Fred was back with his unit in France by Sept. 19th, 1916. But the symptoms of shell shock plagued him throughout the winter and by February, 1917, he had reported in to No. 7 Canadian General Hospital at Etaples where it was recommended he be transferred to Queen Mary’s Military Hospital at Whalley, Lancashire, England. For the rest of that year Fred was in and out of no fewer than five more hospitals until medical authorities concluded that he was medically unfit for further service and invalided out. After a final stop in Jan. 1918 at No.11 Canadian General Hospital at Moore Barracks in Shorncliffe for a three month stay, he received orders to be transported from Avonmouth on the hospital ship “Araguaya” to Halifax on 25 May 1918. By June 6th he had entered the Saint John Military Hospital for final assessment and discharge on the 5th of August. The military tribunal had seen fit to allow him to wear the “gold wound stripe” to signify he was wounded in action.

Waiting for him after his hospitalization in Saint John was his new bride-to-be, Annie Nickerson, whom he married just a month after his return. They lived at 79 Broad Street in the South End where they raised a son, Charles James, and a daughter, Carrie Annie. Fred died on 7 July 1957 at his daughter’s residence in Yarmouth, N.S.; Annie preceded him by three years. Charles went on to serve in the Second World War in the R.C.A.F., while Carrie’s husband, John Samms was a member of the Merchant Navy.

Ralph Griffin

Along with other enlistees in the 115th Battalion, Ralph Griffin arrived in Saint John to receive uniform and equipment on 17 January 1916. Within three days they were on their way to Camp Valcartier for a period of rigorous training before being shipped out to Halifax for their transatlantic voyage. By July 25th the battalion sailed on the SS Olympic bound for the port of Liverpool, England. Since the 115th was designated a reserve unit to supply the depleted ranks of active fighting battalions, it came as little surprise when Ralph was transferred to the 24th Battalion at Camp Bramshott on 5 Oct. 1916. Within a month he had been promoted to Lance Corporal.

He barely arrived on the front in France when he was sent to 5th Canadian Field Ambulance station with reports of a high fever of unknown origin. Further examination at a Divisional Resting Station revealed pain emanating from his back. Within a week he was back on duty until February, 1917, when his fever–no doubt exacerbated by the constant exposure to wet weather and trench life– landed him back in hospital first at St. Eloi, then Boulogne, and finally by March in Southampton, England. Treatment and then therapy at the Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Woodcote in Epsom put him fit for duty by the early part of April.

For the next seven months Ralph was assigned to both the 1st Quebec Regiment and then the 13th Reserve Battalion, until he was transferred into active duty with the 26th Battalion on 15 November 1917 stationed at Seaford, England. By April of the next year his unit was in France where he encountered heavy action that I described in a previous installment. The wounds he suffered in August, 1918, are spelled out in his service record which is now available. On the 10th he received extensive gunshot wounds to his entire right side including upper and lower extremities, right arm, and, flesh wounds to the back and thigh. After initial treatment at No. 5 General Hospital in Rouen, he was send on to Trouville General for surgery. By September Ralph was recovered enough to be discharged but remain in the Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Camp Witley. There he remained until formal demobilization in May, 1919 and on his way back to Saint John for discharge from service on the 17th. On August 2nd Ralph received official word that he had earned the Military Medal for his deeds on the front.

Further Reading:

Lewis-Stempel, John. The War Behind the Wire. London, 2014

Morton, Desmond. Silent battle: Canadian Prisoners of War in Germany 1914-1919. Toronto, 1992.