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Author Unknown
From the archive of Rowan J. Flack
Former Clinical Nursing Officer, Rushden Hospital, 1966-1990.
Transcribed by Greville Watson
German Prisoners of War
Ploughman's Camp 1916

Photo of German Prisoners of War outside Rushden House c1917
German Prisoners of War pictured outside Rushden House c1917

It was a truly wretched day in 1916 when the first German Prisoners of War arrived in the town of Rushden.  In all they numbered sixty-two and ranged in ages from the mid-twenties to mid-thirties.

Few people knew of the intended camp in the grounds of Rushden House and the first indication of something afoot was with the arrival some three weeks before of a small platoon of British soldiers whose task it was to prepare the camp and stock the barns with provisions and tools.

Needless to say their role was secretive and they were not to discuss the matter in the town until all preparations of security were met.  A few knowing glances passed between a privileged few as three large khaki motor coaches rumbled up Wymington Road and disappeared from view up the well-wooded drive to Rushden House.  I say a wretched day and it was as though the heavens had opened for half the morning especially begrudging a welcome to the foreigners who had forced the war upon us but within and hour of their arrival the storm abated and the rays of the sun struck the many gables of the great house as though to say, Well! Now they’re here, let’s got on with the job.

The secret was soon out and the townsfolk now had another conversational diversion which took pride of place over the topical weather for some time to come.

The military struggle of war had depleted our resources of manpower.  Thousands of women were employed in the factories but the land needed brawny arms to help the farmers and the prisoners were to be put to work with that end in mind.

Many camps were set up in various parts of the county, mainly comprising those who were willing to co-operate but even so the characters and personalities involved were as diverse as a litter of young puppies.  Some were as arrogant and haughty as others were amenable and kind.  For most of them it was a means to an end.  As Prisoners of War they could hope to expect little from their captors and resignation to their lot was inevitable, in fact, as the weeks went by their contribution to the local farmers proved to be at least one Government decision which didn’t go wrong.

Most of the British Guards were billeted in the town but the officers used a small portion of Rushden House and certainly Captain Winter also used certain rooms as office accommodation.

The old stable yard was fenced off with barbed wire and a sentry box stood behind the great gates leading to the main drive.

The prisoners were all housed in two long attics, one over the old coach house and the other over the stable and garage which once housed Mr Browning’s large Daimler car.  The yard is today much as it as then and initials carved into the ironstone still serve as a reminder of those days of Ploughman’s Camp.

Of course few of the Germans could speak English and the interpreter was a delightful chap who had been a solicitor in Germany before the War.

The daily routine was soon established.  The working gang had breakfast early and by 8am were being transported to various farms within a twenty mile radius of Rushden.  They soon learned to carry out all manner of farming, tasks from ploughing to muck spreading, and the farmers never had it so good.  Each man took his pack of sandwiches for lunch and they arrived back at the camp regularly by 6.30pm.

Three of the prisoners remained in the Camp; Seiben the tailor, Hans the cobbler and Vogler who could turn his hand to anything needing attention.

Photo presumably of Seiben, Vogler and Hans
Photo presumably of Seiben, Vogler and Hans

Seiben sat for hours cross legged on a trestle table in the middle of the yard repairing clothes or making new jackets and trousers from old discarded clothing.  The shoemaker was also never short of work and he used to sit beside Seiben tapping away and reminiscing.  They were both quite content, or at least as content as any prisoner could be with thoughts of home a constant reminder of their unfortunate position.

Now the third member of this trio was especially skilled in fashioning metal into trinkets or converting useless discarded pieces into the most amazing ornaments or indeed useful bits of equipment.  He could fashion a ring out of a penny or halfpenny within one hour.  Even his tools were primitive improvisations of scrap materials.

The old Lodge at the entrance to the main drive was empty but one of the two little cottages further up the drive was occupied by a family, husband, wife and young son.  Mr Woolland had been associated with Rushden House since Mrs Currie’s day and was still in charge of the main grounds and kitchen garden.  The kitchen garden, a flourishing concern, was still used and the owner, Mr George Henry Lane, used to visit monthly to check accounts with Mr Woollard for produce sold.  Only a small portion of the 25 acres were rented by the Government for Camp purposes and the rest of the land and house were still under the watchful eye of this old retainer.  Young Teddie knew the prisoners well and would often wave to them as they started out on their journeys to work in the fields.

Captain Winter knew the family well and every day would arrive at the cottage for his main meal which Mrs Woollard was pleased to prepare.  His habit was to pay a social visit to the Victoria Hotel and after wetting his appetite would arrive at the little cottage with a few stories from town related in a way consistent with a belly full of the beverage of his choice.  The tales were mainly concerned with how are they settling down.  They must be a bloody funny lot!  We don’t want them here.  Make them work hard.  Let’s show them that we too can be hard masters.

These thoughts of course were with the more general view that all Huns were nasty, over-disciplined people who followed the word of their leader as though he were God, and unhappily ignorance of the real situation was the rule.

There were, however, a surprising number of people who, being British, did not share the common view.  Some thought, my son is in France.  The same age as many of these men.  Should we not show them kindness and hospitality as we would expect our sons to receive; and but for the few this feeling spread.  The few are always present in every situation but in the end common sense prevailed and, on the whole, camp was accepted as the nearest point of war that those at home could appreciate.  Even though some discussed invasion and a genuine take-over of their land, in general that was not the feeling.  In fact, by this time the Allies were in command of the situation and it seemed only a matter of time before the War would end in victory.

We do not have to pursue the various points of view in relation to the Camp which was by now an institution, and the purpose really is to dwell upon a collection of incidents which are unknown, and may indeed be factual or fictional, but the author will not only hope for but will expect licence in dealing with the following tales.

On parade!  The Sergeant exploded with these words every morning, merely because it happened to be the thing to do.  A motley crowd appeared from nowhere and assembled in the yard.

Right!  First ten men to Knight’s Farm.  You lot to Charlie’s at Chelveston.  Home farm – four men only.  Shortie!  You can go up to Higham, they can drop you off on the way.  And so the daily deployment went.

Photo of prisoners with makeshift instruments Photo of prisoners making their own entertainment
Prisoners making their own entertainment

Please contact us if you can identify anyone in these photographs

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