The increasing sight of German PoWs would have been a sign of the First World War in the county. It all began modestly with a handful of civilian enemy aliens secured temporarily on the former premises of the Midland Railway Wagon and Carriage Works in Old Coleham. The works closure in 1912 meant there were redundant buildings. As the war ground on, more prisoners were taken, by April 1919 some 1,600 men were held in Shrewsbury and its dependent work camps in three counties.

Those German civilians had to put up with the primitive conditions of the old works. Like so many aspects of the war, events kept racing ahead of any plans. The authorities intended on several occasions to close the camp and move the men to more suitable permanent quarters. But by mid 1915 there were 500 military PoWs in addition to eight civilians. The roofs were leaking, there were no proper floors just compacted soil, and the recreation area was a mere 100sq yds. There were no organised classes or occupations. The American Embassy – still a neutral power looking after our interests in Germany and theirs over here – found the prisoners “did not seem discontented or unhappy.”

Once the Abbey Works camp was to be permanent, improvements were soon underway. When the Americans returned nine months later, it was to find concrete floors had been laid, route marches were arranged four days a week, washing and latrine facilities had been “markedly improved.” Prisoners were engaged in boot making, tailoring and making small articles for sale. By December 1916 there were 38 PoW camps in England. In Shrewsbury the number of prisoners had passed 560. Two tents had been added for seven new arrivals. The sick bay had a doctor with three assistants looking after 15 in-patients, six of whom had battlefield wounds.

Prisoners at work, Abbey Foregate Camp © IWM

Prisoners at work, Abbey Foregate Camp © IWM

Putting them to work

As the war ground on the shortage of manpower became acute on every side. 500 fit young men were far too precious not to put to productive use. Instead of route marches they could be working. Two quarries were employing 100 men. They must have been satisfied, they wanted another 100. A third quarry asked for 50 men. The work parties travelled by train from Shrewsbury daily.

Agriculture

By 1918 rationing had been introduced. The country was desperate for food. Agricultural labour camps were established in Bromfield, Clee Hill, Cleobury Mortimer, Corfton, and Ellesmere. By the end of the War, the Parent PoW camps had working camps and/or agricultural depots with smaller attached agricultural groups covering quite large areas. Shrewsbury looked after camps in Herefordshire, Monmouthshire and Shropshire while Oswestry was the Parent to a small number of camps within the county. In April the County Agricultural Committee requested another 200 PoWs. It was planned to house them in groups of 15-20 men. The PoWs were also used in ones and twos, where a farmer could provide a dormitory and kitchen. The men would walk each morning to work and return in the evening. Work details of 10 men with two guards could also leave by train from Shrewsbury to convenient stations. Farmers were urged to apply at once in time for the harvest. After the harvest some work parties were withdrawn, but many worked until repatriation in 1919.

Escapes

Not all our ‘guests’ were quite as ‘contented’ as the Americans had observed. Three enterprising prisoners took the reverse Father Christmas route via a disused chimney. They made it as far as Rotherham. Bruno Sens and Ernst Clausnidzer were not so lucky, they were re-captured at Tipton. Zimpel and Kirchner were the least successful, their route march ended in Welshpool.

Auf Wiedersehen PoWs

From May 1919 the rundown of the camp began. Resident prisoners were transferred to Oswestry. In November 1919 and February 1920 it was everything must go. The Times carried ads for the sale of the huts and building materials.

By Keith Pybus