Prisoner of War (PoW) records for 17th Battalion have proven hard to find and limited in scope, particularly for other ranks. Following a tip from a researcher at Manchester Police Museum we’ve found a detailed record and example of conditions and treatment of PoWs.
Norman Crichton became a Manchester City Policeman in February 1914. He walked the beat at Levenshulme and also served part time with 6th (Territorial) Battalion Cheshire Regiment. With a previous a service record in the Cheshire Regiment Special Reserve in 1910, we know that he had been 5’ 10 ½“ tall at the age of 17, indicating a man of some stature.
At the peak of Lord Kitchener’s recruitment campaign, the City Police were required to stay at their duty and it was not until January 1915 that they were permitted to join the services. Many Manchester Policemen joined 17th Battalion, including Norman Crichton, who enlisted with his police colleagues on 25 January 1915.
Recognising his experience and discipline, Norman was swiftly promoted to the rank of Sergeant in VII Platoon of B Company.
Sgt Crichton disembarked with 17th Battalion on 8 November 1915 and served in the Somme trenches during the first half of 1916. As part of the 30th Division assault on Montauban the Battalion successfully liberated the village of Montauban on 1st July 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
Just over a week later, the Battalion was called back into the action with an assault on Trones Wood on 9 July 1916. The dawn advance was initially successful with most of the tear drop shaped wood being held by 90th Brigade by the end of the morning. Continual bombardment from three points of the compass rendered holding the wood untenable and the Manchester Regiment and Royal Scots Fusiliers were forced to withdraw. In the melee of artillery of shells in dense shattered timber many wounded were unable to re-join the British lines and isolated groups of 17th Battalion soldiers were left behind. Many of these men were killed in the ensuing German counterattack and others were captured as PoWs.
When PoWs returned to the UK they were interviewed by the Army and notes were taken on the circumstances of their being taken prisoner and treatment in captivity. Norman Crichton’s report is now available from the National Archives WO/161/100/221. This source is credited for the subsequent images.
Norman Crichton confirms his Battalion and Regimental Number, with his mother’s address as Western Lea, Offerton, Stockport. He confirmed that he had been wounded in the back and unconscious when the German’s found him.
Norman was taken to a dressing station behind the German lines and transferred to a Cambrai hospital where treatment was clearly limited and “…the doctor was inclined to be brutal.”
As part of a group of “…slightly wounded…” PoWs Norman was transferred to Dulmen Camp on a two day journey in filthy cattle trucks with limited rations. Spending four weeks at Dulmen, Norman was transferred to an NCOs Camp at Minden on 24 September 1916.
Norman spent five months in captivity at Minden. NCOs could evidently be required to work yet the men were imprisoned for refusing to volunteer for employment and forced into work after their release. Conditions were insanitary and badly maintained. Some German guards also bullied the prisoners including hitting men with the butts of their rifles, leading to an incident were a PoW was court martialled and shot for fighting back at his aggressor. Some improvements were made after an American inspection and Red Cross parcels arrived with the men from family and friends.
Departing Minden in February 1917, Norman was transferred to the Grossenwedermoor section of Soltau Camp. Other Red Cross records show Norman on the Roll of Prisoners at Sprottau Camp. This reference does not conform with his own report and may relate to the period when Norman was transferred.
Norman spent eight months at the NCO’s Grossenwedermoor Camp, which also offered poor conditions. The PoWs slept in large barrack rooms with 80 men, on heather filled mattresses. Men who couldn’t work were sent to a punishment camp. There were more than 400 NCOs and 80 Privates. A party of emaciated PoWs at the camp in August 1917. Privates could be required to work for the Germans and Norman’s group placed corporal stripes on a Private Joseph Thomas of the Manchester Regiment to prevent him working.
Poor treatment by the guards continued including Lieutenant-Feldwebel Bohr, who was always looking for trouble, confiscated food and threw it away. He also forced the PoWs to parade for seven hours, in freezing conditions without food. One man was hit with a rifle for failing to stand perfectly still. Bohr also stopped Red Cross parcels for three weeks from March 1917 and tried to make the NCOs work. Parcels eventually arrived with the tobacco removed and food products having rotted.
The men complained about Bohr with a visiting German General who solely affirmed the status of Bohr’s discipline. A visiting Dutch Minister was more sympathetic but no changes were made by the Germans.
Sergeant Crichton took responsibility for the Lazeret – isolating men due to disease – as he medical experience. Conditions were dreadful with lice and flea ridden heather mattresses. A visiting German doctor inspected an outbreak of boils among the men but offered no intervention.
Further brutality was also noted from a guard / interpreter named Hast. A prisoner, Corporal Patrick Wright, described as insane, was struck by Haas. Cpl Wright then hit Hast and knocked two of his teeth out. Wright was imprisoned and later transferred to neutral Holland. Norman Crichton was also imprisoned for punching Hast, after Norman had refused to bandage his foot using English stores. Norman’s two month sentence was reduced to 31 days.
Sergeant Crichton was transferred to Heestenmoor Camp from 5 September 1917 to December 1917. He described much improved conditions and discipline among the guards. Some complaints were made and there was an incident when a feldwebel cut a PoW with his sword for refusing to work.
Transferred to the NCOs Hulseberg camp near Soltau on 19 December 1917, conditions were also bad with poor hygiene and no chimney for the fires. Norman Crichton to work in the lazeret with assistance from two French PoWs. A helpful doctor also visited twice a week. Food parcels were delayed and a German Captain stole some of the contents.
There were also French, Russian, Serbian and Belgian prisoners at the camp and Norman recorded that many died due to weakness and TB. Bodies were left in the barrack block for days before removal as an example of the brutality and terrible hygiene.
Working parties in heather factories and wood cutting were housed outside the main camp in smaller units with varied conditions. Norman described that one such camp had no barbed wire and some prisoners had been recaptured after their attempted escape.
Norman Crichton recorded some treacherous behaviour by some British NCOs. Endeavouring to gain liberty from the reported grievances on other PoWs to the German captors, leading to punishment. Norman was imprisoned in these circumstances due to the actions of a British Sergeant and Sergeant Major. He did not provide names of the guilty parties but confirmed he would act as witness in any court martial and names of other witnesses including Corporal 1074 Arthur Freeth of 1st Battalion.
Norman Crichton escaped from Hulseberg on 6 March 1918 and was interviewed on 3 May 1918. It is not recorded how he had made is escape and returned to England via Rotterdam by 28 March. Norman was transferred to reserve on 21 September 1918 and lived at 52 Mill Lane, Reddish. He received an army pension relating 40% disability due to Debility.
Norman was awarded a Military Medal in 1920, presumably relating to his escape from captivity. He had married Frances Taylor in Stockport in 2nd quarter 1918. It appears they had a son, Jack D Crichton who died in infancy during 1919. Norman Colin Crichton and Dennis Crichton were born in 1924 and 1926 respectively.
Norman Donald Crichton died in Stockport in 1st quarter 1961, aged 67.
By 1918 Germany was desperately short of food and resources. PoWs clearly suffered in this context and also due the to the maltreatment of German guards. It seems private soldiers fared the worst. PoWs moved between numerous camps and then went to work outside the camps. The conditions and hygiene in the camps was poor with overcrowding.
I had never read about British soldiers gaining favour by ‘grassing’ up their comrades. I hope suitable justice was gained for Norman and others who suffered this. It seems incredible that a Sergeant Major would be guilty of such behaviour. It has not been found whether Norman rejoined the City Police but his evidence to any court or enquiry would undoubtedly have been deemed reliable.
The policeman who joined 17th Battalion in January 1915 were a significant late addition to the ranks, especially senior NCOs. Many gained awards to gallantry and a large number were casualties.