Prisoner of War No. 44095

I was digging around the internet for ancestry records when I found these: prisoner of war records for Kevin’s maternal grandfather, John Frederick Flatau, a.k.a. Opa.

You might notice they are all in French.

Google Translate and I have become friends. Really good friends!

And what Google couldn’t translate, I turned over to international friends (Thanks, Deniz!), and friends of those friends, for assistance. Finally, I have enough to piece together a snapshot into John’s last months serving in the First World War.

The records identify John as a German Prisoner of War, No. 44095, part of the Prisoner Line Regiment #940, at a camp in Laon, Aisne, France. His date and place of birth are clearly noted, as is a reference to a letter sent to Pastor Flatau in Posen, so there’s no doubt this record belongs to Opa.

His rank is given as Enseigne, which Google Translate tells me is teacher in French.

Teacher????

It took a lot more digging to finally determine that his rank was Fähnrich which translates to ensign/cadet [1], a rank just below 2nd Lieutenant. According to Kevin (who remembers the stories Opa told him about the war), John received that rank in the field when his superior officers (Regiment 149, Company 6, in the German infantry) were killed. [2]

In the body of the POW documents, we learn that John is healthy—y est bonne santé—“determined on his correspondence”—det.sur sa corresp. I’m not sure what that means: determined on his correspondence. Does it mean it’s from a letter he’s written? Perhaps the dernières nouvelles (recent news) noted on 25 May 1919? Or the letter to his father on August 16? Or does it mean they (the French) interviewed him and determined him healthy and the phrase “determined on his correspondence” is just a poor translation?

Whatever the case, I’m glad he was in good health. Especially given that the next months of his life as a prisoner of war were not going to be that great.

According to the stories Kevin remembers, the German prisoners were not treated well. I can’t say that I’m surprised. This particular POW camp just happened to be in Northern France, which had been previously occupied by the Germans. (The Germans occupied Northern France and all of Belgium from 1914 until the end of the war.)  In fact, the town of Laon was captured by the Germans in the fall of 1914 and held until the Allied offensive in 1918 which ended the war. [3] During those four years of occupation, this community had to work for and feed the Germans, and many of their most influential community members were sent into Germany and held as hostages. [4] No doubt the community saw the French prison camp as their opportunity for payback.

In this report from the Red Cross [5], initiated due to “numerous complaints concerning the status of prisoners in the liberated areas,” it at least appears that Opa’s POW company No. 940 was treated better than some other groups recorded in the report. Companies 517 & 518 (not Opa’s) were kept in ancient quarries in Missy-au-Bois which the Red Cross noted as “particularly dark and damp. The delegates saw the POWs gathered in groups around smoky quinces which vaguely diffused the damp obscurity, whereas at that hour (6 pm) a resplendent sun and a magnificent sky reigned over the countryside.” 

Most prisoners, however, were held in barracks, farm buildings, or tents, (and, thankfully, none of the exceptions listed in the report involved John’s POW unit) and while conditions were not stellar, the Red Cross interviewed representatives from every company, reporting their findings. The general consensus for the Laon camps: sufficient. Sufficient lighting, water, soap, food… Life was sufficient.

There are many things these records don’t tell us about John’s military service. When exactly did he join? (Family lore has it when he was 17, making it at least September of 1916.) And when and where was he taken prisoner? There’s a reference on these war documents to a former POW company #609 which makes me think he was initially held prisoner elsewhere.

Finally, when did he get released? After the war, France kept their military prisoners of war until spring 1920. Following the Armistice, they transferred prisoners from camps in the French interior to the devastated former northern battlefields where the prisoners were put to work clearing the former front. The work was heavy manual labor and frequently dangerous. [4]

Meanwhile, in Germany, the Flatau family was relocating from Posen (which was suddenly part of Poland) to Strausberg. Surely, John knew where to find them?

One thing is for certain; by 1925 Opa was on a steamship and headed to a new life, starting in Guatemala.  He didn’t stay put long; three and a half years later, aboard the ship Guatemala, he headed to San Francisco and nine months after that joined the United States Army (even though he wasn’t a US citizen, which I find fascinating!), where within six months he was stationed in the Canal Zone at Panama.

Thank goodness! Many of you reading this now wouldn’t be here if that hadn’t happened.

Sources and Notes

[1] German Ranks

[2] I wonder what battle that was? I have the forms to request Opa’s formal military records from the German government; perhaps that will tell us. There is a real possibility, however, that the records are lost/destroyed, especially because of the Germany/Poland changes. But, we’ll see!

[3] Modern history of Laon – Wikipedia

[4] Prisoners of War Belgium and France / Although the treatment of enemy prisoners was defined by a Ministerial Instruction of 21 March 1893, as the war went on, France increasingly based its prisoner treatment policies upon reciprocity with how Germany was treating its French prisoners of war.

[5] The Red Cross “Rapport de MM. Théodore AUBERT et lieutenant-colonel BORDIER sur leurs visite aux compagnies de prisonniers de guerre des régions libérées en France, Mai-Juin 1919” was also all in French but between those four years of French back in high school and Google, I managed to translate the intro and the section about the Aisne camps.

2 thoughts on “Prisoner of War No. 44095

  1. Fascinating! I’d like to uncover this much detail about DH’s grandfather’s time in the war.
    Happy to help (and thanks to the friend I roped in, who did most of the work!).

    Like

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