From records held at the Norfolk Record Office.
Few local records have been found on German prisoners of war (GPOWs) in the First World War. However, at the Norfolk Record Office, a picture begins to emerge of their presence in the county during the war years through the minutes of the Norfolk Agricultural War Executive Committee (NAWEC). The following information is taken from those records: NRO, C/C 10/15, C/C 10/16, C/C 10/17, C/C 10/18 and C/C 10/19.
Norfolk was a key county in taking GPOWs as the greatest need for them was in agriculture. Maintaining food supplies was a major concern and there were fears that there would not enough labour for the 1918 harvest.
Supplying labour was one thing, accommodating them quite another. The NAWEC proposed that the county’s halls, farms and workhouses would be the most suitable for large numbers of men. Premises were inspected to see if they could be adapted and be fit for use.
Many went to Kenninghall where they lived in what had been the workhouse. It could take up to 410 GPOWs. Other workhouses included Gressenhall, Gayton, Rockland, Swaffham and Shipmeadow in Suffolk.
Other properties included the Manor House at Stratton St Mary, Burnham Maltings, Blickling Mill and Shouldham Hall. A camp at Heacham was closed due to its proximity to Sandringham. Forty GPOWs were accommodated in the stables at Houghton Hall were used. This was no meagre stable block. Sales particulars for Houghton Hall describe them thus:
Finding accommodation was a constant as fresh demands for labour arose but it was not always successful. Collings’ Farm at Bacton required men but there was nowhere in Bacton to accommodate them.
Temporary camps were considered for short projects. However the Agricultural Board in London and Eastern Command decided that this was not possible. Instead provision for transport beyond the 3 mile limit had to be found. This was easier said than done.
There is little evidence to show how well the requisitioning of these buildings was received. However in 1918 the NAWEC minutes record that Langford Hall was suitable but could not be obtained by agreement. It was resolved to ask the Military Authorities to take possession under the Defence of the Realm Act.
District Committees across the county were asked about employing the GPOWs. Men were available in teams of 75 although this was later reduced to 40. The work undertaken was wholly on the land and was mainly drainage or farm work. At harvest time there was a need for GPOWs to work in threshing gangs but the use of GPOWs as travelling gangs was not allowed.
Captain Byng based at Kenninghall had a key role in organizing the GPOWs across the county and reported frequently to the NAWEC. In January 1918 he informed the committee that he had been asked to supply GPOWs to work on a Royal Flying Corps camp. He had informed the RFC camp that the men were primarily for agricultural work and suggested a separate camp at Lakenheath should be set up instead. Despite this some GPOWs were sent to work on aerodromes such as the one at East Harling.
The employment of GPOWs was not without its problems. There were tensions over pay and employment and difficulties with transportation and supervision.
In August 1917 the Board of Agriculture had requested the immediate employment of the GPOWs at Kenninghall. The committee minutes record:
Resolved to write to the Commandant of the Camp to ask him whether, if the Executive Committee can find the transport, the War Office will repay the expense and also what distance he will allow them to proceed to work, returning each night to Kenninghall.
Horses were needed for transport but many had been requisitioned for the Front. The Commandant of Narborough Camp reported he had 80 men available for work but no transport. A large number of GPOWs were working in Suffolk and the NAWEC agreed that Suffolk should provide their own transport. Byng needed more horses at Kenninghall which raised three problems; availability, stabling and someone to look after the horses. All three problems appear to have been addressed but who would pay for the transport? Byng was opposed to the Agricultural Board’s view that farmers should pay.
GPOWs needed to be supervised. In 1917 GPOWs were used to clear the rivers Tass and Yare. The work would be free of charge but the River Committee had to provide supervision. In November 1917 it was proposed to reduce the guards at Kenninghall by 15%. Byng reported that if this happened it would be impossible to supply less than 5 GPOWs to any one farm which would result in small farms not getting any labour.
GPOWs were paid. In February 1917 it was recommended that their rates of pay should be the same as local rates. The issue of pay rumbled on for some time and never appears to have been fully resolved. In an advert in the Eastern Daily Press in September 1917 promoting the use of GPOWs; the rate of pay given was 25 shillings for a 60 hour week. This undercut the local rate of 45 shillings a week. One can imagine how such a pay difference was viewed by farmers and agricultural labourers.
Discipline does not appear to have been an issue. There is one reference in the NAWEC minutes in October 1917 that GPOWs working on the Waveney had been warned their pay would be reduced if their work continued to be unsatisfactory and that they were not to smoke while working.
In October 1918 Colonel Howell from the War Office visited Norfolk to inspect the camps. There was a proposal to decentralize the control of GPOWs to give greater local control but this does not appear to have happened.
When men returned home at the end of the war many had no jobs. They would claim unemployment benefit and it was reported that some men were refusing to work on the farms because of the benefits they were receiving. The Employment Office enquired of farmers whether they were still employing GPOWs. In February 1919 it was agreed that GPOWs were only to be employed if no civilian labour was available.
The NAWEC met for the last time on 31st May 1919. In those latter months it acknowledged and thanked Byng for his valuable work with the GPOWs. Repatriation started in September 1919.
Daryl Long – NRO Blogger