Earl Ross' Exeperiences as a Prisoner of War
Earl W. Ross, of Horton, son of Mr. Perry A. Ross, was captured by the Germans near Exermont on September 29, 1918. Ross enlisted in Company B of Horton, but later transferred to Headquarters Company, 137th Infantry, as a signalman. On September 29 when the Germans counterattacked the 35th Division, Ross and seven other American Soldiers found themselves surrounded by Germans in Montrebeau Woods. One of the men who was with him was Private Parks of Company B, whose home is at Holton. Some of the members of Ross' company have told him they saw him and the others captured but were powerless to prevent it.
Ross and his companions were hurried to the rear when the Germans got them. Two of the men were wounded, and these were carried back with them, and the others who were able bodied were forced to carry the wounded Germans to the rear. Ross says they were marched about three kilometers back, where a German doctor cared for the wounded. Then a German intelligence officer met them. They were not questioned, but the German officer said in perfect English: "All men of the 35th Division line up here, and those from the 28th Division over here." Those were the two divisions in that sector. Then, says Ross, the German started with the 137th Infantry and called out every regiment in the 35th Division, every one of them right, and seperated the men according to regiments!
They were then marched about five kilos further to the rear, to a town named Busman, where they boarded a train. They had no food or water until the next day, when each of them recieved a piece of bread. They were taken to Sedan, where they were kept in a temporary prison camp for 16 days, usually working at night in the railroad yards. Ross and his comrades were in Sedan when Allied aviators bombed the town, and the following day there were told by the Germans that the bombs struck a hospital, which later proved to be false. The bombs killed 48 Germans, however and Ross and his comrades had the job of burying them. This prison camp was near the railroad station and bombs frequently burst near them at night, but none of the Americans were injured.
On October 16, about 200 of the American prisoners were put on a train and four days later arrived at the American prison camp at Rastatt. From Sedan to Strasburg, which trip required two and a half days, they had nothing to eat, but were fed soup at about 11 o'clock at night in a building near the station in Strasburg. They landed at the prison camp at Rastatt early in the morning of the fifth day on the train. About every 24 hours during the trip they were given a piece of bread or some soup. While at Sedan they were fed soup and bread, and each man was ordered to get his own soup bowl, which consisted of a tin can or anything he could find handy. But as the camp was not very large many of them could not procure a "bowl."
Ross says he didn't have such a hard time in Germany. For instance, at Sedan there were many French civilians, and when he was working in the railroad yards there he found it easy to trade a few sticks of wood to the French people for some potatoes. Just before they left Sedan, Ross and his "buddy" got a chance to take a rabbit out of the back end of a wagon. Ross wrung the animal's neck and hid it in his shirt, and that evening they had stewed rabbit for supper. When he arrived at Rastatt, Ross and about 60 other American prisoners were sent to Treburg, to unload lumber and build barracks. There had not been many prisoners of war around there, and they people were anxious to see and talk to them, and would give them food for the privilege. He was in Treburg about two weeks.
After the armistice was signed, the Americans were allowed to visit the town of Rastatt, nine privates and a non-commisioned officer in a body. But when they left the camp the party usually did not stay long together and some of those who were so inclined -- being somewhat jubilant at the prospects of release and return to America -- got hold of some liquor and proceded to celebrate. Ross says many altercations took place between the American and German soldiers in town, and finally the German commandant put a stop to their leaving for town. But discipline was not good in the German army at the time, and the German guards allowed many Americans to leave, in spite of orders to the contrary. To prevent this, the American prisoners put guards of their own about the camp, which also failed to prove effective in keeping the Yanks penned up.
At Treburg, just before the armistice was signed, Ross saw part of the German revolution. One day, when the enraged German soldiers attacked Prussian officers, two of the officers were killed. The German solders wear two buttons on their caps, and during the revolution most of them removed one of the buttons -- the one which signified allegiance to the Kaiser. Most of them carried red flags or wore red ribbons in their buttonholes.
Ross says, although he did not have such a hard time as a prisoner of war himself, his experiences in German did not improve his opinion of the Boehe any. He relates how 100 civilians, taken prisioners in Alsace at the beginning of the war, were brought to the American camp one afternoon. One of them was an American tourist who was interned at the beginning of the war with 14 others. He was the only one left alive of the 14, and he told the Yank soldiers his story. The American said at the beginning of the war, there were 3000 of them, mostly Alsatians, but all but 100 of them had died of starvation. They were left at the American camp enroute from German Poland to some other camp. "They were more like animals than men," Ross said. "Three Prussians were in the room guarding them. We were not allowed in the room, but could see them thru the windows. An American came along with a piece of the black German issue bread and held bit before a window for one of the Alsatians to take. Immediately a crowd of them jumped at the window, and one of them broke the glass by striking his face against it, and grasped the bread. They they fought over it like dogs. After we had talked to the American we brought them American food from the Red Cross magazine but were not allowed to take it into the room, so we handed it to them through the windows. The American who had been a prisoner for nearly five years, had no ambition, and had almost forgotten how to speak English. He thought the Prussians were going to kill him, and acted as though death would be welcome."
Many of the American prisoners escaped after the armistice was signed but some of them were stopped at the Rhine river and turned back. Orders were recieved from Pershing for them to stay at Rastatt until they were sent for, and two American officers were sent by Pershing to take command of the camp. An inspection party of four officers from the American General Headquarters was sent to examine conditions at the camp. The prisoners stayed there until February 9, when a Swiss Red Cross train came into the camp, which they boarded, and they were taken to France, where most of them were sent back to their organizations.
Ross looks well after his four months experience as a war prisoner, but it was the American Red Cross food and not the German rations, that kept him alive while in German prisons. He was married on May 26 to Miss Bernice O'Hara, of Effingham and is now living in Horton.
Horton Headlight-Commercial p. 7