Personal diaries and letters, in many cases, provide us with some of the most interesting historic stories that have ever, or never, been told. Every memoir is special, but those that vividly recall events of war, adversity, triumph, failure, and hope through the eyes of someone we can easily relate to are perhaps the most compelling.
The Ashburton Museum is privileged to be able to look after a number of diaries, albums, and sets of letters that tell such stories, which are part of the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society collection.
On this blog so far we have told several stories of survivors of war, which have been about WW2 dispatch rider Noel Wilson, WW1 shell victim Private Frederick W T Rogers, and Australian WW1 Nurse Marie Cameron, who wound up in Ashburton Hospital after her transport ship fell victim to a U-boat attack. Our next war story is perhaps the best documented of the bunch, being that of 2nd Lieutenant John Trevor Thomas M.C., and his experience of being captured and imprisoned by the Germans during the Great War.
J. Trevor Thomas’ extensive typed diary, which is hundreds of pages long, as well as correspondences and letters, are held at the Ashburton Museum and they tell a complete narrative of his experiences before, during, and after his internment at the hands of the Germans.
Into the night
Thomas was captured by the Germans in 1918, sometime between 21 April and the beginning of May, while out on night patrol. He was no stranger to such duty; in his own words he had “been out some 20 odd consecutive nights” before his capture.
Before heading out, Thomas asked his Platoon Sergeant for some new men as his “excellent patrol had just about had it”. However, judging by Thomas’ reaction, the choices were not ideal. Thomas recounts that “when he handed me the names I expostulated,” and the Sergeant replied that he had “asked for it”, an omen if there ever was one.
He took the men regardless and had “all pockets emptied and all loose accoutrements tightened up” before he brought them off on patrol.
Under cover of darkness they moved 200 yards across the front, and after following a tip that some Germans were nearby, they found themselves surrounded “on 3 sides by 18 of the Bosch who were yelling and squirting up flares.”
Caught in the open
Immediately, Thomas and his boys were in the thick of it.
One of his team had a rifle jam, and then Thomas discovered that the pins of their bombs had been “thrust home and doubled back”, effectively useless. After a brief firefight there was only Thomas, a man known as Horrex and their mate Cundy left unwounded. At this point Thomas told his men to “fix bayonets and we will charge and, in the most approved style [I] called “charge” but a stock bomb landed between Horrex and myself, laying the former out and blowing the bridge off my nose.”
All the boys were wounded and grabbed by the Germans. Thomas requested that he retrieve and treat the wounds of his mate, Quartermaster Sergeant Durant, who had asked to come out on this patrol for reference before heading to England on commission. Durant sadly passed shortly after arriving at a German dressing station. In Thomas’ words, “the poor fellow had bled to death for which I blame myself as I did not realise that his calls to me that his feet were getting cold was evidence of this happening.”
Marchiennes and Graudenz
Thomas was first sent to the infamous Marchiennes prison camp, possibly by mistake as it was not a camp for officers.
The conditions there were beyond inhumane. The place was nothing more than an old wooden glassworks with lice-infested hay strewn around for bedding. The men were given bread adulterated with leaves and wood pulp, “coffee” made from ryecorn, and watery soup made from less-than-stellar cuts of meat.
After enduring these conditions for a time Thomas decided he had enough, and wanted to secure a bath for himself and his fellow prisoners. He found himself having to square up to the German Commandant, yelling in his face, trying to get his point across. After roughly grabbing a Sergeant Major, whom he personally despised but nonetheless had to tolerate, to use him as an interpreter, he “marched him straight up to the Commandant who yelled at me and the more he yelled the louder I yelled back. Eventually I made him understand I demanded water for washing, blankets, baths etc.”
After his eventful stay at Marchiennes, Trevor was sent to the prison at Graudenz, a garrison town between Danzig and Warsaw. It was here that he caught the Spanish Flu, from which he recovered thanks to the support of a South African soldier he had befriended in the camp.
Aside from his new companion, there was one other person who helped him get through the ordeal, a helping hand from home: esteemed author, journalist, and Red Cross associate Edith Lyttelton (whose pseudonym was G. B. Lancaster).
Help from home
Edith, who grew up at Rokeby, had settled into a permanent home in London just before the war started. Her home was affectionately named Te Whare, at 65 Hanger Hill, North Ealing.
According to An Unsettled Spirit: The Life & Frontier Fiction of Edith Lyttelton (G B Lancaster) by Terry Sturm, she threw herself “tirelessly” into war work, joining the Red Cross to assist soldiers on leave, and got stuck into journalism in support of the war effort. Having also been involved with the Anzac Club, Edith strove to support prisoners of war held by the Germans.
When Thomas went missing, she put out a request for information regarding his whereabouts, to which several responses confirmed the capture of “poor old Trevor Thomas.” Edith acted as an intermediary, she forwarded correspondence back-and-forth between prisoners and their families, and made sure any gifts sent from families reached prisoners.
Correspondences from Thomas to Edith are affectionate in tone, he refers to her as “my dear Mrs Lyttelton” as if she was his own mother. Clearly contact with Edith Lyttelton was a lifeline for Thomas, as she facilitated the delivery of precious items to Graudenz from his mother in Ashburton, such as tobacco and socks, to lift his spirits.
Once the war ended, Trevor was allowed day leave around Graudenz before he was shipped home. Curiously, he went into the biggest and most popular coffee-house in the town itself, only to find it full to the brim with jovial Commonwealth and American officers, who outnumbered the Germans by a great deal!
After all the suffering he endured, softened by the helping hand of Edith Lyttelton, it must have been quite a surreal sight.
Once John Trevor Thomas made it back to New Zealand, he went into business in Ashburton. ‘J Trevor Thomas & Co’ became very successful and had its premises next to the sports hall on Tancred Street. When World War 2 broke out, Trevor was instrumental in establishing the B Company of the Ashburton Home Guard, before he was taken on at Burnham Military Camp as a member of staff.
By Connor Lysaght
Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 14 October 2021.
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