In Henry Williamson’s novel The Golden Virgin, he includes a list of orders given to his unit before the Battle of the Somme.
One of these is:
PRISONERS: These will be escorted on scale of 10 per cent of their numbers. Prisoners will be searched at once for concealed arms or documents, always in the presence of an officer. Guards are forbidden to talk to prisoners, or to give them food or tobacco. Identity discs will be taken from them.
In Geoffrey Malins’ documentary film The Battle of the Somme, however, we see a scene where soldiers offer cigarettes to prisoners. The episode looks a little stagey, with the Tommy offering the fag seeming rather self-conscious about it.
There seem to be three possibilities about this apparent contradiction.
- The official order was “No cigarettes”, but this was routinely ignored.
- The film-maker was making a propagandist point about the good treatment of prisoners, and breaking the rules to do so.
- The order quoted by Williamson only applied to the field of battle, and once prisoners were behind the lines, things were more relaxed.
If anyone has a theory about this, I’d be pleased to hear it.
In Malins’s film, the relations between guards and captives seem mostly relaxed and human. Some of the prisoners smile for the movie camera – maybe glad to see a feature of civilian life that reminded them that while the war continued its horrible progress, they were now well out of it.