First World War Poetry Digital Archive

A prisoner's return

My mother, Millicent Burrow, was born in 1900. In September 1918 she began teacher training at Stockwell College at Bromley in Kent. This story relates to her first Christmas vacation, some six weeks after the Armistice.

Millicent's home was in Plymouth. It was a typical late Victorian three bedroomed terrace house with garden back and front and in the back garden a stone floored wash house with, fortunately, drain channels in the floor. One day she was alone in the house, in the kitchen preparing a meal. Somebody
rapped on the garden door and she looked out to see a man standing outside.
At first she thought he was a vagrant. He was filthy, with long hair and beard, wrapped in a tattered blanket.

Then he spoke "Millie, you must help me. I can't go home to my mother like this." He was the son of one of their neighbours who had served in the army on the Western Front and been taken prisoner. When the war ended apparently the guards, who by then had almost nothing themselves, had simply opened the gates of the Prisoner of War camp and said "Go".

The soldiers set out in small groups to walk back across Europe to the Channel Ports. Somehow the men had got across the Channel and then walked to their homes, scrounging what food they could as they went.

Quickly my mother realised what she must do. She took him into the wash house and stripped him of his filthy clothes which she proceeded to burn in the copper which was normally used to heat water for washing. I doubt if she had ever seen a naked man before but she proceeded to sluice him down with buckets of water. Then when he was relatively clean she fetched some clothes belonging to her brother, who was still in the army. When he was dressed she took him back into the kitchen, gave him a cup of tea and when he was ready sent him next door to his family.

Neither of them ever forgot that afternoon

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