First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Private Cecil Morgan - Prisoner of War

Cecil Leslie Morgan was born 22 April 1899 in Bermondsey. He left school in 1912 and was indentured as an apprentice Cooper on 5th May 1913.

12 April 1917 - Cecil joined up at Rotherhithe Town Hall to fight in WW1 and was declared medically A1. As Private Morgan 42609, he was posted to the 47th Training Reserve Battalian and ordered to report to Horse Guards Parade Whitehall on 26 May 1917. He qualified as a Lewis Gunner and as a Stretcher Bearer.

Initially assigned to the 3rd Norfolk regiment, Cecil was transferred to the 2nd Battalian Essex Regt. in January 1918.
He and 14 of his comrades were captured at La Bassee Canal on the night of April 18 1918 (just four days before his 19th birthday), by German Machine Gun Corps at 9.30 pm.

Cecil's parents were initially told he was missing, and later that he was injured (Army form B.104-81 dated May 2nd 1918. A fellow soldier reported: "We were on the La Bassee Canal front , the Germans attacked, he was hit in the side next to me, we were in the open holding on. it was by M.G.(machine gun) bullet; the attack started about 10am and this occurred about half an hour later. I helped to bind him up and the S/Bs (stretcher bearers) who did not belong to our platoon and were unknown to me took him away, some hours later we were still in the same position. They would have to take him some three Km to the D/S (dresssing station) under fire. We retired later in the day but I saw nothing more of him. He came from London, parents living. Transferred from 3rd Norfolks with me soon after Xmas in France. Not wounded before, first time in the line, single, short, fair 18-19, called Cecil, in 11 platoon. Inf:Pte G Racy 42693, A. 11. In hospital abroad. 25/7/1918"

A post card to Cecil's parents dated 9th May 1918: "The Officer i/c No 2 Records, Warley informs you that your address is noted in reference to 42609 Pte C.L.Morgan 2nd Essex - no particulars or hospital report received - if he has been captured it will be some time probably before news is received"

In fact, Cecil was uninjured. He later told his family that he went with a group led by a Sergeant to attack a German machine gun but they were captured before they could achieve their objective. It is possible that in the confusion of battle Pte. Racy misidentified the soldier who had been carried away.

Cecil kept a rough diary during his captivity, and sometime after his release he wrote a brief account of what happened to him:
“I was captured at La Bassee Canal on the night of April 18th (with fourteen others) by the German Machine Gun Corps at 9.30 p.m. From there we were marched about under our own shell fire from place to place and about 12 p.m. we had a little rest of about 10 minutes in the yard of an old French house, standing alone in the country. While we were here two of our own two of our own high explosives dropped and exploded by the side of us, but luckily not one of us was injured.

We moved on after our little rest towards Fort MacDonald (Lille) where we had an idea we were to be sent to join others, but about 11 a.m. the next morning we were passing a German CCS station at Boutaville, when the Officer in Charge of the hospital stopped us and told we would have to work there. We were fairly hungry at the time and they gave us a small piece of black bread (which tasted like poison); anyway it went down after a struggle, and then we were put on stretcher bearing and unloading stretcher cases from Red Cross Motor Ambulances, which brought them in from the front line.

The Germans attacking and having heavy casualties, made us work as hard as we possibly could, and having no sleep for four nights and marching all the night before, we soon began to feel exhausted, but were livened up by the butts of their rifles. We were stretcher bearing all that day until 9p.m. when they told us we could go and have a sleep. We didn’t want telling twice; the only place to sleep being a pig-sty which they squashed us in, and before two minutes were up we were fast asleep.

About 12 p.m. that night the Germans came and roused us up (some of us having to be kicked out) to load the hospital train, which kept us very busy until 2.30 a.m. the following morning (Saturday). At this time we went back to finish our sleep. We were woken again at 6 a.m. and given the job of digging graves and burying dead (20 in a grave), which lasted from April 19th till June 10th 1918 at the end of which time we had buried over 600 bodies (Sundays included)”

[Cecil had been able to write a postcard to his parents on 30th April: "Dear Mum & Dad, just a line to let you know I am quite well and am a prisoner, do not worry, will write letter at first opportunity. Hope all are well at home, Good bye dears, with best love and kisses, your loving son, Cecil"]

“On 10th June we were moved to an ammunition dump near a village called Santes, where we joined with 400 others. Santes is 8 Km from Lille. Our camp was an old French farm called La-Hair-Ferme which had been left by its owners before the Germans captured it. It was there I had my first wash since being a prisoner for three months.

The only freedom we had when not at work was a yard 50 yds square, which was not very large for 400 men, consequently many of us were ill. Our work here was carrying shells and ammunition and loading the light railway which ran to the trenches, the hours being from 1.15pm to 11pm without a stop at which time we arrived back at the camp and drew a quarter of a loaf (about 9”x4” sq) which had to last us until 11 p.m. the following night- except for a few cabbage leaves and if lucky a piece of wild boar 1” sq which was like coal to look at and tasted awful.

On the 16th August, 150 of our aeroplanes came and bombed the German Aerodrome close to us, and caused a huge fire. On the 28th we were only 300 strong, the remaining 100 being either in hospital or dead, so were shifted to Lesquin, where we joined 300 others, making us 600 strong. Here we were three days without food, one or two dying of starvation, and all we lived on were a few potato peelings which we picked off the rubbish heap. Our work here was shell carrying and railroad making.”

[Cecil was able to send postcards home: on 19 Sept 1919 “My dear Mum & Dad & all - Just a few more lines hoping they will find you all in the very best of health as they leave me at present. I haven’t heard from you yet but am expecting to ant day now, also some parcels. Cheer up dears the war will very soon be over and then for some sport. May God watch and guard over you all until we meet again in the old house. Love to girls, yourself & everybody in closing I remain your loving son, Cecil xxxxxx

25 September: My dear Mum & Dad & all - Here we are again still alive and kicking & in the best of health as I hope all at home are. I haven’t received neither letter or parcel yet, but hope to very soon. Love to girls & boys & everybody may God very soon grant us peace and once again reunite all loved ones. Cheer up I am quite all right & hope to be sitting around the old table very soon.
Must (…card torn….)God bless you all. With best love & kisses, your loving son, Cecil xxxx

30 September: My dear Mum & Dad & all, Once again I take the pleasure of writing a few more lines hoping they will find you all in the best of health as I am pleased to say I am myself. I haven’t received any letters yet or parcels from home but I am anxiously waiting for them any minute.
Cheer up dears we have better days in store for us which I hope will come very soon. Love to all the girls & boys who I hope are still well and safe & may God protect the boys from all harm and danger which they are constantly in. How is the boy keeping (Dad) tell him to keep his pecker up and keep the garden in good order so that when I and the boys return (D.V) which I hope will be very soon now, we will be able to eat the goods without working. (I expect you say “what sauce!”) (several lines scribbled through) I am not allowed to write more than 2 letters & 4 postcards a month so you see how I am placed, but you are allowed to send me as many as possible, both letters & parcels, so let them all come.
Do not worry about me dears, I am quite well & as happy as possible under the circumstances, but longing for the day to come when this terrible war will be no more & peace and happiness once again shall reign over this terrible world. Kind regards to Louie and all at Church & love to all Aunts & Uncles who I hope are well. Please excuse more as I hardly know what to put, must now close, God bless you all, with best love and kisses, your loving son, Cecil xxx

October 5th 1918: My Dear Mum Dad & all, Once again I drop you a plea to let you know I am still quite well & hope you all are the same. I am anxiously waiting to receive a letter & parcel from you & hear everything is quite alright . Love to all at home and kind regards to all friends at church. Cheer up will soon be home again and then for some sport (Ah what!) God bless you al till we meet again, with best love & kisses, your loving son, Cecil xxx]

In spite of the brave face he put on when writing to his parents, Cecil’s position was grim: “On October 12th we marched to Tournai - a distance of about 20 miles, where we stayed until the morning and then moved on again at 6 am to Renaix & Ronse, stayed until October 18th when we continued our march another 19 miles to Gearardsbergen (Grammont). Here we were imprisoned and not allowed out until October 24th, when we marched to Zandbergen, stayed there two days, on again to Hameau, stayed there three days and arrived at Wombeeke on October 29th.

Here we were sent to work a distance of 12 Km away, making strong trenches and erecting barbed wire for the purpose of stopping our own troops’ advance.
It was here two days after the armistice was signed that the Germans left us and once again we were free to find our way back to England.

My chum and I walked to Bruxelles (a distance of 15 Km) and lived for ten days with civilian people who gave us every treatment we needed. Here on 22nd November we saw King Albert enter Bruxelles. We left Bruxelles on November 25th by train and arrived at Calais at 7pm where we received new clothes. We left Calais on the 30th and arrived at Dover where we were welcomed by all the ships as we entered the harbour.”

After a brief stop at Canterbury, Cecil returned to London where he shook hands with Queen Mary at the Station. He was met by his brother Fred and sister Jess, and learned that his Father was gravely ill - his Father died just two weeks later. Cecil found that his family had regularly written to him in his captivity and sent parcels via the Red Cross, although none had reached him.

At the time the war ended, Cecil was suffering from severe dysentery and was very ill. Following convalescence, he was posted to Fort Westmoreland, Queenstown, Ireland until his discharge.

Cecil always carried a high regard for the Belgian civilians who nursed him in his first days of freedom. Many years later, Cecil and his wife Dorothy took a trip to Brussels in the hope of finding and thanking some of the people who had aided him, but none could be traced. Cecil died in 1963.

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