[From Time Stood Still by Paul Cohen-Portheim]


I HAVE always admired the people whose emotions and feelings at crucial moments are so clear-cut and defined that they can describe them graphically later on, but my :admiration contains an admixture of incredulity because my own experience is so different. I find that when I am faced with sudden tragedy or disaster, with a great change or, indeed, any event which should arouse very strong emotion, I feel none at all. That comes later or it may have been exhausted before, but at the actual moment all seems a dream and not even as vivid as some dreams. Things seem to be happening to someone else, not to myself, and I simply feel rather dazed and quite indifferent. That is how I had felt on the first day of my imprisonment when faced by that East End mob and that is how I felt when the barbed-wire gates of Wakefield opened before me. Neither regret nor joy, just vague wonder at my own indifference. Crowds, amongst which were my friends, stood pressed against the wires of the West and the South Camps, between which ran the road to the outer world, to watch this exodus, but I do not remember recognizing any face or paying much attention to them. Then the great gate closed behind me, but it did not impress me more than any casually closed door. We must have been about eight prisoners and two or three guards, and we took a tram which runs down a steep hill to Wakefield Station. [197]It was then that a very simple incident suddenly roused me : the conductor demanded his fare from me.

I stared at him as if he had asked me to fly. It was too wildly improbable, and such things did not happen. What did he think I was, an independent human being responsible for his movements ? I was part of a transport, I was number a 1972, I had no permit for this payment, his demand was preposterous in its ignorance. 'Fares please', he repeated, and I looked around at the guards behind, but they did not seem to see anything remarkable in the proceedings. So I handed him sixpence and he gave me the change, but I had not recovered from my uneasiness when we got out at the station.

The journey was full of surprises to me. There was a long wait for the train and in the waiting-room one man was bold enough to ask if one was allowed to have a drink. Not only was one allowed this, but one was allowed to stand the guards drinks, and the barmaid a real barmaid of the female sex with an odd, high-pitched voice did not seem to feel how extraordinary all this was, but said her 'Two shillings please' and her 'Your change' without the slightest trace of emotion, without visible signs of hostility or fear. Then the train came and it was an ordinary train, just some compartments reserved for us and the guards. Some passengers looked out of the windows, but they again seemed to see no brand of Cain on us, and remained quite indifferent. So the train started on its journey into the unknown.

All I knew was that we were going to Boston, a place I had never seen, for it had been agreed that the hospital ships which were to convey the prisoners to Holland should start from there. I thought that the train would run straight up to the steamer, or, rather, I did not think about it at all. [199]I suppose that subconsciously I expected the usual pre-war voyage to Holland : one went on board in the evening and woke there early next morning, feeling very sick as a rule. I don't remember how long we were in that train, it was marvellously comfortable and the seats the first sample of the art of upholstery I had encountered for nearly four years quite long enough to forget that such things could be. I slept some of the time ; I looked out of the window and felt happy in a somnolent way.

I would have liked that journey to continue for weeks, but it came to a stop all too soon. We stood shivering on a railway platform, it was getting dark, it was snowing. New guards came, luggage was piled on a cart, we were marched off. It seemed a bit of a come-down after that train de luxe existence, but far more natural. We were being marched to the hospital-ship, I thought. Hospital­ship sounded rather alarming ; I did not feel like an invalid and did not want nurses and doctors, yet it might be quite comfortable and, at any rate, it was sure to be well-heated. I should lie down at once, I felt quite tired enough, then the steamer would hoot and glide out and one would awake in 'a neutral country.' After that well, it was no use bothering one's head about what might happen then

It seems to have been written in the stars that during all my captivity everything should turn out contrary to my expectations. Stratford-on-Avon became Stratford, East London, Knockaloe had come as a pleasant surprise, Wakefield which was to be a paradise had seemed more like the other place for months, then after years it had come to seem almost a perfect abode for me no matter what a hell it might be to others and at that moment I had been forced to leave it, and now when I thought I had arrived at the end of my prison-experiences in England, when I felt the latter time compensated the former, when I was expecting a night in a hospital-ship, I was led into the courtyard of a prison. [200]To be quite exact, it was not a prison, it was a work­house, but that subtle distinction quite failed to comfort me. It already contained a good many prisoners who had been brought there from other camps, and I soon learned what had happened. There was a positive part to what they had to relate and a conjectural one. The positive part was told in a few words, but they were formidable enough : the exchange of prisoners to Holland had been stopped. The conjectural one was extensive, it told me the reasons of the stoppage and its consequences. Naturally it consisted of rumours, those ceaseless, horrible and menacing rumours which ever poisoned camp life, and as usual the rumours were contradictory. There was a tale that the first hospital-ship had run an a mine, another that the Germans had insisted on a change of part of departure, a third that the English had not sent the agreed number of prisoners, though some knew that it was the Germans who had not sent enough men. Some others swore that the numbers had been correct, but that some important personages had been retained, others again that the stoppage was a 'reprisal' for some action not connected with the exchange at all, while the most pessimistic had it on good authority that the scheme was definitely dropped because the Dutch Government had changed its mind and refused to take on that responsibility. As to the future there were quite as many and varying versions : this only meant an interruption of one day according to some, of weeks, months or a definite one according to others. We would all be imprisoned here indefinitely, we would all be returned to our camps, we would all be sent to the Isle of Man.

Everyone talked, everyone guessed, everyone was horribly depressed. [201]Whatever the future might bring, this present disappointment was too great, the present surroundings too sinister. It must be remembered that all the people there had been chosen on account of their bad health and that there were really few amongst them fit to face new privations and discomforts. It was a truly terrible situation and all the more terrible because it had been so unexpected. Its chief horror was again uncertainty; for it is worse to be imprisoned for an uncertain length of time than for a determined length, even if the latter should be long and the former turn out to have been short. Beside that central fact there were quite enough others to make one feel pretty desperate. I felt I had come back where I started : this was Stratford all over again, a little better in some respects, much worse in others. It was a big, bare, stone building and horribly cold. One slept in dormitories which were unheated, wrapped up in all one could find; everything was as cheerless and comfortless as it had been on the first day of that life. It was worse in some ways, for one had not a book to read nor could one write. One only had one's clothes. There was no organization of any sort, for this had not been foreseen ; there was no canteen at all at first, though on the second day one could obtain a few things. There was a small courtyard closed in by buildings to walk about in, and there was literally nothing one could do but watch the aeroplanes buzzing about in the skies all day, for apparently there was an aviation camp or school close by. Altogether, it was quite the worst time I spent as a prisoner, as well as the most irritating. I had one pleasant surprise, which was seeing Dr. A., the anarchist agitator of my first Knockaloe days again. He looked wilder than ever, though considerably more clothed on account of the cold, and he was quite furious because he was amongst the men, of whom there were quite a number at this place, who were to be sent back to Germany in exchange for English prisoners. [202]This was the last thing he desired as he expected a very warm reception there. I imagine he was a deserter, but he may have been wanted for political offences, at any rate he told me that he was determined not to return to Germany. I don't know how he managed it, but when, after arrival in Holland, the roll call was taken he was missing. I met him some months later and he told me that Dutch friends of his had helped him ; that was the last time I saw him, but I read about him in 1919 : he was then leader of a group of anarchists who had decided to live en plein air somewhere in the woods near Berlin, and the police were after them. They were caught, and he was accused of and condemned for offences against the law, illegal medicinal practices committed before the war. Meanwhile at Boston we exchanged experiences. I told him of mine, which he disapproved of, being a convinced materialist, and he told me of his, which were of the higher mathematical variety and which remained enigmatic to me. Even the simplest mathematics have always seemed utterly incomprehensible to me, and I have never been able to understand why anyone should care what happens to x and y or pi; he assured me, however, that I had really arrived at the same conclusions as he had, though in a confused manner, whereas he could sum up all the world and its workings in one simple mathematical formula which he kept shouting at me. So I left it at that.

I cannot say at all how long I shivered in that work­house. I have explained how one had come to lose all notion of time, and at Boston there was absolutely nothing to distinguish one day from another. To me it seemed months, every day seemed interminable, in fact, but I imagine that according to normal measurements it was somewhere between a week and a fortnight. [203]Then we were told in the evening that we should be leaving early next morning. We actually did. It was quite a long way to the steamer. When we had arrived, a cart had transported all luggage, but this time we had to carry all hand baggage, and when men found it getting too heavy, they simply had to leave it standing in the road. I have never seen anything more forlorn-looking than those bundles, packages, and valises in the snow by the roadside. There were a good many, for most men were not strong enough to carry what they had set out with ; fortunately, my load was light. This was like a last symbol of the system in its senseless waste and needless hardness. We reached the ship at last and went on board. The luggage arrived, the boxes were thrown on board and some of them fell into the water and were lost, which the porters thought quite a good joke. The steamer hooted, it began slowly to move. We were leaving England. I could not believe it, though. We were steaming up a narrow water-way and a very lovely church tower appeared and grew as we moved on ; the 'Boston stump', I thought, the one that St. Dunstan's in Fleet Street is copied from. I must have a look at it when I pass Fleet Street. Then I remembered, and then again all seemed incredible. Those low marshes looked as they had always looked, there were cottages and people in them, there were cattle in the fields, the world was as it always had been. Was war real, were people really killing each other now, had they been killing each other for four years ? Were there really others locked up in cages of barbed wire, turning round and round in them, and had I been one of them, or was it all a bad dream ? And where and to what was this ship gliding ?


Cohen's account of his internment is very much an introspective study of his own reaction to it mere details such as dates or numbers are not important to him but do make it difficult to winnow out the mechanics of the internment including transfers in and out of camps. The official record as found in list D-184-21 in the I.C.R.C. records have him departing Sleaford camp and put on board the transfer vessel on the 7th March 1917 destined for Holland. Sleaford was the smaller of the two camps, the other being Spalding, set up as transit camps following the agreement with the German and Dutch governments to allow both civilian repatriation exchanges ( in ratio 1:4 for German-held : British-held civilians) and also a limited number of internments in Holland. The voyage on the 7th March would be the 6th such transfer and the penultimate from Sleaford which would close by the end of March.


Index page Back index next  

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML© F Coakley , 2021