Chapter VII. Two German Prison Camps
Visiting a prison camp is somewhat like touching at an island in the night - one of those tropical islands, for instance, whose curious and crowded life shows for an instant as your steamer leaves the mail or takes on a load of deck-hands, and then fades away into a few twinkling lights and the sound of a bell across the water. You may get permission to see a prison camp, but may not stay there, and you are not expected, generally, to talk to the prisoners. You can but walk past those rows of eyes, with all their untold stories, much as you might go into a theatre in the midst of a performance, tramp through the audience and out again.
It is a strange experience and leaves one hoping that somebody - some German shut away in the south of France, one of those quick-eyed Frenchmen in the human zoo at Zossen - is keeping a diary. For while there have always been prison camps, have there ever been - at least, since Rome - such menageries as these! Behind the barbed-wire fence at Zossen - Zossen is one of the prisons near Berlin - there are some fifteen thousand men. The greater number are Frenchmen, droves of those long blue turned-back overcoats and red trousers, flowing sluggishly between the rows of low barracks, Frenchmen of every sort of training and temperament, swept here like dust by the war into common anonymity. I do not remember any picture of the war more curious, and, as it were, uncanny than the first sight of Zossen as our motor came lurching down the muddy road from Berlin - that huge, forgotten eddy, that slough of idle, aimless human beings against the gray March sky, milling slowly round and round in the mud.
But the French are only part of Zossen. There are Russians - shaggy peasants such as we see in cartoons or plays at home, and Mongol Russians with flat faces and almond eyes, who might pass for Chinamen. There are wild-eyed "Turcos" from the French African provinces, chattering untamed Arabs playing leap-frog in front of their German commandant as impudently as street boys back in their native bazaars. There are all the tribes and castes of British Indians - "I've got twenty different kinds of people in my Mohammedan camp," said the lieutenant who was showing me about - squat Gurkhas from the Himalayas, minus their famous knives - tall, black-bearded Sikhs, with the faces of princes. There are even a few lone Englishmen, though most of the British soldiers in this part of Germany are at Doberitz. Whether or not Zossen could be called a "show" camp, it seemed, at any rate, about as well managed as such a place could be. The prisoners were housed in new, clean, one-story barracks; well fed, so far as one could tell from their appearance and that of the kitchens and storerooms; they could write and be written to, and they were compelled to take exercise. The Roman Catholics had one chapel and the Greek Catholics another, and there was an effort to permit Indian prisoners to observe their rules of caste.
As we tramped through barracks where chilly Indians, Russians with broad, high cheek-bones, sensitive-looking Frenchmen with quick, liquid eyes, jumped to their feet and stiffened at attention as the commandant passed, a young officer, who had lived in England before the war and was now acting as interpreter, volunteered his guileless impressions. The Turcos were a bad lot - fighting, gambling, and stealing from each other - there was trouble with some of, them every day. The Russians were dirty, good-natured, and stupid.
The English - well, frankly, he was surprised at their lack of discipline and general unruliness - all except some of the Indians, and those, he must say, were well-trained - fine fellows and good soldiers. One could surmise the workings of his mind as one thought of the average happy-go-lucky Tommy Atkins, and then came across one of those tall, straight, hawk-eyed Sikhs and saw him snap his heels together and his arms to his sides and stand there like a bronze statue.
It was a dreadful job getting the Frenchmen to take exercise - "they can't understand why any one should want to work, merely to keep himself fit!" Aside from this idiosyncrasy they were, of course, the pleasantest sort of people to get along with. We saw Frenchmen sorting mail in the post-office, painting signs for streets, making blankets out of pasted- together newspapers - everywhere they were treated as intelligent men to whom favors could be granted. And, of course, there was this difference between the French and English of the early weeks of the war - the French army is one of universal conscription like the German, and business men and farmers, writers, singers, and painters were lumped in together. There was one particularly good-looking young man, a medical officer, who flung up his head to attention as we came up.
"He helped us a lot - this man!" said the commandant, and laid his hand on the young man's shoulder. The Frenchman's eyes dilated a trifle and a smile flashed behind rather than across his face - one could not know whether it was gratitude or defiance.
A sculptor who had won a prize at Rome and several other artists had had a room set aside for them to work in. Some were making post-cards, some more ambitious drawings, and in the sculptor's studio was the head of the young doctor we had just seen and an unfinished plaster group for a camp monument. On the wall was a sign in Latin and French - "Unhappy the spirit which worries about the future," a facetious warning that any one who loafed there longer than three minutes was likely to be killed, and the following artistic creed from "La Fontaine:"
"Ne for fans point noire talent. Nous ne ferions rien avec grace. Jamais un lourdaud quoiqu'il fosse, ne saurait passer pour gallant."
("Don't strain your talent or you'll do nothing gracefully. The boor won't pass for a gallant gentleman, no matter what he does.")