Keep the old flag flying
The World War 1 memoir of Kenneth Basil Foyster, Canadian soldier, prisoner and internee
By Mike Richardson
Published by Spiderwize in 2018
Paperback ISBN 978 1 91269439 6 also available in ebook format
322 pages plus list of sources
Cover price £12.99
I am grateful to the author, who kindly supplied me with a copy for review.
Good accounts of captivity in the Great War are comparatively rare. Accounts of the experience of internment in the Netherlands or Switzerland even more so. “Keep the old flag flying” covers both, for Kenneth Basil Foyster first spent over a year as a POW in Germany before being transferred to Switzerland in August 1916.
The book is largely based on Foyster’s memoir, written after the Great War. Born in England in 1880, one of nine children of a Church of England rector, he went to Canada and eventually settled in Vancouver. His story takes us through his time before the war with the 88th Victoria Fusiliers and his enlistment into the 7th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He went to England and then France with the original contingent of the battalion.
Chapter 5 covers the period of the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, in which he was wounded and taken prisoner, leaving the final half of the book to cover his experiences from that point onwards.
Inevitably, a memoir relies on memory and, especially if the author had publication in mind, may highlight or suppress certain events. I did not form that impression from reading “Keep the old flag flying”. It came across to me as thoughtful and objective. The narrative, which seems to have been edited with only a light touch, is illuminating: full of detail, good descriptions, many mentions by name of comrades and captors.
Once in Germany, Foyster was mainly held at Göttingen in Lower Saxony although his last two months were at Mannheim. Conditions, treatment by his captors, and feeding were harsh by any standard, yet appear to have improved somewhat from the inhuman, wilfully neglectful and cruel treatment meted out to POWs in the earlist months of the war. Gradually through the months, things improved as food supplied through the Red Cross began to arrive with regularity. A new development also began: the transfer of some POWs to internment in neutra Switzerland. Foyster’s description of the process, hopes and frustrations of selection areof great interest.
The change of life on becoming an internee was remarkable. Foyster was moved via Konstanz and Berne to the skiing village of Mürren in the spectaclar Bernese Oberland. With many others, he was accomodated in the many large hotels that existed in and around the village. The men had a good deal more privacy, were better fed, were not under the constant eye of guards, could get out walk and exercise, and socialise with civilians. Yet they were still, in a sense, captive, confined and away from loved ones.
The final chapter of the Swiss period, as men began to be sent home after the war, is the most tragic. Numbers of them fell victim to the Spanish Flu, and many died. They are buried in the military cemetery at Vevey.
I learned much from this book, finding it an absorbing and easy read. There is a small selection of photographs, an illustration of the layout of Göttingen camp and a map of Mürren and its hotels.
Foyster’s service record (at Libraries and Archives Canada)