“Prisoners on Cannock Chase: Great War POWs and Brocton Camp”
By Richard Pursehouse
Published by Frontline Books in 2020
Hardback ISBN 978 1 52672 825 8
134 pages plus 48 pages of endnotes plus index. Illustrated.
Reviewed by Chris Baker
Copy kindly provided by the publisher.
I often drive through Cannock Chase on the way to see my mother in nearby Penkridge. For those who do not know it, the Chase is a large area of woods and heathland which is recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is a pretty and tranquil area that attracts many hikers, wildlife enthusiasts and campers. In some places there are good views across South Staffordshire, the Black Country and across to Birmingham.
On the road from Rugeley to Penkridge, keeping an eye open for deer that sometimes stray onto this road, the driver has the unusual experience (in England, at least) of passing a signpost to a German war cemetery. It was inaugurated in 1967 after an agreement made in 1959 to centralise all German war graves that were situated in the UK which were not already located in a cemetery maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemetery contains almost 5000 graves of German and Austrian nationals and is well worth a visit. Nearby is the British Cannock Chase War Cemetery, which contains 97 graves (mostly of the New Zealand forces stationed here) and another 286 German.
The cemeteries are situated close to a large area that was used to hold German prisoners of war: Brocton Camp. Of this, there are few physical signs today and those that do exist need some perseverance to find.
In researching and writing “Prisoners on Cannock Chase”, Richard Pursehouse has done a terrific job. The records of the camp, its men of both sides, and the activities there, are fragmented to say the least. He appears to have trawled just about everything these is to trawl, and amongst the findings are material from the Camp Commandant, a camp administrator, and the Swiss legation that inspected the camp at times. It appears that there was no initial intention to house POWs at Cannock Chase – indeed it was specifically rejected by the landowner the Earl of Lichfield. The area was developed as a major British training base (described well in the 1996 book “A town for four winters” by C.A. and G. P. Whitehouse) and it was only in 1917 that a POW compound was added.
The book is structured into 24 short chapters that describe the development and facilities of the site, the men it held, the work that employed them, and their guards (for the most part, of the Royal Defence Corps). It was certainly of interest to read of occasions on which the guards opened fire on prisoners and the efforts to maintain order and security in the face of attempted escapes. The tone of things changes somewhat when the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (in training) moved in next door, bringing capacity for what could be in effect an instant police force and a rather younger, fitter set of men who could control events. The book also include interesting chapters on the camp’s hospital and the effects of the Spanish ‘Flu in 1918. It cleses with considerations of what to do with the camp after the war, and a brief note on the site today. It is well illustrated with contemporary photographs and documents and makes for a good read.
The main body of the book at 134 pages is followed by no fewer than 48 pages of endnotes. It is a matter of personal preference but I do not like endnotes too much, for they cause too much to-ing and fro-ing. In the case of “Prisoners on Cannock Chase”, some of the notes are extensive and could perhaps have been incorporated into the main body. This design feature does not detract from the overall value of the book as a work of reference. The notes do include mention of the sources used but there is no bibliography as such (and I am not sure one is needed, really).
One omission that I would have liked to have seen is a map or description for the reader to more easily locate the POW camp site when visiting the area. Perhaps that is one to consider for a reprint.