Helen McPhail
The Long Silence

Dirty and hollow-eyed, they were identifiable by their red armbands and other identifying stripes on trousers and jacket, and by an individual number-plate fixed to their cap. Their clothes wore out until they existed in a jumble of ragged and torn garments, lucky if they could find a scrap of blanket or sacking to cover their shoulders.

Girls were used for work in dangerous conditions, and a number were killed by an ammunition depot explosion. The fear of explosions caused by sabotage or carelessness brought an ingenious solution: prisoners and labour-gangs would be lodged inside the depot, at personal risk from any careless or deliberately risky activities!

Most of the men taken to work in civilian labour gangs were sent home after nine or ten months, as they became exhausted; a number of them never recovered their health and there were certainly deaths from tuberculosis and other illnesses or general debility afterwards. As soon as one batch of men was returned home another took its place, and it seems that the number of men who served in this way was not less than 100,000. The gangs returned when their tasks were finished, arriving by rail or in long grey columns of marching me, weak and ill and ashamed of their enforced slavery. Many died—succumbing to flu, the severe winter weather or ill-treatment or punishment when they tried to escape—or of electrocution when they tried to escape across the frontier in the Netherlands.

The few men who volunteered for work were treated well and shown off proudly to residents of their assigned work-place. It was perhaps fortunate for them that these volunteer groups no longer existed by the time the war ended: there seems to have been no settling of old scores on the same scale as at the end of the Second World War—in different circumstances and in a war which affected the whole country—but the wretched conditions at the time of the 1918 Armistice left little room for easy forgiveness towards those seen to have colluded with their oppressors.

How many civilians were forced to work for the Germans? It does not seem possible to answer this; sometimes the number in any one camp, on any one date, of Z.A.B. workers is known, but not the numbers elsewhere on the same date, to establish a total. There were however a great many civilian prison camps along the front line, and some held several thousand men. In the Verdun area alone, some 68 camps held only Belgian workers; another 78 camps were located between Lille and St Quentin. In December 1916 at least 4,000 men were being held in camps around Laon.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.