• 30 years of war and peace, 1916 to 1946

    In November 1916 Herbert Sulzbach was fighting in the German artillery at the Battle of the Somme. By then, he had been involved in trench warfare, defending front line positions near Noyon, for four months as the battle ebbed to and fro between the two sides. After a week of intense action at the end of November, once a halt had been called to the fighting, he went back to trench warfare in the same area until mid-February 1917.

    Although the German army can be said to have survived this battle, thousands of soldiers from all sides were killed and injured in the fighting. It was an experience that most never forgot. After Germany was defeated in November 1918 and Sulzbach led his men back home, his time wearing field grey remained a vivid and important memory.

    After the war, he became a director of a factory in Neubabelsberg, near Potsdam, and travelled frequently to France, England and Belgium. In November 1926, ten years after his time on the Somme, he happened to be in London on business. Stepping out of his hotel on the Strand at 11 o'clock on 11 November, he was astonished – and very moved – to see everyone and all the traffic stop. Men removed their hats and everything came to a standstill for two minutes in commemoration of the war dead of 1914 – 1918.

    Just over a decade later, in November 1937, he was living in London as a refugee from the country for which he had previously fought. He joined the crowds at the Cenotaph for the Armistice remembrance – little knowing that a few years later he would be wearing the uniform of a soldier in the British army, fighting the Nazism that he hated.

    Thirty years after the Battle of the Somme, and a few months after a Second World War involving both Germany and Britain, Herbert Sulzbach was discussing Remembrance Day with German officer PoW. At his suggestion, they devised their own ceremony.

    'At 10.55 I went into the main guard room, where the German PoW trumpeter was waiting. At a sign from me, at 10.58 he began to play. Wherever a PoW went or worked, he stood to attention and took his cap in his hand, until 11.00 when the trumpeter ceased. It was simple and wonderful: we honoured the dead in every country.'

    (photo: Armistice Day at the London Cenotaph 11 November 1937)

    ©text: Ainslie Hepburn, with quote from Sulzbach papers. ©photo Yvonne Klemperer



  • music for German PoW – Clara Schumann's legacy

    'British audiences must be reminded that there was also a Germany before 1933, a Germany that gave to the world perhaps more great men in the sphere of culture, invention, music, and poetry than any other country.'

    So wrote Herbert Sulzbach in an article for the 'Daily Telegraph' in November 1978. He could also have written 'great women' since he had himself been considerably influenced by both women and men musicians throughout his early life in Frankfurt.

    In 1893, Herbert's father had retired at the age of thirty-eight from a life in banking to devote himself to his passion for music. Emil Sulzbach was an accomplished pianist and composer and in 1904 he also became the Chairman of Frankfurt's Konservatorium, which had been founded in 1878.

    The Konservatorium gained an international reputation and played an important part in the musical life of Frankfurt. Many famous musicians taught there – including Clara Schumann and Engelbert Humperdinck. On 20 October 1878 Clara Schumann gave her 50th anniversary performance and taught at the Konservatorium from that year until 1892, considerably modernising the teaching of piano technique.

    Herbert Sulzbach was born a few months after his father's retirement from banking, so his childhood and youth were spent surrounded by music, musicians and the world of the Konservatorium. Music provided possibly the greatest link between his new life in England and the pre-war Germany that he had loved and fought for.

    In Featherstone PoW camp, many of the German officers shared his Romantic ideal. There were four orchestras at the camp and Sulzbach worked what seemed like miracles to procure instruments, although the prisoners sometimes made their own.

    Music was also a way for PoW to reach out to the local population. Once fraternisation was allowed (at the end of 1946), musical events took place at many venues around Northumberland and provided a welcome channel for friendship. At Hexham, one concert-goer described how she was

    'puzzled by these talented, refined men – not at all the jack-booted Nazis I had been expecting. They produced amazing music.'

    (picture: Clara Schumann 1878/1879, pastel portrait by Franz von Lenbach [1836 – 1904])

    © text Ainslie Hepburn. The picture is out of copyright.



  • a link between Britain, Russia and Germany

    In July 1942, German armies set out reach the Volga River on their Russian front and take the city of Stalingrad. But by December 1942 winter had set in, the Russians refused to surrender and mounted a strong counter attack. Hitler refused to let the Germans give in, even though they were encircled, so they fought on to the end.

    Kurt Reuber, aged 36, was a theologian, pastor and amateur artist serving as a doctor with the 16th Panzer Division. By Christmas 1942 he had converted his tiny bunker north-west of Stalingrad into a studio and began to draw on the back of a captured Russian map.

    His drawing of a mother and child has down one side the words 'light, life, love'. It became the focus of the soldiers' Christmas celebrations, although on Christmas Eve there was heavy fighting with many casualties.On 9 January 1943, the last flight with wounded and sick officers left Stalingrad and Reuber entrusted his pictures and letters to the battalion commander. His last letter to his wife was realistic,

    'Scarcely an earthly hope remains.'

    He died of typhus on 20 January 1944 in the Russian PoW camp at Yelabuga.

    Another officer at Stalingrad with the 48th Panzer Corps was General Ferdinand Heim. When he defied Hitler by refusing to push his poorly equipped and under-resourced men further into a suicidal confrontation, he was castigated by the Führer for,

    'a crime of negligence hitherto unparalleled in the course of this war.'

    Heim was immediately dismissed from the Army, stripped of his decorations, and flown to the Army prison at Moabit. He was kept in solitary confinement until April 1943, and was never charged, interrogated, or tried. Some months later his dismissal was cancelled and he was 'retired'.

    In August 1944 he was brought out of retirement to command forces fighting in France. He surrendered to the Canadians a month later and was taken prisoner. In 1946 he went to Featherstone Park to be the German spokesman for officer PoW there. He worked closely with Herbert Sulzbach, who said of him,

    'There could have been no finer, nor more harmonious co-operation than between General Heim and me.'

    Kurt Reuber's original picture hangs in the Kaiser Memorial Church in Berlin, and copies are displayed in Coventry Cathedral and in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad).

    (photo: copy of 'The Stalingrad Madonna' by Kurt Reuber in the Millenium Chapel at Coventry Cathedral)

    © text Ainslie Hepburn © photo Ainslie Hepburn



  • conflicting religious feelings at Featherstone Park in 1946

    When a new Commandant replaced the much-liked and highly respected Colonel Vickers at Camp 18 in September 1946, he was critical of much that he saw and

    'declared that Featherstone was no longer a PoW camp but a Christian Democratic Village.'

    The following month he asked a prisoner who was an architect to design a chapel for all denominations. A Nissen hut in the British section of the camp was made available, and the newly constructed chapel was consecrated six months later.

    Pastor Martin Niemöller was invited to the camp as a lecturer. He was currently on a tour of PoW camps in Britain, speaking to prisoners on the question of 'guilt'. But, as the Commandant at Featherstone noted,

    'I am afraid he was a little too straight for some of the Germans on the question of responsibility.'

    The PoW wrote about their ambivalence in the camp newspaper. They explained that although they respected Niemöller for his resistance to Hitler and his incarceration,

    'It does not mean that these men reject the Christian ethic as such; but they doubt very much whether it can be realised.'

    Martin Niemöller was at this time a controversial figure of resistance to Hitler for many people. Although he had suffered in a German concentration camp for seven years, he had earlier held strong nationalist views and supported Hitler's ideas. After the war, Niemöller was keen to atone for his past and promote peace and reconciliation, and he was concerned that the average German was not really learning lessons from the past.

    At Featherstone in the same month, October 1946, there were plans for the prisoners to take part in the forthcoming Harvest Thanksgiving at Hexham Abbey – especially for those PoW who had helped local farms to bring in the harvest. A thousand prisoners attended the service, and also provided a large choir and orchestra. The Commandant and the German PoW leader each read a lesson and a Newcastle pastor gave a short sermon in German.

    The local papers were full of praise and gratitude,

    'The “enemy” in our midst. But he has beaten his sword into a ploughshare.'

    (photo: Hexham Abbey)

    © text Ainslie Hepburn © photo Ainslie Hepburn



  • gifts between PoW and their neighbours in 1946

    Less than a year after the end of WW2, German prisoners in Britain found themselves increasingly in contact with local people. Theoretically, any form of fraternisation was illegal until Christmas 1946. Before then, PoW were only allowed outside the camps as workers under strict military supervision. Contact with civilians was supposed to be the minimum required by the needs of employers.

    However, as restrictions became relaxed about how far prisoners could walk unchaperoned outside their compounds, there were inevitable meetings away from supervisors.

    In one country lane near Featherstone Park camp, a prisoner sat on a farm wall in the sunshine to eat the dry bread he had taken with him. An elderly man behind him told him that his wife was preparing hot coffee, and shortly afterwards brought him a cup.

    'This friendly gesture of humanity will stand in my memory until the last day of my life.'

    In the early days, PoW 'felt like outlaws' on the country lanes of Britain and expected only hostility from local people. But chance encounters with their neighbours soon dispelled that feeling and many good friendships evolved that often continued for many years after repatriation, and even into the next generation.

    Very often food would be exchanged - 'a piece of cake, an egg or something else and once even half a loaf of bread, as this worker had a cousin who was a baker.'

    Gradually new friends were invited back to British homes and PoW tried to return the kindness of their hosts. There was a busy trade back at the camp with those who could make small wooden toys for hosts' children in exchange for cigarettes.

    One new friend of a PoW was presented with a detailed relief picture of the Holy Family – beautifully carved into the bottom of a beer barrel, and put together with potassium permanganate. And the family at Featherstone Castle was given a decoratively carved plate rack made by prisoners at the PoW camp in their grounds.

    Eventually, at Christmas 1946, fraternisation was legally allowed, but friendships had already been formed and there many homes that year where local people shared their celebrations with nearby PoW.

    (photo: the plate rack at Featherstone Castle)

    © text Ainslie Hepburn © photo Ainslie Hepburn with permission from John Clark



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On my blog I write about biography, Anglo-German reconciliation, and the life of Herbert Sulzbach.


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