“The Experiences of a Captive: In Verse—And Worse” is one of four poems by A. Forman in Robert Dickinson’s diary.
This poem spans five pages and is remarkably full of detail about the battle in which Forman was captured, his transfer from prison to prison, the prisoners’ illnesses, their mistreatment by the Germans and humane treatment by the Italians, and Forman’s impressions of the countryside as they were transported.
The tale begins in North Africa on April 7, 1941, with the ambush and capture, by a German patrol, of British generals Richard O’Connor and Philip Neame, and it concludes with the arrival of the prisoners at Camp 59 in February 1942.
The Experiences of a Captive:
In Verse—And Worse
We met the damned Hun, and started the fun,
On April the seventh at noon,
I think someone blundered; there were over six hundred
Whilst we were just a platoon.
In fact there were more; they had guns by the score
More likely two thousand or so,
Our job—rearguard action, to our small satisfaction,
Was ours, wherever, we’d go.
I ne’er really thought, that I’d ever be caught,
This—my wildest dreams did lack,
But to my satisfaction, I was captured in action
And was wounded so couldn’t fight back.
On a’drome was a fort, to which I was brought
Wounded in legs and in thigh,
And my heart was like lead, for I’d seen lying dead,
Three mates, only God knows why.
For two days I lay, on mouldy old hay,
With other chaps wounded as well,
And I saw two more die, without murmur or sigh,
They were men—one could easily tell.
After two days despair, I was taken by air,
To Bengasi, their hospital base,
There the “Iti” took over, and I was in clover,
For I thought them a more human race.
I lay five weeks in bed, and by them I was fed,
And they gave me all they could give,
And in my memory, their kindness to me
Will remain as long as I live.
Then still limping along, but feeling quite strong,
To Bengasi camp I was sent,
And in six weeks of bliss, I did nothing but this—
Play games, the chaps would invent.
We were bombed here, of course, but it could have been worse,
About sixty air-raids I went through,
I got used to this though, it was part of the show,
And we enjoyed it with so little to do.
Then the Navy said right!, let’s give them a fright,
So they took a hand in the fray,
And our Navy you know, are not there for show,
Yes they opened up right from the bay.
We passed through sheer hell, when a sixteen inch shell,
Came whistling quick death through the air,
And I prayed not to die, as the huge shells shrieked by,
And was answered in my deepest despair.
By now I allege, my nerves were on edge,
In fact were decidedly raw,
Then one happy day, I was driven away,
To a place I had ne’er seen before.
T’was Tripoli by name, but here ‘twas the same,
The “RAF” visited us often,
And oh, many’s the night I would cringe in fright,
With thoughts of a plain wooden coffin.
This camp was for workers, not dodgers or shirkers,
And we toiled for three lires a day,
And now under the German, those inhuman vermin,
And there’s much more, too, I could say.
For six weary months, we didn’t rest once,
A German’s a fiend and hated,
And our food wasn’t fit, for the devil’s own spit,
But we’d nothing else, so we ate it!
From the camp we would go, at three a.m., or so,
And work hard, and come back at ten,
While the pale moon on high, seemed the same in the sky.
Did it ever go down, if so when.
And when I was sick, they said ‘twas a trick,
To get out of work was my notion,
Amongst cries of derision they put me in prison,
And I cursed them though pent up emotion.
I was locked in a room, very small, like a tomb,
And my food was just water and bread,
But no blankets for me, I was a prisoner you see,
“Ja” you can’t play “Mit” Germans they said.
Out working with Jerry one couldn’t be merry,
The Germans have no sense of humour,
And one poor lad was shot—now nine fingers he’s got,
He had mentioned the war’s latest rumour.
Ten yards to our right a bomb fell one night,
And the doors of our camp were blown in,
We were called on parade, and revolvers displayed,
Jerry’s nerves were wearing quite thin.
The commandant was drunk, the greasy old skunk,
He told us our bombs were no good,
And being Alcoholic, was also Bucolic,
Saying “They wouldn’t make holes in wood.”
After a ghastly time under these German swine,
We left Libya on January six,
Our three hundred and nine, some half dead at the time,
And others in a far worse fix.
There were some who had scores of bad desert sores,
Which hadn’t been treated for ages
For Jerries don’t care, they’d never been fair,
And unfeelingly allowed such outrages.
Well, off we all went, now to Italy bent
The sick, the wounded and all,
On a very small boat, that could just about float,
And Naples was our first port of call.
We travelled the water six days and a quarter,
It rained, but we slept on the decks,
Pneumonia, Neurites, Rheumatics, Gastritis,
We were more or less all human wrecks.
Then we stayed for a while, on Sicily Isle,
To recuperate from ache and pain,
“Quarantine” is the word we here often heard
But we were soon on the water again.
During February’s first day, we, well under way,
Had sailed from Sicily Isle,
And in ten minutes, not more, we could see the rough shore.
Of Italy, for its only just a few mile.
Some civilians were there, to stand and to stare
At prisoners brought from afar,
And they treated us well, as each man will tell,
Unlike Germans, the swine that they are.
Than off again, this time by train,
Electric, all the way to our camp;
I saw snow on the mountains, and clear crystal fountains,
Like a scene from Alladin’s old lamp.
Everything now was white: what a beautiful sight,
Quite different to Sicily Isle,
Where everything’s green, a remarkable scene,
For artists and sketchers with style.
But camp was, we found, on very high ground,
Away in the Italian Hills:
And here we will stay, until peace comes our way,
So much against our wills.
Now here we pretend it’ll soon be the end
Of the pain and the strife that war brings:
And at the close of each day, to each other we say,
“Keep Smiling”,—“soon better things”!
Note: An aerodrome (“a’drome in the poem) was a World War II British military term for an airfield. “RAF” is the Royal Air Force.