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German POWs at a penal camp in Morocco

Otto von der Mülbe (6./Garde-Grenadier-Regiment 2) was wounded on the 7th of September 1914. He was captured in a field hospital in Reims on the 13th of October 1914 and went into French captivity, first in France, then in Morocco.

“The day after we had been singing in German we were taken into the town to see the Commandant. The commandant called to me “You want to sing? I will make you sing!” I was stripped down to my trousers and pushed into a small room, the doors and windows closed. Each of my hands was grabbed by an Arab then a French Lieutenant helped by the two Arabs began to beat and kick me. Boots, planks, fists… whatever they could assault me with… until I collapsed on the floor. A last kick send me out the door onto the Veranda. My clothing was thrown out after me. I heard the screaming of the next man. The five other comrades had similar tales to tell.”

Left: "We Moroccan Germans" describing the harships by Germans in Prisonner camps in Morocco

Kaiser Wilhelm II had tried to use Moroccan unrest in 1905 and 1911 to further German interests in the country at the expense of the French. He failed, but did succeed in heightening tensions between all parties involved. France succeeded in turning Morocco into a French Protectorate in 1912 but Germany recognized that there was still potential to incite anti French elements amongst the population.

At the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1914 General Lyautey had to give up most of his troops stationed in Morocco as they were sent back to serve in Europe. Inside Morocco the Zayanes, Berbers from the Khenifra area, were at loggerheads with the French and Lyautey had his hands full trying to contain the “Zaian War” which lasted from 1914-21.

The troops at his disposal were those Foreign Legionnaires whose origins precluded them from serving against German or Austrian troops, the “Joyeux” or “Biribi” from the Penal battalions (the Bataillons d'Infanterie Légère d'Afrique or BILA), Senegalese “Tirailleurs and Moroccan Goumiers. The Legion and the BILA employed disciplinary measure to keep their own men in line that were totally alien in nature to members of the German Army. These measures were on occasion used to discipline German POWs. Also serving in morocco were elderly reservists sent over from France. The numbers greatly reduced Lyautey set about not only fighting on the military front, but also a war of what is today called “Psyops”.

As Germany sent advisers, money and weapons to help ferment revolt in Morocco, the French “counterattacked” by creating markets at their outposts, providing laborer jobs for the locals and flexing military muscle to show they were still in command.

In early 1915 Lyautey decided that by opening POW camps in Morocco for Germans captured on the Western Front, he would be sending a message to the Moroccan people, showing that France was holding its own and Germany was the wrong horse to bet on.

Just over 5 000 Prisoners were sent to Morocco, mainly from Camps in the Belle-Isle, Ile d´Arix, Coetquidan and Blaye region. Upon arrival they were sent to the Casablance, Sabat, Meknés and Fez regions where they were housed in a number of satellite camps and were used for manual labor. Of the POW camps in Morocco it was the one at El-Boroudj that could claim to have been the worst. From the summer of 1915 to May 1916 between 80 and 150 German Prisoners were kept here. A Swiss Red Cross delegation who visited the camp at El-Boroudj noted the isolation, heat and the harsh work and discipline regime. They considered it to be a punishment or penal camp.

Right: German POWs breaking rocks at El-Boroudj

The Swiss categorized the prisoners in the camp as :

-POWs sent from France because of escape attempts, refusal to work, activism of disciplinary problems.
-POWs sent from other Moroccan camps due to disciplinary problems
-POWs sent from other Moroccan camps due to escape attempts.

A German soldier named “Kossak” wrote the following

At the end of November 1915 Along with Lt. von der Mülbe and four other men I attempted to escape. After a night march we were caught by the Moroccan Police and brought back. When we were close enough to see the Mosque of El-Boroudj the Adjutant of the “Casbah Blanche”, a “halfbreed” approached. He and the accompanying soldiers were on horseback. He read our names of the list. We then had to run next to the horses. We left the road and crossed the desert sand. We ran a big detour before heading for the Casbah Blanche. It lasted for 2-3 hours and two comrades collapsed. The other four had to carry them and continue running, all the time forced onwards by whip lashes. When I protested and said we needed a short rest and some water the bastard told me we were lucky not to be shot. When we could no longer carry the two they were beaten where they lay. One of them was dragged behind a horse and the other feinted and was laid across the saddle and carried further.

Above: The Casbah Blanche (White Casbah)

When we arrived at the Casbah Blanche the whole camp was called out and stood in two rows. We had to march past them and head for the “bureau de Renseignement”. We were searched and questioned then separated and locked in individual “Silo”, there were 8 Silo at the “bureau de Renseignement”. The next morning we were brought out for questioning, I was beaten a number of times by “the bastard”. Then we were locked in our holes again. The others had undergone similar treatment.

In the 7-8 days we were locked up we received about 200 grams of bread a day, and water. After 8 days in the “Silo” we were given 30 days hard labor and housed in the “dog`s tent”. We were guarded by black soldiers who hit us with rifle buts .

We were reported by a guard who had heard us singing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”. The next morning we were taken to the “Bureau de Renseignements”and one by one led into a half lit room. Our tunics and shirts were ripped off and each wrist was grabbed by a black guard. We were then beaten with a leather whip or with sticks. Of all of us, Thelen from Aachen was treated the worst. After the beatings we were chased half naked into the Silos. Mishandled in this way were Thelen, v.d. Mülbe, Guenther, Schiller and Hausmann.”

Right: Otto von der Mülbe in the 1930, colored by the amazing Alex at GMIC

Left: The Iron Cross 1st Class award document given to otto von der Mülbe. it is a special print for the Garde grenadier Regiment 2.

Prisoner named Brasch who was not involved in the escape attempt wrote

“When the (would be) escapees were brought in they were removed from our view and quartered in Silos in the Casbah Blanche. I was not an eye witness to mistreatment. Afterwards they were brought to the Casbah Rouge. It was the rainy season and I remember they had to lay on the “dogtents” for weeks on end. There were 8 to 14 days of heavy rain during this period. They were only allowed to go to the toilet once in the morning, or at night. Kossak wasted away with Dysentery, the men were worried about the lives of Kossak and Leutnant v. d. Muelbe. The medical attention was practically non existent. The Doctor was under the influence of the “Bureau de Renseignements” and even the sick were forced to work. The six served between 60 to 75 days arrest”

After the closure of the Moroccan POW camps Von der Mülbe was sent back to France to an officers camp in Carcassonne. In the section on this camp in the book “Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in Feindesland” it is mentioned that Von der Mülbe had been the victim of serious Human Rights violations and was not allowed access to the red Cross when they visited the Camp.

In September 1917 v. d. Mülbe was sent to Switzerland, he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class in October 1917, presumably for his part in the actions before his capture. In Mid 1918 he was repatriated to Germany where he served at the Generalkonsulate in Konstanz . At the end of the war he was attached to various staffs before being demobilized in early 1920. V. d. Mülbe was awarded the Iron Cross 1st class in September 1919 soon after the appearance of the book “Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in Feindesland – Frankreich” in which he features relatively prominently as the poster boy for French mistreatment of German officer prisoners.

Right: The French author Georges Darien spent three years in a BILA, one of which was spent in Prison. His book "Biribi" describes the military punishments which kept discipline in the French colonial army

The Germans and discipline in the French colonies

In Postwar Germany the “Schutzenverbandes gegen die Fremdenlegion” worked hard to inform possible German recruits of the dangers awaiting them in the French Foreign Legion. In a series of Vignettes and pulp memoirs written by disgruntled ex Legionnaires they warned of the harsh life, harsher punishments and general disregard for human life shown by French officers in North African garrisons. The punishments v. d. Mülbe received at the hands of the Guards were no different to the punishments well known the the Legionnaires, “Biribi” or Colonial Troops stationed in morocco, Algeria and Tunesia.

In the Foreign Legion “ by Erwin Rosen and published in 1910 shows a number of parallels with the account of the v. d. Mülbe's escape attempt.

It was in fact the truants from our company, poor Rader and his five friends. They were indeed a pitiful sight. Two gendarmes brought them in. They were all six bound together by a thin steel chain. Their dirty uniforms hung around them in rags; they were faint and emaciated and looked dead tired. Their faces were scarred. Rader had a blood-stained bandage round his right arm. In their eyes you could read the deadly fear of the punishment that awaited them. They had, of course, been treated pretty badly by the gendarmes. They looked round them shyly, ashamed of their helplessness and of their fetters….

"Damned rotten business!" he said quite loud. "Mein Freund, they didn't make me a medicine man after all. The conjuring didn't work! All at once five damned Arab gendarmes rode up to us, holding their revolvers under our noses. I couldn't conjure them away…. Positively couldn't! Well, and then we had to walk back. Say, I don't care much about promenading when I am tied to a horse's tail. And the beggar of a horse did run, I can tell you—and I behind it—because I was tied to its tail, see?"

The silo consisted of a funnel-shaped hole in the ground, broad at the top and pointed towards the bottom. A regular funnel. Into this hole, used as a cell for solitary confinement, the misdoers would be thrown, clad only in a thin suit of fatigue clothes, without a blanket or any protection at all against the rain or against the sun, at the mercy of the heat by day and the cold by night. The poor devils would be left for several days in this "prison." They could not lie down, for the bottom part of the hole was only one or two feet square. They spent day and night alternately standing and crouching, now in pouring rain, now in the burning sun. They very soon became ill from the foul vapours. When at length they were taken out of the silo, they could neither walk nor stand and had to be carried into hospital. Now and then a silo prisoner died in his hole.

They say in the Foreign Legion that it was General de Négrier who abolished the silo. When he was inspecting Saida, he found a row of fifteen silos, one beside the other, and every single one occupied.

He had the unfortunates taken out and they fell down in a dead faint on coming into the fresh air. Thereupon the general had every one of the silos filled up before his own eyes and forbade the silo penalty ever being used again.

The dog tent mentioned in the account at El-Boroudj seems to be a lighter version of the punishment called “The Tomb” used by the French army in North Africa.

"The tombeau - tomb - is a grave dug in the ground, two meters long, 40 centimeters deep and 60 centimeters wide. Men under punishment are confined to this tomb for various periods ... The minimum sentence is eight days and nights. The maximum survived was 17 days and nights ...”

Often a shelter half was strung over the man in the tomb, just centimeters above his nose. It seems the POWs in El-Boroudj were spared the grave, but still made to lay out under a low strung shelter half.

Above: Another German book describing the "horrors" of the Legion