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Thurrock in World War 1: Terrible treatment of a Thurrock soldier




From The Grays and Tilbury Gazette
May 1918

THE death has occurred in the Orsett District Isolation Hospital of Private Frederick Chas. Eric Howarth, Essex Regiment, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Howarth, of 6 St. James Terrace, West Thurrock, regarding whom a terrible story is told of his sufferings while a prisoner in German hands. His death resulted from consumption and starvation, and his own statements give rise to the allegation that he was actually inoculated with tuberculosis while in hospital in Northern France.

Essex Regiment

Private Howarth joined the Army in November, 1915, when he was a strong , healthy young man of 19. He was taken prisoner on April 28th, 1917, and repatriated in March last (1918), being sent to the Orsett Isolation Hospital after spending a period in St. George’s Hospital, London. When he arrived home, “a perfect skeleton”, he was so weak that it was with difficulty a corrected story could be gathered.

According to statements made to his parents and the medical staff it appears that when taken prisoner he was ordered, among others, to make munitions for the Germans. He refused, and thenceforward was subjected to a life of torture and persecution, which lasted till his return to England. “They made him stand on a pile of wood,” said his mother, “and then put a rope round his thumbs and hands, fastening them to a tree. They then pulled the wood away and the rope slipped from his hands, leaving him suspended by his thumbs. The poor lad cried as he told us. His thumbs were as long as his fore fingers and the joints were right out. The only food, she went on, was a little rye bread and coffee made out of burnt barley and chicory. Then he was sent to dig trenches in the German lines under the British gunfire, and also made to work in the fields. He did this until starvation and ill-treatment caused him to collapse. He was constantly working up to his waist in water, and if he dared to raise his back for a moment he was beaten with the butt end of a rifle or the flat side of a bayonet. Ultimately he could stand it no longer, and grew too weak to work. By this time his feet gave way, through constantly standing in water. Entering hospital his toe nails were torn off and the toes plastered with pitch and bound with paper bandages. His toes, said his parents, were curled under the feet, and whereas he formerly weighed 12 stone, he was only five stone, four pounds when he returned to England.

While in hospital in Northern France, Howarth stated he believed he was inoculated with tuberculosis. At any rate, he never experienced pains in his chest prior to going into hospital. On entry he was unconscious for several days, and it was during this period that he believed that something was done to him. Subsequently five phials of blood were taken from his arm “to give to some other poor chap, I suppose”.

After eighteen weeks in the German hospital in Northern France he was sent to hospital at Sennelager, Bavaria, but was said to be dying. He remained there twelve weeks and the treatment was still of a terrifying description till, when he was about to be repatriated, he was told he would never reach England. Only his indomitable will power carried him through.

His mother, reverting to the treatment while an ordinary prisoner, said her son had several times experienced the “hot chamber” punishment. This would be inflicted when freezing cold and wet from work in the fields. The men rose at 4 a.m. and received a small piece of rye bread and a pint of thin imitation coffee, after which they marched to work, taking with them another small piece of bread and half a pint of water. At 7 p.m. the day’s work finished and their supper consisted of more “coffee” and soup composed of swedes, etc. Their quarters were almost roofless and it was a frequent thing to find the sacks of sawdust, which served as beds, floating in water.

Mrs. Howarth also related how her son had related quite unmentionable tortures, and that when he had been chained up in prison his food was placed beyond his reach. He used to to say he could tell us a lot more, but I told him to wait till he was stronger. Even while he was dying he thought there was a German at the foot of the bed waiting to torture him. There were three others like him who came back, added his father.

Apparently no parcels reached Private Howarth until about four weeks before he left Sennelager, when they began to arrive regularly. Mrs. Howarth added that in this hospital she believed the Germans would have treated him better had they had the food to give him.


The funeral of the late Private Frederick Chas. Eric Howarth, Essex Regiment, of 6 St. James Terrace, West Thurrock, who died in the Orsett Hospital, after enduring terrible sufferings as a German prisoner, took place on Friday afternoon (May 10th), when there was a large attendance at the last rites.

Full military honours were rendered; the firing party being supplied by the Essex Regiment from Warley. The procession was headed by the band of the Canadian Railway Troops at Purfleet, and a contingent of a Training Reserve Battalion also followed in the cortege. The coffin was of polished elm with brass fittings inscribed, “Fredk. Chas. Eric Howarth, died May 3rd, 1918, aged 22 years,” and was covered by the Union Jack. The mourners were Mr. and Mrs. Howarth (parents) and sister. The Rev. J.W. Hayes officiated, and at the close the customary three volleys were fired over the grave, and the “Last Post” sounded.


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