Orders, Decorations and Medals (22 September 2006)

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Date of Auction: 22nd September 2006

Sold for £1,100

Estimate: £800 - £1,000

The Great War D.C.M. group of four awarded to Acting Sergeant L. J. Simpson, Royal Army Medical Corps, late Royal Fusiliers, one of 22 soldiers to volunteer their services in the typhus outbreak at Gardelegen P.O.W. Camp in 1915: as noted in the official report of October 1916, ‘Twenty of them caught the disease; two of them died’

Distinguished Conduct Medal
, G.V.R. (12673 Pte. L. J. Simpson, R.A.M.C.); 1914 Star, with rosette on riband (11673 L. G. Simpson, 4/R. Fus.), note slightly differing number and second initial; British War and Victory Medals (11673 A. Sjt. L. J. Simpson, R. Fus.), the third with officially re-impressed naming, very fine or better (4) £800-1000


D.C.M. London Gazette 15 December 1916:

‘In recognition of their distinguished service and devotion to duty during the Spring and Summer of last year in the Prisoner of War Camp at Gardelegen, Germany.’

Only one other man is listed under the above heading, although another 10 were subsequently awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (
London Gazette 30 January 1920 refers); see Major J. D. Sainsbury’s article, “Wittenburg and Gardelegen” in the O.M.R.S. Journal (Autumn 1981 edition).

Leonard James Simpson was most likely taken P.O.W. during the fighting at Mons in late August 1914, the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers suffering horrendous casualties - the Battalion also won two V.Cs; alternatively, he may have been a later reinforcement and captured in the ensuing battles of September-November, by which stage the unit’s War Diary recorded a total loss of 1900 men and 50 officers, killed, wounded or missing. Beyond dispute is the fact he found himself incarcerated in Gardelegen P.O.W. Camp.

The conditions at Gardelegen prior to the outbreak of typhus

The simply abysmal conditions to which the British, French, Belgian and Russian prisoners in this establishment were subjected are well-recorded in the official report delivered in October 1916. By way of summary the following observations from that report are worthy of mention, most of them made by Major P. C. T. Davy, one of three R.A.M.C. officers who were called upon by the Germans to assist - the Commandant and his staff, meanwhile, never entered the camp once the typhus outbreak had been confirmed:

On overcrowding:

‘The overcrowding was such as I have never before seen or imagined anywhere. The hut [a typical example] contained in the breadth four rows of straw or shaving palliasses so arranged that laterally they were touching and terminally only left the narrowest passage-way between. Here the men of all nationalities were crowded together. In these huts, devoid of tables and stools, the men lived, slept and fed. They sat on their bags of shavings to eat their meals; they walked over each other in passing in and out; they lay there sick, and later on, in many cases, died there cheek by jowl with their fellow prisoners. The atmosphere by day, and still more by night, was indescribably foetid, and this was their sole alternative to going outside in their meagre garments for fresh air ... ’

On rations

‘I have no hesitation in saying that the diet the prisoners received was not sufficient to keep an adult in a normal state of nutrition. I wish to be clearly understood: I mean that every man who subsisted on what was issued to him was gradually getting emaciated and anaemic, and was constantly a prey to the pangs of hunger ... The rations were altogether inadequate and insufficient, and as a result the men were semi-starved ... ’

On clothing

‘The men, too, were inadequately clothed. Of the British [around 260 inmates] a large number (probably 100) were wearing mixed fragments of Belgian, French or Russian uniforms. Major Davy thinks that, on a moderate example, only about 30 had a pair of serviceable boots. About 100 had no boots at all, and were left to walk about with their feet tied up in straw and rags or in blanket slippers, which they had made for themselves. Some had wooden-soled heelless clogs issued to them by the German authorities, quite unsuitable things for shuffling about in through snow. None had more than the clothes they stood in, and they suffered acutely from the cold. On Major Davy enquiring into the clothing question, he found that, although a very few men admitted having sold their overcoats to buy food or tobacco, the vast majority had had their overcoats taken from them when they were made prisoners and had never had them returned. Yet all this time there was a quantity of khaki service kit in the camp store, which the commandant first of all neglected and finally refused to distribute ... ’

On sanitation

Moreover, the sanitary condition of the camp was deplorable. There was, as has been stated, for each company a latrine and a urinal under one roof, and the state of these places, owing to the neglect of the camp authorities, is described both by Major Davy and Captain Brown in terms which cannot properly be repeated in this report. And the task of emptying the latrines into tubular tank carts was as a regular practice specially allotted to the British prisoners until sickness had so much reduced their number that a fatigue party of sufficient strength in any one company could not be obtained. In addition, a hand system of emptying by buckets was in force, and the condition of the men, after being employed on this duty, with no clothes to change into was terrible in the extreme ... ’

On German brutality

‘At the daily roll-call parades, men were driven out of their barrack-rooms with kicks and blows. The German under-officers were the chief offenders. The German officers, of whom one was in command of each company, were mostly elderly men, who seemed quite in the hands of the under-officers. I never saw one check an under-officer for the most flagrant bullying ... ’

Typhus outbreak

It was therefore a band of overcrowded, half-starved, ill-clad, shivering, and terrorized men who greeted the three R.A.M.C. officers as they arrived in February 1915, soon after an altogether predictable outbreak of typhus. Major Davy continues in the official report:

‘My first impression of the utter misery and desolation of it all was intensified on closer acquaintance. In passing through the camp on the day we arrived I had been struck by the complete silence everywhere. A few prisoners were standing or pacing to and fro, singly or in groups, in complete dejection and apathy. There was no talking or laughter, nobody was playing games. The only sounds heard were brutally shouted orders of the sentries, who were closely posted in every direction. Now, in passing one company to another, and talking to the prisoners, one could but be struck by the gaunt, hunted look they all bore. So much wretchedness and sickness concentrated in such a small area, such a sense of the absence of any sort of human feeling, made one utterly shocked and miserable ... ’

And the task facing the R.A.M.C. officers was daunting:

‘The medical officers had now to take stock of the situation and devise such measures as were possible to meet. It was sufficiently appalling. The hospital was full to repletion. The sick were pouring into No. 3 Company, the hospital annex. The barracks were of course quite devoid of all furniture or equipment, and were in no sense wards. The sick had to be dumped down anywhere, for there was not at first a sufficient number of attendants to cope with the work. There were no beds for them; they had to lie on their shaving-filled bags. There were no bed-pans nor urine bottles, and the state of the patients and the floors was indescribable. There were no feeding-mugs or even small cups or bowls - nothing but the large bowl which formed part of each man’s equipment. No milk, or eggs, or other invalid fare was forthcoming. It was ordained that the sick were to continue on exactly the same rations as they had been receiving - the same soup, the same black bread, the same weekly raw herring for each - a diet tragically grotesque for a man in the middle of an acute illness ... ’

In short, the Germans made no effort to improve the R.A.M.C. officers’ predicament, even refusing to supply sufficient dressings for inter-related sores and such like:

‘It followed that an enormous amount of extremely bad sores, several cases of gangrene, and many large ulcers occurred; indeed, every form of extensive suppuration which requires frequent dressing had supervened. Dressings, in short, were in the most urgent need, for many cases had to go as long as eight days without a change. Major Davy and Captain Brown never ceased to ask [the German] Dr. Kranski for a further supply, but he could not get either drugs or dressings. The refusal of a more plentiful supply of both was based on the pretext that there was not a sufficiency of these things to be obtained in Germany, Dr. Kranski, so far as the dressings were concerned, adding that it was the English who were to blame, as they were making cotton so scarce in the country. It seems to the Committee impossible to find any justification or palliation for the conduct of the German administration in this matter ... ’

The epidemic lasted for about four months, with re-occurences at the end of April and at the beginning of May but largely limited to the French and Belgian prisoners. In stark figures - out of a total camp population of 11,000 prisoners - some 2,000 cases were dealt with, and of these approximately 350 died. But for the courage and dedication displayed the R.A.M.C. officers, and those who volunteered to assist them, the statistics would undoubtedly have made far more depressing reading. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Committee paid tribute to these gallant volunteers in the concluding paragraphs of their official report:

‘The epidemic was the occasion for striking examples of self-sacrificing devotion. There were ten French Roman catholic priests in the camp as prisoners. They lived together in the guard hut of No. 2 Company. All of them volunteered to work among the sick, and they were given charge of rooms in the hospital annexes and of wards in the hospital. They were most adaptable, teachable men, and their absolute fearlessness and unselfish devotion to duty cannot be too highly extolled. Eight out of the ten contacted the disease and five of them died.

And the soldiers who volunteered their services as nursing orderlies were equally heroic. It did not need the priests’ example to inspire these men. British, French and Russian alike, never was there a lack of attendants for the sick when once the need was recognised. The doctors selected chiefly unmarried men as attendants, and later those who had recovered from the fever. There were no gowns or overalls for them and the work they voluntarily undertook carried with it the practical certainty of being attacked by the disease. Indeed, every one of those detailed to handle and wash the patients’ clothes and blankets contracted it. Twenty-two of these attendants were British; all, with two exceptions,were untrained. Twenty of them caught the disease; two of them died. The Committee hope later to be able to supply a full list of these men. They are fortunately able to name thirteen of them now ... ’

And at the top of the ensuing list appears the name of ‘Lance-Corporal Lloyd Simpson, 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (now R.A.M.C.)’.