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A minister in Germany as war breaks

The Revd LH Marshall, minister of Princes Gate Baptist Church, Liverpool regularly travelled to Germany each summer - and happened to be there when war broke out on August 4. It would take him a while to get home.... Jonathan Barr takes up the story

My August HolidayLate on the night of 4 August 1914, the Reverend LH Marshall and two sixteen-year-old travel companions stepped off a slow train from Berlin onto the platform of Guesten station. They had scarcely walked more than 50 yards when they were stopped by a military officer who realised they were foreigners, and marched them off to the local military headquarters for questioning.

This was the second time that day; their holiday had not been going to plan. Marshall had been a student of theology at one of the German colleges, and every summer since he had graduated in 1911 he had returned to Germany to visit old friends and practise the language. This year, he had taken two young members of his congregation at Princes Gate Baptist Church with him for the experience.

Mistaken as Russian

They arrived in Hamburg on 30 July, where they heard that Russia had mobilised her troops. The next day they travelled to Berlin, where they were warned by the American Church minister that they should secure special passes. They obtained them from the British consulate the next day, and continued their travels the day after - 4 August - believing that the country would remain safe.  

The journey had been slow from Berlin and stops frequent. After several hours they had reached only Belzig, a small town 40 miles to the south-west. There they were stopped and taken to the local police station. The police had treated them well, and after questioning, had sent them on their way, but the rumour took hold in the town that the Baptist minister and his two young travelling companions were Russian spies. As they walked through the streets back to the railway station, a crowd grew around them, hurling insults and all manner of threats. 

They arrived in Guesten having decided to cut short their holiday and return home. They planned to spend the night in Guesten before travelling to Cologne, from where they could make for Holland. Now, though, they had been stopped again, this time by the army, and were marched away. By some strange coincidence, Marshall’s last sermon before the departure had been on how Abraham "went forth, not knowing whither he went".

A crowd gathered as they went, as they were taken through the streets of the town, and shouts of “Russische Jude” filled the air. They eventually came to a halt outside a military HQ. Marshall quietly warned his young companions to do precisely as they were bidden; causing an officer to shout ferociously that he would be punished most severely if he spoke any more English. The crowd looked on.

An army major then appeared, and began to search their luggage. He came across a case of homeopathic medicine, which Marshall had brought to aid against sea sickness, and declared it to be deadly poison, destined for the town's water supply. Nothing would persuade him otherwise. He dropped some of the pills into tumblers of water and saw no reaction at all.  Marshall took a dose of them, to no ill effect, but still his suspicions remained fixed.

Indeed they were only confirmed as far as he was concerned, when searching further through Marshall's baggage he came across a copy of Sir Thomas Brown's Religio Medici, which from ‘Medici’  he believed to be a treatise on poisons. And when he found foot powder and tooth powder in the boys’ bags, he decided that there was no need for further evidence.

Prisoners of war

The examination lasted until 1 am in the morning, and the party was not allowed to sleep, but made to wait. About an hour later, another official came into the room, and asked the major if he had heard the news – England had declared war on Germany!  The party was immediately pounced upon and searched again, and before long they were declared to be prisoners of war. They were told that they would be transported to Magdeburg the next day to be tried as spies.

Instead of Magdeburg they were taken to Bernberg, and again marched through the streets before assembled crowds to the town jail. A boy who knew some English, demanded to know what they were doing in Germany. Marshall answered that they were on holiday, but the boy was disbelieving and began shouting - again in English – what he thought their real purpose was.  For the crime of speaking English in the street, he too was arrested.

Marshall and the two boys were kept in the jail, in separate cells, for eight long days, with little to eat or drink, and nothing to do save for listening to the clock chime the quarters as they passed and wondering if the homeopathic medicine was really enough evidence to prove them guilty of espionage. 

Released - but not for long

Eventually, the authorities realised their mistake, and the party was released and taken back to Guesten. Their property - including the medicine - was restored to them, and they were given a certificate of safe conduct, stating that they had been examined and were found to be unsuspicious and were allowed to make for home.

Travel was slow, sometime on military trains, and there were many diversions. They were told they could only reach Cologne by Frankfurt. They had to keep a low profile; to speak English was positively dangerous, to speak German a risk lest their accents betrayed them. Their nerves were always tense.

At a station called Weltzer, they waited six hours for a 2am train to Cologne, and were just about to board when they were stopped by military officers. They were arrested and handed over to the local police. The three travellers were beginning to lose hope. After five days in prison, they were summoned before a military judge to be tried as spies. They were reassured that that they were to be acquitted and returned to the cell confident that they would shortly be released. After another eight days the military judge told them he thought they had already gone.

On leaving the jail Marshall was handed an Extrablatt which reported the defeat of British forces at St Quentin, and told to take it home with him as greetings from Germany to his fellow countrymen. Back at the station, they finally boarded the 2am train to Cologne, arriving there eight hours later.

At the station they were told that they must report to the police, and that they could not leave the city without permission. Furthermore they were warned that when their supply of money failed they would be placed in the prison. Permission would be granted in a few days.

They checked in to a hotel at which Marshall had stayed before. He was remembered and they were welcomed courteously, if not warmly. Marshall wrote to the British Minister at The Hague, who sent them £10, easing their financial pressures. They waited, lying low, and hoping that the required permission would soon be granted.

Another month, another arrest

On Friday 4 September,  Marshall was arrested again. When asked the charge the officer shrugged and replied – as Germans do – that he was just following orders. He took Marshall to the prison, but his two travelling companions were allowed to remain at the hotel.

Marshall discovered that many enemy aliens had been arrested that day, and about fifty was already in the cells. They were paraded noses to the wall and searched before being placed in solitary confinement. The following  day, the captives were informed that they were now regarded prisoners of war rather than criminals - and Marshall noticed a marked improvement in their conditions. The food he found to be rather better than that of the previous prisons. The coffee, he thought, was moderately good though many of his fellow inmates found it so bad they used it to wash their dishes.

After eight days, he and the rest of the prisoners, which included twenty Englishmen, were released just as suddenly and mysteriously as they had been arrested. The German mother of one of the English prisoners, who ran a boarding house, undertook to look after the two sixteen year olds, and when Marshall left the jail, he went there to join them.

A boarding house, nationalistic sermons

They lived there cheaply and comfortably until they left, waiting for the paperwork to be sorted out. They visited the Christuskirche, but gave it up finding that a spirit of war had spoiled the services. The readings were mainly from the psalms; the sermons, he found too nationalistic, rather than for the welfare of humanity as a whole; and on one occasion the Apostles Creed was replaced with a patriotic poem calling for faith in Germany.

On 28 November, they were finally able to leave. The end of their troubles was in sight, however the border guards at Cranenburg stopped them, searched them  and took their money. They had apparently attempted to leave by the wrong border crossing; British subjects had to cross at Bentheim. 

To the amazement of his friends at the boarding house, Marshall and his travelling companions returned for another stay. The following Monday a police superintendent, issued new passes, and the next day they set out for Bentheim, and crossed the border without difficulty. On 4 December they returned to English soil.  It had been a long and eventful holiday.

My August Holiday was serialised in The Baptist Times in early 1915. Compiled by Jonathan Barr.

Baptist Times, 04/08/2014
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