Acting up helped PoW survive camp

The Globe and Mail

First World War soldiers were rarely taken prisoner.

Most of the Allied casualties died in the mud with a German sniper's bullet in their head, or riddled with shrapnel, or drowned in their own mucus after poison gas filled their lungs. Of the more than 600,000 Canadians who fought in the War To End All Wars, only 4,000 were captured.

Private William McLeish was among the unfortunate few. He was captured in France in April of 1915 and spent the last 2 years of the war at Rennbahn PoW camp near Munster, Germany.

Pte. McLeish survived, while nearly 60,000 other Canadians perished, but it would be wrong to say he was lucky. The hardships he endured took away his ability to function in a postwar world. He could not provide for his family or enjoy the life he had fought to protect.

In Rennbahn, at the age of 22, Pte. McLeish was put to work in the salt mines, a gruelling task overseen by civilian bosses who treated the PoWs like slaves.

But camp life was a world of bizarre contrasts and the unfortunate souls who found themselves the unwilling guests of the Germans did what they could to alleviate the cycle of toil and tedium. Thus the Rennbahn Empire, a stage troupe of prisoners, was formed.

Mr. McLeish died in 1966 after spending his last decades in and out of mental hospitals, a victim of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. He left a box of mementos that his daughter, Glen Fayet, submitted to the Memory Project organized by The Globe and Mail and the Dominion Institute.

They include cast photos of the plays her father and other prisoners performed. The men took all parts, slipping into dresses, wigs and hats as required by the script. In the yellowing photos they pose with faces contorted into character.

Jonathan Vance, a history professor at the University of Western Ontario and a leading expert on the lives of prisoners of war, says it wasn't uncommon for First World War PoWs to be permitted to put on plays.

"It kept them out of trouble, for one thing," he said. "For another thing, international laws provided for prisoners to take advantage of recreation opportunities, including intellectual opportunities. So most camps had not only theatres, but libraries and art classes and occupational therapy classes . . . orchestras in some cases." A book of remembrance created by prisoners of Rennbahn thanks family and friends for sending props, costumes and even grease paint into the camps.

"In the First World War, you could get in pretty well anything. You could get food hampers sent in from major London department stores," Dr. Vance said.

The theatrical paraphernalia made it possible to stage performances at Rennbahn every Wednesday. The shows had titles like Roll on Blighty! and Le Danseur Inconnu. Listed on the playbills is one W. McLeish.

"We didn't think that he had that type of outgoing personality," Pte. McLeish's daughter, Ms. Fayet, said with a quiet laugh.

Her father had immigrated to Montreal from Scotland in 1911 when he was 18 and joined the army reserve soon after his arrival. He signed up when war was declared and was quickly shipped overseas.

While on leave in Britain, Pte. McLeish visited an aunt in Edinburgh, where he met Margaret Watson. Love quickly followed, and the Canadian in uniform remained in Ms. Watson's thoughts after he returned to the front. Then came word of his capture. Ms. Watson wrote to the Red Cross, asking his whereabouts. He was in the camp near Munster, she heard. But "this man does not write very often," said the official response.

Many soldiers emerged from captivity "with job-related injuries that would prevent them from earning a living for the rest of their lives," Dr. Vance said. "You have all kinds of stories about people losing hands and feet, getting arms mangled in machinery, getting bit of their bodies blown off in mine explosions."

This was William McLeish's life for nearly three years. It must have been a very strange existence, Dr. Vance said, to be working in such trying conditions for 12 to 14 hours then return to camp to take part in a music hall or a play.

Certainly the men would have derived some comfort from the performances. But the evening diversions weren't enough to keep Pte. McLeish whole.

When he was freed after Germany surrendered, he found the Scottish lass and they wed. They settled in Canada and had a son and a daughter.

"He was quite well to begin with," Ms. Fayet said, "but then he had problems dealing with everyday life and eventually he could no longer go into the office to work."

He quit his job at the Grand Trunk Railway and his wife became the family's breadwinner.

"She took any job that she could in order to supplement the income. As I understand it, they received $25 a month for four people to live on from the government," Ms. Fayet said.

Her father's nerves were shot and he became a regular patient at the veterans' hospital in Ste. Anne de Bellevue. "People knew that there was such a thing as shell shock, but, in a lot of minds, that was a moral failing rather than a physical or psychological failing," Dr. Vance said. "It wasn't really appreciated, the degree to which prolonged stress has physiological impacts on the brain."

But Mr. McLeish's family knew the toll it had taken. Ms. Fayet said he never talked about the war, except occasionally to mention a practical joke someone had played or an amusing anecdote.

The horror of the war remained buried inside Mr. McLeish until he died. Perhaps it was softened by a box of photographs and fading playbills that bear his name.

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