Heroine freed for Christmas from a German jail

Christmas in 1918 saw many a family reunited after the perils of war, and among those rejoicing was Mrs O' Fee who welcomed her sister Agnes Short to her terraced home on St Wilfrid's Street in Preston, writes local historian Keith Johnson.

Thursday, 20th December 2018, 3:23 pm
Updated Thursday, 20th December 2018, 4:28 pm
Agnes Short, clockwise, Agnes Short visited family in St Wilfrids Street, Preston, for Christmas 1918 and Press cutting telling the amazing story of Agnes Short

The ordeals Miss Short had endured were told to a ‘Preston Herald’ reporter who visited her after her arrival in Preston.

It was believed Miss Short was the only Englishwoman who had imprisoned by sentence of a German court martial. She was a governess and a teacher of English in Brussels at the time war broke out and in early August 1914 she joined the Belgian Red Cross and, being able to pass as a Belgian, she was able to escape internment.

For two years she worked with the Red Cross and although reluctant to talk of her experiences during that time she had clearly helped in the resistance to the German occupiers. One of her friends had been nurse Edith Louisa Cavell who was eventually captured and executed in October 1915 after being charged with treason for helping Allied servicemen escape from Belgium.

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Siegburg where Agnes Short was held prisoner during the First World War

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Christmas in Preston after the Great War

Miss Short’s troubles began, on the second anniversary of war when she was seized on the street by two of the German secret police while wearing a brooch in the Belgium colours. After checking her identity papers they confiscating the brooch and she was taken before Ober-Leutnant Kaulfers, who sentenced her to a fine of five marks or two days in prison for wearing the brooch.

She had an air of defiance about her and refused to pay the money. The officer told her she had eight days to think about it. When she returned she was held in a prison room overnight. The next day she was up before the Kommandator hoping to get her identity papers back after waiting in queue of people who had been summoned for wearing green bands, brown ties or king’s head medallions to mark the anniversary. She eventually got her papers back, but not her brooch and was ordered to return a fortnight later to attend a court martial for insulting the Ober-Leutant.

She was duly sentenced to 15 days in prison, being taken away in a black maria to serve her time. From then on she was a marked woman having to report every Tuesday with her identity papers. Whenever she showed the slightest disdain to the officials she was reprimanded and on one occasions Major von Bever took offence at her attitude and severely lambasted her.

War ravaged Le Cateau, in France, where Agnes Short passed through on her way to freedom

One evening in early December 1916 she was arrested in the street and taken by Herr Kessler to Liege, in Belgium, being told she was to be confronted by two boys whom she had earlier supplied with false papers. The following morning she was marched to the Kommandatur at Liege, receiving nothing but insults and jeers from the Germans as she passed. She was informed the boys had been taken back to Brussels and told she would have to return there.

The next evening she was confronted at the prison by the two young Belgians, who identified her as the culprit. She was immediately placed in a cell, and kept for 10 weeks awaiting trial. Being alone in the cell except for the day her captors sent in an Austrian woman called Marasco who was posing as a Belgian and pretended she was in the same predicament as herself and working for the cause in order to gather intelligence to use against Agnes. Once she rumbled her intentions the woman quickly left.

On Pancake Tuesday Miss Short was taken before a court-martial. Days later she was pronounced guilty of recruiting and procuring false papers. Being given a sentence of two years hard labour for the papers, and a month for being impolite to Major von Bever. She was then, along with two elderly ladies, dispatched to Siegburg, near Cologne. When they got to the prison they were placed in a filthy cell without beds and only filthy sacks filled with straw to lay on.

The next morning a doctor was set to examine her to see if she was strong enough for hard labour. Knowing she was English, he did not bother to check her out, but simply signed a paper saying she was strong enough for anything. After being weighed she was taken to a common bathroom, and everything was taken from her – jewellery, money, and all.

After this, no matter what her condition, she was weekly hose-piped down in the company of others, despite voicing her objections of the indecency of it. Once when she refused to have a cold douche for intimate personal reasons, the Governor himself came and ordered four fräuleins to carry her out and strip her by force. Her days were spent in a tiny cell which was no more than a sleeping room. Because she was English she felt they made things worse for her. Breakfast consisted of coffee and a piece of black bread that was going mouldy, dinner was a bowl of soup, tea was a repeat of breakfast and supper was a cup of warm water.

The French and Belgium prisoners were allowed to receive food parcels sent to them, but as an English woman she was not allowed that privilege and she constantly complained about the starvation diet. Fortunately, she befriended a Madame Loisliett, a Belgian general’s wife, who was in prison for spying and she gave her food from time-to-time.

At first she got embroidery work to do, but shortage of silk and cotton ended that. They later put in her cell a machine for making buttons and she was told to make 1,000 buttons a week. When she noticed the buttons would be stamped ‘Made in England’, she refused to co-operate, “I do not intend making buttons in a German prison that are marked as made in England.”

For her stubbornness she was kept in isolation for a few more days before the Governor confronted her saying, “You are a prisoner here; you have nothing to say; you have only to obey. You are not in England now.”

With her confrontational attitude not diminished the button making machine was eventually taken away and she was assigned to knitting socks.One Saturday night she became very ill and asked to see a doctor, but it was three days before he saw her and all he said was, “ Like all English people, you are a bad character.” Her plea for medication falling on deaf ears and whenever sick the prisoners could not get so much as pill for love or money.

The combings of their hair had to be saved and put into bags, and every Monday the matron came round to collect the hairs. If there was not any hair to be handed over she helped herself forcibly by dragging it out of their heads. The hair begin used for making ropes and twine.The prison doctor was always very unhelpful and when she had dysentery very badly, it was a Red Cross woman from Cologne who came to her aid arranging her removal to the infirmary.

Although her stay there was short lived being turned out still suffering from influenza and a fever. Eventually, in early November 1918 the prison was broken open, with British soldiers arriving and instructing them to head for Cologne. The next day they did get to Cologne on motor lorries, but they were jostled and hooted at when they arrived. Having no papers, they had great difficulties, but managed to reach Liege from where the Belgian people went on to Brussels.

Miss Short, along with four French women and a couple of boys, getting in a cattle truck and going towards Namur, Belgium, in the hope of meeting the British troops. That night Namur was shelled and they lay in the cattle truck, without food or water. It was a terrifying experience, but they somehow survived. There were hundreds of dead Germans found in the morning. That day the German troops were looting the food waggons, and firing machine guns wildly.

In the afternoon they ventured to the outskirts of Namur and saw the wounded lying everywhere, and bodies being carried away to be burned. A day later it was safer for them to get into central Namur, and they were given papers to show they were prisoners from Germany. From that night until the following Saturday they stayed in a convent, where the nuns treated them kindly.

Hundreds of returning prisoners were scrambling back from Germany as best they could, many of them almost naked and having no strength to go on. With bones almost sticking through their chests and the expression of starvation upon their faces, they were a pitiful sight. Miss Short was able to help three of them to an ambulance of the Sisters of Notre Dame, with the nuns telling of the cruel way the Germans had been treating the English prisoners.

By painful stages she got on to Le Cateau, in northern France, were she teamed up with a Belgian girl going to Paris to meet her father, a Belgian General. They stayed in a house in Paris that had not a window unbroken, and with the furniture smashed completely by the Germans after the armistice.

She had eventually reach her home clad only in a nightdress, skirt, wooden clogs, and a soldier’s blanket fashioned into a substitute for a coat. Her joy at her freedom was clear for all to see. Her disgust at the way she and others had been brutally treated she could not disguise. As for Miss Cavell, Agnes remarked, “The world will never know, how truly noble a woman she was.”