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Jersey Festival of Words: Traces of War on the Dunes

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Jersey Festival of Words: Rod McLoughlin reviews Traces of War on the Dunes

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Was the distant figure in a grainy photograph of prisoners on St Ouen’s Bay, taken more than 100 years ago, really the same man who returned to take command of Jersey, albeit for a couple of months, at the start of the Occupation?

The story of Erich Gussek’s Great War internment in the Blanches Banques prisoner of war camp and his subsequent return as the relatively low-ranking officer in charge of Jersey in July 1940 was one of the tales to emerge in Heather Morton’s informative talk about the camp on the sand dunes, the prelude to a new book due to appear in November.

Initially fascinated by buildings marked on a map of Jersey where she knew only sand dunes, Heather Morton set off several years ago to discover more about a camp for up to 1500 Great War prisoners which appeared and then disappeared so quickly it’s a surprise a cartographer managed to record it at all.

Blanches Banques even contained its own hospital block, a model for the time we were told to a chortle from someone evidently surprised that medical facilities could be delivered on behalf of the public in a few months without a public inquiry of some kind.

In fact, the story of Blanches Banques is full of surprises. Not since Moses Corbet was caught in his nightshirt by the French in 1781 can a Lieutenant-Governor have been as alarmed as Major General Sir Alexander Rochfort on 9 August 1914 to be told to expect prisoners of war in his island later that day. In the event, the first consignment arrived in March the following year, by which time concrete foundations had been laid and prefabricated huts erected with admirably efficiency – and little long-term environmental damage – just south of the Chemin des Basses Mielles, fourth choice site we learnt to another suppressed giggle.

The first thousand or so men, arriving in two shipments, evidently did not see the Island at its best through early spring fog but, once installed, their daily regime was an enlightened one, consisting mostly of light chores and recreation – those around for the potato-lifting season probably drew the short straw.

To add to tennis, gymnastics and football, a 23-piece brass band and amateur dramatics provided cultural engagement at ‘Camp Variété’ for those of more refined tastes looking to fill long hours by the seaside. Heather Morton’s research also extended to their diet which, though high on carbs, seemed short on presentation and choice until we heard about the qualifications of the chef.

In the q&a afterwards there was some discussion of how allied prisoners of war in Germany fared by comparison – some lucky ones could join Gilbert and Sullivan societies, apparently – but a member of the audience got to the heart of things when she remarked on the gulf between the killing fields of France and Belgium and life behind barbed wire, wherever it was. To be captured was bliss, to be in Brelade ‘very heaven’.

By Spring 1919 the camp had disappeared, the huts sold off – in one case to become a private dwelling – and the land largely restored to its pre-war condition, though today the attentive rambler can find foundation blocks, drainage channels and some evidence of construction work.

It’s fascinating to think of archaeological spadework being required to tell a story barely 100 years old but you also need a historian with a desire to communicate to future generations – that makes you look forward to the book.

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