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Popular anthropology for everyone.

Forgotten landscapes of the Great War

The case a prisoner of war camp in Czersk, Poland

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German propaganda postcard presenting the camp in Czersk
German propaganda postcard presenting the camp in Czersk

By Dawid Kobiałka, Mikołaj Kostyrko, and Kornelia Kajda

Czersk is a small town like many others around the world. It lies among beautiful forests and lakes. However, this idyllic natural landscape hides stories of human humiliation, starvation, and death that go back to the First World War.

Today, Czersk lies in the northern part of Poland, but before the outbreak of the Great War the region was part of Germany. After the first victories of the Kaiser's army over the Russians in August and September of 1914 in East Prussia, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers were taken prisoner.

The Germans were simply not prepared to detain so many people. They quickly organized a series of war camps for prisoners in which the soldiers of the Russian army could be detained. One of them was located near Czersk (figure 1).

Figure 1. Location of the camp in Czersk.
Figure 1. Location of the camp in Czersk.

A century since the outbreak of the Great War, many local landscapes related to the war are completely destroyed and forgotten places. One ironic example is the large German camp of Tuchola, which lies beneath a housing estate where people live, mostly unaware of the site's past as a prisoner of war camp (figure 2).

Figure 2. Living onto the previous prisoner of war camp: contemporary housing estate in Tuchola.
Figure 2. Living onto the previous prisoner of war camp: contemporary housing estate in Tuchola.

Figure 2. Living onto the previous prisoner of war camp: contemporary housing estate in Tuchola. Red line indicates possible reconstruction of the prisoner of war camp boundaries. From the two types of dog-outs restarted with ALS (Airborne Laser Scanning) data in 2012 within this facility, only one has survived till today (zone A), the other have been "erased" by modern housing (zone B). [ALS derivatives: Slope, MSII, MHS, source of orthophotomap: geoportal.gov.pl].

Can archaeology be of some help in understanding such destroyed, forgotten and abandoned landscapes as the camp in Czersk?

Accordingly, the only visible remains of the camp at Czersk is a prisoner of war cemetery hidden in the forest near the town. The sight of cemetery—a forest of concrete crosses in the woods—is stark reminder of the landscape's past (figure 3).

Figure 3. Forest of the concrete crosses in the woodland: the prisoner of war cemetery in which were buried prisoners of the camp in Czersk.
Figure 3. Forest of the concrete crosses in the woodland: the prisoner of war cemetery in which were buried prisoners of the camp in Czersk.

There are a few documents and other evidence concerning the camp in Czersk. For example, German propaganda postcards depicted the camp as a huge campus consisting of wooden barracks, dug-outs, and other facilities (figure 4-5). It is estimated that nearly 9,000 Russian soldiers died there.

Despite the vast size of the camp, very little survives of the facility. The place where the camp was located is a pine forest today (figure 6). Accordingly, not even one precise plan of the camp is known.

Considering the lack of detailed documentation and the clear archaeological remains, can archaeology be of some help in understanding such destroyed, forgotten, and abandoned landscapes as the camp in Czersk?

Figure 4. Propaganda German postcard presenting the camp in Czersk (wooden barracks in the front).
Figure 4. Propaganda German postcard presenting the camp in Czersk (wooden barracks in the front).
Figure 5. Propaganda German postcard presenting the camp in Czersk (dug-outs in the front).
Figure 5. Propaganda German postcard presenting the camp in Czersk (dug-outs in the front).
Figure 6. Between social oblivion and material memories of the landscape: contemporary vista of the area where were located dug-outs. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
Figure 6. Between social oblivion and material memories of the landscape: contemporary vista of the area where were located dug-outs. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.

One of the methods used by archaeologists to approach such forgotten landscapes as the camp in Czersk is Airborne Laser Scanning. Also known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), this "remote sensing technology…collects 3-dimenional point clouds of the Earth's surface in order to generate a 3-d model of the landscape." We used LiDAR derivatives during our field research of the camp. The preliminary results are discussed below.

Figures 7 and 8 present a general interpretation of the camp based on LiDAR derivatives. Based on the analysis, there appear to be two separate areas. The northern one consisted of two clusters of large dug-outs about 40 meters long and 8-9 meters wide. Among the dug-outs are discernible traces of much smaller buildings, probably these areas were for camp administration (officers' quarters, guards barracks, etc.).

Figure 7. An overview of the prisoner of war camp in Czersk.
Figure 7. An overview of the prisoner of war camp in Czersk.

Figure 7. An overview of the prisoner of war camp in Czersk. Interpretation of LiDAR derived data [visualization: slope gradient, sky-view factor (16 no. of directions, search radius=10) and multi-hillshade (16 no. of directions, sun elevation angle 25°)].

Figure 8. The interpretation of the northern part of the prisoner of war camp based on LiDAR derivatives presented in the context of historical postcards.
Figure 8. The interpretation of the northern part of the prisoner of war camp based on LiDAR derivatives presented in the context of historical postcards.

The southern part of the camp (figure 9) is very different than the northern one. Here the dug-outs were smaller and square-shaped. All in all, we were able to distinguish 51 pits that we believe are dug-outs where the prisoners constructed shelters.

Figure 9. The southern part of the prisoner of camp in Czersk.
Figure 9. The southern part of the prisoner of camp in Czersk [visualization: slope gradient, sky-view factor (16 no. of directions, search radius=10) and multi-hillshade (16 no. of directions, sun elevation angle 25°)].

Today, the unmaintained site of the Czersk lies in a pine forest. It is hard to believe this unassuming forest hides a horrible history from a quite recent past. It a pity, because the camp is a place where prisoners actually lived and experienced humiliation and deprivation, and where many of them died. It is not hard to imagine the prisoners' horrible lives in the dug-outs; hungry and freezing during long and dark nights.

These places of detention were at the same time their graves. These subtle, almost invisible, and forgotten remains of the camp's infrastructure can offer a glimpse into a chapter of the First World War. Macro-history always consists of micro-histories. The camp in Czersk is actually one small micro-history of the first global conflict.

Figure 10 presents pieces of things which we found during surveying the camp. These broken glass bottles and rusty artefacts are silent memories of the Great War.

Without any doubt, archaeology is able to reclaim some of these memories. Indeed, this is the goal of the so-called archaeology of the Great War.

Figure 10. Thing memories: an assemblage of different things found during surveying the northern part of the camp. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
Figure 10. Thing memories: an assemblage of different things found during surveying the northern part of the camp. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.

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