This is the story of a chess set carved from waste wood by a German prisoner of war, gifted to my father who had been tasked with guarding him below decks on a cargo ship bound for Egypt. Along with 1500 of his compatriots the POW had been captured after the D-Day landings. Later, in a POW camp in Egypt, the German soldier carved the chess pieces from scrap and gave the set to my dad when he was demobbed from the British Army three years later. The chess set is now unaccountably lost.
Maybe it was the events of last week and the questions they raised about war and the hatreds that can divide – the obituaries that tried to make sense of Martin McGuiness’s journey from terrorist to peacemaker, the senseless 82 seconds of carnage unleashed in London, or the 60th birthday of the European Union – that caused the chess set to surface in my memory again.
When I first laid eyes on the chess set I must have been six or seven years old. Sitting at my father’s side, I was engaged in one of my favourite activities – leafing through the pages of a big, calf-bound atlas – Bartholemew’s 1898 Citizen’s Atlas of the World. I would pore over it for hours, admiring the beauty of its coloured plates that, through a trick of its binding, displayed each map across a two-page spread with no interruption, and tracing the borders of countries, each one coloured differently.
Turning a page and confronted with the map of Germany, I expressed a childish disgust: this was the war-monger country of Hitler and his brutal army that figured so much at the time in a child’s imagination and war games fought outside in the street and on bomb-sites. My dad corrected me: not all Germans are like that, they are people just like us. Getting up from the sofa, he said, ‘I’ve something I want to show you.’
He placed into my hands a nondescript, rectangular tin box. ‘Open it.’ Inside, laid side by side in two divisions, were chess pieces, simply but meticulously carved. Then my dad told me the story of how this chess set came into his hands.
After being called up in 1944 and, as a conscientious objector seeking a non-combatant posting to the medical corps, he was assigned to the Royal Army Service Corps – the transport corps – and his unit were embarked at Liverpool on a ship whose cargo comprised 1500 German prisoners of war, captured after the D-Day landings and bound for a secret destination. The unit’s duties on this modified cargo vessel were to guard the prisoners who were held in wooden and wire cages below deck.
My dad told me how guard duties were relieved sometimes by conversations with English speaking prisoners, and he struck up a particular friendship with one man, who hailed originally from the Frisian islands, off the coast of Germany in the North Sea. Making slow progress across the Bay of Biscay, the ship was hit by a ferocious storm during which many of those on board, including the Dutch captain, were struck down by sea-sickness. Conditions below deck became worse by the hour.
The rest of the journey, whose destination was now revealed as Egypt, was uneventful, and after disembarking at Port Said the British soldiers transported their prisoners to a camp in the desert. For the next three years my father performed a variety of duties, including driving and repairing trucks, organising education classes and discussion groups, and running the radio station on the base. Throughout that time he maintained contact with the POW from the Frisian islands. My dad’s sojourn in the desert ended before the German’s did: in 1947 he was discharged from the army. Before he left, the German POW, whose name was Heinrich Schulte, gave my father the chess set he had carved – neatly housed in a case cut and shaped from a sheet of scrap tin.
At the end of the Second World War, around 100,000 German prisoners of war continued to be held by the Allies in Egypt. The last of POWs held in Egypt returned to Germany in December 1948. It looks like Heinrich Schulte was one of them, for I still have in my possession a postcard that my dad received from him shortly after his release from captivity.
Back home in Noordseebad on the island of Borkum, Heinrich writes:
You will probably not remember of those nights, while we were talking together on the ship which sent us to Egypt. You were our guard under deck and we, Gunther my friend and I were behind the barbed wire with all the other fellows. We were glad to talk to you because you could understand our hard fate. You were not like the majority and we felt that you were a good character. We hated the war like you, already in those days in 1944, while the guns had not stopped. Keep smiling.
Six or seven years old at the time, I didn’t realise when I heard this story and first handled those chess pieces carved by Heinrich how profoundly they would affect my outlook on life. I think that chess set defined me in some significant way, contributing a part of who I am. The story of the friendship my father struck up with an enemy prisoner, and the gift made in return, came to signify the waste of war, the illogical nature of borders, and the delusion of stigmatising and whipping up hatred against those who are, in certain ways, different to us.
That was why these memories were revived by the news this week of a terrorist attack, and the death of a man who ended up working tirelessly for peace and reconciliation with those whom he had once defined as enemies and fought with violence. And why the chess set was in my mind as tens of thousands marched in London and across Europe to affirm the value of European integration as EU leaders in Rome marked the 60th anniversary of the Union’s founding.
Meanwhile, the chess set is unaccountably lost. After my father died and we sorted through his things it was nowhere to be found. It was, perhaps, the one item of his I would have desired to keep. Why did he get rid of it? Was it simply a matter of refusing to live in the past, wanting to be free of the clutter of memory? Or, as he got older, more withdrawn and somewhat embittered, was it a reminder of a part of him that he had let slip?
Heinrich ‘s postcard arrived in March 1948, soon after my father had married. I was born that September at a time when my parents were struggling with financial hardship and other worries. As far as I can tell, he never replied to Heinrich ‘s postcard.
Frédéric’s photos of his chess set carved by a German POW in Egypt in the same period (see comments below):