How a series of first world war postcards from father to daughter revealed the untold 'great escape' of soldier Thomas Fitzpatrick who survived one of the most notorious prisoner of war camps in Germany.
Held together with an elastic band, the postcards are dog-eared and musty but hold the key to a difficult chapter in my family’s history.
One stands out.
Illustrated on the front is a cheeky likeness of an army officer but it is the words etched on the front which brought mystery then joy to my forebears.
Across the collar of the officer are the words 7283 Private J. Smith, 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
But who was J Smith?
Fortunately the name was a puzzle quickly solved as across the soldier’s cap is written Fitzpatrick - the real name of my great-grandfather - plus his regiment’s nickname ‘The good old skins.’
And on the back is written: ‘Tommy by name and Tommy by nature.’
It signalled he was imprisoned but alive in the theatre of war and must have brought great happiness to his wife and children, including my dad Len’s mother Mary, to receive this missive after he was officially registered as ‘missing’.
But why was Thomas Fitzpatrick serving under a false name?
Born in 1885 into a poor Irish Catholic family living in the tough tenements of late 19th century Glasgow, life was never easy for young Thomas, brother William, and his parents Thomas senior - a ship stoker - and mum Margaret.
In fact by age 15 he is listed in records as boarding, indicating by then his parents were dead or gone.
With little education, he lived a hand-to-mouth existence in the tough communities near to his home at 61 South Wellington Street (now Lawmoor Street) in the notorious Gorbals and was a very young man when he started working as a labourer in the locomotive industry.
Then, enticed by the prospect of international travel and regular meals, he voluntarily signed up to the militia -the principal military reserve forces of the UK - in 1902 aged just 17.
He chose to sign up under a false name, opting for the anonymous James Smith, probably because he was below the then sign-up age of 19.
Staying true to his family’s Irish origins, Thomas chose to join the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, where after a period of basic and infantry training at Omagh, he became Private 7283 just after the end of the second Boer War in South Africa.
It is unclear where he was posted in the following years but it was either at the Fusiliers’ barracks in Londonderry or more likely, out to Egypt in 1903 with the rest of the regiment.
But after three years on ‘colour duty’ he returned to civilian life in Glasgow on the traditional reserve period, seeing out his engagement with just an annual rifle course.
By default he went into the Section B Army Reserve where the men could only be recalled in the event of a general mobilisation of the army.
Then in 1906, aged 21, he married Mary Fitzpatrick (nee Collins), my great grandmother, at St Francis Roman Catholic Church in Glasgow on December 31.
But when war was declared on August 4, 1914, Thomas was still in his standard 12-year military engagement period, albeit on reserve, and was immediately drafted.
So at age 28, he left behind his wife and small daughter Mary Adam (nee Fitzpatrick) who had been born in September 1910 - my grandmother - and travelled to a southern port from Glasgow before he entered the theatre of war in France on August 29.
Posted to the regiment’s 2nd Battalion a week after they arrived in France, probably simply because it took him longer to travel down to Portsmouth from Glasgow, Thomas was in the first reinforcement draft at which point he renegotiated his engagement agreement with the regular army, signing up for four years.
If he hadn’t done this, he could have avoided immediate drafting - it’s clear he chose to serve.
Thomas is believed to have survived the majority of the war without major injury, though details of this are scanty as his actual war record is believed to have been destroyed alongside thousands of others when the War Office warehouse (the Army Records Centre) where they were stored was hit by a German incendiary bomb in an air raid in 1940.
However, following his battalion’s story, he would have served in France and Flanders and this is backed up by the series of postcards sent to his family over the period.
One, sent in April 1917 from France, reads: ‘My dear little girl, this postcard was given to dad by a little French girl to be sent to my little girl in Blighty.
‘This little girl has no home - it has been burned by the Huns.
‘Don’t forget your daddy for he can never forget his lovely little girl. Daddy.’
In March 1918 Thomas can be definitively traced to northern France, where his battalion’s B company faced a huge German offensive against the British first and third armies know to the
Germans as ‘Operation Michael’ and to us as the First Battle of the Somme or Second Battle of Picardy (not be confused with the famous 1916 Battle of the Somme/ First battle of Picardy)It began on March 21.
Then on March 23, a morning of thick fog, the Germans attacked the British lines around Ham and at the railway bridge over the river at Pithon from 6am onwards.
The weight of their attack carried them across the river in that area at about 11.30am and then on to Brouchy.
Elements of the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers took part in a counter attack in the late afternoon, which retook Brouchy and pressed towards Aubigny, but otherwise this was a day in which the British defences were breached.
This would have serious consequences over the next few days and vast loss of life.
But that day, and according to meticulous German records, Thomas was captured and was on his way to Germany.
He wasn’t alone.
Over the period March 21-31 1918 his battalion suffered the loss of 690 officers and men killed, wounded or missing.
The vast majority were the missing, most of whom fell into enemy captivity like Thomas.
He was transported to Sagan, in Silesia in modern day Poland, to a prisoner of war camp.
This was no ordinary camp, it became famous in the Second World War when known as Stalag Luft III, aka scene of ‘The Great Escape’.
In 1918 it was a hutted camp housing more than 6,000 prisoners and conditions were deeply unpleasant.
Despite this, it was during this time he managed to send the precious postcard to his family back in Scotland that meant so much to them.
According to German records held by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, in August Thomas was moved to a camp at Brandenburg and then in September to Heilsberg where it is likely he was sent as in a working party doing hard labour, known as kommando.
After that, records falter.
It’s unclear when Thomas was liberated but it’s clear he made his ‘great escape’ uninjured as he never qualified for a Silver War Badge - indicating he was discharged quite normally long after his engagement agreement had finished.
The army was in no position to discharge him earlier as, as a prisoner, he was still considered on active service for the duration of the war.
But he was awarded 1914 Star medal, a British war medal and Victory medal for his service to his country.
Thomas Fitzpatrick, served a hard war but survived to tell the tale.
William's storyThe family did not escape tragedy as Thomas’s brother William was killed in France in 1915, just months after he married in March.
Fighting with the 1st Battalion Royal Highlanders, he was buried in the same small cemetery, of around 200 soldiers, as Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack (John) after they died two days apart.
William, whose address was listed as 88 Rose Street, south Glasgow, died on Saturday, September 25 and John on Monday 27.
Kipling famously wrote a poem after his son Jack was declared missing.
The first stanza reads: “Have you news of my boy Jack? Not this tide. When do you think he’ll come back? Not with this wind blowing and this tide.’
William didn’t get a poem but he is far from forgotten.
This piece has been put together using family history research and with the help of available records and documents and aims to be as accurate as possible with the information on hand.
You may also be interested in THIS