Prisoner-of-war camps were set up in Normandy for German soldiers following the D-Day landings. After the capture of Cherbourg and the Cotentin Peninsula, the Allies stopped sending prisoners to internment camps outside Europe. The camp at La Glacerie, established by the American authorities in August 1944, was the first of many to be erected in the region. In August 1945, it was handed over to the French authorities and was finally closed in October 1946.
It was during archaeological investigations for Gallo-Roman remains, in advance of a proposed housing development, that the excavation team came across significant archaeological features containing WWII artefacts. Further research, including discussions with local landowners, revealed that this was, indeed, the site of a former POW camp.
The Service Régional de l’Archéologie (SRA) took the unprecedented decision to order a full-scale rescue excavation – the first ever for a World War II archaeological site in France – and called in Oxford Archaeology to carry out the project. The two big questions were: How does the archaeology compare with the historic record? And can archaeology replace living memory, which, by its temporal nature, will soon no longer be available to us?
Aerial reconnaissance throughout World War II built up an invaluable archive of photographs. One, found at the French records library at Le Mémorial, Caen, is dated to August 1947, and shows the site of the POW camp. But it had already been dismantled.
However, an RAF sortie in August 1945 produced a photograph that, astonishingly, revealed the complete layout of the camp. No other source of information has been found that shows the actual layout.
It was a formal camp, developed to the south of an east-to-west aligned road that is still in use today and descends to the west of Cherbourg. A less well-organised, elongated rectangular area can also be seen to its south-west.
Documentary studies show there were several POW camps in the community of La Glacerie, each referred to by different identification references. Confusingly, these references changed when camps were handed over to the French authorities.
The reference number of this particular camp was unknown, a major drawback to applying the mass of documentary and photographic evidence available. So excavation was key to linking it to the documentary sources.
A major breakthrough came with the discovery of five identification tags that were stamped ‘Labor Service Center 137 112’. This, then, was a ‘labour camp’ attached to the south-west boundary of the main POW ‘transit’ camp.
By combing excavation and aerial photographic evidence, a detailed record of the layout and features within the labour camp could be ascertained. It occupied a rectangular area of approximately 10.5ha, subdivided into 16 rectangular compounds, each of which contained 80 to 100 structures or tents. Further structures and roadways to the south-west suggest it was serviced and administered separately from the transit camp.
Five compounds were chosen for excavation, to establish whether they had different functions or imprisoned different nationalities.
It quickly became apparent that the revealed archaeological footprint matched very closely the evidence presented on the aerial photographs. The remains of 15 rows, containing a total of 180 rectangular sunken-featured buildings, were partially or completely uncovered. Along the southern side of Zone 1 and through the centre of Zone 2 there were two lines of postholes defining a double-fence line; an iron gate was identified close to this alignment.
An area of what was probably ‘recreational space’ sits between the fence line and the files of rectangular structures, and was bisected by the remains of a trackway with parallel ditches 4m apart. Close to the double-fence line, three stone-lined ovens were found, indicating the location of a communal cooking area. Although historic accounts suggest that toilet facilities would have been present within each compound, none were identified. This suggests that they were at the opposite end of the compounds to the cooking areas, and therefore outside the bounds of the excavation.
The sunken dwellings were typically 2m-2.3m wide and 5m long, but varied significantly, particularly in depth and length. There was no uniformity in their form, as one might expect in a militarily organised camp, either within particular compounds or across the whole excavation area. Flooring tended to have been made from whatever material was available: metal sheets, roofing felt, wooden planks. Fragments of window glass, part of a window frame, and a set of wooden steps were also found.
The remains of a number of stoves were uncovered within structures, many of which were US Army issue that came in kit form for assembly. Several cast-iron flue pipes were also found, and their number suggests these stoves were widely distributed through the camp.
Inside some structures, small postholes and stakeholes may represent internal partitions or fittings. Usually, however, divisions of space were represented by a change in floor level. One structure had three floor levels, the highest of which was interpreted as an entrance vestibule.
A small storage pit and the setting for a stove were identified in the middle, at a slightly lower level – possibly a shared living space. Concentrations of coffee and lemonade sachets were found here.
The lowest level was probably the sleeping area. Here, the remains of a drawer was found, positioned in between where bunks may have been placed. The timber floors of the structures were badly burnt and covered by deposits of burnt soil, suggesting the camp was destroyed when it was decommissioned, and the land returned to pasture.
Almost 4,000 finds have been recovered from the excavations. Some demonstrate the ingenuity of the prisoners in making the most of materials available to them, and give a poignant insight into everyday life in the camp. Many, as expected, belonged to either the American or German Army and Navy. Some came from the local community, where relationships established during occupation were perhaps ongoing between prisoners and locals in the camp.
Items relating to personal hygiene and grooming are widely found; also recovered were inkwells, plastic sheets used as wall lining and flooring, as well as drinking bottles of American, English, and French origin. Metal sheets, piles of nails and tin cans, shoe leather, and wire and cable had all been hoarded in specific structures and provide an insight into the economy and bartering system within the camp.
In one compound, a concentration of medical equipment suggests the structure here was a temporary medical facility. Elsewhere, the more surprising finds include fragments of a woman’s shoe and a powder compact. These may be the remains of theatrical props used by the entertainment unit in the camp; or they may have been left by prostitutes who, according to the historic record, were smuggled into camp. A tube that was part of a prophylactic kit issued by the US Army for the treatment of venereal disease was also found.
An oral history project led by a French social anthropologist was carried out in parallel with the fieldwork programme. Five people living in the area recounted their childhood memories of the camp, though none had actually set foot in it. Their experience was focused on personal relationships developed when the prisoners performed domestic duties outside the labour camp.
If not on mine-clearance duties, the prisoners would be marched into town to work long days either in factories, at the harbour, or, later, as agricultural labourers. Although these interviewees had little knowledge of the camp, one described how the fields had been transformed into a POW camp equipped with barrack blocks and occupied by prisoners in just a fortnight.
Another recalled a great sale of the contents when the camp was dismantled – which explained the lack of valuable items found during excavation. He added that fencing material his family had bought was still in his garden! Perhaps most significantly, the stories emphasised how the influx of both the prisoners and the Americans at the POW camp had a lasting impact on the local community. The German prisoners made a major economic contribution, at some considerable sacrifice, to the rebuilding of post-war France, and continued working here long after the war was over – as is attested by the documented closure date of ‘Labor Service Center 137 112’, and by the post-war dates on graves in German memorials in Normandy.
An ‘insider’s view’ of the camp was provided by one of its prisoners, in records collated by the German government following their systematic interviews of all former POWs from 1957. He recalls that, following registration, groups of six prisoners were randomly selected to live together. They were given a tent canvas and poles that they then had to erect themselves. However, the tents were not waterproof, and within a short time prisoners made floors from flattened corn-beef tins covered with cardboard. Using tins, under the cover of darkness, prisoners began to dig inside their tents, creating the footprints of the structures identified during excavation.
He also describes how most of the prisoners in the labour camp worked in the harbour, and that – during the unloading of ships – US troop rations were pilfered. These stolen tools and materials were used to construct their dwellings, and stolen cigarettes were used to pay for prostitutes and to buy chickens.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a vital source of information about the treatment of both civilians and POWs. Crucially, this information could only be directly linked to the excavation following the discovery of the five ‘dog tags’ stamped with the camp’s identification number. Following this, a comprehensive description of the structures within each compound, supported by contemporary photographs, was found in a report compiled on the 7 May 1945 – the day Germany signed its unconditional surrender.
This report explains the atypical forms of structures excavated: with the severe winter of 1944/1945 and a prolonged detention, prisoners did their utmost to improve living conditions. In time and with a sense of pride, possibly competing with one another, they tried to create their perfect ‘villa’. Photographs demonstrate that each dwelling is different, and that the individual characters of prisoners contributed to the reinvention of their confined space. Unlike the neighbouring transit camp, a sense of place was created at this labour camp, reinforcing group identity and, in some cases, made strong references to the prisoners’ homeland (some structures even had Bavarian-style façades).
No photographic evidence was found that depicts the interior of the dwellings, although accounts highlight the ingenuity of the individuals who created tables, armchairs, and ‘cosy corners’.
Here we relied on the archaeological record: structures rapidly evolved from tent to ‘villa’, with the evolving parameters dictating the shift from basic weatherproofing for survival towards a social, and possibly symbolic, use of space.
Contemporary archaeological projects like this – where it is possible to cross-reference excavation data with a wealth of documentary sources – have the potential to be used to test archaeological evidence from the more distant past, where information is limited. The sunken-featured buildings excavated at La Glacerie were remarkably similar to those attributed to Medieval rural habitats in Europe. The data collected during this investigation can be used to help us understand permanent or temporary occupation of these similar Medieval structures.
Although there is an abundance of international documentary sources relating to the establishment and administration of POW camps in Normandy, this archive evolved in response to an ever-changing military situation and so is understandably confused. Work at La Glacerie has uncovered a range of distinct perspectives relating to the impact of POW camps in Normandy and life within them. It is revealing, also, that a well-documented site with a substantial archaeological footprint can swiftly be lost to living memory within a single generation.
Excavation has been invaluable during this study, and has contributed by binding together the strands of relevant historic information to create a coherent understanding of ‘Labor Service Center 137 112’ – and a more complete comprehension of the everyday life and plight of its prisoners.
PHOTOS: Magda Wachnik (Oxford Archaeology).