The Long March of 1945
January and February 1945 were among the coldest months of the 20th century, and temperatures in wartime Poland dipped as low as -25 degrees. Blizzards whipped across the frozen roads, the wind cut like a sabre through the trees. After enduring years of starvation rations and without proper winter clothes or boots, Peter, and the other prisoners of war trudging through the countryside, were ill-suited to such appalling conditions. The march soon became a stagger.
In January 1945, close to the end of WWII the Soviet Armies advanced into Germany. It is still unknown whether the Nazis intended to use British prisoners of war as hostages, or whether they merely wanted to prevent their liberation by the Russians, but for whatever reason, the Germans marched the prisoners of war westwards in groups of two to three hundred. So many men died from the freezing conditions that it became known as the Lamsdorf Death March. 80,000 allied European troops were forced on the route through Poland and Germany in arctic conditions in a journey lasting for four months.
With no proper sanitation or hygiene, diptheria and typhus were rife. In addition the column of men was in the hands of panicking German guards who were terrified of being outflanked by the Soviets. The Soviets were rumoured to be even more barbarous than the Nazis, so the German guards shot those prisoners who could not keep up, or left them to freeze to death in huddled lumps by the roadside.
‘If someone died and their boots were better than yours you simply took them to help your own chances. It was expected. So many good men failed to make it.’
So what makes a man carry on in such conditions when it could have been so easy to give up? Research has shown that it was thoughts of home, in particular the thoughts of wives or loved ones that kept men going. Friendship between men was enormously important. A friend’s support literally meant the difference between death and survival.
In Past Encounters, Peter is kept going by his sheer determination to get home to Rhoda, his fiancée, and by the friendship of Archie, a soldier to whom he was not instantly drawn, but one who he had to grow to love through their shared experiences.
Rhoda meanwhile has her own problems. Peter has been away for five years. In that time she has changed, and when the film crew arrives to film ‘Brief Encounter’ she finds herself falling for someone else….
Find out more about the Long March:The BBC People’s War
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