These two songs tell the story of how, towards the end of World War 2, over 100,000 allied prisoners of war were forced to walk back from the POW camps (stalags) in northern Poland to central Germany. They set off in January 1945 wearing only the clothes they stood up in through the harshest winter of the war - a journey of between 700 to over 1000 miles, depending on the route taken by the different groups.
Many of the marchers perished from the cold or starvation, and the survivors were often not believed when they told their harrowing story, so this appalling episode is not as well-known as it should be.
The two songs were written by Lesley Loughlin with words inspired by the survivors' own accounts.
She based the Long March to Freedom on the account by her father-in-law Bernard Loughlin of his own experience of hell, which he finally wrote down shortly before he died, after 60 years of reticence. It features Lesley and Hugh's daughter Tessa playing the viola that her grandfather bought for her.
The Long March of 1945 is based on a poem written by Lesley's niece, Linda Huxley, after hearing the testimonies of survivors interviewed in a TV documentary, broadcast in 2011.
If you are moved by these songs, please share them to increase the chance of them being heard by any remaining Long March survivors or their relatives. We want every one of them to have the comfort of knowing that through these songs their suffering and heroism is not forgotten.
To write of the trek of the prisoners from Stalag XXIIB at Marienwerder in East Prussia is a difficult task, as for most of the time we were only semi-conscious, walking like automatons on autopilot. We must have covered some 1000 miles at the rate of about 12 a day, without food; over a period of nearly four months. I believe it was only because I had been doing usually heavy farm work for the previous four years, that I survived the hardship.
It was in January 1945 that we were ordered to leave the farm at Gross Wadkeim and return to the Stalag - which we did on foot, only a few kilometres. As it was January the temperature was -30c to -40c, and the snow was head high at the sides of the road. One of our tasks during the winter months was to keep the roads through and round the farm passable, by shovelling the deep drifts off the roads, around two miles in all. Not right down to the frozen surface as the horses were fitted with special snowshoes, and the wagon wheels had been removed and the hubs fitted with toboggan like sledge runners.
Soon after leaving the Stalag, where hundreds of prisoners had been assembled we moved off to retreat over the Vistula. Apparently the Russians had broken through further south, rather than directly from the east, and our area was likely to be by-passed and cut off. For some reason we didn't get very far and we were returned to the Stalag. The following day we set out again, across the river and headed north towards the Baltic Sea.
The Vistula was frozen solid during the winter months, so it was possible to walk across. We walked westward for weeks, at first in arctic temperatures, through the snows. In that flat north European plain the snow falls regularly during the last few days of each month in the winter, followed by weeks of freezing temperatures, but no further snowfalls during that period. Every night we slept in barns on farm after farm, and every morning I filled my pockets with straw and hay. By munching on this all day long we must have got sufficient sustenance to keep us going like the farm horses and cattle. For moisture we ate snow and sucked on chunks of ice.
At one point on the march I can remember passing through a small village, down a narrow street with small cottages on either side. As we went along and passed the cottages the occupants were standing in their doorways, seemingly in silent sympathy. One old man handed me a small potato pancake, the size of a scone. It was probably all he had to offer. He looked so sad.
On another occasion, a very poignant and sad memory, we holed up in a barn and on dosing down in the straw two other prisoners suggested we huddle together in the straw to keep each other warm with myself in the middle, being the smallest. When aroused by our guard in the morning, I got up, but the others did not move. They had died during the night. I could scarcely believe the looks on the faces. Both were radiant with seraphic smiles. They must have been in some very happy dreamland of their own imagining. The guard gently removed the identification tags from around their necks and promised they would be sent to their families. They were left where they were lying. There was nothing the guards could do for them in that frozen wasteland.
During the long march the numbers dwindled day-by-day and night-by-night. On the very first day of marching, men were sinking to the ground, into the snow and not getting up again. The tallest and the biggest were the first to crumble.
I believe that some of those that disappeared did in fact survive. Hiding away in places the guards did not bother to search. Apparently, some were eventually returned to England by the Russians, but I think the majority perished from the cold and starvation.
After many weeks we reached the coast of northern Germany, close to the small island of Peenemunde. Although unaware of it at the time, this was the island from which the V2 bombs were being launched towards England. At night, at low tide, we crossed on a causeway to the island, walked some distance to another causeway, and back on to the mainland.
After Peenemunde I can remember very little of the march. We tottered along through the farms and forests to the region of Lubeck in the north, down south towards Dresden, then back up north again to the university town of Magdeburg. We had come from near Marienburg in East Prussia to Magdeburg on the Elbe.
We dossed down again on an upper floor of the University building, a few kilometres outside of the actual town. Then followed what I think was the most terrifying night of my life. For hour after hour, wave after wave of U.S. four-engine bombers flew over the town, and carried out what they called saturation bombing, and the town was obliterated. The university buildings shook and swayed all night, shattered glass everywhere. We were stunned and shell-shocked by the noise. If we had not been some distance from the town we certainly would not have survived.
By this time of year, late April I think, another long hot summer had begun. We staggered out in the morning. Our guards and a few other German troops had been crouching in deep trenches surrounding the buildings. I believe that this senseless bombardment was totally unnecessary as the war was over bar the announcement of an official ceasefire. The German Army and Air Force had nothing with which to continue doing anything.
We staggered through the town in which every building was a pile of rubble. The main street had two lines of bomb craters, close together. There was not living soul; the town as silent as a graveyard.
We went on to yet another farm, still inhabited this time, with work apparently carrying on as usual. By now there were only twelve of us left with our three guards. No doubt they were fed, along with the pigs and poultry, as they must have been along the way, but still we got nothing.
After a day or two a long column of American troops came along the road beside the river and stopped. Presumably knowing the Americans were coming our guards gave us a razor and we had to shave in cold water, without soap, from a tap in the yard. For some reason I never understood we had not grown beards or long hair during the preceding months, so it was not difficult. We had worn the same clothes, without ever removing them for months, but we were spruced up as best they could.
As an American officer got down from his jeep, in true German fashion, the guards lined us up, called us to attention and we all saluted together, which was a huge joke to the Americans. After surrendering their weapons with solemn formality, the guards were led away, but we were completely ignored and just left standing there. For the rest of that day a group of American soldiers were left free and unsupervised to rape and pillage their way around the farm and its cottages. Judging by the screams that came from one dwelling after another they must have taken advantage of every woman and child left alive after the bombing.
After a while I wandered out of the farm, across the road, and lay down in the sun, on the grass beside the river; and watched the stream of troop carriers driving past, manned almost exclusively by black soldiers; most of whom jeered at me lying there. One of them threw me a large, black slab of chocolate. During the rest of the day I took an occasional lick at one corner, but didn't make much impression. It was too rich and solid for me even to try and snap a small square off. A small boy came out of one of the small farm cottages and asked me for some of it. I remember just staring at him, and after a while he went away empty handed. He didn't realize that he could have taken the whole packet without any possible resistance from me. He was too young anyway to have ever seen a bar of chocolate.
Eventually we were picked up and taken to a large barracks, which the Americans had taken over. We were not expecting to be taken prisoner, but we were treated as such, and again I found myself put in a wire cage in a compound, although they did leave it unlocked so that we could get to the latrines. We were left to sleep on the ground in the open yet again, kept awake by the stream of troops to-ing and fro-ing to whatever town must have survived in the area. When I asked why we had been corralled, I was informed by one of the passers-by that they didn't want us interfering with "their" German women. We could barely stand up without support. I don't think any woman would have consorted with a wraith of skin and bone. At no time during our 'liberation' by the American army did we receive any medical attention or care.
A few days later we were taken to a Canadian Air Force transport plane and flown to Brussels where at long, long last someone noticed the state we were in. We were handed to a small troop of Belgian boy scouts, and helped to an upstairs room in a building in the town. There, a couple of small boys gently cut the boots off my feet. It took them quite a time as the boots had been there since January. The socks and the stuffing of straw etc. were caked with congealed blood from long ago blisters and sores. The boys washed us and cleaned us up, and managed to find us clean clothes. I don't recall whether or not they tried to feed us.
The clothes, army trousers etc. did not fit, the trousers being too big and the legs at least six inches too long. Next, we were taken back to the Canadian plane and landed in a meadow outside Worthing. At the side of the field a large marquee was pitched and inside was a row of trestle tables covered with sparkling white tablecloths, and a row of benches. On the table were plates of cakes, and sandwiches and several ladies from the local W.I. and W.V.S. were waiting to serve us with 'Ye Old English Tea'. They greeted us with smiles, which soon faded to worried anxiety. I certainly was unable to swallow a single crumb or even a sip of tea. I felt so sorry because, not only had the women taken so much time and trouble they must also have given up their precious food coupons. One of the ladies who was trying to attend to me, noticed my ill fitting uniform, went off and came back with needle and thread and tucked several inches of my trousers tack up inside and sewed them up. At least I no longer tripped over them, although they must have looked peculiar. Nobody was interested in us enough to warn these ladies of the state we were in.
We were then trucked to an army base in Guildford and were lined up at a table. Almost without a word of greeting we were issued with a ration book each, and I received a one way railway ticket from Guildford to Sevenoaks via Waterloo and taken to the station. I don't know what other passengers thought of the soldier clothed in ill fitting uniform and emaciated appearance, but they did not appear to notice anything.
I went from Waterloo through to the through station to Sevenoaks and got a taxi home with the few shillings pay I had been given, after phoning my father to let him know of my arrival. At long last I received a medical check-up at Guy's Hospital, at what is now Dorton House in Sevenoaks, to where they had moved. The doctors found that I weighed five stone (instead of 10) my stomach was the size of a pea, but otherwise I was sound and would recover.