The winter of 1944-45 was one of the coldest and most severe on record for eastern Europe. Yet it was on 16th February 1945 that my late father and his fellow prisoners were ordered to begin what became known as the ‘death march’. Forced onwards by their German captors, the inmates of the POW camp at Quadendorff joined the endless mass of humanity heading west to escape the clutches of the advancing Red Army.
My father lived to tell the tale, preserved by the grace of the living God, he went on to write about his experiences in his retrospective of World War 2: ‘We’ve Been A Long Time Coming Boys’.
The next entry on the fly-leaf of my old Bible says it all. It reads like this “Karthaus to Dubrowa — 30 kilometres”, and then only one word — icy. It always surprises me that certain incidents continually stick in the memory, while other events disappear and may only flash back when circumstances bring them from your less sensitive memory-store. That this day was yet another nightmare, I am absolutely sure. To be aroused from a faint in the morning, as Joe did and then walk that distance, would have been a pretty heroic effort in ordinary conditions. But these were no ordinary times. To cross the road on ice these days is a hazard, but imagine thirty kilometres of slipping and falling, dragging one another to our feet again, leg muscles taut, as they always are in such conditions, and you will get some idea what happened to us all that day. The schedule was to start at first light. Thankfully, for Joe and me it began with hot tea and was to end sixteen hours later, with again, no break for food, rest or drink. At the last climb up a steep hill, I can rememeber Joe saying as he began to lag behind, “I don't know where you are getting your strength from, Johnny”. (He called me Souter Johnny, thanks to Bob McCallum, a Rabbie Burns fan from Ayr). I said in all seriousness, “Joe, I'm getting my strength from the Lord and that's for sure.”
Reflecting on that long march, I feel that there was another source of inspiration in the minds of most of us now. We were marching West after five long years and were, we knew, heading for home. That was the thought that kept some of us going. Otherwise, we might have packed in, as some tragically did on those first days of really tough going through the snow. In fact, out of our party of Quadendorf lads, we did lose one out of the sixteen. Sadly, we learned some time later that Ronald Gearing, affectionately known to us as the Doctor, after Dr Joseph Goebbels, did not make it, but died on the road before we reached home.
But here I am straying into side pastures again, when I should perhaps be ploughing straight on with my tale. How Joe and I and Bob McCallum, who joined us, got through that day, I will never know. We just kept coaxing one another on, either by threats or by jokes, the latter becoming less frequent while the former increased in power. I think Bob and I had the advantage over Joe because we were both thin as rakes and Joe, although thin, was by nature heavily built. I sometimes wondered if his body needed more fuel than ours.
Somewhere about supper time, sevenish perhaps at night, there was a jam-up of traffic and we had to stop. There is always a smart guy in a motley crowd of men as we were, and as we paused in our slippery journey, the wise fellow in our ranks noticed a little house with a garden on our left. In the garden, there stood an ancient water-pump, the hand-driven type. Here was a source of something to drink at least, if it was not frozen up. At once our entrepreneur unlatched the garden gate and had a look at the old pump. He tried the handle and it moved. Then, as he pushed it up and down with all his might, some precious water gushed out of the spout. Clearly, however, it was not a one-man job, because you could not work the handle and reach the water at the same time. Consequently, there was a rush of volunteers to help, mainly to catch the water, not to work the pump. Leaving Joe and Bob with the crowd, I made a dive in the direction of the water supply, but, of course, no-one wanted to give me any help. All at once, from the jostling crowd in the dark, a familiar voice rose above the clamour of noise, “You ca' the hannel, Charlie, and I'll ha'd yer jug”. I turned aghast and there was the grinning face of my old friend Percy McDonald, Captain Muirhead's batman, from Dufftown. Without further ado, we worked the oracle together. I pumped and Percy filled both our supply jugs, and we took up our positions again on the road. What a fuss about a drink of water on a freezing cold night, you may think. Believe me, to us, that spring water was as precious as gold.
Percy joined our trio for the next few miles and we tried to catch up with five years of news. Undoubtedly, this helped us on our way quite a bit. He amazed me by disclosing that he had been forced to walk more than twenty-four hours the previous day to catch up with the main body of marching men. I had known Percy from my teenage days when we had faced one another on the football pitch. We had both been midfield men. He played for Dufftown and I represented our Aberlour team. Many a fast, sometimes hot-tempered battle was fought between us in those days, with always a handshake when the final whistle was blown at the end. Percy got home with us at the last and was married, but died in his middle years. No doubt, those long years and the rigours of that winter march took its toll on him, as it did on many of the rest of us later on.
Hours and miles further on that night, we stopped in a village and were told to turn left at the cross-roads ahead. On the hill above us, there were farms with the usual Dutch barns and shelter could be found there for the night. I got the impression now, and rightly so, that the guards had taken as much of the cold as they could endure. Like us, they were fed up to the teeth. Indeed, it had now become every man for himself. I seem to have lost Joe going up the hillside in search of those inviting Dutch barns, because I was now struggling on with no-one except Bob McCallum. At the first farm we reached, we were bluntly told by our fellow prisoners to get lost. The place was full to overflowing already. A German guard at the door encouraged us to press on for another mile or so. The road would level out at the summit of the hill and we would come to the next house of refuge — i.e. another barn.
Bob and I put our heads down and set off again into the teeth of the now drifting snow. Eventually, we reached the top of the hill. It was devoid of shelter of any kind. There were no fences to mark the roadway, if roadway there was. By now, it was well into the night and terribly dark. I always remember the howls of a dog as we continued to struggle along. Perhaps that poor old hound was feeling as miserable as we were. Here and there, we could see bodies lying in the ditches, some trying to get shelter, some a little rest. We both knew that this was a fatal thing to do, so we kept pressing on. I remember seeing a German officer stretched out at the side of the road. Like the Priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan story, we had a look at him and then, "passed by on the other side ", much to our shame. Further on, we spotted other two figures, seemingly ditched for the night. They were our cook Percy Pyke and my good friend with the wounded leg, Fred Goodchild. This was different. They were our friends. We did the Good Samaritan act this time and persuaded them to get up and struggle on. This they did. However, neither of them made the whole journey in the end, but they did both survive. Months later, we met them in England and had our legs pulled about the whole affair. While we had soldiered on all the way, they gave up at one point. Overtaken by the advancing Russian army — a dicey experience — they were quickly transferred to the seaport of Odessa on the Black Sea coast and shipped from there, through the Mediterranean and back home.
To continue, however, Bob and I set off again and by now, we were both at the end of our tether. It was at this point that a strange thing happened. Bob was slightly ahead of me. Suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks. “Johnny” he said, “there's something big and black ahead.” I wondered if he was now hallucinating, but decided to join him. Sure enough, there the thing stood, apparently barring our way. Gingerly, we approached it and realised we had come to a fork in the road. There, before us, looming out of the dark, was a huge statue like a cross. Bob stared at it and said in seeming awe, “Johnny, we've come to Calvary.” Indeed, we had. I looked both right and left to the two roads ahead and asked the stupid question, “Which way will we go now, Bob?” His reply was swift and clear. “Johnny, you told us many a time on a Sunday to do what is right. We are going to do it now. Turn right.” We did, and within a short time, were in the shelter of another Dutch barn.
You know, I will never forget the decision Bob made on that road. It could have meant life or death for us that night. (Many a time since, I have told of that vital choice, and applied it to one's journey through life. Any preacher can lead you to Calvary — to the Cross where Christ died for our sins but, from there on, the great decision must be yours. To choose Christ is to choose life, to reject Him is to be lost.) Later that night, to our relief, we were joined by Big Joe, driven to his limit, but he made it. I salute the guy. He started that day on the floor in a dead faint, but had the drive and the will to grit his teeth and carry on to the finish.”
The cross of Calvary, and the need to put your trust in Christ were regular features of my father’s preaching throughout his life. As a result, many people came to know Christ as their Lord and Savior when they came to understand these simple truths.
My father’s philosophy, which he repeated often to me as a young man was, ‘never turn down an opportunity to preach the Gospel’. He was true to his word, for in his lifetime he preached the Gospel in churches, Mission Halls, schools and the open air
Conviction, repentance and salvation through the precious blood of Jesus shed on the cross of Calvary are the core elements of the Gospel. We should earnestly pray that Scotland’s evangelicals will return to the ‘Old, Old Story’ of the Gospel.
We’ve Been A Long Time Coming Boys’ by Charles Morrison, Published by Albyn Press ISBN 0284 98840 5