The history of the Dietkirchen war cemetery and the prisoner of war camp from the World War I. at 1914-1918

The “Russians” cemetery in Dietkirchen, also known as the French cemetery, originally belonged to a prisoner of war camp which had been set up at the end of 1914 on both sides of the road leading from Dietkirchen to Limburg, above the wayside shrine at the end of the village, which still stands there today, for about 10,000 – 12,000 captured soldiers. The camp covered about 24 hectares. This means that the cemetery has always to be seen in connection with the prisoner of war camp.

Towards the end of December 1914, 3,000 prisoners, mostly French, Irish and English, but later also Russian and Polish soldiers were housed in the camp’s barracks.

The camp was guarded by German soldiers (Landsturm) of the 18th and 8th army corps.

On the left side of the road from Dietkirchen to Limburg was the prisoners’ hospital with eight sick barracks, a death barrack and the cemetery.

The prisoners were unloaded from the trains at the Limburg station and then had to walk to Dietkirchen, usually accompanied by the Limburg and Dietkirchen population. The wounded prisoners were taken from Limburg station to the camp hospital in iron-tired farm wagons lying on straw. And since the “roads” and paths to Dietkirchen were in a catastrophic condition at that time, one knew only cobblestones, the journey, especially for the seriously injured, was a single ordeal.

In the camp, to the right of the road from Dietkirchen to Limburg was the coal storage area, the roll call area and the actual prisoner camp. But there was also a delousing station.

Everything was built as barracks and divided into individual camp areas by fences. In one barrack lived 20 – 50 prisoners. They had only simple beds with straw mattresses, but sometimes they slept in hammocks. There were no cupboards, only open wall shelves. Heating was provided by cannon stoves that stood in the middle of the room.

In the camp cemetery, which at the beginning was neither fenced in nor somehow recognizable as a cemetery, the first dead person of the camp, an Irishman, Fredrick Reilly (born 24 August 1864, died 20 December 1914) from the 1st Battalion CHESHIRE, was buried with military honours on 23 December 1914 with the participation of the Dietkirchen Warriors’ Association. A large entourage attended the funeral. German veterans in tails and top hats carried the Reich flag and a brass band played the song: “Ich hat` einen Kameraden”.

From December 1914 to April 1915, Sir Roger Casement visited the camp several times to recruit Irish volunteers for an Irish Brigade, which was to intervene alongside German troops in the looming Irish uprising (Easter Rising). Despite promises of better treatment, only 56 volunteers responded to Casement’s call. According to the memoirs of Private Joseph Mahony, “…in February 1915 Sir Roger Casement gave a speech to the prisoners of Ireland and urged them to join an Irish Brigade, as this would be a chance striking a blow in favour of the country of Ireland. But he was booed out of the camp…”.

By May 1915, the number of prisoners of war was already 12,000.

The prisoners were used for all the work that had to be done. For example, they were employed by farmers in agriculture, in businesses in the surrounding villages and also in Limburg, on construction sites or in the quarries around Dietkirchen, so that the camp was mostly “extinct” during the day.

The prisoners in camp were on short rations (“Schmalhans war Küchenmeister”), especially in the last years of the war, so that at the end of the day, when marching back to the camp, it was not uncommon for prisoners to fall upon thick turnips lying on the roadside. But the camp guards also suffered from hunger. “Organizing” food of all kinds, especially in the last years of the war, was also part of “their service”. At the inhabitants of Dietkirchen were also “organized”.

In August 1916 the former simple camp cemetery was converted into a military cemetery. Each grave was decorated with a cross on which the name of the deceased was written. The graves were arranged in three rows. Each 10 graves formed a unit.

On 25 May 1917 (Whitsun) a 3 m high and 1.60 m wide “Irish high cross” was erected for the Irish lying in the cemetery, on which the names of the deceased prisoners were stamped. This cross was donated by the Irish prisoners in memory of their deceased comrades buried in the cemetery.

This memorial cross also commemorates the Irish soldiers who died and were buried in other places in Germany in 1915 / 1916. For example in Kördorf / Nassau, Runkel, (Bad) Schwalbach, Gießen, Zerbst / Dessau and Aachen.

High crosses of this kind are basically only found in Ireland and are very rare outside the island. One can even say that outside Ireland they are a rarity. Irish high crosses are splendid examples of archetypal Celtic art and architecture.

The heyday of the high crosses was in the 9th and 10th centuries, the height of the Christianisation of Ireland. They are mostly made of granite, sometimes of basalt or sandstone and have a height of between 3 m and 4 m, but sometimes even more. Bible scenes or inscriptions are usually carved into the stone as filigree decoration.
 
According to the statement (1998) of the Limburg cathedral restorer Josef Weimer, this cross is uniquely beautiful and its kind is hardly to be found again in our “latitudes”. In the year 2000, so it was once planned, it should be restored.
 
The French monument inaugurated on August 3, 1918, which was made by the French sculptor Eduard Colomo, who had been interned in the camp, was less well received. It showed a naked male figure standing on a high pedestal, his gaze and right hand pointing to the sky.
In 1959 the French monument, which could no longer be restored, was removed and the present memorial stone was erected for the Russian (Soviet) soldiers by the city of Limburg.

Until this time were buried in the cemetery (the known data are however inaccurate):

334 (336) Russians (later 7 00 Russians),
123 (127) French,
59 (60 ) Italian,
47 English,
45 Irish,
7 Serbs,
1 (2) Belgians and
1 Romanians

 
After the war, the camp was disbanded and the barracks demolished. The material was taken by the population.
The cemetery remained the resting place of prisoners who died in captivity. None of those released remained here, only these dead.
 
In 1923 the deceased French, Irish, Italian and Belgian people were exhumed and partly transferred to their homeland or to larger war grave sites in Germany, e.g. Kassel – Niederzwehren, here mainly the Irish, while the Russian (Soviet) soldiers remained in the cemetery. Russia (Soviet Union) did not want them.
It is due to this fact that the war cemetery is also popularly called “Russian cemetery”.
 
However, in the cemetery, just to the right when you have passed the entrance to the cemetery, a Frenchman, Captain Louis – Eugene – Alexandre Hasne, of the 3rd Company, of the 2nd Battalion, of the 319th Infantry Regiment, is buried.
He was born on 30 March 1891 in Cherbourg (Manche), he died on 16 June 1918.
 
After the end of World War I, until about 1920, the camp (the former camp hospital) served as a release service (transit camp) for German soldiers returning to Germany from Allied war captivity.  
During the 2nd world war the cemetery was partly reused. From the main camp XII (STALAG) in Freiendiez (today Freiherr – vom – Stein – Kaserne) 247 Russian (Soviet) prisoners of war were buried at the “Russenfriedhof” between 1942 and 1945. Some of these Russians lost their lives during the bombing raid on December 23, 1944, when American bomber units bombed the camp by mistake because a strong easterly wind had driven the set markers (Christmas trees) in the direction of Diez.
 
At the beginning of the 1960’s, young people from the Limburg district youth ring under the leadership of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e. V. (German War Graves Commission) beautified the cemetery.
 

On October 21, 1954, 3 Russians, who had been exhumed from field graves in the community of Oberweyer, were buried in the Dietkirch military cemetery. These 3 Russians were shot as prisoners of war by an SS unit in spring 1945 and were buried by the mayor and two assistants at the place of the shooting, because the local priest at that time had refused a burial at the local cemetery.

In 1972 the beautification association redesigned the cemetery. Trees were planted, benches were set up and a shelter was built, but it soon fell victim to hooliganism (arson).

In 1984 again the cemetery was repaired and embellished this time by soldiers of the supply command 3, Diez, Freiherr – vom – Stein – Kaserne.

In April 1990 the cemetery was devastated again. Grave shells were broken and grave crosses were knocked over.
And in October / November 1991 another 7 grave crosses were destroyed.

The last, larger beautification mission took place on 12. 06. and 13. 06. 1998 by the reservist comradeship Limburg.

In the year 2004 an Irish Folk Open Air concert took place on July 9th and 10th at the suggestion of the local advisory board of Dietkirchen and by planning and realization of a working group of Dietkirchen citizens. The net proceeds of this concert should serve the restoration and preservation of the Irish high cross.

However, the restoration itself did not take place until April 2007. The restoration work was carried out by the Matthias Steyer company from Niedernhausen under the direction of the restorer Silke Schaper. The work was completed in June. At the same time as the renovation of the cross, a bronze plate was also created on which the names of the deceased Irish prisoners of war are listed. These names were also engraved in the lower part of the stone base of the cross, but wind and weather had caused great damage especially to this part of the cross over the decades, so that the names in the sandstone were no longer legible. The official inauguration of the renovated cross then took place on 18 November 2007.

He that does not honors the dead, and disturbs their rest, and steals from them, his hand shall wither.


„ And mounds of the dead will until the third generation,
be an eloquent late silent reminders to the grandchildren
that the pride of man should not be exalted too high.”

( Aischylos, Greek tragedian poet, 525 – 456 BC)