Excavation of Lager Wick: Postscript on the subject of forced labour

I was moved to add this post as a postscript to my blog after reviewing some of the recent media interviews with some Occupation veterans from the Channel Islands, who give the impression (intentionally or not) that forced labour during the Occupation was unproblematic because the labourers were paid. On the one hand, they are no doubt comparing them with the slave labourers, who were treated abysmally and not paid. On the other, they are probably also recalling that the forced labourers were paid well enough to be serious competitors on the Black Market. But despite this, I believe that the forced labourers are worthy of remembrance and consider my excavation as being an example of a political, ethical archaeology – something that is becoming increasingly common within Conflict Archaeology, the field in which I work. The excavation of Lager Wick makes a statement about whose side we are on, and who we consider worthy of remembrance. It also fights to raise awareness of the plight of those who were forced to work against their will for overseers they hated.

One veteran said that Lager Wick “was not a confined camp, it was wide open and civilians could go in. You could see the workers knock off at Grouville Common, trailing back to base. I used to look into the camp and you could see them around. They would work from eight in the morning until six in the evening with half an hour for lunch. Yes they were forced, but they weren’t mistreated. It was a workers accommodation camp.”

I find this kind of statement to be misleading and somewhat belittling of their experience. I am happy to go on record as saying that being paid and not being mistreated does not make forced labour any less of an infringement of one’s human rights. And how can a camp be ‘not confined’ and ‘open’ when it is surrounded by 8 ft high barbed wire, as close observation of the entrance posts revealed?? The Organisation Todt (the employers) were corrupt and negligent: they were involved in the conscription of forced and slave labour and they paid little heed to safe working conditions. This is why the Spanish Republican forced labourers in Jersey are remembered for wearing bowler hats, which they purchased with their wages as the closest thing they could find to hard hats. 

The International Labour Organisation states that ‘forced labour is a serious violation of a fundamental human right’. It was forbidden under the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 and so was in force before WWII, even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration says that ‘everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’ Article 4 says that ‘nobody shall be held in slavery or servitude’. Article 9 says that ‘no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile‘. Article 13 (1) says that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.’ Article 23 (1) says that ‘everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.’

I end this post with a photo (courtesy of Gary Font) of the late Francisco Font, former forced and slave worker and Spanish Republican who settled down in Jersey after the Occupation. He is standing by a memorial dedicated to deceased forced and slave labourers at Westmount in St Helier which he campaigned to get erected, succeeding only in 1971. He had earlier failed to get a memorial erected outside a former Organisation Todt camp at Fort Regent. It will be interesting to see what happens at Lager Wick.Image

Day 14: 18 April 2014: End of season 1 summary

Now that the final day of the archaeological survey and excavation of the first season of fieldwork at Lager Wick has passed, it is time to look back and assess what has been achieved.

My first aim was to see what survives of a forced labour camp that was in use for under three years and comprised mainly wooden barrack blocks that were removed at the end of the war. I am pleased to say that we found lumps of concrete and brick, which are evidence of the stilts upon which the barracks were placed; we found asbestos from the roofing; and we found iron nails that were used in the construction of the barrack blocks. We also found some high status small finds from the structure that we think was the guard hut.

My second aim was to draw attention to the plight of forced labourers in the Channel Islands and to draw attention to the fact that there were around 12 labour camps in Jersey, including the one at Lager Wick. Thanks to the TV reports on the BBC and Channel TV, as well as articles in the Jersey Evening Post and my lecture at the Societe Jersiaise on 16 April (today’s picture is of members of the audience looking at the finds) – and this blog – I hope that I have managed to raise awareness. When I return to Jersey in the summer, I hope to do some work with local schools – get them involved in washing pottery from the excavation.

My third aim was to learn something about the experience of being a forced labourer during the Occupation. While this was not gauged through the small finds from the dig, ironically it was learned the hard way whilst carrying out our own hard labour during excavation, and this was the topic of much excavation humour and many Facebook comments. We dug from 10am to 6pm every day (the forced labourers worked from 7am to 7pm), and while we were able to go back to the hotel, have a hot shower and use as much soap as was needed to get clean before collapsing on our beds (or catching up on work and hunching over the computer till midnight), dreaming of the osteopaths and physiotherapists we’d be able to consult in a few days’ time, this was not an option for the people living in Lager Wick. Soap was notoriously scarce towards the end of the Occupation, and the electricity and gas shortages meant that hot water was not an option. With no end in sight, the forced labourers had to continue their work daily without hope of getting really clean or of sleeping in a comfy bed. While we cannot truly know how it felt to be a forced labourer, every day we worked in their camp, looking at the barbed wire around the concrete entrance posts, and I think we got some small inkling of what it was like to tread in their shoes.

What is the next stage in the biography of Lager Wick? I hope to return next year to excavate in the area of the huts that burnt down in April 1944, to see if that layer of burning can be seen archaeologically. I would also like to investigate the area around the latrines, where I think a number of small rooms can be detected. I would also like to see an information panel outside the camp, and perhaps a memorial. I would also like to see the ivy permanently removed from some or all of the faces of the concrete entrance posts so that this dark past is never covered up again.

On 23 June, I will fly to Norway to help excavate the concentration camp of Falstad with Marek Jasinski, who has worked with me on Lager Wick. Keep your eyes peeled for the Falstad blog!

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Day 13: 17th April 2014: Collecting oral testimony

Today I went to visit Mr Falle, the man credited with burning down three barrack blocks of Lager Wick, with his cousin, when he was 7 years old. I had been hoping to meet him for a while, so it was good to collect his story. Of course, my first question was to ask why he did it. He said that it was an act of anti-German resistance! He told me how he went into his aunt’s store (which sold petrol and paraffin) and into the back room, where she had a tank of paraffin. He and his cousin soaked a couple of rags in the paraffin and then ran along the road and sneaked under the barbed wire of the camp. Mr Falle remembered that the huts were on stilts, and he and his cousin were able to crawl underneath them, strike a match, see that it caught fire, and then beat a hasty retreat down the road. 

I was particularly pleased to hear his memory of the barrack huts being on stilts, as this accorded with the archaeological evidence. As the aerial photos showed no concrete hut foundations, I didn’t know whether the wooden barrack blocks wouldImage have been placed on the soil (which seems rather unwise from the point of view of getting damp and rotten, especially as the site is marshland), or whether they were on stilts, which would fit in with what we have found in the excavations.

While Mr Falle said that he remembers seeing the barrack burn down, and remembers seeing the smoking embers, there is a problem with this. He came to visit us on site later in the day and pointed out where the barrack block was. It was in a very different part of the camp than the aerial photos and historical record suggest the burning took place. So the question is: is Mr Falle’s memory faulty about his childhood mischief-making after 70 years, or were there two fires? Did the fire he set actually consume the building, or did he crawl under the barbed wire in a different spot? Or do the aerial photos not tell the whole story – could one barrack block have burnt down and been replaced in the period of time between my sequence of photos? 

A number of other people have contacted me with their stories, so I shall look forward to collecting those and building up a bigger picture of Lager Wick to add to the archaeological excavation.

Day 12: 16th April 2014: Making and sharing memories

At the start of this excavation, people stopped on the pavement, peered over the ‘no entry’ sign and asked us what we were doing on Grouville Marsh as we knelt in a trench, scraping away with our trowels. Over the last few days this has changed. Since the article in the Jersey Evening Post, and the Channel TV and BBC news reports, people now call out ‘you’re excavating a forced labour camp, aren’t you?’. This makes me very satisfied. One of the key aims of the project was to raise awareness of the presence of labour camps in the Channel Islands and, through this, the plight of forced and slave labourers generally. From this point of view, I am happy that the project has been a success. I’m pleased to say that islanders have visited the dig with memories to share with me, or have emailed me (gcc20@cam.ac.uk) with stories. Today an 81 year old French man who lives locally came to say hello. He was very moved by what we were doing and it triggered memories of his own experience of occupied France. He said that he still feels anger towards the Germans for what they did during the war. Another local visitor came to see us with files tucked under his arm, full of information about the use of the site in the 1960s and 1970s, and kindly took us up to see the quarry where the labourers worked.

This evening I gave a public lecture at the Societe JersiaiseImage on the results of the dig, now that trench 4, the final trench, has been excavated, recorded and back-filled. Like trench 3, there was more evidence of building rubble from the camp: concrete, brick, iron nails. We had a big turn-out, which was lovely, and I was able to show the finds to the general public. I was also able to share the memories to the public that had been shared with me. I hope to be able to come back to Jersey later this year to finish the excavation process and to do some outreach in schools, thus sharing and making memories with and for the next generation.

Day 11: 15 April 2014: The Joy of Concrete

Today we acquired more evidence which will enable me to be able to answer the crucial question of what survives archaeologically, after 70 years, of a forced labour camp that was in existence for just under two and a half years and comprised mainly wooden barrack huts which were removed after the end of the war. Most people would assume that the answer is ‘nothing at all!’, which of course is why so few of these camps are still visible or have enough structures present to be turned into heritage sites.

Today we have been finding more iron nails, small slabs of concrete, brick with concrete attached, and some aspestos. I think that this is building debris from the labour camp. The broken nature of these objects speaks to me not just of how the German occupiers dismantled the camp to cover their tracks, but how this process of breaking up all traces (or nearly all traces) was completed by islanders after the war who wanted to leave no ‘taint’ of the ‘mark of the beast’, as they put it, on their soil after the Occupation.

While this debris was soon covered by brambles, ivy and bracken, and the leaf litter gradually became compost and then soil, natural processes completed what the Germans started and the islanders contributed to. The camps became ‘lost in the landscape’, which is the name of my project on Lager Wick. And while pieces of concrete may not be ‘beautiful artefacts’, they constitute proof of the practice of forced labour during the German Occupation of WWII.Image

Day 10, 14th April 2014: No swastikas here.

Day 10 (56)Today we blitzed trench 2, pausing only for Emma Chambers from the BBC who wanted to film us at work (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b040r87p/BBC_Channel_Islands_News_14_04_2014/; we’re 8 minutes into the programme and this link is visible only for 24 hours), and BBC radio Jersey who wanted a quick chat.

Trench 2 has been very difficult to excavate because of the big tree root which dominates the trench, and looks like a pair of tangled legs. The many sub-roots have been like string, criss-crossing the space where we are trying to wield our shovels and trowels. While the south end of the trench has been a write-off because of the roots, the north end has yielded a lot of pottery. While this is brilliant in terms of us trying to learn more, not one of the pottery pieces had a swastika on the base. This means that, as yet, we are lacking any artefact which is definitively tied to the Occupation. No swastikas, no eagles, no German coins. However, this does not mean that our evidence to date is not tied to the Occupation. Certainly we can build up a story based on what we have found; we just need some dating evidence to prove that we are correct. But then, all archaeology is theory and interpretation and you can never know if your theory is correct without a time machine.

Day 9: 13th April 2014: 70th anniversary of the fire at Lager Wick

Today is the 70th anniversary, to the day, that Leslie Sinel wrote in his diary of the German occupation of Jersey, that three barrack blocks burned down at Lager Wick. There are two stories as to how this happened. In one version of events, the stove in the hut got too hot and set the barrack alight. In another version, the huts were burned down in an act of arson. Unfortunately, the area of burning is just outside our excavation area, but there’s always potential for a second season!

Today I took the team to Noirmont Point to see the bunkers on the headland. Fortunately, we managed to get inside the command bunker, although it was officially closed to the public. A member of the Channel Islands Occupation Society was inside taking photos, getting the display ready for the new season. I also took Peter and Marek to see the most recently excavated bunker, which has a memorial to forced and slave labour / information plaque on display outside the entrance, as stipulated by the Planning Department as a condition of granting permission for the excavation of this bunker. Today’s photo shows them both standing beside this plaque.

We also opened Trench 2 today and worked very hard in removing the first layer before leaving the site. By the end of the day we were utterly exhausted and I could have flopped into bed but instead have several hours of pot washing, bagging and cataloging ahead of me!Image

Day 8: 12 April 2014. Trench 1 complete

We put in a long session today as we wanted to finish trench 1. We’re more than half way through the project and we still have two more trenches to dig. What I think we have learned from this trench is that, rather than a layer of sand placed on the site by the Germans, as recollected by Occupation veteran Michael Ginns, trench 1 suggests that a layer of hoggin was laid instead, on top of a bed of larger stones. We have some evidence of building debris but not much else.

We were visited by a collector of German militaria, who showed me a couple of artefacts – a German belt buckle and German eagle from a cap – that he had found by metal detecting at another labour camp site in Jersey. While I can say that we have not found anything remotely like that, I do feel concerned that people are taking objects from labour camps in Jersey using metal detectors. Objects taken out of context prevent archaeologists from learning more about a site and ultimately rob a site of its history before it has had a chance to be studied properly. I know full well how popular the collection of German militaria is in the Channel Islands, and has been since the Occupation itself, and have outlined the history of collecting in a chapter in my new book ‘Legacies of Occupation: Heritage, memory and archaeology in the Channel Islands’.

We were also visited on site today by Gary Font and his sons Liam and Pascal (see today’s photo). Gary’s father, Francisco Font, was a Spanish Republican forced and slave labourer who worked in Jersey and Alderney. Francisco married a Jersey woman after the war, as did a handful of other Spanish Republican workers in the island. Gary has taken over the mantle from his father as the Master of Ceremonies at the Westmount forced and slave worker memorial ceremony on Liberation Day (an event at which I gave the speech in 2013), and he is also active on the Holocaust Memorial Day committee in Jersey. It was a pleasure to have him and his sons on site and to show them round, and I hope that visiting the dig has provided Liam and Pascal with some important tangible memories that they will carry with them into the future when they think about the grandfather they never knew.Image

Day 7: April 11th 2014. Dedicated to forced and slave labourers of the Channel Islands

Today was a special day in the project: I made the first cut into the first trench, dedicating it to the memory of all forced and slave labourers in the Channel Islands during the German occupation (see picture)Image.

I had few preconceived ideas of what to expect, except that local historian and Occupation veteran Michael Ginns told me that the Germans covered the western end of Grouville Marsh with a layer of sand before building Lager Wick on top. I hoped to find this layer of sand and some indication of the one-time presence of camp buildings. Peter had already detected the potential presence of traces of a building using resistivity, so after probing the ground and a spot of metal detecting, we chose the spot for our test pit and Marek and I started to dig (thank you Societe Jersiaise for the loan of sieves, kneelers and boxes!).

Instead of a layer of sand, we found one of grit close to the surface. Was this connected to the camp? Did the Germans dump grit instead of sand? Was this a higher, more recent layer that needed to be removed first? We will probably wait before answering that question with any certainty. The most interesting of few finds were the iron nails, which we think came from the camp. But we still cannot be sure yet and need to wait to see what turns up in other pits. Meanwhile the site is still strictly out of bounds to all members of the public while we carry out this first ever archaeological excavation of any labour camp in the Channel Islands.

We were on Channel TV this evening, on the 6 o’ clock news. Please see the link here:

http://www.channelonline.tv/channelonline_jerseynews/displayarticle.asp?id=510534

Day 6: April 10th 2014: local media day!

We spent this morning with the local ITV channel, Channel TV, so we hope to be able to bring you a TV clip on friday. We were joined on site for the interview by the local Connetable or head of the Parish, John Le Maistre, who gave his opinion on the work that we’re carrying out. He felt that it was important that the next generation learns about what happened in their parish, so was supportive of the work, which was nice to hear.  The reporter also asked questions about the camps in Guernsey and Alderney, so I had to tread carefully there, especially with Alderney, as as they’re much more sensitive about their dark history.The cameras also captured Peter doing geo-radar and me trowelling the soil at the base of the entrance post. We were also visited by a reporter from the Jersey Evening Post, who asked about how I got interested in archaeology and the Occupation and wanted to know my motivations for excavating Lager Wick, so I’ll attach the PDF when I have it. The interviews took up much of the morning.

After that, I decided to take the team on a little field trip as a break, so Marek, Peter and I walked down to Fort Henry, on the land of the Royal Golf Club, and visited the 18th century fort (which I had seen yesterday by myself) and checked out the two German bunkers on the coast behind it. They were sealed up, but Marek is keen to see some Jersey bunkers so see how they compare with ones in Norway. Today’s photo is a picture of Peter (on the left) and Marek (on the right) posing by the bunker.

After a nice lunch in Gorey, at the foot of Mount Orgueil castle, we returned to the site so Peter could continue with the geo-radar and Marek and I could wander around the Links Estate opposite the dig, to search for the cement store of the Organisation Todt, to see if the building still stood. Our search was inconclusive but we found a potential candidate built on a concrete base!Image

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