Introduction by Sabine Herrle
While searching for traces of the internment camp on Île Longue in the German Archive of Diaries (Deutsches Tagebucharchiv - DTA ) in Emmendingen, I stumbled upon the memoirs of Private Ernst Hensler which he dictated to his son Anton (born 1935) in 1970 - shortly before his death in 1971. Anton Hensler and his wife Annelis published these memoirs in 1996. In a preface they express their hopes “that these documents will be taken note of for many years to come in spite of our ’throw-away’-society.“
In Germany’s Federal Military Archive (Bundesmilitärarchiv - BMA ) in Freiburg, I not only had the chance to review the originals of all the letters quoted in this article but also to read notes hand-written by Ernst Hensler, probably in 1919. A meeting with Ernst Hensler’s sons Fridolin and Anton on July 27th, 2015, turned out to be a most personal and interesting access to Ernst Hensler. Both his memoirs and notes had already made me think of him as an astute and fun-loving person who was an excellent observer and had many-sided interests. This impression was proven correct.
I am very grateful to Fridolin and especially Anton Hensler who made this possible. Thank you so much!
1914-1919 – the years covered by his memoirs
Ernst Hensler was born in 1894 in Biesendorf (district of Konstanz, near Lake Constance). His father was a farmer. From 1900-1908 he attended the local elementary. Afterwards he worked on his parents’ farm. He was working the fields when his mother brought him his draft notice – in his words, he went “to war straight from the fields“ .
He was attached to the 170th Infantry Regiment of Baden in Offenburg (a small town halfway between Freiburg and Karlsruhe). Before his regiment marched out on December 29th, his parents travelled to Offenburg to say good-bye to their son. On the 28th, the three of them went to a photographer’s studio to have their pictures taken .
- Ernst Hensler
- avec ses parents sur 28/12/1914
mit seinen Eltern am 28.12.1914
with his parents on 12/28/1914
Hensler’s regiment was deployed to the Western Front. It didn’t take long for him to be wounded (a bullet passed clean through his right forearm).
On June 10th, 1916, he was taken prisoner near Hébuterne. Again he was wounded – this time a bullet grazed his head, leaving him bleeding profusely.
Ernst Hensler wrote about his being captured: He and his comrades surrendered shouting “Kamerad malad“.Only one out of their group of six was not wounded whereas one was dying. In the beginning the French soldiers were rather unfriendly. But this would eventually change and they offered red wine to their captives. “Some of the soldiers were right old warriors of 30 years or so. I showed the small dictionary I had on me to one of them. He flicked through it and pointed at the word “paix“. Besides this, we could not communicate.“  Hensler was frisked, but neither his watch nor his diary were discovered. 
The wounded POWs were transported to Amiens by car (Hensler: “It was my first car trip. The car didn’t look exactly posh.“ ) They were quartered in a theatre and Hensler received a tetanus shot. Then they were transported to Brest by train, via Le Mans, Anger and Nantes. For some days Hensler stayed in the Marine Hospital in Brest (“Hôpital de l’admiral maritime“) from where, on June 22nd, 1916, a steamer took him to Île Longue . He was not the only passenger – there were other wounded soldiers on this boat and also “some captured civilians and South Americans“ . Hensler was accommodated in barracks No. 52 from where he was later moved to barracks No. 53 (on September 29th, 1916) .
According to Hensler the food was good and they were treated well. He received both letters and parcels. On September 2nd, “many men attempted to break out which resulted in harsher treatment. “
Hensler clearly stated that he was not made to work since he was not deemed fit to do so: “Every month we would be examined in order to determine if we were fit for labour. Those who were considered capable would be transferred straight to a labour camp. In this manner, 500 men were moved to Rouen in November. In the course of these examinations, our section commander would always pronounce me “to be not quite sane“ because of my head wound (at which point I would always put on a hollow, dense gaze) which resulted in my being able to stay.“  He always spoke of île Longue in terms of it being a “camp for convalescents“ .
His sons Anton and Fridolin remember their father telling them that some internees had succeeded in keeping a young boar. In the beginning this was rather amusing but would become increasingly stressful as the animal turned into a full-grown boar.
The POWs mingled freely with civilian internees. “The civilians we could meet enjoyed quite a few privileges and sometimes even had money at their disposal. They shared some of it with us, staged games as well as plays and placed books at our disposal. I enrolled in classes in both shorthand and round font. I started attending teacher Giegrich’s French classes.“  This comes as a novelty. Until now, we had assumed these activities had not played a role until the end of 1916/the beginning of 1917.
Anton Hensler remembers his father always using the term “really terrific activities“ in this context.
His father also told him that he had received some education in mathematics, learning both “to draw roots“ and “to square“ in the camp. He also talked of having participated in “readers’ circles“ and of having used the library. Thus Ernst Hensler was able to considerably broaden his horizon regarding literature. The question “Didn’t they teach you this at school?“ became a running joke for the rest of his life. It was the question he would ask everybody who, in the course of a conversation, turned out to know less than he did. His “classroom“ had been Île Longue.
Hensler spent Christmas 1915 on Île Longue. He mentions this in both his notes and his memoirs. The most first-hand and direct impression, however, is conveyed by a letter to his family: “... Unlike at home, it did not snow, but we still had a Christmas tree! It was quite different than yours – firstly because it consisted of a piece of wood into which we had drilled holes stuffed with branches. Secondly it was no fir tree but a shrub completely unknown to you – gorse. And as gorse is presently in bloom we had a blooming Christmas tree. - As on Christmas, our thoughts went out to you on New Year’s Eve. ...“ 
Beginning with the end of January Hensler was put to work. At first in the camp, and, on February 14th, 1916, he had to “board a ship with [my] whole kit and caboodle, along with everybody else who was remotely fit to march“  to leave Île Longue for good. Till the beginning of 1919, however, he would stay in Brittany.
His next station was Brest (the rats’ nest, as he dubbed the Dépôt de la Pointe). Hensler had to load and unload ships. From March onward, he was assigned to help with constructing a railway to the gunpowder factory in Keroiou. Hensler observed: “Sulfur had coloured the hair of many of the women working there yellow or green.“  Next, he applied for farm labour and was deployed to farms near Carhaix and Guézec (May through December 1916).
In 1917 he was sent to several assignments near Pluigneau. One of them was with M. Jaouen, dubbed the “king of dogs“ (due to his pack of 14 hounds). Jaouen owned both a wine store and the small castle of Kermorvan and also had leases on 28 farms. Diligence was a working trait that was very important to him – you can almost hear Hensler chuckling when he recalls “the “king of dogs“ had chosen me because I spoke some French […] as we had found out it was only twice a day that the “king of dogs“ would check on his workers - he would be hunting for the rest of the day – and that he would always become quite mad if his workers, especially the POWs, did not work properly, the two of us (a fellow-POW from Hamburg and himself, S.H.) would be on our very best behaviour when he showed up. The rest of the time, however, we would take things easier...“ 
Later he had to help out in Jaouen’s winestore. Often Hensler’s children were told that the master of the cellar was a very friendly and generous person. “On Armistice Day, on November 11th, 1918, we drank to brotherhood.“ 
From December 1918 through February 1919, sick with the Spanish Flu, Hensler was hospitalized in Brest. Afterwards he was moved to help reconstruct the region near Frémonville which had been completely destroyed. In October 1919 he managed to escape to Germany (via Alsace and the Palatinate).
After the war
After the war Hensler was appointed scribe to the council of his village – possibly because of the shorthand and round font skills acquired in Île Longue. In 1934, he was sacked as he was no member of the NSDAP and refused to apply for membership. It is both for this reason as for the fact that he knew their language that the French appointed him mayor of his village in 1945. From 1946 to 1969, without interruption, he was elected to that office.
Translated by Sabine Herrle
- Anton und Annelis Hensler, Im I. Weltkrieg an der Front und in Gefangenschaft. Tagebuchaufzeichnungen und Briefe von Ernst Hensler aus Engen-Biesendorf. Selbstverlag Freiburg. No date, quoted as “Memoirs“
- Ernst Hensler’s hand-written notes, 1919 (?), no paging, Bundesmilitärarchiv (Federal Military Archive) Freiburg, MSg 2/4100 quoted as “Hand-written notes“
- Ernst Hensler’s letters from Île Longue (November 11th, 1915, January 4th, 1916, January 20th, 1916), Bundesmilitärarchiv (Federal Military Archive) Freiburg, MSg 2/4101
- Interview of Anton and Fridolin Hensler conducted in Freiburg July 29th, 2015