Behind the Wire – One Argylls story as a Prisoner of War

A recent collection donation to the museum has shed light onto one soldiers World War Two experiences. Private James Weir Baird, 7th (Stirlingshire) Battalion of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Private Baird, known as ‘Weir’, enlisted at Stirling on the 16th of October 1939 and became a Prisoner of War (POW) less than a year later. This is his incredible story .

Portrait of Private James Weir Baird, taken only a few weeks before capture, in May 1940.

Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum/ Elizabeth Baird

Weir was given basic military training in Tillicoultry, near Stirling, and was then later trained as a Signaller, a specialist soldier responsible for military communications. Signallers would operate signal equipment, relay messages, and maintain telephone lines, often under enemy fire at the front lines. The role was vital in ensuring that accurate information was relayed between headquarters and the front lines so that soldiers knew what to do, where to go, and when to attack. Signallers would wear a badge that shows two flags crossed together, such as Weir’s badge below.

Signallers badge that belonged to Private James Weir Baird
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

In May 1940, the 7th (Stirlingshire) Battalion were at the Maginot Line, a defence line built by the French at the German border. When the Battalion moved to the Somme, Weir was instructed to stay at the Battalion Headquarters in the village of Franleu due to his role as a Signaller. However, the Germans were nearby and soon attacked the headquarters leaving many wounded and dead. Weir was trying to help look after the wounded soldiers but was hit by the Germans when looking for provisions for the injured. However, there were around thirty dead soldiers in the school room which Weir was able to hide amongst. Despite his attempts, Weir was captured and taken as a POW by the Germans on the 9th of June 1940.

In his first year as a POW, Weir was moved around a lot with poor treatment and little food. He would end up in Arras, where he was placed on a kitchen table for a French doctor to remove the bullet and other shrapnel from his wound with no anaesthetic. In his personal notes he mentions his wound becoming infected, that maggots could be found under his bandages and that he developed blood poisoning. A French trainee nurse used boiled sunflower heads to bathe his sores which was an interesting but successful treatment method. He was then taken to Lille, then to Tournai where he helped in the hospital, then to Alexisdorf. He was locked in a cattle wagon whilst the RAF bombed the railway, and then stopped at Straflager where the treatment was rough.

Weir later arrived back in France in Strasbourg where he was given his German POW number as 236 in October 1940. Whilst in Strasbourg, he was made to push field guns through the streets whilst the French crowd threw stones. Weir was then moved to Gratz in the German occupied zone of Poland, now called Grodzisk Wielkopolski. Whilst here, the POWs built a cobbled road to the village. Near the end of June 1941, when the Germans advanced into Russia, Weir was put back on the move.

Weir’s German POW identity tag.
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

Eventually, Weir was sent to Marienburg Stalag XXB, a prisoner of war camp and it was here that Weir volunteered to be sent to a farm, in Rambeltsch , where he remained for the next three and a half years. The picture below was drawn by Weir and depicts the farm that he worked and lived on.

Weir’s sketch of the German farm he worked on in Rambeltsch.
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

The treatment on the farm was better than Weir had experienced prior to arriving. This was due to the regular Red Cross Parcels that were sent to the prisoners. Sending Red Cross Parcels was allowed due to the signing and agreement of the Geneva Convention 1929 which was a series of treaties that protected and ensured humane treatment of civilians and prisoners of war. The Germans and Italians followed the rules of the convention, behaving fairly towards the British POWs, although rations were still meagre, living conditions tough, and prisoners often had to complete heavy labour work. On the farm, Weir had to attend to the mucking out and labouring duties, as well as killing different animals. He was eventually put in charge of the cows where he was responsible for milking them. This job gave him relative freedom as there were no guards that watched over him and so he could go out and trade or steal things like milk and food. Weir grew attached to one of the cows and when it died, he kept the ear tag as a reminder.

Ear tag of the cow that Weir looked after whilst working on the farm.
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

After Weir’s capture his parents did not know what had happened to him and letters and correspondences reveal that they searched for him tirelessly. His parents found out about the attack on the battalion headquarters from Weir’s officer at the end of June – they were not told if he had died or had been taken prisoner. A letter to Weir dating 4th of September 1940 from Weir’s father, James Baird, states that “It has been a tremendous relief to your mother and I to hear from you now after weeks, even months, of weary waiting.” Weir had sent his parents letters early on in his capture, however, it took time for them to be sorted out and records of his status to be updated before they arrived in his parents hands.

Weir had assured his parents that, “I have been taken prisoner and am all right, well looked after and fed.” In a letter to his father dated June 1940 he tells his father, “I assure you I am alright I was injured in the left leg but I am able to go about and help the less fortunate.” In reality, this would have been around the same time he was being operated on in France with his wounds gradually getting worse. He later wrote that “If Our Maker meant this to happen it is not for us to reason. I have great faith in Him.” Weir and his parents kept in contact throughout his time as a POW. Weir pinned the below photo of his parents to his wall in the camps and the pin hole is still visible.

Photograph Weir kept in the camps of his parents.
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum/ Elizabeth Baird

Unfortunately, Weir never got to see his father again. He died during Weir’s imprisonment. A close friend wrote to Weir that “I know you will be brave as your Father would have wished you to be, when I tell you with deepest regret that your Father passed away in his sleep on the 27th May [1942].”

When Weir was released in 1945, he was granted medical leave and returned home to his mother after five years of being a Prisoner of War. Records show he stayed in the army but was transferred to The Gordon Highlanders.

In total over 170,000 British soldiers were taken as POWs by the German and Italian forces during World War Two. Whilst each experience was different, it is incomprehensible what these men suffered.  The museum is very fortunate to have this detailed story of Private James Weir Baird. It gives a valuable and personal insight into life as a POW.

When visiting the museum, you can see some of Weir’s belongings on display in the Prisoner of War Gallery.

Written by Caitlin Stewart, Digital Content Volunteer