George Henry Burgess

George Henry Burgess

The war loosened up in 1918. Both sides had been developing their approach to the impasses. Tsarist Russia had collapsed and the Germans had men released from the Eastern Front. The Allies had fresh manpower coming from the USA. Germany began an offensive on 21 March 1918, the Kaiserschlacht. Areas which had been fought over previously were fought over again, and the German troops advanced 40 miles to get within reach of the Amiens transport hub.

The allies defended, and fought back. In August they broke through against an increasingly exhausted German army. The fighting at the end of the war was untypical of it, it was by then a war of movement. There were heavy casualties, but also large numbers of prisoners taken. Fighting in this phase involved encirclement and manouvere. The Shetland Roll of Honour and Service reflects this. It lists 17 soldiers taken prisoner during the war, and 12 from 1918 alone.

One of those captured was George Henry Burgess (1894-1969). He was a member of the Shetland Territorial Army unit, and went to war as a Gordon Highlander. On 10 April 1918 he was taken prisoner in the fighting around La Bassee Canal. As a young man, he worked as a printer for the Shetland News firm. In 1919 he wrote about his experience for them in 13 parts from February to April that year.

He witnessed the German Army’s last throw from behind the lines. He said their commanders had neglected medical evacuation in favour of transport to the front. Food was continually in short supply and of poor quality. Capturing British positions had paradoxical implications for the German army.

The contents of a BEF canteen captured during an offensive were far more convincing proof of what sort of food we were eating than the daily dope of U-boat successes issued by the Wolf Bureau.

Later on he watched as the Hohenzollern regime collapsed.

The revolutionary colours were in evidence, and the waggons were seen flying the red flag.

Finally at liberty, he was surprised to have a drink with a group of German officers.

They saluted us, called four of us over, and, ordering drinks, clicked their glasses with their prisoners of yesterday. We had time to observe that they wore the revolutionary band on their caps, two had already removed the signs of rank, and, paramount in the impression that had flashed before us that wonderful day, was this of the threatened suicide of the German Army.

George Burgess became a notable person in Shetland after the war, working first as a printer for the Shetland News, then running a wholesaler. He was Provost of the Burgh of Lerwick from 1953 to 1956. Significantly, he was a dedicated member of the British Legion, and organiser of the Poppy Day collection.

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Shetland Museum. George H. Burgess as 1922 Up Helly Aa Guzier Jarl.
George H. Burgess as 1922 Up Helly Aa Guzier Jarl. Shetland Museum.