Friday, 30 March 2012


Written by Sarah Chalmers
To anyone who witnessed prisoner of war Major Alexis Casdagli crouched in the corner of an internment camp in Germany during the Second World War, he must have looked to have been engaged in the most anodyne of pursuits.

With needles donated by the Red Cross and threads pulled from the jumper of an elderly Cretan general, he passed endless hours painstakingly sewing animals and lettering on to a canvas left him by a fellow prisoner. But on closer inspection the lovingly perfected sampler was much more. For alongside details of his name and the date, Major Casdagli had stitched a coded message that was at odds with the image of his chosen pursuit.

In what appeared to be a random pattern of dots and dashes in the border, the POW had inscribed his embroidery: 'God save the King' and F**k Hitler' – in Morse code.

1533367bMajor Alexis Casdagli

It was a small, but potentially dangerous, act of rebellion which, according to the major's son Tony, 'kept him sane' during four years of incarceration in German POW camps. He spent a month perfecting that sampler and made many more, including one titled Room 13, Spangenberg Castle, about the camp near Kassel, central Germany, where he spent most of his internment. The bleak work depicted the inmates' cells, a lump of coal, a sign saying 'Bath every 14 days' and, at the bottom, a Union Jack. National emblems were forbidden, but the major had attached a " ap, stitched with the words 'Do not open' in German.

Tony says: 'Each week during inspection the same officer would open the "flap and say: "This is illegal". My Dad would reply: "You're showing it, I'm not showing it".'

Today Tony, 79, has been reunited with his father's work after the V&A Museum returned it to him at the end of its Power Of Making exhibition.

'It's quite emotional looking at them because so many are about freedom,' he says. 'Some contain words from Oscar Wilde's Ballad Of Reading Gaol. The Major also used to embroider butterflies; he was responsible for clearing the moat at Spangenberg Castle so it could be used for sport, and prisoners used to give him caterpillars. He watched one morph into a Swallowtail butterfly. Then he embroidered it, to show that some things could " y away even though he couldn't.' The work is a rare find – because by their very nature the coded messages had to be kept hidden – but not without precedent.

samplersTony Casdagli, the Major's son, with one of his fathers seditious samplers

Seditious stitching can be traced back some 300 years. Recently, the V&A displayed an infant's cot quilt from 1690, into which the child's seamstress had stitched a message in ribbon about her own illicit diary. The museum also showed a love poem stitched into a tapestry for her husband by one Elizabeth Chapman in 1829. It looked innocent, but behind the ode was an epitaph to a woman who was embalmed by her husband and whose life inspired a macabre Georgian horror story.

But perhaps the most famous form of patchwork protests were the Changi quilts, made by a group of women held captive in Singapore after the Japanese occupation in 1942. The three 6ft by 3ft patchworks were pieced from old clothes, bed linen and other fabric scraps. Each of the women – many of whom were British – embroidered her name in a square to reassure their husbands, who were held in a nearby military hospital, that they were alive.

Major Casdagli's own internment began in Crete in 1941, when he was captured by the Germans during the Allies' disastrous campaign. The son of Greek cotton merchants with businesses in Egypt and Manchester, he had been living in Cairo with his wife Joyce and young son Tony, when war broke out and he signed up. For a month after he was captured, Joyce had no idea if her husband was alive or dead. When she heard he was in a German POW camp, it took almost a year to get parcels and letters to him.

Hungry, bored, frightened and frustrated, Major Casdagli resumed his childhood hobby of stitching when an inmate gave him a canvas and some needles. In one work he recorded some of the deprivations of camp life, stitching a menu: 'Soup, potatoes, wurst, bread, semolina.' And when a Red Cross parcel arrived containing a knife and fork, he wrote in his diary that he had forgotten how to use them. He would later credit the Red Cross with saving his life but always attributed the preservation of his sanity to his needlework. 'If you sit down and stitch, you can forget about other things,' he used to say.

The Major encouraged others to sew, giving classes for 40 prisoners, which proved very popular. During his internment he found a way of sending some of his work home. When Tony was 11 he received a sampler with a laboriously stitched message, concluding: 'It is 1,581 days since I saw you last but it will not be long now. Do you remember when I fell down the well? Look after Mummy till I get home again.' Another poignant piece, which hangs on the stairs in Tony's home, lists the years 1939-43 by Joyce's initials and reads 'Any Day Now'.

actual-samplerThe Major's sampler, secretly stitched with Morse code messages

But it was to be another two years before he was repatriated. In April 1945 he was flown back to Britain, given a cursory medical and £10. He took two buses to get home, only to find Joyce had gone to pick up Tony from school. When his wife and child returned the war veteran noted in his diaries: 'My cup of happiness was full.'

Sadly, the ecstasy that comes with freedom did not last and after an operation to correct a hernia (the result of heavy manual work in Germany), he left for Greece as part of a British military mission, during the Civil War.

'He was very frustrated,' recalls Tony who, by then an adult, saw little of his father. However, the marriage did not last, although both the Major and Joyce went on to marry again.

In his later years, father and son became close, often stitching together at the elderly man's North London home. 'He never talked about the war and I never asked. We mostly talked about cricket.'

The Major died, aged 90, in 1996 and Tony says: 'There are so many things I wish I had asked him about, but people of that generation didn't talk about these things. For many, not divulging things was what kept them safe and brought them home.'

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