WW1 POW STORIES AND GREAT ESCAPES

Ragged and Lost British Soldiers–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees
On 6th December 1914, a French teenager came across two starving and ragged British soldiers.  He took them to his home where 9 others were already being sheltered.  These Tommies had been living rough since 27th August when they had fought rearguard actions to shield the B.E.F. retreating from Mons. The young lad was called Clovis Chalandre (16) and it would be his loose tongue that ensured that the men (and his dad) were eventually discovered and shot.
 
 

Boy Adds Two More Soldiers to His Collection

 

On 26th August 1914, Bernard Montgomery was 27 years old and on the run.  On the previous day his battalion had fought off a German attack at Le Cateau but when other units were ordered to retire, Monty’s was left behind.   Scores of British soldiers found themselves in a similar predicament. Exhausted from the long march to Mons and the incessant fighting that followed, soldiers fell asleep at the roadsides.  Some could not be wakened even by shell burst or punches from comrades and so had to be left behind to meet their fate.  Many were captured, but some made their way back to Britain while others were concealed by sympathetic locals. One British cavalryman spent the next four years hiding in a French woman’s cupboard!  However Monty and his small band of comrades were fortunate enough to catch up with the main column after two days of wandering.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 26th August 1914

Monty is Lost!

Bernard Montgomery–Western Front Witness–WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees

Image:  Trooper Fowler was forced to spend four years hiding in a cupboard.

 

In November 1914, Patrick Fowler was being sheltered by a French family after spending more than two months sleeping rough and scavenging for food.  Patrick had become separated from his cavalry unit during the retreat from Mons and for the remainder of the war, Madame Belmont-Gobert risked her life by sheltering the fugitive. During this time Patrick spent a lot of time in a cupboard – especially when German troops were billeted on the family!  When the Germans decided they needed the whole house, the family were ordered to move out.  Madame Belmont-Gobert persuaded a couple of burly German soldiers to lend a hand and they sweated buckets as they lifted onto a cart the cupboard in which Trooper Fowler was hiding.  In October 1918 the Germans finally abandoned the village and Patrick naturally went into the street to greet the approaching British army.  He was immediately arrested as a deserter and was led away by the military police. 

Gimme Shelter!

British Soldier Patrick Fowler–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 6th December 1914

PRISONERS OF WAR (PoWs) - GREAT ESCAPES

Image: This unnamed British serviceman was interned at Groningen, Holland.

 

In November 1914, the internment camp at Groningen (in neutral Holland) was home to around 1500 men of the Royal Naval Division.  Rules were lax and although some guards turned a blind eye to British servicemen climbing over the fence, only around 20 escaped! To relieve boredom many took paying jobs (both inside and outside the camp) and with the money they earned they were able to bribe guards to obtain for them food, gin and even ‘ladies of the night’.  They set up their own football league and the camp team played friendlies against local clubs. It was normal on a Saturday for the camp to empty as prisoners and guards headed to a match.  Indeed the camp team became so good that their game against Ajax Amsterdam ended in a 1-1 draw!  One player returned to Holland after the war to lead ‘Go Quick’ Groningen to win the Dutch league title (1920) before repeating the feat four years later with Feyenoord.

Escape or Victory

PoW Groningen Camp Holland–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees

In the orchard at Etreux, a party from the Royal Munster Fusiliers buried 110 British soldiers. When they had completed their task, their German guards served them some cabbage water in broken bottles.  There was no other food and no other utensils available.  They then marched off to begin life as Prisoners of War, 200 miles away in Germany.  Almost 6,500 British soldiers died in German P.O.W. camps but this amounts to only 3% of those captured.

Prisoners of War

Monument at Etreux–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees

ACTS OF BRAVADO

 
Along much of the Western Front the trench lines were so close that abuse could be shouted across No-man’s land, painted onto sheets, or even flown over by kite but nothing seems to have stirred the blood like a fluttering flag.  At the beginning of March 1915 the Germans had the audacity to drape a tricolour from a tree near their trenches at Armentieres.  2nd Lieutenant George Fletcher decided to slip across No-man’s land – under fire - to steal it.  He returned unhurt and a fellow officer thought that the young officer deserved either a court martial or a Victoria Cross – or both!  The rank and file were less ambivalent and lauded him as ‘the bravest man in France’.   Fletcher carried out many other acts of bravado,

Flying the Flag

2nd Lieutenant George Fletcher–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees

A week or two after George Fletcher stole a French tricolour from the Germans, a second flag arrived back in the U.K.  This time it was a prized German flag and it was delivered to the headquarters of the London Rifle Brigade.  Only days before this tempting trophy had been fluttering above the enemy front line at ‘Plug Street’, south of Ypres.   It had an irresistible allure to the Tommies opposite and on a misty morning in March 1915, Corporal Jenkin crept forward to capture it.  He returned in triumph and his story was later told in Punch magazine.

It's a Steal

Captured German Flag 1915–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees

SOLDIER REFUGEES

Major Joseph Kane is believed to be the only condemned man to escape from a German firing squad.  The officer had become trapped behind German lines as the British retreated from Mons and was caught hiding in woods.  Posters were everywhere warning fugitive British soldiers to turn themselves in or face execution.  He seemed prepared to accept his fate when his two guards led him into a courtyard but his mood changed when an officer arrived on horseback.  The German colonel scrutinised the contents of the prisoner’s pockets and refused to return these to him.  This annoyed Kane as the family photos and catholic relics were important to him and he wanted them back.  He approached the mounted officer, remonstrating politely but forcefully.  Suddenly he had dislodged the German and replaced him in the saddle.  The guards reacted and shots rang out but Kane galloped off, reaching the comparative shelter of a wood before the horse died.  Although Kane was unhurt, the poor beast had been shot four times.

British Officer Dodged Firing Squad

Major Joseph Kane–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees

After the fall of Antwerp, John Bentham and 1500 other naval ratings were interned at Groningen camp in neutral Holland. The camp was not run like a German prisoner of war camp and life here was not unpleasant.  For example gin, and ‘ladies of the night’ were freely available and internees were even allowed to return to Britain each year for a month’s leave.  On Saturdays the camp would empty as inmates and guards went off to watch a Dutch football league match and sometimes they even left camp together to pop down the pub! However Bentham and his pal considered it their duty to return to the U.K. and to active service.  To achieve a ‘Home Run’, John felt he needed four things;  the ability to speak Dutch,  civilian clothes, money and opportunity.  Could he pull it off? 

John Bentham - Dash for Freedom

British Navy Groningen Camp–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees
Knitting Club Groningen Camp–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees

Conditions in the Groningen internment camp, Holland were generally good but the 1500 naval ratings held here since October 1914 were often very bored.  The knitting club (illustrated) was popular and the men were paid for the goods they produced.  So too were members of the woodwork group, whose picture frames were sold in Selfridges in London.  John Bentham and his pal however wanted out and the first part of his plan progressed without much effort.  He became friendly with a Dutch girl and for three hours each day he was allowed to leave the camp to dine with her family.  Soon he was comfortable using key Dutch words and phrases.  Next he needed money and as a former bank employee, John found it easy to have cash transferred from home to a bank near the camp.  His penultimate requirement was civilian clothes and so the two ratings asked their parents to unpick suits and send them across in sections.  Since the camp guards had a habit of opening large parcels it was imperative that these should slip under the radar.  With the clothes reassembled by the camp tailor, John was soon ready to go.  Importantly he had not involved any of his Dutch friends in the plan in case they should suffer recriminations.

Sunday Church Groningen Camp–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees

John Bentham and a friend had decided to escape captivity in Holland and return to Britain.  At the beginning of February Bentham’s plan was coming to fruition and he simply awaited an opportunity to flee.  He decided to join the Dutch Reformed Church as they were escorted from camp each Sunday to attend a service in town (as illustrated).    On this particular Sunday the would-be escapees wore their civilian clothes under their baggy naval uniforms.  At an opportune moment they darted into the woods, changed and began the 15 mile walk to the railway station where they eventually boarded a train to Amsterdam.  Their search for food and accommodation did not go smoothly and a hotel proprietor threatened to turn them in.  The bounty for handing in British servicemen was tempting but the Dutchman accepted a generous payment from Bentham instead.  The next problem was how to get on board a ship as the docks were heavily guarded.  Will they make it to the UK?

British Ship SS Cromer–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees

It was a blow to the fugitives to find the entrance to the port of Rotterdam heavily guarded. However when they spotted an old man approaching with a large, heavily laden barrow, they seized their chance.  They decided to help him, and pushed the cart past the guards and up alongside the British cargo ship, SS ‘Cromer’(illustrated).  They were being watched but only by the crew who cheered when they ran up the gangway and onto the ship. Captain Barton was more than pleased to take them as he was entitled to a £5 premium for every man he returned to the U.K.   He dressed them as stokers to avoid suspicion when Dutch customs officers came aboard to search the vessel and next day they safely docked at Harwich.


John Bentham’s father was annoyed at his son’s return but he was consoled with a share in the ratings back pay.  This amounted to a cap full of gold sovereigns!  Bentham had also to report for a new uniform and when he spoke to the supplier he asked for the badge of ‘Leading Seaman’. This was a self promotion but no-one questioned it.  A total of 91 British servicemen attempted to escape from the Dutch camp in 1915, of whom 37 actually made it. Bentham survived the war but his friend was killed. 

In his recently published book called ‘Antiques Roadshow’, Paul Atterbury outlines how several soldiers cheated death with unexpected objects.  In the case of Wilfrid Bush, it was the bible in his breast pocket that saved him.  The impact of the bullet had propelled Private Bush into a flooded shell hole and his comrades feared the worst.  But when they dragged him out they discovered that the bullet had been unable to penetrate the bible.  This story is not unique as many soldiers carried a bible, some with a small sheet of steel inserted in the cover.  Private Bush died at his home in Bristol in 1960.

Bush Cheats Death

SOLDIERS CHEAT DEATH

Private Bush and Bible–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees
 

British soldiers were forbidden to carry cameras but Lieutenant Ralfe Whistler had no regrets about breaking this rule after one saved his life.  After distressing images had appeared in the press during 1914, the army decided to clamp down on unofficial photographs.  Ralfe opted to ignore this instruction and carried his camera on tours of duty in Europe and the Middle East.  At Kut in Iraq, a bullet destined for his heart lodged in his camera but his life was spared only for another year as he was killed in the Battle of Arras in 1917.  The story of Ralfe Whistler is told in Paul Atterbury’s recently published book called ‘Antiques Roadshow’.

Whistler's Camera

Ralph Whistler and Camera–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees
It was more like a top class hotel than a P.O.W. camp but Donington Hall, England was not to the liking of its most famous inmate.  For celebrity aviator Gunther Puschow, the lavish lifestyle (which brought criticism from ‘Punch’ magazine as shown) still fell below his expectations.  At Donington Hall German officers enjoyed the luxury of attentive servants (German soldiers) and sumptuous meals.  However, board here was not on an ‘all inclusive’ basis and bottles from the wine list or beers from the bar, had to be paid for.  However Friday was pay day and inmates were lined up to receive a cash allowance from the German government.  Security was also rather lax and on 4th July 1915, Gunther Pluschow achieved the first and only escape (ever) from a British P.O.W. camp. He received a hero’s welcome on his return to Germany and the full story of his escape is featured in ‘Strange Times! 1915’.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 4th July 1915

Escape From the Life of Riley

Cartoon POW Camp Donington Hall–Western Front Witness– WW1 PoW-Great Escapes-PoW Stories-Soldier Refugees