AN AIRMAN'S ESCAPE FROM GERMANY
CAPTAIN KNIGHT, R.A.F.
1919 LONDON: WILLIAM HEINEMANN London: William Heinemann, 1919
To the Memory of
CAPTAIN MORRITT, LIEUT. MEDLICOTT, LIEUT. WALTERS,
AND ALL OTHER OFFICERS, N.C.O.'S AND MEN, WHO, BEING LESS FORTUNATE, GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE ENDEAVOUR.
Beloved Country! banished from thy shore, A stranger in this prison house of clay, The exiled spirit weeps and sighs for thee! Heavenward the bright perfections I adore Direct, and the sure promise cheers the way, That, whither love aspires, there shall my dwelling be.
"The spelling of the word 'Bosch' was the customary one in the German prisoners' camps from which the author made his escape, and is retained for the sake of local colour."
P. 25, line 6 from bottom, for "weis" read "weiss."
P. 43, line 14, for "balolaika" read "balalaika."
P. 47, line 10 and p. 55, line 16, for "Weiswein" read "Weisswein."
P. 51, line 7, for "Hammelin" read "Hameln."
P. 126, line 20, for "Pupchen" read "Pueppchen."
P. 159, line 16, for "Briefeasten" read "Briefkasten."
(An Airman's Capture and subsequent Escape from Germany)
It was November 9th, 1916. I lay in a state of luxurious semi-consciousness pondering contentedly over things in general, transforming utter impossibilities into plausible possibilities, wondering lazily the while if I were asleep. Presently, to my disgust an indefinable, yet persistent "something" came into being, almost threatening to dispel the drowsy mist then pervading my brain. The slow thought waves gradually ceased their surging, and after a slight pause began to collect round the offending mystery, as if seeking to unravel it in a half-hearted sort of way. They gave me to understand that the "something" recurred at intervals, and even suggested that it might be a voice, though from which side of the elastic dividing line it emanated they were quite unable to say. With the consoling thought that voices often come from dreamland I allowed the whole subject to glide gently into the void and the tide of thought to continue its drugged revolutions. The next instant a noisy whirlwind swept the cobwebs away. I knew that the voice was indeed a reality, for it delivered the following message: "A very fine morning, sir!" Obviously my dutiful servant desired me to rise and enjoy the full benefit of the beautiful day. Agreeing with Harry Lauder, that "It's nice to get up in the morning, but it's nicer to stay in bed!" I am sorry to say I cunningly dismissed the orderly with a few false assurances, turned over on my side and promptly forgot all about such trivial matters. Conscience was kicking very feebly, and just as sleep was about to return, the air commenced to vibrate and something swept overhead with a whirling roar—an "early bird" testing the air. Galvanised into action by this knowledge, I sprang out of bed, and seizing whatever garments happened to be the nearest, was half dressed before I had even time to yawn! Then snatching up my map, coat, hat, and goggles, I burst from the hut and began slithering along the duck-boards towards the hangars, at the same time endeavouring to fasten the unwilling hooks of my Flying Corps tunic and devoutly hoping that I should not be late for the bomb raid. For weeks we had been standing by for this raid in particular, the object of which was to bomb Douai aerodrome. This was a particularly warm spot to fly over, for in these days it was regarded as the home of "Archies" and the latest hostile aircraft. It is, therefore, not surprising that the general feeling of the squadron was that the sooner it was over the better for all concerned. Arrived at the sheds I was relieved to find that I was in good time, at all events. The machines (two-seater artillery machines, then commonly known as "Quirks") were lined up on the aerodrome with bomb racks loaded, their noses to the wind, awaiting the signal to ascend. I saluted the C.O., waved to a friend or two and climbed into the pilot's seat of my waiting machine. Then, adjusting the levers, I signified to the waiting mechanics that I was ready for them to "suck in" (an operation necessary prior to the starting of the engine). Having made sure that everything was O.K. and waited for the others to ascend, I took off and, after climbing steadily for some time, took up my specified position in the formation. For some time we circled about over a pre-arranged rendezvous, until joined by an escort of fighting machines and another squadron of bombers, and then settled down to business. Flying straight into the sun we soon arrived at and passed over the irregular spidery lines of trenches (those on Vimy Ridge showing up particularly clearly), and continued forging ahead, past many familiar landmarks, always in the direction of Douai. I for one never dreamt of being taken prisoner and had every intention of making a record breakfast on my return. My engine was going rather badly, but the odds were that it would see me through. Only too soon the anti-aircraft started their harassing fire, throwing up a startling number of nerve-racking, high explosive shells, each one a curling black sausage of hate and steel splinters. When we were some way over my machine lagged behind the rest. The engine spluttered intermittently and could not be induced to go at all well. As my machine became more isolated I cast anxious glances about and was soon rewarded by seeing two wicked little enemy scouts waiting for an easy prey (at that time they did not usually attack a formation, but waited behind for the likes o' me). While one scout attracted my attention on the left and I was engaged in keeping him off by firing occasional bursts, a machine gun opened fire with a deafening clatter at point-blank range from behind. In an instant the surrounding air became full of innumerable tiny, brilliant flames, passing me at an incredible speed like minute streaks of lightning, each one giving forth a curious staccato whistling crack as it plunged through or beside the tormented machine, leaving in its wake a thin curling line of blue smoke. I was in the middle of a relentless storm of burning tracer bullets, vying one with the other for the honour of passing through the petrol tank, thereby converting my machine into a seething furnace. Having no observer to defend my tail I turned steeply to meet my new adversary. However, before completing the manoeuvre I received another deadly burst of fire, which, though it somehow missed me, shot away several of my control wires. What happened next I cannot be sure, but the machine seemed to turn over, and my machine gun fell off with a crash. This took place at an altitude of six thousand feet. My next impression was that I seemed to be in the centre of a whirling vortex, around which all creation revolved at an extraordinary speed, and realised that my trusty steed was indulging in a particularly violent "spinning nose dive." A "spin" at the best of times rather takes one's breath away, so, shutting the throttle, I endeavoured to come out of it in the usual way. To my surprise, the engine refused to slow down, or any of the controls to respond, except one, which only tended to make matters worse.
The one thing left to be done was to "switch off" and trust to luck. This, however, was more easily decided on than accomplished, for by this time the machine was plunging to earth so rapidly, with the engine full on, that I felt as if I were tied to a peg-top, which was being hurled downwards with irresistible force. Fighting blindly against the tremendous air-pressure, which rendered me hardly able to move, I forced my left arm, inch by inch, along the edge of the "cockpit" until I succeeded in turning the switch lever downwards. A glance at the speedometer did not reassure me, the poor thing seemed very much overworked. Descending very rapidly I kept getting a glimpse of a pretty red-roofed village, which became ominously more distinct at every plunging revolution.
I vaguely thought there would be rather a splash when we arrived at our destination, but at eight hundred feet Providence came to the rescue. I heard the welcome cessation of the wild screaming hum of the strained wires. After switching on, the engine informed me with much spluttering that it was sorry that I should have to land on the wrong side, but it really had done its best. I had just managed to turn towards our trenches, when the scout pilot, seeing I did not land, at once followed me down and with its machine gun impressed on me that the sooner I landed the better. As I was then a long way over the lines, sinking fast towards the tree-tops, I had no alternative, so endeavoured to reach the village green. By this time the machine was literally riddled with bullets, though, luckily, I had not been touched. Before landing I overtook a German horseman, so thinking to introduce myself I dived on him from a low altitude, just passing over his head. Well, scare him I certainly did, poor man; he was much too frightened to get off, and seemed to be doing his best to get inside his would-be Trojan animal. The machine landed on a heap of picks and shovels, ran among a number of Huns who were having a morning wash at some troughs (or rather I should say, a lick and a promise!). They scattered and then closed in on the machine. I ran one wing into a post, and tried the lighter, which did not work. I was a prisoner. Undoubtedly, the next German communique announced that the gallant Lieutenant X. had brought down his thirtieth machine; it is probable that this gallant officer had heard strange rumours of what lay behind the British lines, but preferred cruising on the safer side. I could hardly believe that these grey-clad, rather unshaven men who jabbered excitedly were genuine "Huns." I was furious and very "fed-up," but that did not help, so turning in my seat and raising my hand I said, "Gutten Morgen." This surprised them so much that they forgot to be rude and mostly returned the compliment.
The immediate treatment I received was rather better than I had expected. Several officers came forward, and one, who held a revolver, told me in broken English to get out. So leaving my poor old machine, we proceeded to the village headquarters.
Photographers appeared from nowhere and I was twice "snapped" on the way, though I'm afraid I did not act up to the usual request, "look pleasant." On arriving at a small house I was received by a German general, who looked rather like an Xmas tree, the Iron Crosses were so numerous. As I stood to attention he politely inquired if I spoke German, even condescending to smile faintly when I replied, "Ja, un peu!" At first when I answered a few preliminary questions he was politeness itself. He then asked for my squadron number, to which I could only reply that I was sorry but could not answer him, whereupon he pointed out that it was of no military value whatever, and that it was only to assist in my identification in the report of my capture which would go to England. So thoughtful of him; such a plausible excuse! Of course I remained silent, whereupon "la politesse" vanished and an angry Hun took its place. He screamed, threatened, and waved his arms about, but as I did not seem very impressed at the display, he rushed out of the room, slamming the door and not returning. Oh, for a "movie" camera! A Flying Corps officer then took me in a car to an aerodrome, and told me I should have lunch with the officers at the chateau, where they were quartered. Here I met about nine German airmen, who greeted me in a typically foreign manner. They seemed quite a nice lot on the whole, though I did not know them long enough to really form an opinion. Soon a good German gramophone was playing and lunch began. The food was rather poor, but champagne plentiful. During the meal the gramophone, which was nearest to me, finished a record, so getting up I changed the needle and started the other side. But it wasn't the "Bing Boys" this time! Strange to say, they were quite astonished at this performance, thinking, perhaps, that I could not change the needle. Afterwards, at coffee, a lieutenant asked me what we thought of their flying corps, to which I replied that I thought it was all right. He seemed quite prepared for this, and hastily said that I must remember that they had fewer machines. I think it must have occurred to every captured airman how splendid it would be to steal an enemy aeroplane and fly back, then after a graceful landing report to the C.O. that you had returned. These flights are not infrequently pleasurably accomplished in imagination, but such opportunities do not often, if ever, present themselves.
Just before leaving the chateau, I excused myself and got as far as the back door, where I had to explain to some German orderlies that I was only trying to find my coat. I was taken by car to corps headquarters at another chateau, where I saw some young officers, elegantly dressed, lounging about. After much useless bowing and scraping I was again interrogated by an objectionable colonel, but they seemed used to failure, and soon ceased their efforts. A major who assisted spoke English well, and made himself quite pleasant till I left. On hearing that I was in the Devons he told me that on leaving the university his father had sent him to live at a small village near Barnstaple, where he had remained for several years. Doubtless, a hard-working man of leisure! He seemed a very able officer, but decidedly young for a German major. On being told that all leather goods were confiscated, I was forced to give up my Sam Brown belt much against my will. They seemed very familiar with the movements of our troops, and I noticed that though their telephones were rather large and clumsy they carried slight sounds very distinctly, so much so, that when at the other end of the room I could hear practically the whole conversation.
Towards evening the major told me to get ready to go to Cambrai, and at the same time said, that as my leather flying coat was also confiscated they had cut off the fur collar, which he then handed back. This rather annoyed me, so I told him to keep it, which incident I regretted afterwards. However, he lent me a German coat, which was some comfort. On the way to Cambrai we again passed near the lines, some British star shells being plainly visible. What a difference a few kilometres make! The Germans depend on their railway transport more than we do. Certainly their road transport cannot be compared with ours. We passed a few cars and motor lorries, the majority giving one the impression that they were falling to bits, so noisy and shabby were they. I only saw two or three motor cyclists the whole time, and those I did see rode machines of an antiquated pattern. We passed a lot of horse transport, nearly all the ambulances in the district being horse drawn. Most cars, including our own, were only capable of emitting useless squeaks on emergencies.
Soon we entered Cambrai, an old, picturesque French town, and drew up at the entrance to the citadel, where a guard allowed us to enter. I was then left with a Lieutenant Schram, the intelligence officer, who gave me coffee and cigars and plied me with questions. He was very anxious to discover all he could about our tanks, and possessed many supposed models, mostly not in the least like them. He emphasised the opinion that, of course we should not get Bapaume, at the same time allowing he thought there might be a moving battle in the spring. From his conversation I gathered that they were very familiar with formation and movements of most of our Colonial units. The tete-a-tete at an end, I was taken to my quarters, a bare whitewashed room, containing one French flying officer, two British lieutenants, if I remember rightly, both in the D.L.I., having been taken near Bapaume, and also a Canadian sergeant-major. It is unnecessary to say how pleased I was to see them. Some one had acquired a portion of an old magazine, which was much sought after, it being the only means of passing the time. Our sleeping accommodation consisted of two old straw mattresses, one on the floor and the other on a shelf above.
Being tired we slept soundly, but in the morning we were horrified to find we had not been alone, but that quite a varied menagerie had shared our couches with us. Why the blankets did not run away in the night I cannot think. The Huns promised to have lots of things done but never did anything, in fact, they lie as easily as they breathe, even when there is nothing to be gained by it.
A comparatively nice N.C.O. was in charge of us, called Nelson! We afterwards learnt that his father had been English, and that his own knowledge of England appeared to be confined to an Oxford restaurant. One day when our lunch, consisting of black and watery soup, was brought up he sympathetically remarked that it was a pity we could not have chicken and ham. I wonder what he would have done had some one enticingly rattled a shilling on a plate?
During the day we were allowed to walk round the barrack square for about three hours with eighty British and a hundred and fifty French soldiers, some of whom were daily detailed to work in the town. I noticed that the Germans were inclined to treat our soldiers the worst, frequently shouting threats at them in their guttural language. In the evenings I sometimes managed to get downstairs with the men, and in this way was able to join in some impromptu sing-songs. Sanitary arrangements were very bad and disinfectants unknown. We were allowed to buy a little extra bread and some turnip jam at exorbitant prices, which helped us considerably, as breakfast consisted only of luke-warm acorn coffee, lunch of a weird soup containing sauerkraut or barley, supper of soup or tea alternate days. We amused ourselves by carving our names on the table, or by drawing regimental crests or pictures of Hun aeroplanes descending in flames, in out of the way corners. On being told that toothbrushes were out of stock (I do not think they ever were in), I manufactured a home-made one on boy scout lines. It consisted of a small bundle of twigs and splinters tied together (like a young besom), and though it did its work well, the morning sweep was decidedly painful.
ADVENTURE NO. 1
After remaining there a week we were told that we should leave the next morning for Germany, which we should grow to like very much! During our stay, except for a few exciting intervals when British machines passed over the town, we had plenty of time for meditation, and usually when darkness fell could see by the gun flashes that the evening strafe was in progress. This always reminded me of an argument which had once taken place in our squadron mess, late one evening before turning in, during which I had expressed the opinion that should any one with infantry experience be forced to land the wrong side just before dark, provided he could avoid Huns, it might be just possible for him to return the next night through the trenches. Now I felt it was up to me to prove it should such an opportunity present itself.
Cambrai citadel is both solid and imposing, and must have proved itself a formidable fortress. Crowning a slight eminence, it overlooks most of the town. On the three sides are ramparts, varying from about twenty to sixty feet in height, while on a fourth it is now bounded by barbed wire and high railings, with only a slight drop on the other side. At the main entrance the road crosses the old moat and passes under a massive archway which adjoins the guardroom. All the approaches to the outer walls are guarded by quantities of barbed wire and numerous sentries.
After a thorough search I at last discovered a small round hole in the wall of an outbuilding near the roof, through which I decided it would be possible to squeeze, in the dusk, unobserved by the sentry. The new German coat I had received on the way had been again in its turn exchanged for an old French one. This I took to the men's quarters and, finally, after hunting the whole place, found an old German coat hanging up. After bargaining for some time I made my fourth exchange, and returned successful. Later in the afternoon an English N.C.O. told me that he had heard of my search and presented me with an old German fatigue cap which had been unearthed somewhere by his pals.
Now having everything ready I determined to try my luck about six o'clock that evening before being shut up for the night. After learning some new German words likely to be of use, such as "wire entanglements," "dug-outs," etc., I returned to my room and waited. My plan was to follow the gun flashes, which in all probability would lead me to the Bapaume area, where I expected to find some wire or wooden posts, which I should carry with me as I approached the lines, and endeavour to avoid suspicion by mingling with working parties as an engineer. If thus far successful I hoped to repair the German wire entanglements, which in this district were much damaged by our shell fire, and eventually slip away and get into touch with our patrols.
At a quarter to six a German flying officer entered our room and invited me to dinner at their Cambrai headquarters, assuring me that there would be plenty to eat and drink. (I expect after skilfully mixed drinks they hoped to loosen my tongue. When a Hun lays himself out to be pleasant it is almost certain that in some way he expects to benefit by it.) If you wish to realise how tempting this offer was, live on a watery starvation diet for eight days and then be given the opportunity of a good meal. However, when I excused myself on the plea of being a little unwell, "Mein freund" was quite non-plussed. While he was still trying to extract information, unsuccessfully, from the others, I left the room after pocketing a slice of bread.
Once in the outhouse I chose my time and, climbing up to the hole in the wall, squeezed myself through with difficulty, for it was only just large enough. When the sentry's back was turned I dropped to the ground on the other side, about ten feet below, making considerable noise. I was now past the line of barbed wire, but there still remained the ramparts to negotiate. Never having been able to see over this point from our quarters we had no means of ascertaining the drop to the ground below. The corner of the ramparts I was making for was under forty yards away, but it took me about three-quarters of an hour to get there, crawling on crackling dry leaves under the shadow of the wall. The slightest noise would probably have attracted the sentry's attention and caused him to switch on the electric light, which they all carry slung round their necks. Oh! what a noise those leaves made! Just before I got to the wall I heard rather a commotion outside the guardroom, and although expecting to get at least a night's start before my absence was discovered, concluded that I had already been missed. (Afterwards I found that this was indeed the case, as the German flying officer on leaving had told the commandant that I was unwell; a doctor was then sent up, but I could not be found.) Getting up, I ran to the wall and looked over. In the dusk I faintly distinguished some bushes below. The glance was not reassuring, but "the die was cast," and over I went. I shall always remember that horrible sensation of falling. It took longer than I expected to reach the ground. Instantaneously there flashed through my brain a formula I had learnt at school, i.e., that an object falling increases its velocity thirty-two feet per second. I now realised for the first time how true it was. The drop was somewhere between twenty and thirty feet. Just near the ground my fall was broken by my being suspended for the fraction of a second on some field telephone wires, which broke and deposited me in the centre of a laurel bush, which split in half with a crash. It is not so much the fall but the sudden stop which does the damage. My breath being knocked out of me and seeing several floating stars of great brilliance, I vaguely wondered if I were dead, but I was considerably relieved to find that this was not the case. No bones broken, only some bruises. As I was getting to my feet I heard some one coming down a gravel path which passed beside me. Crouching down, I saw it was a civilian, who proceeded to light a cigar and passed on. I followed suit by lighting my one and only cigarette, and after cutting a stick, entered a darkened street, externally a perfectly good Hun.
But even German soldiers are subject to restrictions and I might be asked questions. Consequently, my one idea was to get out of the town as quickly as possible. I met two French women, to whom I explained my position, and asked the nearest way into the country. They were frightened and unwilling to talk at first, but when I opened my coat and showed them the British uniform underneath, they pointed to a road which I followed. Soon the town was left behind and I was making for the gun-flashes and crossing a turnip field. Swinging along at a good pace the turnip-tops whipped my boots and made quite a noise. Suddenly a challenge rang out from a small railway bridge. "Halt! Wer da!" (On these occasions it seems as if one's heart has been put to the wrong use, it being really fashioned to be a pendulum for a grandfather clock.) The next second an electric light was switched on, but I had already fallen among the turnips, endeavouring to make a noise like one (a turnip). Then ensued an interesting silence fraught with many possibilities. Did the turnip's voice deceive the Hun? At any rate the light was soon turned off, much to my relief; then quietly I slipped away. After about an hour's walking across country I came to what I supposed to be a stream, showing up in the moonlight, with a few bushes growing along the side. Walking parallel to it for a few yards and not seeing a bridge, I thought it might be quite shallow, so tested it with a stick. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I found that it was not water at all, but a narrow white concrete path, evidently newly made. I noticed that nearly all roads running parallel to the front had a very deep trench dug on the east (German) side. Presumably, these were later used considerably when we were engaged in shelling the roads. Soon I came to the Cambrai Canal, which had to be crossed, and as it was the middle of November it gave me the shivers even to look at the dark water. After walking some distance down the tow-path, I encountered a Hun. Though not feeling at all bold I said, "G'nacht," which I felt sounded feeble, though I knew it to be the correct thing in some parts of Germany. To this he replied, "Abend" (evening). (Quite a valuable lesson in the usual custom among soldiers.)
Skirting a few houses and a timber yard I approached a large well-built iron railway bridge spanning the canal. Climbing over some barbed wire I cautiously mounted the embankment. Looking along the bridge I saw there were two lines separated by some arched iron girders. From recent experience I knew that this must be strongly guarded, but reasoned that if I closely followed a train I should in all probability find the line free for a few seconds. Presently a freight train came rumbling along, and I rushed after it in a whirl of air, in my haste almost being knocked down by the end carriages. As the bridge was rather long and the train going fast, in a very short time I was being left stranded. When I was nearing the other side I stopped an instant to listen. It was just as well I did. Not more than three yards away, on the other side of the ironwork, a man spoke in German and was immediately answered by another, who turned on his light and commenced walking towards the end of the bridge I was making for, to return to his old beat on my line. There was no time to lose, so rushing back on tip-toe and down the embankment I fell over the barbed wire at the bottom, which painfully impressed on me its disapproval of my conduct.
After following the canal for a few hundred yards there seemed no alternative but to swim across, so in I went, greatcoat and all. It was awfully cold. At first my clothes and fleeced-lined flying boots held the air and supported me, so that I lay on the surface of the water as if bathing in the Dead Sea, feeling very ridiculous. But only too soon everything filled up and I felt like a stone. Swimming as silently as possible, I had almost reached the opposite bank, feeling very tired, when I saw something glisten just in front which looked very like a bayonet, and a man's voice shouted "Hier." Picture the situation: a dark but starry November night, Hun sentry guarding barges, and a poor wretch floundering about in the water, then you will not be surprised that my heart after jumping into my mouth, worked overtime again! The Hun thought I was a dog; I must be one without delay if I wished to preserve a whole skin, so after a spluttering growl I turned back with new energy, swimming like a dog and whining softly. After again calling to me several times he threw a few things in my direction, which fortunately went wide. I then swam round a barge and with a great effort pulled myself out of the water, rewarding the Hun, who was now calling a friend, with a final bark. I ran across a field with the water pouring from me. I did not think one could be so cold, an icicle was warm in comparison! With numb fingers I wrung some of the water out of my clothes, and with chattering teeth considered the situation. Here I was, still on the wrong side—the only thing left to try was a village bridge. Again following the tow-path I neared some lights, which proved to be a hospital, and found myself in an apparently unoccupied station-yard, among a number of large heaps. On raising a corner of a tarpaulin which covered the nearest I recognised the familiar wicker crates, which contained something heavy. It was an ammunition dump! I soon found the name of the station on the deserted platform—Manniers.
As I was leaving the dump, thinking of a possible future, and what a lovely explosion one well-directed bomb would make, I heard some one coming towards me. At once hopping off the road I crouched against one of the shell heaps where the darkness was more dense, my weight causing the wicker to creak. But the seemingly deaf individual passed by and I breathed again. Entering the main village street at a good pace, whistling a German tune, I was accosted by two Huns carrying a heavy basket on a stick. One inquired of me the way to some headquarters. I dared not stop, so turning my head, growled out a sullen "Ich weiss nicht" (I don't know). They seemed grieved at my bad manners, but were soon left behind. Although it was very late a number of troops were still singing uproariously in the various estaminets which I passed. On turning a corner I saw the village bridge and on it a sentry box. While I stood in the dark shadow of a house a small party of Germans, carrying saddlery, overtook me. Tacking myself on casually behind some of them we all passed over the bridge quite happily, and feeling in a cheeky mood I wished the sentry "good evening."
Once more I was passing swiftly over the country, devoutly hoping there would not be any more canals. Several hours passed uneventfully. Some of the concrete paths leading in the right direction afforded excellent walking. They were mostly new and appeared to be only laid on the mud without any foundation. On a small rise I came upon a trench system under construction (probably the now famous Hindenburg line), which I examined. The few dug-outs I saw were incomplete, the trenches rather wet and shallow and not yet sandbagged. After crossing two lines of more or less continuous trenches I inspected the wire entanglements, wooden posts (charred, so as not to show up in aerial photographs) and iron corkscrews which were already in position, but only a little fine and barbed wire as yet, which was quite easy to get through. Although the firing had died down it continued sufficiently to enable me to keep my direction. Just as I was leaving these trenches behind my progress was arrested by a sudden jerk, and I found myself lying face downwards full length in the mud. A carefully laid wire had tripped its first "Englaender"! I was now plastered with mud from head to foot, and getting up in a very bad temper determined that at least that portion of wire should not interfere with another Britisher. After a short struggle I succeeded in tearing it up and went on my way somewhat appeased.
The front was now quite quiet, and after many falls, footsore and tired, I came to a large wood (the Bois de Logeost) a little before dawn. In this I hoped to find cover for the day, but it was full of transport, and many dim lights proclaimed the presence of huts. I had been walking parallel to it for some distance when a British aeroplane dropped some bombs too close to be pleasant, causing quite a stir in the wood, shortly followed by an anti-aircraft gun opening fire not far away. I have never felt so small in my life, and while tramping on in a dejected manner, in imagination I was flying once again over the lines, the occupied territory lying below me like a map: but in spite of the tranquillity of the scene (for in this pleasant dream not a gun was in action) I became conscious of a disturbing element somewhere, something was out of place. To what was it due? Then all at once I realised that it was all connected with an infinitesimal object which wandered aimlessly about among the German batteries, and yet attracted every one's attention. Vaguely I wondered what it could be? Then the dream slowly faded, and as reality took its place I knew that I was that atom! When things were quiet again I distinctly heard plonk, plonk, plonk, the sound made by hand grenades, rising from the lower ground in front, this was soon followed by the fainter cracking of a machine gun and a brilliant Verey light, which I concluded was from three to four miles away. All at once, just beside me, there was a blinding flash, immediately followed by a deafening roar and the screaming hiss of a shell, the latter lasting several seconds, then slowly dying away into the night with a sigh. One of the German heavies had fired from a neighbouring clump of trees. Had my skin been any looser I should certainly have jumped out of it. Very soon I heard the distant explosion of the bursting shell—Cr—ump, and then dashed off in the opposite direction.
The country was very bare and the lines so close that there were no hay or straw stacks about. The stars were beginning to fade from the sky, so hastily retracing my steps for about a mile, in search of cover, I almost fell over a tiny straw heap in the middle of a field. It was close to a village, but as no tracks passed anywhere near it I decided that this should be my hiding place for the day. After eating the remains of the black bread, now a sloppy mass in my pocket, I emptied the water which still remained in my flying boots and placed them in a side of the heap to dry, just below the surface. Wrapping my slightly drier overcoat round my feet for warmth, I wormed my way into the centre, and pulled the straw after me. The bottom of the heap was wet and contained mice, which squeaked when my teeth stopped chattering for a few seconds. I tried meowing, but they were not taken in for long! Sleep was out of the question, and there was nothing else to do but watch the cold grey fingers of light creeping through the wet straw. From my knowledge of the front, I gathered that I had arrived north of my objective, where the Huns were expecting our next attack, and the trenches were strongly held. Had I a sporting chance or were the odds against me too great? If the latter was the case and it was impossible, I prayed that I might be recaptured before making the attempt the next night.
The minutes passed like hours, but at last the sun rose, evidently very much against its will. About ten o'clock next morning I faintly heard the thud of horse's hoofs approaching at a canter from the direction of the village. At first I thought nothing of it, but as these grew rapidly louder and louder, my uneasiness increased and I lay perfectly still under the straw. The horse came straight to my heap, and stopped dead at the German word of command, "R-r-r-r-r" (whoa!). Soon the rider uttered an exclamation and, leaning over, drew out a flying boot, to my dismay, but as this was wet, muddy and old looking he soon threw it down again. In the meantime the horse kept sniffing and nibbling at the straw which thinly covered my face, and I felt inclined to repeat to myself an old nursery rhyme: "Fe, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!" As the brute continued blowing the straw from my face, I tried to make him desist by returning the compliment by blowing back at him. He jumped and threw up his head, but now his curiosity being thoroughly aroused returned to his explorations with renewed vigour, partly uncovering me. I did not move, but knew that the game was up when the rider drew his breath in sharply. Looking up I saw surprise written on every feature of the bearded Hun N.C.O. He was a thick-set man with a revolver holster at his belt. I had no chance of resistance, as the country was quite open and my boots were off, so sitting up I greeted him with a "Gutten Morgen." He saw that I was an English "Flieger" (airman), but firmly refused to believe that I was an officer. He told me I was near Achiet-le-Petit, and then motioned me to go with him to the village, which I did. (An account of the foregoing episode appeared in the German papers later.)
We went straight to the village headquarters, where there were several officers spotlessly dressed in blue or field-grey, against which my tramp-like appearance formed a strange contrast. They were quite decent, with one exception, a sour-looking captain, and were rather amused than otherwise, even allowing a Frenchwoman to make me some coffee. When I remarked on the wonderful way in which the Germans had traced me from Cambrai, they laughed and said my discovery was purely accidental, the N.C.O. having been detailed to find some straw for the transport. I was sent back to Cambrai in a wagon with an armed guard of three, exclusive of the driver and the mounted N.C.O. I was very annoyed on being told that the latter would receive the Iron Cross, and tried to impress on them that my discovery was entirely due to the horse, who deserved a bran mash. It was bitterly cold and, on passing through every village, I was made to remove my coat to show the inhabitants that I was a prisoner. I was quite pleased when we arrived at our destination.
The commandant received me with a growl, and I was taken to the guardroom, where the same Hun N.C.O. casually informed me that I was to be shot. In an unconvincing way I told myself this was nonsense. The next move was not at all reassuring. I was marched through the back door into a tiny courtyard, accompanied by the sergeant of the guard and several privates armed with rifles! I am glad to say that the bluff was soon over, and I was put into a half dark stone cell. In a short time I was fished out to see Lieutenant Schram, who told me that I was the first to escape from there, but that I should never get another opportunity. He went on to say that when my disappearance had been discovered the previous evening, it was thought that I had closely followed the flying officer who had asked me to dinner when he left through the main gate, until the broken wires were found. Men and trained dogs had then endeavoured to trace me, but that, unfortunately, they had all gone the wrong way!
When I was taken back at the end of the interview, a sergeant-major and a corporal thought they would have some fun at my expense. They opened my cell door and then led me to a comparatively comfortable room close by, and asked me which I preferred. However, I upset their calculations by entering my original cell and sitting down. As the result of an argument which ensued I was put into the better room, where I fell asleep. This comfort was only short-lived, and soon, by order of the commandant, I was put into the original cell again. It snowed all the next evening, and when the sergeant brought me my watery supper, I asked if he would stand my boots by the guardroom fire that night as the fleece held such a quantity of water. He seemed surprised at my request, but said that he would ask. He soon returned and said that it could not be done. It was four days before I felt at all warm, my clothes drying on me all the time. I have since been told that Lieutenant Schram, while speaking of me later to other captured officers, asserted that he dried all my clothes for me. Yet this same gentleman during his first interrogation asked me why we English called them uncultured!
On the afternoon of the fourth day I was ordered to get ready to proceed to Germany, as enough prisoners had been captured at the Beaumont Hamel show to make up a large draft. At the main entrance I found a group of about twenty officers, composed of eight or ten Zouaves and the remainder British. Then off we went to the station in high spirits, for it is not often that one gets a chance of a tour in Germany, via France and Belgium, free of charge!
Our guards had mostly been selected from different regiments, on account of their being due for leave in Germany. The officer in charge travelled separately. He had recently been wounded, and had seen rather more of the British than he cared; in consequence he was almost human! Not yet being dry and now having no overcoat, I felt decidedly cold. We arrived late at St. Quentin and settled down for a long wait, but our good spirits were infectious and, besides, some of our number had with them a surplus of turnip jam, and we were allowed to sing. This we did with a vengeance, and it was indeed curious to hear the desolate waiting-room echoing the popular strains of: "Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile." This impromptu concert delighted the French, who joined in as best they could. Soon we had quite a little audience of solitary Huns, who peeped through the open door and listened to the "Mad English," open-mouthed. At last the express steamed in from the south-east and in quite an exhausted condition we were graciously shown in to second-class compartments in a way which clearly said "Second class is much too good for you."
After a tedious journey, during which we received something to eat, we arrived at Cologne about eleven o'clock the next morning. The station contained almost every variety of Hun. These people represented the cowards who in 1914 had flung stones at and otherwise insulted those brave men of our old regular army, who stopped at this station, packed in cattle trucks like animals, mostly wounded and dying. Nearly two years of war have passed since then, bringing with them suffering and a certain refining influence which had not altogether been without its effect. Now, though most of them stared rudely, few showed signs of open hostility. Following our officer down some steps and winding subways, we were approaching a large restaurant, when a rather senior Hun officer ran after us, cursing us in German for not saluting him when we had passed him on the platform! One of the British replied, "Nix verstand" (No compris). Whereupon he went away thoroughly disgusted.
One of our party, a major of the 9th Zouaves, who spoke German very well, asked if we might have some refreshments, to which the officer acquiesced. We entered a large and almost unoccupied room separated from the main dining-hall by a glass screen, and took up our positions at a table by the window. Immediately outside towered the famous cathedral, shutting out most of the sky, the spires and countless pinnacles showing up to great advantage in the sunshine. Soon a waiter appeared with a menu containing a list of weird dishes, the most popular of which was a very thin slice of sausage reposing on a very large slice of black bread. This cost one mark (but perhaps they saw us coming!). Great excitement was caused when some one found it was possible to obtain goose, but as our very limited supply of money was almost exhausted this had to be ruled out. The fish salad when it arrived was peculiarly nasty. It was almost raw and had an overpowering flavour of mud! Beer did not seem to be allowed, but a tip soon settled that, and we all received large glasses of light lager. The people in the hall were a funny-looking crowd but quite amusing to watch, mostly drinking quantities of beer and regarding us with sullen curiosity through the glass screen. The majority of the men were ugly and square-headed, with closely-cropped hair, reminding one of a group of convicts. Some of the girls, however, gave us encouraging smiles.
When the bills were being settled up, there strode in an angry German major, complete with helmet and sword, who entered into a violent conversation with our unfortunate officer, who stood at the salute most of the time. After making a noise like a dog fight he departed with a final gesticulation in our direction. We did not know what the row was about, but suppose that the officer in charge had been thus strafed in public, either for bringing us there or allowing us to have beer. At any rate, we were hurried out to await our train on the platform. A small circle soon formed round us, largely made up of sailors, whom we concluded must be on indefinite leave. As our train was steaming up a civilian gave vent to his feelings by fixing his evil eyes upon us and at the same time moving his lips with a deadly purpose, cursing us inaudibly. I should never have thought a face could express such condensed hatred. He must have been conversing with his Satanic Master. However, as we only smiled sweetly in return, he cannot have felt much satisfaction. Before getting into our train we spent our last few pfennigs buying sweets at an automatic slot machine. The acquired sweets were wrapped in a paper covering, on which different notices were printed, the majority were to this effect: "Remember the shameful Baralong outrage, in punishment for which our airships shall devastate the Eastern Counties of England and destroy London." We showed this to our guards, who firmly believed that it would shortly come to pass, and could not understand our amusement. A few minutes out from Cologne, as we went rushing over a long iron bridge, we celebrated our crossing the Rhine by winding up our watches and singing the popular song: "When we've wound up the watch on the Rhine."
In the late afternoon the train passed through Essen, the blast furnaces casting a lurid light on the surrounding country. Travelling northwards we ran into snow, which, when we alighted was quite deep. This was our destination, Osnabrueck. At first it looked as if we should have to walk to the camp, but the German officer was, luckily, able to hire two brakes, and away we went. Osnabrueck is an old town with a population of about 60,000. We drove past numbers of children and dogs revelling in the first winter sports, utterly regardless of their country's serious condition. On our arrival an officer and several N.C.O.'s took all particulars and descriptions. It was only then that I discovered, to my astonishment, that my eyes were blue. Next we found a hot shower-bath in store for us, during which procedure all our clothes were taken away on the excuse that they were to be disinfected. We enjoyed the bath very much and were longing for a clean change, but were disgusted to find that this was not forthcoming, and that we had to put on the same torn and muddy clothes once more, which the Huns had only removed to search. We were then locked in a room for ten days and told that we were in quarantine, no account being taken of the three weeks or a month that some of us had already spent in the German lines. The whole thing was a farce. We could then buy a change of underclothing, and daily consumed prodigious quantities of Dutch chocolate, also procurable from the canteen (which I afterwards bought in Holland for one-tenth of the price). Some of the British who had been in the camp for some time managed to get books and a little food in to us. A great deal of our time was occupied in making out orders for things we wanted from home, edibles taking by far the most important part. Every evening after supper we always drank the King's health in tea. Though the quality of the beverage was weak, our loyalty had never been stronger. When extra dull our home-made band played some rousing selection; my special instrument required much skill, and consisted of the dustbin lid and a poker. The climax was reached one day when the sentry entered with a paper from the canteen, announcing that the British claimed to have shot down two Zeppelins in flames over London.
Eventually the tenth day passed and we were free to go in with the others, who at once made us welcome. Owing to the monotony of camp life it is very difficult to write a consecutive account of the daily routine, which would be of any interest to the reader. I shall therefore only outline certain points under various headings, which I venture to hope may not prove a source of boredom, judging from the numerous questions contained in letters of enquiry directed to me.
ACCOMMODATION.—The main three-storey building was a converted German artillery barracks, with the gravelled courtyards used for exercising divided by a disused riding-school. The prisoners consisted of about seventy-five French, living on the ground floor, and eighty-five British, mostly R.F.C., taken at the Somme, living on the second floor, and from one hundred and fifty to two hundred Russians on the third. The rooms each contained from four to ten beds, according to the size, which we usually stacked two deep so that they should take up as little space as possible. With the aid of wall paper, deck chairs, tablecloths and the like, obtainable at the canteen, together with pictures from home, some of the rooms looked very cosy indeed. Each one contained a stove, which at first we were able to keep well supplied, as it was possible to buy coal in addition to the ration, though latterly there was a considerable shortage. Mattresses were either spring or made of old straw, and sometimes contained little creepy-crawlies. My record evening catch numbered twenty-five, and this little collection afforded some exciting races. By the way, I might add that if one puts a match to them they go off "pop." The Germans rendered slight assistance, but the Keating's contained in our parcels soon got them under way. The sanitary conditions were not good, but I must admit to having seen a little disinfectant. Part of the time we were allowed a common room of our own, but latterly had to share one with the Russians. Washing was sent to the town weekly. A medical orderly was on the premises during the day, and a doctor came two or three times a week. Before leaving we were inoculated against smallpox, typhoid and cholera. This was a most obnoxious proceeding which took place every six or seven days, until the doctor had jabbed us all six times in the chest with his confounded needle. French and Russian orderlies were provided, each detailed to look after one or two rooms.
RECREATION.—At first it was possible to play football, but that was soon stopped. Rackets, boxing and a sort of cricket were played in the riding-school; once or twice a week we organised a concert or a dance, theatrical costumes being hired from the town on parole. The Russians had a really first-class mandoline and balalaika band, with which they played many of their waltzes and curiously attractive folk-songs. During these concerts a certain Englishman solemnly sang some new Russian songs, learnt by heart, of which he did not understand a word. A young Russian used to make up into a delightful girl, who, with a partner, danced a cake-walk, accompanied by the blare of their new brass band. Mandolines were soon in vogue and most rooms could boast of several. As we were mostly beginners the resulting noise is best left to the imagination. Whist drives, bridge tournaments, etc., helped to pass the time, and a good many of us improved the shining hour by learning French, Russian or German in exchange for lessons in our own language.
The winter brought with it many snow fights, and a successful slide which I started, though popular, resulted in many bumps and bruises. The bottom of the slide led into some barbed wire—which was decidedly dangerous. One fatal day I finished the course with three Russians and a fat Australian on the top of me, unintentionally making a first-class broom; first I passed over a sharp stone, and then came to a stop on the barbed wire fence. (Some of the marks caused by this episode remain with me to this day.) We had one or two nice walks weekly, on parole, escorted by a German officer. One day, during a long walk through some pine woods, we had reached the top of a hill when we came upon a large slab of rock, about four feet thick, resting on two smaller ones, with a broad crack right through it near the centre. The German officer told us a legend about this, which affirms that at this spot somewhere about the eighth century Emperor Charlemagne met some heathen chieftain, who having already heard of his feats of strength promised to become a Christian should he be able to split this rock. The emperor took up a sledge hammer and with one tremendous blow broke the rock in two. (He must have been some man!)
TREATMENT.—When I first arrived the commandant, who was a major, was quite popular, granting all reasonable requests and not bothering us the whole time, consequently we did our best to avoid trouble; but we were in Hunland, therefore this state of affairs could not last long. The commandant was soon replaced by a colonel with a white beard and a benevolent aspect, though in reality he was inclined to be vicious and most unreasonable. He was soon followed by two junior officers, Lieutenants Briggs and Rosenthal. The former was an officer of the Reserve, one of the nicest Germans I have ever met, and I can almost safely say a gentleman. He did all that he could to avoid friction and make things run smoothly. Rosenthal was a Regular officer and a typical Hun, who was sent round the various camps to make things generally uncomfortable for the inmates, in which capacity he was a great success. He made promises but very rarely fulfilled any, smiling to your face and at the same time arranging to have you punished. He crept along the passages in thick carpet shoes after lights out, spying on our movements, and was twice discovered listening at a keyhole to the conversation. After having been there a month I spent a fortnight in solitary confinement for my Cambrai escape, at which I cannot complain, and came out on Christmas Day. Later on, while at this camp, I carried out two sentences, each of three days, for slight offences.
PARCELS AND MONEY.—We received parcels of food and clothing from six to eight weeks after first writing for them. For the most part these came regularly, only a few being lost. This was a good thing for us, the camp authorities often providing for a meal only some raw fish and garlic or uneatable gherkins and dry black bread! Trunks, suit cases, and other heavy articles came by the American Express and were longer on their way. Parcels of food were opened, and the tins taken intact to one's individual locker, where it could be obtained most mornings at a given hour. As required the tins were then opened by the Huns and the contents placed in jars or dishes, which one must provide before it can be taken away. Sometimes whole rooms decided to mess together, sharing all their parcels, but more often two or three friends arranged their own little mess.
Letters at first came quickly, but were often delayed by the German censors at this camp, who, I believe, dealt with almost all British communications to prisoners in Germany. Money is obtained by signing a cheque, which is cashed in a week or two by the American Express. Even after America's entry into the war money could still be obtained through this company (which is, I believe, German owned). German daily papers are procurable at most camps, and usually contain a more or less intact British official communique, which is translated by some German scholar and posted up. A map of the front is usually kept by the prisoners and corrected from time to time. Christmas was celebrated by every one and the canteen Weisswein soon bought up. The Germans put an illuminated Christmas tree in the dining-hall, but unfortunately counteracted their display of good feeling by decorating the large portraits of the Kaiser and Hindenburg, who stared down at us from the walls and quite spoilt our already nasty food. On New Year's Night we collected on the stairs, and joining hands with a few French and Russians, sang "Auld Lang Syne," and scampered back to bed before the wily Huns appeared on the scene.
One day when drawing our parcels we received some little cardboard packets of compressed dates as usual, but this time a small white strip of paper was pasted on the outside of each bearing the words, "Produce of Mesopotamia under British occupation." This must have been pleasant reading for the Huns. At last, one morning we were informed that in three days' time we were to proceed to an "All British" camp at Clausthal. Before our departure our Allies gave two farewell concerts in our honour, which were a great success, for when we left they knew that they were losing most of the "life" of the camp.
Living on our floor with a room to himself was a French captain of extremely doubtful character; he was a heavily built, bearded man of middle age whom nobody liked. I was told that in civil life he was a professional agitator! Now he confined his energies to making trouble between the different nationalities. He was always hanging about where he wasn't wanted, poking his nose into other people's business, and what was even more suspicious, he appeared to be on the best of terms with the Germans. He wore a long row of medals, which were inclined to change from day to day. Some senior French officers inquired if he had the right to wear them, but he refused to recognise their authority. Some Britishers had also been caught in a mysterious way just before attempting to escape. The last night before our departure we thought we would at least show him that he was not popular. Over a dozen of us burst into his room, armed to the teeth, and holding him on to his bed covered him from head to foot with treacle, jam, coffee grounds, ashes and water, at the same time doing him no bodily injury. I expect he thought his plight more serious than it really was, for the whole place echoed with his shouts for help. Unfortunately for him the French on the floor above, being greatly pleased at the proceedings, only turned over and went to sleep again. When, after a few seconds, we bolted to our rooms he rushed down to the orderly's quarters, exclaiming, "I am dying—I am covered with blood!" This sounded terrible, but when a match was struck revealing nothing but treacle and jam they could scarcely conceal their merriment. Later on the Huns arrived and succeeded in obtaining most of our names, but even they thought the affair quite a good joke. The next morning most of the French collected quietly near the gate to give us a "send off," but the commandant, after screaming and being very rude to every one had them locked in their rooms. He turned his back on us when we left, only Lieutenant Briggs having the decency to salute.
It was just like house moving. The heavy luggage was sent in advance, but we preferred to carry our dearest belongings. Many of us must have resembled fully-equipped pedlars or super-caddis-worms carrying their houses on their backs, but in our case these were not composed of sticks or dead leaves, but provisions, gramophones, mandolines, pots, kettles, etc., tied together with string, the rattle of which appeared to amuse some of the civil population. Some time after leaving Osnabrueck the train stopped at an out-of-the-way station near Hildesheim, close to a group of men working on the line. At once a solitary khaki-clad figure detached itself from the rest and came towards us at the run. It turned out to be a British Tommy bubbling over with pleasure at seeing some of his own race to speak to at last, after having Russians and Huns for his companions for many months. We gave him a summary of the latest news and all kinds of tinned foods. The other Russian prisoners soon followed him, looking half starved, and clamoured for bread, which we had just time to give them when a bad tempered Hun drove them back to their work.
Towards evening we passed through Hameln? (better known to us as "Hamelin"), but saw no signs of the Pied Piper. Now there was a man who was not brought into the world for nothing, but used his genius to the destruction of small Huns! The higher the train climbed into the Hartz Mountains the deeper became the snow. From the dimly-lighted carriages we could sometimes see the dark outline of high wooded hills between the snow flurries. A little before midnight we stopped with a jerk and were told to "Aus." As I followed the others into a restaurant winter garden affair, five minutes after our arrival, I was delighted to hear several small gramophones already playing "Bric-a-brac" and other selections from musical comedies, each insisting that its was the only tune worth listening to. Owing to the conditions escape was out of the question; the Germans did not therefore worry much—in fact, coming up in the train a rather nice N.C.O. at last yielded to my entreaties and sang a verse of the Hymn of Hate, accompanying himself on my mandoline.
After standing two hours in a queue at the bar I managed to procure some quite good wine which made us feel almost at home. For the rest of that night it was almost possible to imagine oneself free, but snowed up. The next morning, on hearing that the camp was about two miles away, we inquired if some of the larger suit cases might be left behind as the walking was so heavy, to be brought up later, at an extra charge, by the station sleigh, which came up to the camp every day. But we might have known that it would only be a waste of breath asking the Huns to help us in any way. (Later, when some very senior British officers arrived, bound for this camp, they received identically the same treatment.) After an uphill struggle we reached the camp, and were kept standing quite unnecessarily for three-quarters of an hour in a snowstorm before being admitted to the dining-hall. On entering I was lucky enough to run straight into an Australian flight commander, who had often taken me up in my observing days at my first squadron, then at a village behind Ypres.
The camp is well situated, being almost surrounded by pine forests, which cover most of the Hartz Mountains. If the day is at all clear a high and rather rounded hill is visible to the eastward, conspicuous for its bleakness, standing well above the dark intervening fir-clad hills. This is the Brocken, the highest mountain in Northern Germany, on the summit of which Goethe's Faust was evolved. It is difficult to realise that it is, roughly, 5,000 feet above sea level, or the camp 2,000. The ascent in this part from the foot hills being gradual, the surrounding country is not so imposing as one would expect. Outside the camp is a small picturesque lake, which was frozen over most of the time. On a clear evening it was fascinating to watch the superb soaring of the buzzards. It seemed as if their telescopic eyes could make out the wings on some of our tunics, for with a jeering cry they would commence gliding in a vast sweeping circle with scarcely a movement of their wings, every feather under perfect control, until at length they disappeared into the endless blue. We still have a lot to learn, but talk of the "homing instinct," if only a few aeroplanes had been handy I know which would have made the quickest non-stop flight to "Blighty."
The next day a number of Belgian officers left to take up their abode in the quarters vacated by us in Osnabrueck, many of them resplendent in their tasselled caps, and a few wearing clanking swords which they had been allowed to retain in recognition of the gallant way they had defended some of the Liege and Antwerp forts. With them went two Belgian officers, who, curiously enough, could not speak their lingo. This was not surprising, however, as their real names were Captain Nicholl, R.F.C., and Lieutenant Reid, R.N. It appeared they intended to jump the train before reaching their destination and have a try for the Dutch border. German trains often go slowly and stop, but as luck would have it this one, as we afterwards heard, refused to do anything of the sort. Whether Captain Nicholl succeeded in getting off I do not know, but Lieutenant Reid, seeing discovery imminent, jumped through the carriage window and broke his ankles. They were both taken to Osnabrueck and Nicholl was sent back under arrest. After three weeks Lieutenant Reid returned, lame, but quite cheery. As he was under arrest, however, we could not learn much of their treatment, though it was common knowledge that he had left hospital very soon, and was made to walk up from the station as best he could. His sentence was lengthened by some days on the charge of answering his wrong name at a roll call on arrival at Osnabrueck, but as he was quite unable to stand this was obviously a fabrication.
When we had been there about ten days a lot more British officers arrived from Friedburg, where they had received quite good treatment. Many of the prisoners at this camp had been taken at Mons, La Cateau and Ypres, and were consequently a little out of date. They could hardly realise what a "Somme barrage" was like, and were therefore known as the "Bow and Arrow" men! On the journey to Clausthal two of them managed to jump from the train and got clear away. About this time five Italian officers were warned to leave the next day. The preceding night, after supper, Colonel Bond (K.O.Y.L.I.), after a short speech, proposed the toast "Viva Italia," which we drank in canteen Weisswein, or imitation port, to which a senior Italian officer enthusiastically replied with a "Viva Inghilterra." After their departure the camp contained British only, the remaining number of officers being a little over three hundred.
ACCOMMODATION.—The principal building, in which about half of us lived, was a Kurhaus, or small hydro, in peace time, with a large dining-hall at one end. The smallest bedrooms were occupied by one or two senior officers, while the remainder held about half a dozen. A shower-bath was on the premises. The rest of us were quartered in three temporary wooden barracks, where most of the rooms were rather over-crowded, holding from six to eight fellows.
RECREATION.—At a portion of the grounds was a fairly steep incline and on this we made a short toboggan run, banking the snow up steeply at the turn to avoid going through the barbed wire. In many instances it must have been amusing to watch a small sleigh being steered by a novice, with fat individuals sitting on the top of him, trying to avoid the young trees, usually without any success. Unfortunately for me I had a nasty knack of always being in the worst crashes. It is impossible to find a more effective way of destroying boots than continually steering with one's feet. Other people displayed their extensive knowledge of winter sports by ski-ing, or rather lying on their backs, unintentionally waving their skis in the air. This soon had to be abandoned, however, as the weather soon became uncertain, often changing from a hard frost to a violent thaw every two or three days.
A naval officer in my barrack received a miniature billiard-table, which became immensely popular. Cards, roulette, ping-pong and chess greatly assisted in passing the time. We also had quite a good camp library, the books mostly having been received from home. I often heard it remarked that life there was one long queue, and it was not far wrong. Often one passed the morning waiting one's turn for the "tin room," or newly arrived parcels, while soon after lunch it was customary to see the more patient individuals already lining up chairs and settling down to their books, to wait for hot water which was sold at tea time. All this may sound most enjoyable, but I will now endeavour to explain a little of the wonderful system then in vogue at this camp, the only object of which seemed to be to remind you in an objectionable manner that you were a prisoner on every possible occasion.
TREATMENT.—When we first arrived the commandant was not so bad, but after several visits from corps headquarters at Hanover, he resigned his post, it is said, on the grounds that he could not treat British officers like common criminals, as he was supposed to. I think this is highly probable, though I cannot vouch for the truth of the assertion, it being only hearsay. He was replaced by a fat and rather harmless dug-out captain, who proved to be only a pompous figurehead. The camp was entirely run by the second in command, Lieutenant Wolfe. In England persons of this type are so rarely met with that our language does not contain the necessary words to describe them adequately. In Germany they are comparatively common, therefore, collectively they may be put down as belonging to the "super-swine class"! Wolfe was arrogance personified. He possessed a closely-cropped bullet head, and a round, somewhat bloated pale face, near the centre of which gleamed two small, cold, calculating blue eyes; the whole effect so strongly resembled a white pig that among ourselves he was usually known as "pig face." He belonged to a reserve Hanoverian regiment, and was a schoolmaster by profession. It is small wonder that children under such authority never learn to know the true meaning of the word "kultur." Somehow he knew about the treacling affair at our last camp, for after getting our names from Osnabrueck, he strained every nerve to get us court-martialled and punished. Two or three times a week we criminals had to assemble outside his room at an appointed hour. After a long wait "My Lord" strolled in, usually an hour late, walking very slowly, chewing a cigar. At first he only produced a small packet of papers, on most of which our individual statements were written, and asked absurd questions through an interpreter. But as time went on the case assumed larger proportions, and the bundle of nonsense increased to an enormous size. At almost every visit we had to sign some new document certifying that we understood the latest communication on the subject from headquarters. After much hard work "pig face" achieved his object, and we were warned to attend a court-martial at Hanover. However, this is worthy of a separate chapter.
One day an impossible staff captain arrived from Hanover to inspect the camp. He was a large, arrogant bully, who brought with him two detectives for the purpose of searching our rooms and kit for forbidden articles. We will not waste time discussing his manners; he had none. The detectives seemed quite decent, and therefore cannot have been properly dehumanised by the powers that be. In German camps it is forbidden to sit or lie on one's bed during the day, unless one has reported sick at roll call. This captain suddenly entered a room in our barrack and surprised a Scotsman lying on his bed reading a book. Seeing that the culprit had his clothes on, he screamed out such a stream of unintelligible curses and threats, that had a similar noise taken place at the Zoo, I am sure the keepers would have rushed out to stop the monkey fight. The Scotsman waited until this torrent had somewhat abated, then slowly getting to his feet, he drawled out in a bewildered way, "And how's your faither!" It is doubtful whether the startled captain understood this kind inquiry or not, but he rushed out of the room and, grabbing a sentry's bayonet, returned and stuck it in the boards at his feet. Ours was the next room he favoured. Without the semblance of a knock he burst in, and as nothing of importance had been found during the search, swaggered up and down in a most offensive manner with his nose in the air. In a few seconds he came to a stop beside me and shouted that he wished me to stand to attention, half dressed as I was (having just been searched). This was just about the limit, so pretending not to understand what he meant I turned round and busied myself with my clothing, at the same time humming softly to myself the air of "Pack up your troubles," to relieve my feelings and stifle a desire to give him one under the jaw. On a word of command two scared sentries appeared, having been ordered to take me to the guardroom immediately. The usually harmless commandant was so frightened that he rolled his eyes and screamed after me, when exhaustion put an end to the captain's song. It was pitiable to see two such men possessing not an atom of self-control between them, but it was not so amusing as one might think. It certainly looked as if I should be murdered without delay. I was put into a room adjoining that occupied by the main guard, where I remained for three hours. During this period I got into conversation with some of the soldiers and was surprised at the bitter way they spoke of Lieutenant Wolfe, so much so that if he returned to the front I should be inclined to think that the quarter where his greatest danger lay was not in front but behind.
When I had the room to myself I spent the time exploring for useful articles. My oft-interrupted search resulted in the discovery of a heap of things in the far corner. At length an officer arrived and informed me that I should only receive three days' "stuben"—arrest (solitary confinement). After which I was released. On re-entering the camp I did my best to look innocent, though, as luck would have it, I was really the richer by a couple of maps, a compass and some candles! One of the orderlies in the camp was a cobbler, but though the Huns frequently assured us they would provide him with the necessary tools, it took two months for their promise to materialise. During this period my already patched boots threatened to give out altogether. I wrote a note to the commandant, explaining that I was daily expecting boots from England, but as these appeared to have been delayed, asked that I might be allowed to order some canvas shoes at the canteen in the meantime. The next day the interpreter handed me the answer: "Order leather from England, and have the boots resoled." I could not help smiling, and casually remarked that it was worse than useless. Whereupon he snapped, "What, you say that the commandant's note is useless? All right, I will you report."
In due course the usual notice was posted up to the effect "That the English Ober-Lieutenant Gerald Knight would for gross insolence the next three days in arrest spend." Usually, roll call took place outside the main building, and as it generally meant standing in water or melting snow, was not particularly pleasant. Wolfe very often managed to take these parades, and did not miss this excellent opportunity for showing his authority. After arriving late he would stroll up and down the line, hands in pockets, looking as dignified as possible, always wasting time. "Appel," when properly conducted, never lasted more than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. On one occasion, Wolfe, who was well protected against the cold, kept us standing in a blizzard for an hour and a half, during which time he counted us five or six times, obviously for his own amusement. It was bad enough to have to stand there oneself, but it was much more annoying to watch our senior officers, majors, colonels, and a major-general, awaiting the pleasure of a conceited German lieutenant. Almost every day some new order was issued, for the most part affecting little things, for example—stating that in future no food would be allowed in the rooms. A few days later it was not allowed in the cupboards standing in the passages. Soon it was only allowed in the dining-hall, where the accommodation was quite inadequate. One day two fellows were quietly walking down a path near the wire, when a sentry raised his rifle and threatened to shoot them if they did not at once go further from the wire! They refused to move, and told the sentry that they had a perfect right there. Whereupon the man at last lowered his rifle. On a complaint being made, Lieutenant Wolfe, knowing that few people were about, ingeniously squashed the case by refusing to take the matter up unless six witnesses were produced. There was a second lieutenant, junior to Wolfe (commonly known as the Worm!), who arrived after receiving promotion from the ranks. He was rather a miserable sort of person, inclined to follow Wolfe's example in most things. He was for ever on the prowl and it never occurred to him to knock before entering a room. Once he came into our room and, assisted by two guards, removed the mirror, shaving tackle, hair brushes, etc., from the window, placing them on the wash-hand stand in the darkest corner of the room. After this performance he drew himself up sedately and exclaimed, "That is the way we do things in Germany!" These little incidents are most annoying at any time, but especially so when one is wearing boots possessing good kicking qualities.
It was not until May that the snow finally disappeared and we were treated to a spell of warm weather, during which every one did their best to get sunburnt, and set to work on the new tennis court we had permission to make.
Lizards and frogs appeared from nowhere and endeavoured to inform us that spring was approaching. It is curious the way camp life again makes one childish and easily amused. For instance, it was quite a common occurrence to see a small crowd of fellows looking excitedly at something. On closer investigation it in most cases turned out to be a toad or a worm. As it became dry underfoot we were able to go out for walks on parole with a German officer. The stout commandant usually took us, and not only did he make himself quite agreeable, but also chose some very pretty paths among the various pine woods. One afternoon two fellows succeeded in cutting the outside wire in broad daylight and getting into the woods unobserved. Seeing his opportunity a tall Canadian, named Colquhoun, hastily gathered up his valuables and dived through the inviting gap in the wire (which had been cleverly cut behind some young fir trees and up beside a post). He was just disappearing into the woods at record speed (the sentry's back being still turned) when he was seen by some children playing on a hillock a little way off. They at once made a noise, and several of them rushed down to tell the sentry. That man, however, was much too grand to listen to "kids" talking nonsense, so drove them off with many threats and violent gestures. When the escape was discovered, green-uniformed soldiers of Jaeger regiments and mounted foresters scoured the woods for nearly two days without any success. Shortly after a notice was posted up stating that when the escaped officers were recaptured, they would in all probability be tried by court-martial for breaking their parole in looking for hiding places when out for walks; this, needless to say, was all nonsense, the officers in question being miles away by that time.
This notice could not be regarded in any other light than that of an insult to British officers in general, causing much resentment. All future walks were voluntarily given up, and at evening "appel" all parole cards, without exception, were returned to the Huns by mutual consent, to avoid any insinuations of this sort in the future. After being out for about a fortnight the outlaws were all recaptured and taken to Stroehen, where I afterwards met them. The first two put up a very good show, being recaptured in an exhausted condition by a road guard, twenty odd kilometres from the frontier, much to their disgust. My friend, the Canadian, fought a good fight against an unkind fate. While washing in a stream one night he was taken by a man with a revolver looking for an escaped Russian prisoner. He was then put into prison at a men's camp, where he succeeded in obtaining some wire-cutters from other Britishers. Forcing his way through the skylight into a dark and rainy night, he dropped to earth, cut the wire and was again free. The drop previous to cutting the wire had, however, damaged his compass, which stuck and led him south instead of west. Three days later he was taken near a bridge over a river by men and trained dogs, and transferred to a town prison. There I believe he received quite decent food, for which he was very thankful. During the late afternoon some children came to annoy him by shouting rude remarks from the passage. Even these little wretches were of some use, for at their departure they touched something on the outside of his door which jingled, and turned out to be a bunch of keys, which he was able to get possession of by pulling them through the sliding panel used by the guard for spying on the prisoner. When it was dark the adventurer produced the keys and by dint of much labour succeeded in opening his own cell and walking out.
At the back of one of the nearer buildings he discovered a bicycle, which he appropriated without a second thought. Having discovered his whereabouts he struck north to get into his original line, and was unfortunately discovered by some N.C.O.'s the next day in almost a starving condition repairing his bicycle in a shed. After such an attempt as this it is indeed hard to return to serve one's sentence at a camp prison or fortress, knowing full well that, although having done one's utmost, even the slightest official recognition is out of the question. After the second escape the Hun in charge of the men's camp 'phoned to Clausthal, stating that the officer had been recaptured. Wolfe hearing the joyous news started out to bring back the truant as a lesson to others. "But when he got there the cupboard was bare," so he returned to the "Hartz-Gebirge" empty-handed and disconsolate. The only really decent German at the camp appeared to be an "aspirant," or first class warrant officer, who treated us quite fairly when opportunity offered; however, his superiors saw to it that this was not often.
PARCELS.—These arrived fairly well, but were periodically hoarded up by the Huns for a week or ten days, where we could not get them without any previous warning. When drawing food all the tins had to be left behind until wanted for immediate consumption. It was therefore very difficult to lay in a supply against such emergencies. During these periods most messes determined, if possible, to have a meal of sorts at tea-time. Gradually, as the provisions got lower and lower, the menu read somewhat as follows: Tea (no milk or sugar); very limited black bread, thinly spread with soup essence, or cafe au lait (when the dripping, lard or potted meat had finally vanished). The meal itself was rather nauseating, but afterwards it was most gratifying to be able to say that you had had tea! When this playful little "strafe" was removed by an order from Hanover the accumulated parcels nearly caused the death of the Germans working in the distributing room. Letters were very slow in arriving. Once a general, while inspecting the camp, entered the parcel room, where he saw an English captain assisting with the sorting of the parcels. On finding that he spoke German well the general advised him to devote his spare time to the further study of that language, which he said would be very useful to him later. The captain was notorious for saying exactly what he thought, and be hanged to the consequences. His reply must have been more than the German bargained for: "Sir, I do not intend to waste my time learning a dead language!" It is probable that the general had had previous dealings with the British, and therefore possessed a sense of humour so rare to the Teuton, for he passed on without awarding the expected punishment.
COURT-MARTIALLED! AND PROUD OF IT, TOO!
It is not usual to boast of the fact that one has been court-martialled, but I would not have missed this experience for anything. Early in the morning of May 15th, 1917, we twelve gaol-birds, after being carefully searched, left for the station escorted by eight guards. During the march I began softly humming a tune, but was at once silenced by an angry sentry, who told me that no noise of any sort was allowed. Turning to the N.C.O. I remarked that although he appeared to be in charge of the party he had not objected to my behaviour, and added that this seemed almost as if the private was exceeding his duty. This appealed to the dignity of his position, and although he evidently did not like me, he told the sentry off. On reaching the station we had an unpleasant surprise, for there, awaiting us on the platform, was our old friend, Wolfe.
In the early afternoon we got out of the train at a small station and were told that we should have to wait some hours for the connection. The senior member of our party inquired whether it was possible to get anything to eat, as it was already very late for the midday meal. Wolfe said he would try and led us into the restaurant, where a waiter inquired if we would have white or green beans. These dishes sounded so tempting that we ordered mixed. When the result was served (beans stewed with gravy and a little potato), it certainly greatly exceeded our expectations, being really appetising. When this was finished a resourceful member of the party produced some cards, and poker became the order of the day. The game was still in progress when one of the others called our attention to the Red Cross collecting box on the table. In trying to decipher the appeal for subscriptions for the wounded, he had made a great discovery. Actually beside the red cross in a small circle made by a rubber stamp were the words, "Gott strafe England!"
Naturally, this display of childishness amused us greatly, creating a general laugh. This frivolity in the face of a court-martial was more than Wolfe could stand, so after one withering glance in our direction he turned his back on us and stalked majestically from the room. Luckily I had in my possession a good supply of tin canteen money (which was valueless outside the camp); this was at once transferred to the box as quickly as possible. It isn't often that an Englishman has the pleasure of subscribing to his own special hate box! I am simply longing to know if the money was eventually returned to the camp for its equivalent value. Should this book in the near future be read in Germany, as I expect it will, would some kind Hun take the trouble to satisfy my curiosity? "Royal Air Force, England," will always find me.
About six o'clock that evening we reached Hanover and were marched off through some of the main streets to an unknown destination. The town is all right; it is the people that spoil it. Proceeding down some broad streets we passed some very fine buildings, statues and fountains. Once a well-dressed woman unintentionally crossed our path, with the result that a sentry roughly threw her aside without a word of apology. Passing through a small park we halted before a low, dirty-looking stone building, with every window strongly barred.
Presently Lieutenant Wolfe emerged with a smile of welcome and bade us enter. In a small courtyard a German N.C.O., with a loud rasping voice, ordered the prison guard to take us to our quarters. After much jangling of keys we were separated, to our amazement, and each one of the party locked in a cell by himself. Near the ceiling was one small window about two feet square. On examination this exit proved to be guarded with fine wire netting and thick iron bars firmly embedded in cement. As usual, there was a special spy-hole in the door which had to be covered on the inside. Attached to each end of the bed were two strong shackles, evidently intended to fasten the occupant down if necessary. We afterwards learnt that this was the garrison prison, it being considerably worse than the civil one. It does not seem surprising that they are able to maintain their iron discipline, if they resort to these methods. I think the reader will agree that this is hardly a fit place to lodge officers who, as yet, were only awaiting their trial. Several times I faintly heard the whirring of aeroplanes outside, but only managed to see one by pulling myself up to the window. We relieved the monotony a little by whistling to each other in the Morse code what we thought of the Huns for putting us there. The thickness of the walls, however, soon put a stop to this. During the night I was awakened by several thuds, followed by a crash, which came from somewhere overhead. This puzzled me at the time, but the next day I found the noise had been caused by one of our party rat-hunting with the aid of a boot which had landed on a tin basin instead of the rat.
The next morning the man with a voice like a nutmeg grater released us from our cells, and after a few preliminaries we were marched off across the square to a large building, which we entered about ten o'clock. Then ensued a long but interesting wait, during which we watched all sorts and conditions of Huns passing up and down the main staircase. Amongst them we saw several colonels, a general and a very smart monocled major, whose helmet was rather the shape of a fireman's, showing that he was in some crack cavalry regiment—dragoons, I think. They mostly wore pale blue-grey overcoats, and their buttons, sword-hilts and golden eagles on their helmets glittered exquisitely. The general appearance was smart enough, but everything seemed a trifle overdone, giving one the impression that they had just stepped out of a bandbox. Had a British officer been standing beside these Germans, wearing his sword, the contrast would have been a strange one, for while looking just as smart the uniform would have had the appearance of being infinitely more serviceable. There passed quite a number of Hun privates with downcast eyes, having just received their long sentences. An interpreter having nothing to do, tried hard to prove to us that the U-boats would very soon bring England to her knees, but gave up the attempt on receiving an invitation to the camp to watch the daily arrival of the over-laden parcel cart.