Escape from Germany

Written by Neil Hanson
Review by Gwen Sly

The stories of escapes from POW camps in the Second World War are familiar, but how many know of the First Great Escape of 23rd July 1918? During the First World War there were some 180 camps in Germany holding up to 8 million Allied prisoners. One of the most notorious was Holzminden, 60 miles southwest of Hanover. Surrounded by barbed wire, the facilities were inadequate, the guards corrupt and hostile, the Kommandant brutal.

With an impressive bibliography and extensive notes, Hanson describes the ingenuity shown by some of those prisoners to regain their freedom. In the winter of 1917, twenty-nine men spent nine months digging a tunnel over 150 feet long. The tools were spoons and knives. It is an absorbing account of human endurance.

The full-page cartoons which introduce most chapters are authentic and splendidly drawn. The greater part of the book, however, is given to conditions in the camps and the depravities inflicted on the prisoners. These details are of profound interest but nevertheless read at times like lists taken from the records – which no doubt they are.

The epilogues give a tantalising, if brief, résumé of the post-war life of the escapees. The young men who performed such an amazing feat deserve more recognition.