Escaping a WWI Prisoner-of-War Camp
In September of 1916 there were many escapes from prisoner-of-war camps, both located in Germany. The first men who escaped were James Jerry Burke, whose name was later found to be James Gerry Burke, along with Pte. H. Tustin, escaping on September 5th. From that same camp, Harry Saunderson escaped, but on a completely different day and with no knowledge of the other men’s escape. Lastly, there were two more men that escaped who ended up meeting Burke and Tustin in Holland, named Lance Corporal Edwards and Pte. M.C. Simonds. Later on, Simonds was found to be named Pte. Melvin Cecil Simmons. Unlike the other stories, these two men escaped from a completely different prison in Germany but still in the month of September in 1916.
All the men had been previously captured as prisoners of war during the second battle of Ypres in 1915. This capture was during the time the Canadian’s had to surrender to the Germans and were sent to German prisoner-of-war camps where they were confined there for months. The Canadian’s were mistreated, more so than the Englishmen, but just as bad as the French, said escapee Harry Saunderson on his experience in the German prisoner-of-war camps. He was horrified to see the way they were treated compared to other nationalities such as Englishmen, and how others, such as the Dutch, treated them much better than Germany ever would.
Edwards and Simmons’ story is not very detailed on how they escaped or their experience in the prisoner-of-war camps. It’s said that Simmons made two escapes, the first being after months of confinement. When he was sent a compass and map in a cake, he planned and went through with his escape. He was said to be caught at the border, sent back to the camp, his map and compass confiscated, and was punished. Later, he was sent a cake with a map and compass inside, the same way he was given the first map and compass, and was able to escape with Edwards, actually succeeding that time. It’s not said how they escaped and what happened, but they landed in Holland sometime after, meeting Burk and Tustin there, and were sent to England with the other two men.
Just like Simmons, Saunderson tried to escape twice, only being successful on his last escape as well. Due to his first attempt, he was a target and was taken out of his cell that night (after the escape) and was beat along with the other two men he tried to escape with. They were later sent into Munster for trial and were sentenced to fourteen days imprisonment. After being taken out of the prison, much to their dismay, they were forced to wear the letter ‘N’ on their clothes to show they had previously escaped. After some time of being forced to wear the ‘N’ proving their escapement, they were allowed to remove said letter.
The second escape was when they were working for six days with plenty of food saved up, hiding during the day time behind bushes. As they were idling by the frontier they were taken to a guard house and mistaken for Dutch so the guard let them pass. The Dutch, they said, treated them as equals with the Englishmen, only questioning why Canadians would send men to fight when they weren’t compelled to do so. Eventually, the Dutch transferred them to their superior authorities who sent them to the British consular services and the Brits were the ones to finally send them home.
Burk, another prisoner-of-war escapee from Germany, had a rougher time before and during his escape with the other prisoner, Tustin. Burke was not hurt when captured at Ypres, but was forced to work without rest and was suffering from the gas fumes. Once he was transferred to a Munster camp he was to be put to work with ‘light carpentering’ which turned out to be working in the coke ovens. After he worked there for a month without a single days rest, he was transferred twice more. The first transfer was to the mines for four months, and then the second was to Kattenvan to chop wood and clear land for about three more months. The last winter and spring was spent grooming horses and then bringing up English parcels.
Burk and Tustin’s escape was dramatic, the two of them managing to escape from the camp on September 5th on a dark and rainy night. They walked through the shallow river and got caught in a wire, sounding the alarm to which the guards responded and ran to catch them. The two prisoners escaped and hid in the woods, Burk’s clothes ripped and torn from the wire, and Tustin in much worse shape, losing his fingers in the wire. When men, women, and children began to go outside near the woods where they were hiding, they stayed hidden until dark again. After leaving the woods they were caught by dogs and chased for some time before getting away and hiding all day in a ditch. Upon seeing another dog, they feared being chased once again but were lucky to have them pass by without seeing the two escapees.
All the men had with them were biscuits and chocolates that should have lasted five days but they managed to make them last twice as long, as well as the mangold (also known as chard or a type of beetroot) and raw potatoes, until they made it to Holland on September 15th. Almost half of their journey was in rainy weather, at one point they had to hide in a hedge due to mist rising while they were walking. After almost being caught by a dog again, but quickly getting away, they covered themselves in anything they could to stay hidden from the dog.
While hiding in a thick bush, they heard a man tell five girls and a woman about two Englishmen who had escaped from prison and left shortly after hearing about it. From there they hid in a ditch and walked for two nights, almost being caught by more dogs along the way. When they were about 250 yards from the German border, German sentries began to shoot at them, forcing them to run until they passed through the border to Holland.
Luckily, instead of being mistreated in Holland, they got the exact opposite. They were greeted, cheered for their escape, and given everything they wanted including cigars, money, chocolate, a hot bath, a meal, and a change of clothes. That’s where they met the other escapees Simmons and Edwards and the four of them were sent to England after their stay in Holland.
Many Canadian’s and Englishmen weren’t as lucky as the men who escaped. Germans had kept them prisoners for a reason and too many men died as a result of being held captive with the mistreatment they endured. It took a lot of strength and courage to be able to survive and escape the camps the way these men did.
This story has been researched and written by Jake Alfieri.