It’s been said that the first duty of a prisoner of war, after surviving, is to escape. In the First World War, Charles G. Robertson followed this advice but eventually came to realize that escaping from a POW camp could not only be dangerous but also financially draining.
Robertson, who was working at the Davidson and Smith elevator in Fort William when the war broke out, quickly answered the call to serve his country. In 1915, he went overseas with the 4th Battalion and rose to the rank of Captain.
In 1917, Robertson found himself in the midst of battle west of Vimy Ridge where, unfortunately, he was captured. He ended up in a POW camp in Holzminden, a medieval town in central Germany (now a small city of 20,000), where he joined 600 British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand prisoners, most of whom were officers. They were housed in a former Cavalry barracks that was fenced off with barbed wire.
Generally, imprisoned officers experienced more comfortable conditions than other ranks and, in this case, they were overseen by a German Kommandant, Hauptman Karl Niemeyer, whose poor English made him a laughing stock among the prisoners. But Niemeyer could also be punitive and arbitrary, making extensive use of solitary confinement and food deprivation.
Attempts to escape were not uncommon. Some made a bid for freedom by cutting through the fence and others donned disguises and tried to walk out of the gate, but in every case the escapees, even when initially successful, were captured and returned to the camp.
In October 1917, however, a much more elaborate attempt began. Eighty-six officers decided to stage a massive escape. For nine months, they dug a tunnel from the basement of the barracks, the entrance concealed under a staircase.
On the night of July 23, 1918, they were ready to go and, one by one, they began to pass through the tunnel. Soon 29 men, including Captain Robertson, had made their way to freedom, but the thirtieth man got stuck in the tunnel and couldn’t be budged. Ten of those who escaped managed to avoid recapture, eventually reaching the neutral Netherlands and, then, Britain.
Robertson almost made it too. For twenty-one days, he travelled by night and hid by day, heading to the Dutch border. His only mistake proved to be a costly one. He mistook a German sentry for a Dutch soldier and was recaptured.
“They took us back,” he later said, “and after a court of inquiry sentenced each of us to two years’ solitary confinement and a 30,000 Mark fine which came to about $1,500 at the rate of exchange then in effect.”
Asked how the prisoners paid the fine, Capt. Robertson replied: “We didn’t, but the British government did—from our pay which was banked at London during our imprisonment.” After he was released in late 1918, Charles went back to England and tried to draw out all of his back pay. To his surprise, he was informed that he had to reimburse the bank for the amount of his fine. “I was informed,” he wrote, “that if I didn’t re-deposit to meet the cheque I would be struck off the officers’ reserve.”
Lest anyone think this was a minor expense, $1,500 in 1918 would be the equivalent of $26,300 today, quite the penalty for doing one’s duty.
Tory Tronrud, Thunder Bay Museum