My thanks to those of you who came to February’s meeting and heard my talk ‘Escapers All’. It is still a work in progress, as the more one learns about some of the individuals the more difficult it becomes to stay within the time constraints of a talk.
The questions were interesting and I was particularly challenged by the question on the use of Colditz Castle during World War 1. No British source that I am aware of on World War 1 prisoners refers to Colditz. This also applies to both sources which contain the most comprehensive list of Camps used by Officers and Other Ranks.
For one hundred years prior to 1914, Colditz Castle had been a sanatorium for the wealthy, but between 1914/1918 the Castle was the home to both psychiatric and tuberculosis patients, and one source claims that some of those died from malnutrition. This is partly confirmed by the official ‘Schloss Colditz’ site. It appears that the Castle was one of the first psychiatric asylums to be established in Germany.
A ‘Yesterday’ UKTV site, does claim that the Castle was used to detain prisoners in World War 1, but I have no evidence to support a claim that any British prisoners were held there during that period. In 1933 the Castle was converted into a 'political prison’ for those who the Nazis considered as ‘undesirables’. In 1939 it became a POW Camp for Allied prisoners, and those who had attempted to escape were concentrated there. In World War 1 Camps like Fort Zorndorf, Ingolstadt and Holzminden were used for serial escapers. It was also fairly common for a prisoner, following an escape attempt, to be moved to another camp.
There were two escapers I failed to mention in my talk, despite the fact that they make the top six for the total number of escape attempts. Top of the chart is Second Lt. H W Medlicott, RFC, with 14 escape attempts. Medlicott is variously described as brave and reckless. He tried on at least two occasions to escape from Fort 9 at Ingolstadt. His first attempt was a variant of a method tried by a number of prisoners, which involved hiding in the rubbish and being taken through the Camp gates by the Orderlies.
In Medlicott’s case he and Lt S E Buckley were concealed in rubbish boxes beneath potato peel and all sorts of other waste. In the box they were lying on sacking, so that when tipped up they would be covered by this sacking. Everything seemed to go well, but after Buckley’s box had been tipped he felt someone tugging on the Burberry he was wearing. He stood up to the horror of the guards and the civilian who was searching the tip for scraps of food and clothing. Lt Buckley was eventually to escape from a train while being moved to Fort Zorndorf with Captain A J Evans. After 16 days they crossed the frontier into Switzerland
Nothing within the conventions of the time could have justified Medlicott’s killing by the Germans following his 14th escape attempt. Although the Senior British Officer was refused permission to see the body, it was widely reported that Medlicott’s body was riddled with bullet and stab wounds. His fellow escaper Captain Joseph Walter was also killed.
Lt C F L Templar Gloucestershire Regiment made 13 attempts. I failed to mention Private Frederick Rew, 2nd Battalion CEF who made eight escape attempts and Private Donovan Corker, 7th Battalion CEF, who escaped seven times. Captain A J Evans RFC comes next with five escape attempts.
Private Herbert Rew had been born in England, but had volunteered in Edmonton, Alberta in September 1914. He was wounded and taken prisoner and transferred to a hospital in Paderborn. On his recovery in March 1916 he was transferred to Dulmen Camp, at which many ‘work commandos’ were based. In November 1917 he was transferred to Burgsteinfurt. His escape attempts were never successful as he was repatriated via Ripon Camp on 12th December 1918.
Private Arthur Donovan Corker volunteered in Victoria, British Columbia in 1914. He was posted as ‘missing and wounded’ in May 1915. From June 1915 he spent time in Camps at Bichofswerda and Wahn, but he was transferred in November 1916 to Giessen. Giessen was also a centre for many ‘work commandos’ and at one time he was working on a canal lock at Dieteheim, in Baden Wurttemberg. He, like many prisoners, became expert in petty acts of sabotage, in his case dropping tools into the canal. He is reported as having escaped from Giessen in July 1918, but this could well have escaped from where he had been sent to work. He arrived in England later that month and was repatriated to Canada from Liverpool in September 1918. He was discharged from the Army in Vancouver in February 1919.
A British prisoner who became an expert in sabotage was Private W A Tucker, 38th (Welsh) Divisional Cyclists. When captured in March 1918, the Germans would examine the pay books of captives to see what skills they possessed which might prove useful. Tucker’s pay book had the word Artificer, a reference to a six week course on the maintenance and repair of bicycles. This was interpreted by the German officer as’ Mechaniker’ and so he was sent to a motor repair depot. He was eventually sent to a large garage in Roubaix, with over 200 British Prisoners. These prisoners had not been registered and would not receive any Red Cross parcels and would still be regarded as missing.
Sabotage was easily and efficiently organized, and as their final task every night was to sweep the floors, there was no shortage of small junk to assist with their sabotage. When spark plugs were replaced, a few odds and ends were dropped into the cylinders. As the Germans left the dirty tasks underneath the lorries to the prisoners, no split pin was replaced without removing two others and any nuts visible could be loosened. Some of the prisoners were professional mechanics so they had the skills to tamper with the electrics and other technical components.
W A Tucker ‘The Lousier War’
John Lewis-Stemple ‘ The War Behind the Wire’
Captain A J Evans ‘The Escaping Club’
Library of Canada Archives, Personnel Records of the First World War