Behind the Wire: Prisoners of War 1914-1918



'For the Allied prisoners of war in Germany during the First World War, the prospect of escape was a good deal more attractive – and practical – than was the case for another generation of POWs in 1939–45. For one thing, the whole of Western Europe was not occupied, and while Switzerland remained the obvious target for prisoners in central and southern Germany, neutral Holland and Scandinavia beckoned to those in the northern camps. Escape from a work party, or from a train moving between prison camps, seemed to be the two best alternatives.

Major A.E. Evans, one of the ‘bad boys’ of Ingolstadt’s Fort 9, decided that the time had come for him to make his getaway when it was announced that the more unruly inmates were to be transferred to Zorndorf in East Prussia. Together with another officer named Buckley, he decided to leap off the train at the first opportunity. This both men managed without injury, and apparently unnoticed by the guards. Then they set off to walk to the Swiss frontier, 200 miles away. It was 9 June, 1917.

‘We only walked by night,’ Evans recalled,

and lay up in hiding through the hours of daylight – which was, I think, the worst part of the business and wore out our nerves and physical strength far more than the six or seven hours’ marching at night, for the day seemed intolerably long from 4.30am to 9.30pm – seventeen hours – the sun was very hot, and there was little shade, and we were consumed with impatience to get on. Moreover, we could never be free from anxiety at any moment of those seventeen hours. The strain at night of passing through a village where a few lights still burnt and dogs seemed to wake and bark at us in every house, never worried me so much as a cart passing or men talking near our daytime hiding places.

We went into hiding at dawn or soon after, and when we’d taken off our boots and put on clean socks we would both drop asleep at once. It was a bit of a risk – perhaps one of us ought to have stayed awake, but we took it deliberately since we got great benefit from a sound sleep while we were still warm from walking. And it was only for about an hour before we woke again shivering, for the mornings were very cold and we were usually soaked with dew up to our waists. Then we had breakfast – the great moment of the day – and rations were pretty good at first, as we underestimated the time we would take by about four days.

But later on we had to help things out with raw potatoes from the fields, which eventually became our mainstay. All day long we were pestered with stinging insects. Our hands and faces became swollen all over, and the bites on my feet came up in blisters which broke and left raw places when I put on my boots again.

On the fifteenth day our impatience got the better of us, and we started out before it was properly dark, and suddenly came upon a man in soldier’s uniform scything grass at the side of the road. We were filthily dirty and unshaven and must have looked the most villainous tramps; it was stupid of us to have risked being seen, but it would have aroused his suspicion if we’d turned back, so we walked on past him. He looked up and said something we didn’t catch. We answered ‘Good evening’ as usual. But he called after us, and then when we took no notice shouted ‘Halt! Halt’ and ran after us with his scythe.

We were both too weak to run fast or far, and moreover we saw at that moment a man with a gun about fifty yards to our right. There was only one thing to be done, and we did it. We turned haughtily and waited for our pursuer, and when he was a few yards away Buckley demanded in a voice quivering with indignant German what the devil he meant by shouting at us. He almost dropped his scythe with astonishment, then turned round and went slowly back to his work, Buckley had saved the day!


The end of their march on the following night brought the two within about ten miles of the Swiss frontier, so they decided to eat the remainder of their food, with the exception of a few meat lozenges kept in case of an emergency, and cross over on the night after. They had memorized the details of their escape map so as to avoid having to strike matches later on, and left all their spare kit behind in order to travel light over what they hoped would be the last lap, but it was not to be quite as simple as they had anticipated.'


Behind the Wire: Prisoners of War 1914-18 is part of Osprey's new digital only series and is available to download as a PDF or eBook now!