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The Escape Artists
by Neal Bascomb
War is such a horrible thing—vicious, destructive, and despicable. It brings out the worst and the best in man. We see both in Neal Bascomb’s true recounting of the largest escape of WWI by the British at one time—twenty-nine officers of whom ten actually made it out of Germany to Holland without being recaptured.
Bascomb’s well-researched tale The Escape Artists is divided into four major sections. In the first, “Capture,” he provides a glimpse into the personalities and lives of some of the major players in the escape, their role in the military, and the circumstances of their capture.
The second section, “All Roads Lead to Hellminden,” describes a number of interment camps but focuses especially on notorious twin commandants, Karl and Heinrich Niemeyer. Both prisoners and commandants could be transferred at whim in Germany and being transferred could be positive or negative for a prisoner. This section details life in the camp and shows a better situation for officers than that experienced by enlisted soldiers who were put in labor camps. Officers, instilled with the patriotic drive to do whatever they could to hinder the enemy and return home to fight again, spent a lot of their energy devising and executing escape plans. If their attempts were unsuccessful or they were recaptured, the punishment was generally a long and uncomfortable time in a small isolation cell—dark, very hot or very cold, dirty, overrun with vermin, and little food. This trial on the body, mind, and spirit might last several days, weeks or months. Nevertheless, instead of deterring escape attempts, it prodded the officers into yet more clever tries.
“The Tunnel” describes the huge group effort spearheaded by an officer named Gray to construct a very long tunnel and plan how to proceed once outside the walls of Holzminden. All of the background material in the first two sections was essential, but at this point the story really takes off and you will want to keep reading until finished. The last section. “Breakout,” shares the actual escape attempt.
To write this book, Bascomb read a lot of books on the escape and the interment camps, interviewed descendants of the officers, and relied greatly on primary documents including memoirs and letters from the time. His narrative style is effective and the subject matter is interesting. Having read several books on labor and death camps, it was interesting to read about the British officers, drawn from all over the globe. Many of them were young pilots from exclusive schools and families. They had little training, but were very patriotic and had a honed sense of duty and honor. One surprising detail for me was that the imprisoned officers were able to write to their families and receive packages and money from them. Not everything went smoothly in that process, but they were better off than those in labor camps. They even had orderlies from the enlisted ranks of prisoners to make their beds, etc. This was not a luxury situation by any means, and the men were quite bored and frustrated whiling away time when they felt they should be fighting.
Neal Bascomb is a former journalist who turned to writing nonfiction books full-time in 2000. He is the award winning author of nine books for adults and three for young adults.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Publication: September 18, 2018—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The greatest resistance of all would be to escape.
None of the diplomats gathered in The Hague in 1899 or 1907 could have anticipated the vast populations of prisoners that would come out of industrialized total war—nor the challenges this would involve. In the first six months of World War I, 1.3 million soldiers became POWs across Europe.
The arrival in December of Harold Medlicott had bolstered the mood throughout the camp. The officers believed that if anybody could escape Holzminden and humiliate Karl Niemeyer, it was Medlicott. A legend even to the German guards, he had broken out of nine camps already, never using the same method twice.
Harvey might not get another chance to escape, but in aiding Cartwright, as in countless other efforts to help his fellow prisoners, he found freedom within. In his own way, he was a breakout artist.