The new collection of Prisoner of War records have provided a comprehensive list of First World War servicemen who were captured. Many of the men listed lead us to tales of heroism and cunning in their determined attempts at escape. Highlighted below are a number of daring escape attempts from the notorious prison camps, ranging from a large scale tunnelling escape bid from Holzminden POW camp (this first ‘Great Escape’ inspired the escapees a number of years later in the Second World War), to two Allied Officers making bizarre (and ultimately successful) attempts to fool their Turkish guards and commandant and gaining their freedom. As conditions were so harsh and Allied Officers had an unwritten code to try to escape, many prisoners tried to escape with stories of failed attempts by prisoners who dressed as women, German guards and civilian workers in desperate attempts to escape.

Prisoner of War information from the First World War is listed on TheGenealogist from 1914 to 1919 as part of the extensive Military Records collection. These records are available to Diamond subscribers.

Prisoners of War are often forgotten in Great War commemorations but many thousands of British and Commonwealth troops suffered the dreadful hardships of captivity, some for almost the full duration of the war. TheGenealogist has brought together a comprehensive set of records of both officers and other ranks (who were the vast majority of prisoners) providing the most in-depth set of World War One Prisoner of War records now available. The records include British and Commonwealth military personnel and have been brought together from a variety of sources including the unique to TheGenealogist ‘Casualty Lists’ from 1914 to 1919 and form part of the extensive collection of over 2 million military records added in 2014.

If you’re struggling to find an ancestor’s war record, it’s worth searching the new extensive Prisoner of War collection in the Military Records on TheGenealogist.

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Captured during the First World War, Lieutenant Elias Henry Jones of the Indian Vol. Artillery Battery and Lieutenant Cedric Waters Hill of the Royal Flying Corps ended up at the Yozgad prison camp in Turkey. Searching for activities to occupy their time, Lieutenant Jones suggests the idea of making a Ouija board for both curiosity and entertainment. Developing a skill for manipulating his fellow inmates and ably assisted by Lieutenant Hill, they manage to dupe both fellow prisoners and their Turkish captors. As things develop, they use their new-found hobby to dupe their captors into setting them free following a tale of séances, treasure hunts with messages from the spirit world and faked suicides.

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Some of the main techniques used to escape by Allied servicemen

  • Tunnelling
  • Dressing as a German Guard
  • Dressing as a woman
  • Dressing as a civilian worker
  • Pretending to be psychic
  • Faking insanity

The records are fully searchable and provide the main details including forename, surname, rank, regiment and the date the information was received. All can be found in the Prisoner of War record set in the Military Collection on TheGenealogist. They cover the army, navy and air force of the many thousands of British and Commonwealth servicemen held captive.

Case Study: Sergeant-Major Turner

The new records also show in certain cases what happens to a soldier whilst in captivity in our Prisoner of War records. Here we see Sergeant-Major Turner of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment. The records show him captured in June 1915, then arriving in Holland for internment in March 1918 and finally repatriated and arriving back in England in November 1918.

Sergeant-Major Turner of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment

Case Study: The Holzminden Prison of War Camp

Initially unprepared for taking large numbers of prisoners, from early 1915, the German authorities put in place a system of prisoner of war camps, in total there were just under 300. The camps included Holzminden, Stendal, Spandau and Soltau which was said to accommodate 30,000 prisoners. The officers were generally kept in camps that were less crowded and conditions were slightly better than the lower ranks. The average officers camp housed about 500 to 600 men, the ordinary soldiers camp (or Mannschaftslager) could house between 12,000 to 50,000 men, often in dreadful conditions.

Holzminden Prisoner of War Camp, near Hannover, accommodated the most ‘troublesome’ officers, those who had repeatedly tried to escape. Conditions were harsh and it was run by a brutal commandant.

The Holzminden camp saw the first ‘great escape’ of the war. In July 1918, 29 officers, including the most senior British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles E H Rathbone, escaped through a tunnel and 10 evaded capture to get to the neutral Netherlands and freedom. The escape tunnel collapsed on the 30th escapee otherwise more men would have escaped.

There were a number of notable prisoners at Holzminden Camp including Lieutenant Brian Horrocks who tried to escape Holzminden a number of times and was awarded a Military Cross for his efforts. He later became a famous senior officer in World War 2 as a close colleague of General Montgomery.

Below you can see Lieutenant Horrocks in the Prisoner of War lists on TheGenealogist, showing his repatriation. Another famous inmate at the camp was future Hollywood film director James Whale, a Second Lieutenant in the Worcestershire Regiment. He went on to direct the film ‘Frankenstein.’

Holzminden Camp held a number of high profile Allied servicemen. Conditions were harsh as it was used for the most troublesome prisoners who made regular escape attempts. Prisoners listed on TheGenealogist records include Michael Claude Hamilton-Bowes-Lyon (brother of the future Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother) and William Leefe Robinson (who shot the first German airship down over London and was kept in solitary confinement for repeated escape attempts).

Holzminden Officer's Camp
Lieutenant   Brian Horrocks
Lieutenant Brian Horrocks and James Whale in the PoW Lists at TheGenealogist

Case Study: The unusual escape from Yozgad POW camp in Turkey- how 2 allied servicemen ‘faked’ their way to freedom

The new records on TheGenealogist also reveal the details of two Allied Officers who went to extraordinary lengths to try to win their freedom.

Lieutenant Elias Henry Jones (Indian Vol. Artillery Battery) was taken prisoner at Kut-el-Amara- force marched 700 miles to a camp at Yozgad. He was the grandfather of television producer Hilary Bevan Jones (worked on Blackadder, Cracker, Red Dwarf and Chairman of BAFTA). Lieutenant Cedric Waters Hill of The Royal Flying Corps was an Australian air force officer serving in the RFC.

Here we find Lieutenant Jones in the Prisoner of War records on TheGenealogist:

And here is the prisoner record of Lieutenant Cedric Waters Hill, within the Casualty Lists on TheGenealogist:

Bored in captivity they fooled around with a homemade Ouija board and hatched a plan to use it to more productive means. Playing on the naivety of their captors and the greed of the commandant they weaved an elaborate plot to plan an escape. Acting as mediums for the Ouija board, they attempted to convince their captors that they could reveal the whereabouts of buried treasure on the Mediterranean coast, once there, they planned to abscond to Cyprus. The original plan failed but the pair faked insanity to gain repatriation on medical grounds. They succeeded (although a fake suicide attempt by Elias Jones nearly cost him his life) and they were approved for a prisoner exchange and arrived in Britain a couple of months before the end of the war.

Another well known escapee from Yozgad camp was Captain Clarke of the Royal West Kent Regiment. Captain Clarke along with 8 other British officers escaped from the camp and then crossed 450 miles of hostile terrain to eventually steal a boat and sail to Cyprus. Here we find the record of Captain Clarke on TheGenealogist.

Lieutenant Jones
Lieutenant Cedric Waters Hill
Captain Clarke

TheGenealogist has a wide and varied collection of military records available to access. Find out more on how you can discover your ancestors from a range of subscriptions available.

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