Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Escape Artists

By Neal Bascomb
Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2018
James M. Gallen, Reviewer

Captain David Gray, Lead Tunneler 
The Escape Artists is a true story with novelesque qualities. It more than "reads like a novel" with engaging WWI characters and a plot that keeps you turning the page to learn how they plan their escape, whether they succeed, how far they get, and how their captors respond. Novels have all this suspense, but because they are fiction, they are inconsequential. Although the escape artists in this book are actual people who performed real daredevil deeds, their efforts had only an ephemeral impact on the larger story of the Great War.

The artists are generally British pilots and soldiers held in German POW camps. Escape was their duty. To attempt this the prisoners played a cat-and-mouse game with their guards, most prominently Captain Niemeyer, the brutal buffoon who keeps showing up to torment men who organize breakouts under his eyes despite his oafish efforts to foil them.

Pilots were not issued parachutes, and those who carried emergency kits with rations, maps, and tools were chastised as unwilling to fight to the bitter end. Prospects for a surrendering British soldier or airman were bleak. One in five were shot or bayoneted in the act. The wounded often died without treatment. Those who survived to be taken prisoner were robbed of everything of value before being marched off to spare and overcrowded camps where food was short, clothes threadbare, sanitation poor, and disease cut a broad swath. Officers had it better than enlisted men, but is it any wonder all ranks longed to escape?

Escapees Blain, Gray, and Kennard in Their  Disguises

As harsh as conditions are depicted, they strike me as more benign than accounts of Andersonville or World War II, especially Japanese camps. Reprisals were generally periods of solitary confinement rather than arbitrary executions. Many escapees were returned to try multiple times. Some walls were low enough to be scaled. Men had sufficient privacy and energy to be able to tunnel for weeks before trying their breakouts. Scarce as food was, a few could save some for their journeys. As ill clad as they were, some designed outfits that mimicked German uniforms.

Those who got away from the camps hid by day and crawled through fields in darkness, snuck through the towns that could not be avoided, and purchased and used railway tickets. Camps were situated close enough to the Dutch border to provide fugitives with a fighting chance of reaching neutral territory. The Kaiser was not the first to seek refuge in the Netherlands.

The history lessons are edifying, but the lure of this tome is its adventure. The limitations of the numbers of plotters to preserve secrecy, the schemes to avoid capture by joining a German speaker to an alleged lunatic, and the stories to explain their travels buoy the readers' spirits only to break their hearts when their friends—and that is what the prisoners become as we progress through the book—are captured by border patrol, or in a town that, alas, is in Germany, not the Dutch one of the same name.

In The Escape Artists author Neal Bascomb has crafted a history, an adventure, an inspiring tribute to the human spirit of freedom. I'd better stop. More could be a spoiler and you do not want that. Pick up and enjoy!

James M. Gallen


  1. Great review, James. " The Kaiser was not the first to seek refuge in the Netherlands" - heh.

  2. I can't imagine what it would feel like to think you're safe in Holland only to be arrested in Germany!

  3. I'm reminded of Pyke's adventures - if I might link to one of my earlier posts:

  4. For a genuine first-hand account of WW1 escapers, try Duncan Grinnell-Milne's books "Wind in the Wires" and "An Escaper's Log". I wonder if he features in the book being reviewed? He was an RFC pilot who was captured in November 1915 when he landed with engine failure; he made several breakouts that ended in re-capture, before making it to Holland in March 1918. He flew in action again on the Western Front in SE5as before the war ended.

    1. Interesting person. Went on to write a lot, it seems.