St Andrews College Review, Christmas 1916, pp. 35-40


The following thrilling narrative has been kindly placed at our disposal by Mr. James Gerrie Burk (S.A.C. 1906-07) who was captured by the Germans at Ypres last year. He was with the 8th Battalion, Winnipeg, part of the First Contingent. Burk and his companion had been registered as dead, and their effects were about to be disposed of, when they turned up in London. Burk paid the School a visit this term. He appeared to be considerably shaken as a result of his trying experiences. [ Based on the diary of Gerrie's escape partner, Herbert W. Tustin ]

Note: Burk & Tustin were held in the Rennbahn POW Camp near Munster and forced to work in neighbouring salt mines. The escape took ten days and they walked 105 miles.

The Camp of my eighteen months’ imprisonment is a difficult place from which to escape. It is surrounded by two 8 ft. barb wire fences, 3 yards apart, and running between these is a 4 ft. fence of electric wire. The whole is brilliantly illuminated at night by arc lamps, and by day and night sentries walk around the fences ready at any moment to test their skill as marksmen. In spite of the obvious, difficulty and danger attached to any attempt to reach the open country beyond those barriers, several representatives of all nations have succeeded in doing so. Most of the flights, however, were made from working parties outside the Camp, and so far my friend and I are the only British to have crossed the Dutch frontier direct from the central camp.

We left on the night of Tuesday, Sept. 5th. But for the sake of those desirous of following our example, who are still there, I will not describe the exodus. It was a good night for the attempt, the kind of weather that tempts a sentry to turn up his collar and dream of home—dark and raining heavily. Suffice to say we chose a happy moment, and after a minute’s struggle and short sprint we were lying exhausted under a dripping hedge, satisfied that our doings had not been noticed. It was quite dark, but we considered the time rather early for travelling, having previously decided to walk only between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., so we lay in the hedge until 10 p.m., extremely glad of a rest after the excitement of exit. We bound up our hands lacerated by barb wire, pinned the most extensive rents in our uniforms and refreshed ourselves from a bottle containing alcohol and peppermint. Then we crawled from the hedge, and cautiously advanced straight across country, smashing through hedges and jumping or wading small streams. The railway lay across out path. We crawled on hands and knees across a turnip field which bordered it, crawled up the embankment across the rails, then seeing no guards dashed down the side, only to fall headlong over the signal wires which sang in a most terrifying manner under the shock and seemed to warn the whole country of our nefarious doings. We naturally did not wait for the alarm to spread, but ran on to the darkness be- yond over ploughed fields, through standing corn, and even through orchards and gardens. But this triumphant enjoyment of newly gained liberty was too good to last unchecked. A river lay across our path. We had been told that it was only a small stream, but recent rains had swelled it into a very respectable flood. We searched for a bridge, and wasted a valuable hour before plucking up sufficient courage to plunge boldly in. The river crossed, we soon lost sight of the light of Munster far behind us, and had no further adventures that night. We took no rest whatever, until the paling of the eastern sky warned us that it was time to think about a hiding place for the day. A big wood lay just ahead, and although rather close to a village, we were too tired to proceed further, and contented ourselves with it. It afforded very poor cover, and in it we passed a fearful day, for it was absolutely alive with people, and served as a playground for the village children, who were having their holidays. Sportsmen with dogs, too, caused us considerable anxiety, passing within a few yards of the bramble bushes under whose prickly shelter we lay cowering. We were soaked to the skin, and the sun, breaking out between the clouds, tempted us strongly to leave the dark and hostile brambles, and venture into the warmth of his rays. Caution said “no,” and so we lay shivering in the wet shadows, until darkness approaching sent the playing children to the place we so longed for—bed. We ate our evening meal—a small French army biscuit, and a piece of chocolate. We lit out pipes and sucked comfort from them until the quietness of the surrounding country told us_we might again venture forth.

That second night’s journey can never be forgotten. We started well, passing through many huge orchards, and filling stomachs and pockets with most welcome fruit. Then we got into a district of small farms, and small fields and thick hedges. And how we cursed the barbed wire fences. Every farm, too, had its dog. Some indeed seemed to be dogs’ homes and to contain tribes and families of the brutes. Some were tied up, and as we passed, leaped at their chains as they barked furiously. Others were free and rushed out upon us, baying as though mad. We cut heavy sticks, and proceeded cautiously. The dogs so annoyed us that we forgot other dangers and got within 100 yards of a railway employee, standing at the door of a signalman’s cabin, before we noticed him. Fortunately, he did not see us, or at any- rate gave no sign of having done so.

We struggled on through this dangerous district, for three or four nights, finding the greatest difficulty in choosing hiding places for the day. The whole country "seemed to be awake long before dawn, and at 3 a.m. farmers could always be heard, shout- ing to their horses, children shouting, harness rattling and wagons creaking. Consequently we had to choose a hiding place in the dark, and sometimes when dawn broke, it showed us a farm quite close at hand which had escaped our notice in the dark. We were within inches of being caught on several occasions. Once two children came picking blackberries, and stood nearly on top of our faces as we lay in a ditch covered with moss and leaves. Strange to say they were talking about “zwei Engländer,” and we can’t imagine yet how they failed to see us. At another place two milk girls passed us as we lay in a ditch, at about 3.30 a.m. One dropped her pail two yards from us with an exclamation. We were not sure whether or not she had seen us, but thought it wise to find another harbour that day. Cover was very scarce, and we were obliged to find it in a small orchard attached to a farm, full of children and dogs, who played there from sunrise to sunset, making sleep impossible for us.

But the most astonishing escape of all was the occasion of our having lost our way. We had expected to reach a railroad, but never coming to it, decided we were lost, and were obliged to follow a road, until we found a sign post. This found, it told us we were many miles south of our course, and, since the road continued northwest, leading us on in the right direction again, we decided to strike boldly along it. We were tired, and having been travelling for some nights without much adventure, had be- come a trifle careless. We had been told that sign posts were sometimes altered by the Germans, on purpose to mislead escaping prisoners. Consequently, after many miles of travel, on seeing another cross road in the moonlight ahead, instead of advancing towards it very cautiously, we eagerly stepped forward to see whether the sign post confirmed or contradicted the other. What appeared to us in the uncertain light to be a kind of wagon, lay drawn up at the road side between us and the sign post. As we passed it, a huge mastiff rushed roaring upon us. We glanced quickly at the wagon, and to our amazement saw it was a patrol’s caravan. We had seen its like before. Sign post and all were forgotten. We turned and fled through a wood until the furious barking of the dog died away in the distance. So far as we know, the guard did not turn out and no attempt seemed to be made to follow us.

We seemed to get into a maze of patrols at one time, but the dogs always gave warning when we got anywhere near them. Once I remember hearing an angry soldier shouting savagely at his dog, because it made such a noise at hearing us. Once, too, a huge patrol hound trotted up to us as we lay in a ditch watching a road. He sniffed at us and twice raised his head as though to give voice to disapproval. We raised our clubs, and had he howled it would have been for the last time. But finally he lowered his huge head, and trotted calmly away on his beat, leaving us to cross the road undisturbed.

The day after these adventures we felt extremely tired and lying on a fairly comfortable bed of moss and pine branches in the centre of a tiny copse, dropped off into sleep. We were awakened by a great noise of shouting and the hurried beat of hoofs. We looked out cautiously, and there was a ferocious looking bull, which had broken loose, and was being pursued by men and boys with ropes. The brute came thundering straight towards our little hiding place, scented us, and, throwing up its head, bellowed, looking towards us menacingly. Its pursuers got a rope over its head, as we watched only 10 to 15 yards away, and the danger was over.

We celebrated this deliverance by making a tiny fire and boiling up a tin of “bully beaf” with the last of our water. We added Oxo cubes and made a stew which would have been am- brosia but for its saltness. Our meal over we smoked, and be- came horribly thirsty. The night’s march was commenced, and we expected to find water any moment. We searched ditches in valleys, but had no luck. Then we saw some cows in a field. In desperation we tried to milk them, but failed miserably, and after many attempts gave it up. Towards morning we saw a pump just outside a farmhouse. The handle creaked dismally. The pump was dry. However, the trough was full of water, the dirt in which was hid by the darkness, and we drank and were con- tented. The next notable occurrence was the consumption of the last of our biscuits and chocolate. This did not worry us much at the time, for we hoped to be across the frontier twelve hours after- wards. That night was perfectly clear and cloudless, with a full harvest moon, and was so light that we considered any attempt to approach the frontier as most unwise. So, having a fairly comfortable bed of furze bushes and heather, which we had strewn in a ditch, we decided to try a night’s sleep and hope that the following night would be darker. It turned out a very cold night and though tired, sleep was impossible. We were hungry next day, as well as cold, and when the next night came lighter than ever, we were very sorry that we had wasted 24 hours. On setting out we searched for apples, but found the orchards in that locality entirely stripped. Then we got on to the moors, and made very slow progress, through woods of poplar bushes soaked in dew and over heather. We were, moreover, weak with hunger and exposure, falling headlong several times over imaginary obstacles. A turnip and carrot field filled our aching hearts and other things with vigour, but the' moonlight was so brilliant that we made it an excuse for postponing the frontier for another day. It was windy and bitterly cold, and we had the happy fortune to"* find an isolated shed containing two stacks, one of hay the other of barley. Feeling that another day in the open would be nearly fatal, we decided to risk the shelter of this barn. The hay stack was more comfortable, but looked at though people had recently been working at it. The barley looked hard and cold and uninviting, but we took it and burrowed right into its centre. Well it was that we did so, for as soon as daylight came, wagons came creaking into the barn and were filled with—hay. We blessed the choice of the barley, for by night time there was very little hay left. Dogs, scenting us, drove «.11 sleep from our heavy eyelids, and children were romping around us for hours, keeping our already overstrung nerves at a great tension. Blessed night came, and with it showers of rain, and clouds passing over the moon. We had a feed of potatoes and carrots, a pipe of tobacco, and then on. We knew that we must be very near the frontier and were most anxious to make good progress, but were delayed by vile peat bogs, and were very glad to feel ourselves again on terra firma. Then came the frontier.

There was a house ahead with a flagstaff. It was a big house and we thought it might be marked on our chart. So out it came, and we stood in the moonlight looking at it, but could see no indication of a house there. We put it away and were taking a compass bearing when bang ! bang ! bang ! came a scattering volley from a spot some 100 yards ahead and to our left. We heard no bullets humming around us, but lost no time in getting on our stomachs and crawling snake fashion to cover. A cloud then hid the moon, and we ran along a hedge, right round to the left, alternately running and crawling as the moon was hid or not. Then, as we were in the middle of an open patch, it came out suddenly from a bank of clouds, and another volley told us we were seen again. So knowing the enemy would expect us in the direction in which they had last seen us, we took advantage of an- other cloud to double back the way we had come. We crawled along a series of ditches, and actually passed an empty guard station, having the foolhardiness to sit in it for a few moments for a rest. We got a long way round to the right, and then made straight in what we thought the direction of Holland. After hours of crawling we thought we must be in the longed for neutral territory. We had gone miles beyond the patrol that had fired on us, and thought that they must have been actually on the * frontier, or would never have fired so carelessly. And we were bedraggled and weary with crawling, weak, and fearfully hungry. Consequently when we found a scrap of newspaper lying on a road, and discovered it to be Dutch, we abandoned further pre- cautions and staggered along the road until we met two men in uniform. Were they Germans or Dutch ? We were so worn out we went up to them and ended our suspense. Pointing to them we said, “ Deutch oder Hollander ? ” and how glad our hearts were at the smiling response “Hollander.” We were really in Holland. And to make sure it was no dream, these two men pulled out their breakfasts, and gave us all the food they had,—white bread—real white bread, new and delicious, with ham in between the thick slices and rich Dutch butter. We solemnly shook hands all round, and after eating felt like walking to London. Our troubles were over, and during a good feed, which lasted all day, found ourselves at Rotterdam in the evening. New clothes provided by the kindly Consul, chocolate and cigars, books and papers, showered on us by the sympathetic Dutchmen, a dream of sea voyage, and then, England, exactly a fortnight after leaving Germany.

Heaven after Hell!