The War Behind the Wire by John Lewis-Stempel; book review


Colditz; the Great Escape; Bridge on the River Kwai and, recently, the Railway Man. Parodies of them by everyone from Beyond the Fringe to Russ Abbott. All second world war. Memoir after memoir. And yet with the single, powerful exception of the French classic La Grande Illusion, the prisoners of the Great War have gone largely unchronicled.

John Lewis-Stempel’s the War behind the Wire (Orion £20) fills this gap. The Germans held 171,299 British PoWs, and there were 573 ‘home runs’; Second Lieutenant HW Medlicott, Royal Flying Corps made 14 escapes, the record. They really did tunnel out, and it was in the 1914-18 show that the classic method of disposing of soil from tunnelling – via trouser leg onto parade ground – was first a feature, as was the phrase “Fur ishnen der Krieg ist fertig”, (“For you the war is over”, apparently meant as a kindly welcome to the custody of the Kaiser).

Impersonation of Germans was another escape method. One, the Alistair McGowan of his day, got his Kommandant’s mannerisms off so pat he strolled through the front gate, with a growl at “his” guards. Then again there was also the chap who tied to use a brolly as a parachute.

Otherwise to beat boredom there was “Hun-baiting”. Douglas Lyall Grant was one of many officers  caught imitating the goose-step. Grant’s Pythonesque diary reads:  

“9/11/17: had an interview with the Commandant for doing what he called a ‘comic walk’. I pointed out that some people were born with a stammer and some with peculiar walks, and I was one of the latter. He said that, that being so, he would tell his officers that I could walk as I liked. Truly the Hun has no sense of humour.”

Why didn’t more Tommies surrender? Quiet apart from patriotism, there was the 80 per cent chance the Germans would shoot you instead. Conditions could also be appalling, pre-figuring Hitler’s horrors: overcrowded railway cattle trucks without sanitation or water, typhus spread by the ubiquitous lice, forced labour in a salt mine.  Truly, the Hun in his Lager had no sense of decency either.