Lance Corporal Robert R. Paul, of the 28th Battalion Machine Gun Section, C.E.F., World War #1, and Pte. W. Waters of the 2nd C.M.R.'s fell into German hands at Hooge, near Ypres, in June, 1916. After undergoing untold hardships from hunger, toil and the brutality of the hated Huns for seventeen months, they decided to stake all on a break for liberty. The following account of their experiences during the eleven days succeeding their escape from the prison camp until they crossed the border into their Canaan, in Holland, is written from the dictation of Private Waters:
"We decided that the 5th of November, 1917, should see us embarked upon an enterprise which might prove either the happiest of our lives or an unfortunate memory. The attempt had been postponed until this date, chiefly because the Germans were in the habit of having their crops guarded by armed sentries and dogs until the harvesting of the potatoes late in October; a fact which would render our travelling by night (and, of course, by day) quite impracticable. In other respects, also, this time was right for the execution of our plans. We had recently completed the storing and secreting of provisions for our journey. These we had saved from the food parcels we had received from Canada. As we were allowed to take some food from our own to the works to supplement the German rations for dinner, we continued to live on the latter, while we hid the former in the ground, cement sheds and other places. After thus completing our stock, it took us some time to collect them into one spot, and, after this was accomplished, we had to wait for others who had started their plans for escapte [sic] later than we did. It was nothing short of a miracle that the stores of corned beef, biscuits and consdensed [sic] milk, which we had accumulated, escaped detection all this time, as probably hiding places were ransacked daily.
Fortune, at the very outset, well nigh played havoc with my own plans. On the morning of the 5th, instead of being sent out to the left bank of the river as usual, I, along with another fellow, also bent on escape, was left on the right bank while our respective chums crossed as usual to the left where our provisions were hidden, and we had to continue to join them, after breaking away from our guards. This initial break-away was easy enough, despite the fact that our sentry was an exceptionally good soldier; so vigilant, in fact, he had earned the cognomen of "Memorize". When the whistle blew at stopping time in the evening, my temporary companion and I were working outside with a German. It took us some minutes to return to the yard and, on arriving there, we found most of our fellow prisoners already formed up for marching back to the barracks, with a sentry standing beside them waiting for the remainder to fall in. Our great coats were at the other side of the building, behind the line of prisoners. We went for our coats as usual, but no sooner did we get the building between us and the sentry than we ran off into a field with all speed and did not stop until, owing to dusk and distance, the workyard was no longer visible, while our unsuspecting sentry was, no doubt, cursing our tardiness in getting back with our coats. About eleven o'clock at night we made for the water's edge, previously having decided to cross the Rhine in a boat, which, as we knew, was lying attached to a barge a little above the bridge, the building of which occasioned our daily toil. We removed our boots, crawled aboard the barge and loosed the boat which proved to be tightly fastened. This was a hazardous undertaking in itself, for we knew that the barge had occupants lying in sleeping quarters below. However, we succeeded in loosening the boat without awakening the river-dwellers and proceeded to row it up stream. To cross where it was tied was impossible owing to the swiftness of the current and the nearness of the bridge which had a sentry posted on its middle pillar. When we had gone far enough, as we thought, above the bridge, we struck out for the other side. Soon, however, we found out that our steel craft was too heavy for us to cross before the current would drag us down to the bridge. That was the most thrilling of our experience for, as we approached the bridge, from which we had detached our boat, we observed a motor launch fastened to its port side, in the cabin of which a light was burning dimly. When the stream brought us alongside, we were challenged in no gentle manner by a sentry who rose from the deck and brought his rifle to the guard and we had to reply that we were prisoners of war.
Our position seemed hopeless. Could anything be more maddening than to be thus caught at the very outset? What a consummation to months of careful planning and preparation. But fortune did not desert us at this trying moment. Our boat continued to drift towards the bridge and brought us close to one of the pillars, from which was hanging temporary scaffolding. While the motor launch was swinging clear to pursue us, we feverishly clutched the scaffolding and clambered up. The cloudy, moonless, starless night helped us not a little and we were able to steal round the pillar of the bridge and find concealment inside one of the small towers. Apparently, our precise movements had not been observed by our pursuers and we soon had the satisfactions of witnessing the end of their search.
We lay low in the hiding place for fully an hour and stealthily returned to the bank below the bridge. There, we were fortunate enough to find another boat, into which we jumped. Drifting near the bank for some time, we struck out for the opposite shore. Our craft this time was light and easily handled, and in a few minutes we reached our immediate destination, where we found our respective chums on the point of giving us up.
It can be left to the imagination what confusion was avoided by our turning up in the nick of time. They had awaited our arrival patiently enough away for a reasonable period, after which the chance of our having failed to get away from our guards was a natural conjecture. To await us too long would mean a return to captivity and punishment on their part. They had resolved at all hazard to give us up till 2:30 in the morning. Had we not turned up so opportunely the further attempt to continue our escape would have been made, but without the advantage of the mutual understanding between the respective chums, the preparations, the study of maps for months together. In fact, had we failed to arrive in time, our further progress would have been a case of drifting without compass or rudder.
My chum, Paul, to join whom I had been so anxious to cross to the left of the bank of the river, with his temporary companion, had been working all the afternoon sifting sand at a gravel put neat the above-mentioned bridge. To allay all suspicions, they had devoted themselves most assiduously to their task. At the proposed time, they continued to put the sand pile between them and their guard, and make a dash for an orchard nearby. Finding a place of concealment in a clump of trees at some distance, they lay still until eleven at night, when they crept back to the neighbourhood of the sandpit, where our provisions were hidden. These they collected, and placed into four packs, then lay down and awaited our arrival. The caution they exercised in performing their part can be realized when I mention that this was all done almost under the most of the night watchman on the bridge.
Having thus happily rejoined our respective chums, and equipped with maps and compass previously obtained from a Pole, Paul and I pursued our journey together, the other two making off by themselves, as we thought it unwise to travel in as large a party as four. It may well be mentioned here that we have not been able to ascertain the fate of these two, but hear that they were recaptured.
As the hour was late, we could not travel far this night, so we made for the nearest hills, where we found cover in a strip of bush. Here we made for ourselves what was the first in a series of shakedowns. Going into the neighbouring fields, we collected as many potato tops as possible, some of which we spread on the ground, the rest we used for covering. Here we passed our time in a more or less undisturbed condition until the following evening.
As soon as it was dark, we resumed our travels. We avoided towns and villages, keeping almost entirely to open country. All night we had the lights of the Rhine in sight, assuring us that our course was in the right direction. This night was rather uneventful, and at dawn we again sought concealment in bush, using the same covering as the night before., only that this morning we had an additional covering of a coat of hoar frost. Our situation was not altogethermonotonous, as it was occasionally relieved by the unwelcome visits of children and dogs, who came dangerously near to our hiding places.
On the third night, after leaving our place of shelter, we struck across country until we came upon a road leading north-easterly and to the main auto road between Coblens and Cologne. We followed this for some distance until to our dismay we saw before us a large town. As there was no way of going around, we had to make the attempt to pass through, and succeeded without inter-uption owing to the rain, which was falling in torrents. We continued to follow the banks of the Rhine until about six in the morning, when we thought it advisable to make for the hills for cover. In getting out of the valley we passed a line of houses and while crossing one of the main streets a man came out of a house, the lights of which we full in our faces. We lost no time in dodging this dangerous intruder, passing through barbed wire and garden patches and the din made by the barking of dogs, and making for the hills. Meanwhile, the rain had ceased falling and hard frost had set in. We looked for covering, but the only thing in sight was a woodpile which afforded us but little protection from the cold. There was but little sleep for us that day until the afternoon, when the sun came out and it was no longer necessary to stamp and jump to keep up our circulation.
On the fourth night, we had to resort to considerable cross-country travelling and other contrivances to avoid the valley of the Rhine and keep in our North-Easterly direction. We passed through pine forests in the Western Wold Hills, also the beautiful city of Abiviller, and crossed the River Ahr. In the morning, we did not succeed in finding cover until about day-break, when we came upon an agricultural village and discovered that blessed haven of all tramps, a comfortable barn. Taking proper precautions, we entered and buried ourselves in the straw, removing our boots for the first time since starting. Here we slept the sleep of the weary all day, undisturbed, save by the laughter of children from a school nearby.
On the fifth night, we were unsuccessful in finding any road save leading into the valley of the Rhine. Such as we followed lead us through a city of considerable size called Godesburg. Before arriving here, while crossing a siding leading to a large factory, we were not a little disconcerted by the night watchman, who had evidently heard us coming and turned a light full in our faces. We turned and disappeared into a neighbouring garden and pursued our course through what appeared to be innumerable gardens hedged in with barbed wire. Regaining the valley, we pushed in along the car tracks of the city. Here, at a street corner, we almost fell into the arms of a Hun policeman who was either too surprised or lacked courage to arrest our progress. We hurried on, and at approach of daylight took ourselves once more to the hills. After a long search for cover, we had to content ourselves with a small hollow sparsely covered with spruce, the branches of which we used for bedding, and lay for the day without interruption, although several people passed close by.
The sixth night proved to be the most disagreeable and disappointing of all at the very outset, we were all but re-captured. As we were walking through a village and rounding a street corner we came upon several mis-chievous boys who were playing with a flashlight. As we passed, they turned on the light and one jumped on a wheel and followed us. It was not enough to have this cursed imp drawing attention to us from behind, but just then, we spied a German policeman coming up to meet us. The situation was as complicated as the climax of a great tragedy, and its solution was an independant [sic] of human ingenuity as that of a great plot. Without any apparent reason, the policeman turned off on a side street just before reaching us, while the boy, after following us for some distance, desisted as we reached the outskirts of the village.
But this incident was only the beginning of our trouble that night. Determined the avoid this dangerous Rhine Valley, with its numerous villages and guarded factories, and unable to find any other road leading in the right direction, we were reduced to cross-country travelling over the hills. What followed beggars description, at least by any pen other than of a John Bunyan. We were soon swallowed up in large tracks of bush and underbush which grew denser until at last it became an almost impenetrable thicket. The words of Bunyan in describing the process of Christian up the Hill of Difficulty and afterwards through the Valley of the Shadow of Death could here be quoted almost without alteration. From running, we fell to going, and from going to crawling on our hands and knees. Frequently lost; frequently compelled to retrace the distance we had so painfully covered, inch by inch, ever endeavouring to keep our faces towards our Bonlet, (sp.) which lay in the distant North-West, we at last emerged from the thicket only to find ourselves in a swamp so boggy and interspersed with deep holes that we had to hold hands to avoid being quagmired. In the deep darkness, drenched through and through, uncertain of our way, weary to the stage of acute pain, peevish to the extent of abusing one another, chilled in spine and to the point of resolving to give ourselves up to the first authorities, we crawled about for hours, until, just on the verge of complete exhaustion, we suddenly found ourselves in a farming country and soon beheld a sigh which those alone who felt as we felt can appreciate. A little way before us, near, a farmhouse, was a very large barn filled with straw almost to the very top. Ye Gods, in your Paradise can afford you a continued state of comfort and bliss keen as that afforded us by our hospitable barn on that memorable morning, yeare [sic] indeed blest [sic]. Awakening from a deathlike sleep on the first and only Sabbath of our journey, we were able to see the people pass to and from Church. The day passed peacefully, and the night which followed, proved to be as encouraging as the night before was desperate. All night, our road left nothing to be desired. We indeed passed through several farm villages and small town, but, beyond the barking of the ever-watchful dogs, we suffered no annoyance. Towards daybreak, we found without difficulty, a farm yard covered with large straw stacks, between two of which, built side by side, we crawled and slept on the ground under what covering we could pull out of the stacks, and thus passed an eventful day.
The eighth night was also uneventful. After we had walked for some distance we began to discern ahead of us what seemed to be a large city. While still on the main road heading to a place, we met a man who accosted us and proved to be a hun soldier equipped with pack, rifle and bayonet. He appeared to be in a hurry, but asked us for a light for a cigarette. This we were able to furnish him, and in return, he offered us each of "Belgia" cigarette, which we gratefully accepted. After he wished us a good evening and was proceeding on his way, it oocured [sic] to us to ask him what town we were approaching, and we were told in [sic] was Duner. The information given by this good-natured German, no doubt home on leave from the Western front (and, after some refreshment in a beerhouse, too charitably disposed towards all men to trouble himself with our business) proved to be most valuable, as since we left Godesburg we had not been able to ascertain our exact location. We were agreeably surprised to find that our progress had been better than we thought, and in the right direction. Shortly after leaving the soldier, we met a man whom we judged, from his manlike stridge, to be an officer, but who, fortunately for us, proved to be neither observant nor inquisitive. We did not think it wise to approach too near what might prove to be a fortified city, and in attempting to find a bridge across the river before we reached the outskirts we lost considerable time. After a futile search, we decided to turn in for the day, and had no difficulty in finding a straw stack, in the top of which we slept. The day passed quietly, the sight of the passers-by in the road to Duner affording us something by way of diversion.
On the ninth night, we began to feel footsore, but we made good time keeping at a safe distance from the towns or the banks of the rivers and that night passed the city of Dulica. After passing this city, it was time for us to look for our usual cover for the day, but we were not successful until about daybreak. As we were burrowing and talking as we worked, a girl on an ox came along close by. The inquisitiveness of her sex might have proved more dangerous to us that any obstacle we had heretofore surrounded, but we slept uninterrupted until late in the afternoon. When we awoke and peeped from our hiding place we discovered to our dismay that a German Sentry was at his post within a stones throw of us. Waiting till night had falled, we slipped down on the side away from the sentry and continued our journey. That night we pushed on persistently, determined to reach the soil of Holland (at a distance of about 20 miles) before morning. We passed through several small villages and towns, avoiding the large places and any semblance of a factory. About five in the morning, under the delusion we were in Holland and comparatively safe, we boldly approached the first man we saw. He happened to be a rustic of the farm labour type, and, on being questioned in German if we were in Holland, he looked at us rather strangely but answered that we still had several miles to go before we reached the frontier. While talking to this man, several patrols passed by but, strangely enough, paid us no attention. Expressing no outward surprise, we pursued our journey. As a result of being footsore and weary, to say nothing of the rain which had fallen in abundance, we had considerably overestimated the distance we had travelled that night. Well after daybreak, having lost considerable time in trying to find a strawstack, we were forced to seek a precarious refuge in a sparse patch of willows. Here, we sat upon our packs as the ground was so wet. During the day, we were considerably alarmed by the presence in our neighbourhood of a huntsman accompanied by a lady and his dog securing the fields for partridge. As if by a miracle, they seemed to explore every inch of the ground except the spot which we occupied, and finally passed by.
Early on the eleventh night, a good knowledge of our direction obtained from a sign post pointing to a town shown in our maps to be four miles from the frontier, we started out, knowing that before morning we should be either in the land of freedom or again in the hands of the military authorities of Germany, doomed to days of imprisonment, starvation and cruelty, and, afterwards, to work far more severely than that of the slave at the galleys or in the cottonfields. All night we struck across country, experiencing nothing deserving particular notice, until between one and two in the morning. Our progress had been indeed slow, owing to our being the last stages of exhaustion, but through the inky darkness of a starless night we were steadily approaching the frontier. We had, as it proved, just reached this much-longed for goal, when our progress was sharply arrested by a sound which, in the words of Virgil, sent an iny [sic] shiver through our very bones. Directly in our path, and only a few yards away, stood a German sentry, endeavouring to keep circulation by stamping on the ground. If ever we had reason to bless the inclemency of the climate of Northern Europe which so frequently makes a man too intent upon his own discomforts to be keenly alive to outward sounds, it was then. Had his ears been so sharp as the intenseness of the situation had rendered ours, we would have shared the fate of many a poor fellow, who, after getting thus fat, had been caught on the very frontier by a sentry and his ever-near patrol. Noiselessly, we retreated, then dropped to the ground and crawling around and past him. In so doing, I lost my friend, Paul, who was a little ahead and swallowed up in the darkness; so, after waiting a little while in the hope of finding him, I went on alone. As I was looking for my chum, well in reach of the sentry, I stumbled against a small stone pillar and immediately thought it might be a border stone, and almost affectionately I passed my hands over it in the hope of feeling some writing, but although I could feel none I felt sure I had passed the frontier.
After the first few moments of exaltation, the excitement of which had for some time made me almost senseless to physical fatigue and discomfort, followed the usual reaction. The uncertainty ever [sic] the fate of my friend clogged my steps in my further progress and I also became keenly alive to the fact that I was painfully weary and footsore. At a snail's pace I kept on until I reached a little village and, having no better place to sleep, I lay down on the stone steps of a crucifix erected at the end of a street. After about an hour's sleep, I awoke, cold and miserable, and feeling that to keep on was impossible. However, I stumbled along a road every little while lying down for a rest after what seemed like an intermedium of time, when I aw [sic] a light appearing in a small house not far away. Cautiously, I approached the dwelling, and was able to get a glimpse of a middleaged woman beginning her day's work. To my knock she responded with a "Who is there?". To which I replied somewhat evasively: "Am I in Holland"?. Immediately, she partly opened the door and admitted me. Once inside, she assured me I was in Holland, but only a little way from the border. The road I had followed was leading me backwards toward the frontier, so that her light had appeared just in time.
The kind Dutch woman welcomed me very heartily and made me sit in a large armchair by a good fire and brought me a bowl of milk, the sight of which made me realize in a practical way that I was indeed in the land of freedom. Such a luzury [sic] had been enthought of, unheard of, and unseen for almost a year and a half. Very soon I forgot my joys and fell fast asleep in my chair. When I awoke, the day was well advanced and I bade farewell to my kind hostess, who let me out as cautiously as she admitted me, and no wonder, for out of the window, a few yards away, could be seen a German sentry guarding the frontier. As I was proceeding on my way to Roermond, I met a rather old and poorly dressed man who insisted on offering me some money, for which I blessed his kind heart but which I did not have to accept as I was not in need. At the first village I gave myself up to the authorities of Holland, who treated me with kind courtesy and took me to a military hospital, where, to my infinite delight, I found my friend, Paul, who, needless now to say, had passed the frontier and experienced the same kind of considerate treatment at the hands of the Hollanders that I had.
The rest of our story is soon told. We were taken to Roermond, meeting everywhere with evidence of the good will of the kind-hearted Cutch [sic] people who judged from our broken-down condition that we were not only escaped prisoners, but wounded as well. In the barracks that night we slept side by side with four German deserters from the Western front and who kept us awake with their condemnation of Prussia, stating, amonst [sic] other things, that the Saxons and others were bearing the brunt of hardships and dangers and that, while the large Kingdom of Prussia suffered only 7% of the total German casualties, those of the little kingdom of Saxony, with only a negligible number of representatives in the Bundefraw, amounting to seventeen of eighteen percent.
The next day we were taken to quarantine camp, where we met with great kindness, especially at the hands of the nursing sister - the only woman of this type we had seen for over two years. After we left this camp, we were sent to Rotterdam to await embarkation for England. Here, we realized with a feeling of pride, amounting to exultation, what a country we belonged to. The British consular treated us as if acting on a theory that a country's citizens are her princes, and gave us a taste not only of the goodness, but magnificence of our Nation. After being clad, they supplied us with money and we were given a day's pass to the Hague, then placed on board and in due time sighted the fair shores of England.
This account was originally typed by "J.B." - presumably Jimmie Boon since it was received from David Boon and a part of the research that his mother, Murial Lattin Boon, had done. This was later confirmed - Jim Boon wrote it up.