In 1918, in a prisoner of war camp, 10 British soldiers are freed. 19 others suffered a worse fate, caught in the act. It is known as the first great escape and has been documented in various films and history shows over the century since.
Yet many have yet to hear of this daring feat, or how British soldiers managed to plan and execute an escape, right under the noses of their German captors.
It happened like this:
In Holzminden, near Hanover, Germany, a group of British soldiers started collecting their bowls and utensils after meals. For eight months they used the supplies to dig an escape tunnel. Through the ground and under their camp, the prisoners planned to crawl to safety once the tunnel was completed. Bed slats were also used to frame the tunnel, and by July 1918 the soldiers were ready to move.
It’s an unwritten code of British officers to do their best to escape. However, there were negative reactions and some did not want to participate, despite the difficult conditions in which they lived in the camp. The officers did not want to be sent back to fight in the trenches and chose to remain imprisoned. The camp served little food, was dirty, the soldiers were tortured and there was no heating. Yet some still chose it over fighting in the extreme dangers of World War I.
The prisoners literally dug under the feet of their German captors. However, mostly guarded by soldiers, it is likely that the untrained soldiers did not know how to look for signs of escape.
- 13 men dug with others standing guard
- 100 soldiers were to escape
- 29 entered the tunnel
- 10 reached freedom
- The other 19 were arrested after the fact
- A total of 550 Britons were in the camp (the others either chose to stay or were not informed of the evacuation plan).
The 30th man through the tunnel became trapped when the tunnel collapsed on top of him. He and the remaining soldiers were left behind.
Their journey back to England
Of the 10 men who achieved freedom, three of the project’s “main diggers” had become best friends. The 10 soldiers marched to Holland, more than 93 miles on foot. The trip lasted almost two weeks. Along the way, one of them fluent in German pretended to be the guard for the other soldiers. Another pretended to be mad to avoid capture.
Once in Holland, the soldiers were free to return to England, where they were welcomed as war heroes and celebrated for their bravery.
Even today, the incident is known as the “first” great escape as their methods were repeated by soldiers in subsequent wars. From how they dug to the premise of how they escaped, it was basically a plan of how to escape through a tunnel. The Holzminden event is still considered the greatest POW escape of World War I.