Prisoners of the Great War

WWI PoW Homecoming Reception 1919 PNL-150113-125553001
WWI PoW Homecoming Reception 1919 PNL-150113-125553001
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Accounts concerning prisoners of war from World War Two are well documented. However, it is more unusual to come across PoW stories of the First World War. This week, Memory Lane takes a look at two such stories, the first of which is quite incredible and illustrates perfectly the meaning of the old phrase ‘an Englishman’s word is his bond’.

Anne Phillips, who is the granddaughter of polar explorer Aeneas Mackintosh, supplied this story concerning her great uncle, Robert Colin Campbell who was born in 1884.

Robert Colin Campbell WWI PNL-150113-125543001

Robert Colin Campbell WWI PNL-150113-125543001

As a young man Campbell enlisted in the 1st Battalion East Surrey regiment and was promoted to captain. However, he was captured in 1914 not long after the outbreak of war and sent to Magdeburg Prison Camp.

After two years imprisonment, Campbell learned that his mother Louisa was dying of cancer. He then took the step of writing to Kaiser Wilhelm begging to be released so that he could see his mother one final time.

Incredibly, the Kaiser granted him two weeks compassionate leave on the condition that he promised as an officer to return to the camp afterwards.

Campbell went home to England in December 1916 to say goodbye to his mother and kept to his word, returning to Germany afterwards with the British Army’s full permission.

WWI PoW Homecoming Reception 1919 for web PNL-150113-131800001

WWI PoW Homecoming Reception 1919 for web PNL-150113-131800001

It shows immense strength of character when someone would voluntarily return from their home to imprisonment, at a time when no one knew how much longer the war would last. And it also demonstrated that Kaiser Wilhelm knew an English officer would be good to his word.

Campbell’s mother died a few months after his visit and the captain remained at the prison camp until the Armistice two years later.

He subsequently went on to serve in World War Two also and died in 1966 at the age of 81.

The second group photograph was kindly emailed to us by Eileen Smith who lives in Letchworth. It was taken to mark the First World War Prisoners of War Homecoming Reception that was given by the Biggleswade Chronicle and organised through the ‘Our Boys’ Prisoner of War fund.

The celebration was held on January 17, 1919. Eileen’s father Charles Jordan is seated on the extreme right of the second row.

Charles was wounded in battle at Douai near Arras in August 1918 and imprisoned at Giessen Prisoner of War Camp after being treated by German medical staff on the battlefield.

The other soldiers in the photograph are not known apart from Chronicle owner Charles Elphick who is at the front centre of the group. Elphick’s own son Ted served on the frontline and was featured in Memory Lane last August.

Many thanks go to Anne and Trevor Stewart who first contacted us about Captain Robert Campbell and also to Eileen for these Great war stories.