The following is an extract from chapters 11 to 14 of Round the World to Freedom by Major Paul Stoffa Published 1933, giving a rather dismal picture of later days at Knockaloe - Paul Stoffa was an artillery officer in the Hungarian Army - the book is a fascinating account of his adventures from capture on the Russian front in the early days of WW1, via a Siberian PoW camp, across China and the USA and finally to an arrest on board a Swedish ship forced into Stornaway and internment, first at the relatively luxurious Alexendra Palace then Knockaloe. He had travelled on board the ship under the pretence of a Norwegian stoker but after capture was unable to prove his credentials as an Hungarian Officer which would have seen him transferred to Donnington POW camp rather than civilian internment.[p210]
Renewed preparations for the Christmas festivities afforded a welcome diversion ; the various committees vied with one another in devising the outstanding items on the programme : heated debates took place at the sittings of the Kitchen Committee to decide the vexed question whether funds would be equal to a Christmas dinner of turkey or would it have to be only roast pork after all ? The workshops were throbbing with activity : there was going to be an Arts and Crafts Exhibition : our painters and sculptors were eager to display the products of their genius, and so, for the matter of that, were the wood and leather workers, the toy makers and even the humble manufacturers of rings made of melted down " silver paper " extracted from cigarette packets. Glass cases belonging to the pre-War era when the Alexandra Palace was used for exhibitions, were unearthed to house the exhibits in the hall adjoining the visiting rooms, and hopes of a rich financial harvest ran high.
But the most highly prized Christmas gift was a concession by the Home Office, granting permission to the prisoners to receive their families and friends for visits lasting two hours, instead of the regulation half-hour. The theatre was to be thrown open for the use of the prisoners and their visitors during the three days preceding Christmas Day.
All these measures, reinforced by the manifest goodwill of the British authorities to invest the approaching holiday with a genuinely festive character and to brighten the lot of the prisoners who suffered acutely under the separation from their families, was a humane gesture for which those in power deserved all the more credit, because feeling outside ran very high against all enemy subjects. The tightening of the submarine blockade and the frequent Zeppelin attacks increased the hostility of the public, and there were frequent references in the Press to the pampered inmates of the Alexandra Palace. There were fantastic stories current that the prisoners signalled to the attacking Zeppelins and gloried in the destruction inflicted by them ; as a matter of fact, the great majority of the men had their families in London, and the use of the Zeppelin against unfortified towns and civilians was heartily abominated and condemned by most. The comments to which I listened when the first Zeppelin was brought down in flames within a few miles of the Alexandra Palace testified to this feeling.
Although only on the fringe of these festive preparations, I was infected by the excitement and enthusiasm of my friends who worked with might and main for the success of the programme. The orchestra in particular was working under high pressure, urged on by the merciless conductor, who went so far as to threaten slackers with instant transfer to the Isle of Man, unless they attended the ceaseless rehearsals with military punctuality.
I had often listened to my friends' talk about the vast internment camp on the Isle of Man, and wondered sometimes why the mere mention of it spread gloom and fear. There was talk of all the unmarried men being concentrated gradually there, but although a draft left occasionally, mainly drawn from the other two battalions, those who were likely to be affected, argued heatedly against any such intention on the part of the authorities. That the latter regarded transfer to the Isle of Man as a form of punishment, was not in doubt ; often as a bolt from the blue, a man would be sent for and ordered to hold himself in readiness to proceed under escort to the Isle of Man practically forthwith. The victims were usually voluble in their indignation, but it required little imagination to discover the motive behind this drastic action : often it was a professional gambler who had been fondly imagining that he could flout the camp regulations with impunity, or another undesirable with connections in the underworld of London whom the police preferred to have removed to a greater distance. However, all this talk about the Isle of Man and its discomforts were only of academic interest to me, for I had made sure to end my career as prisoner-of-war at the Alexandra Palace and that pretty soon.
It was the beginning of December that the first blow fell. I was ordered to report at the commandant's office, obviously to have the reply from the War Office communicated to me. The commandant handed me a letter; it was the familiar grey envelope, and it contained a short communication signed by Alexander von Krobatin, the War Minister my application for exchange against a British prisoner-of-war could not be granted; moreover the Army Regulations had been altered and made it no longer incumbent on an officer to use every means within his power to rejoin his unit.
It cost me a great effort to show a stiff upper lip. What did it all mean ? Very well, they won't exchange me, but these cold, official phrases sounded almost as a reprimand, as if I had acted against the Army Regulations in risking all to do what I conceived to be my duty ? Surely there must be a mistake: is this all ? Did it mean that they would not lift a finger to help me, that they did not care whether I rotted alive in Siberia or anywhere else? These and many other bitter thoughts crowded on me, but I pulled myself together: above all, I must not show the white feather before these officers, who were regarding me intently.
" This is not very helpful," began the commandant. " In the first place it does not supply the conclusive proof we require of your identity, and therefore we shall continue to treat you as a civilian. Besides, you have no uniform and cannot be sent to an officers' camp unless and until all doubt as to your status in the Austro-Hungarian Army is removed and you have provided yourself with a uniform. You can go now unless you have something to say ? "
First of all, however, I had to grapple with the question of my reply to the War Office. I was in a cleft stick, because for the time being it suited me distinctly better to be left at the Alexandra Palace, instead of facing unknown and uncertain conditions at Donington Hall, but if I did not attempt to press my claim it would surely arouse the suspicion of the British authorities. In the end I drafted another application to Vienna, couched purposely in somewhat ambiguous terms, and at the same time I wrote another slightly jumbled letter to my tailors who had supplied my uniforms for many years past and asked them to send me a complete outfit. It was fairly safe to assume that my letter coming from a civilian internment camp would rather puzzle them and I could depend on the delay I wanted.
I was settling down for an indefinite stay and had already started to frame a programme which would keep me active in body and mind, when the next blow fell. Only a very few days separated us from the holidays and I was helping to decorate the gigantic Christmas tree on the stage, when a member of our little " club " dashed in.
" So you are coming with us," he said breathlessly.
"Coming with you-where are you off to ? " I queried.
" Why, haven't you seen the board ? They have just put up a long list of prisoners who have to hold themselves in readiness to be transferred to the big camp at Knockaloe. Your name is on it-come and see for yourself."
Forcing a passage through a dense crowd of excited prisoners, I managed to get close enough to the board in the mess-room, where communications from the civil and military camp authorities were affixed every morning. Yes, it was my name right enough.
A short talk with the head of the Hungarian Committee convinced me that there was nothing left for me to do but to submit with a good grace; the authorities were carrying out their plan to concentrate at the Alexandra Palace only men whose families resided in London, all others being gradually sent away to the Isle of Man : those with adequate means to the privileged camp at Douglas, and poor devils like myself to Knockaloe, where a large city of huts, housing many thousands of men, had come into existence.
My artist friends, who were in the good books of the commandant, promptly offered to intercede on my behalf, but all they could obtain was a postponement. I was put back for the second draft which was to leave after the holidays.
This was the last straw : once more I was to face the unknown. One thing I knew : no one had ever escaped from the Isle of Man, and from what I had heard no one was ever likely to. However remote the chances had been here in London, there were innumerable tentacles stretching out from the camp towards the Central Empires. Here a turn of the wheel could bring liberation, but the Isle of Man seemed thousands of miles away and it spelt the end of all my schemes and dreams. How many more months or perhaps even years did it mean behind barbed wire ?
Christmas seemed a hollow mockery, but my comrades' joy proved irresistible in the end and adjusting my perspective once more, I decided to keep my troubles at arm's length and enjoy the companionship of my friends during these red-letter days.
Christmas Eve-our little club-room full of light and colour, a pile of Christmas parcels on the long table, laughter, speeches and, above all, music. Our pianist friend poured out a ceaseless stream of Hungarian melodies: he seemed to possess the uncanny gift of the Hungarian gipsy who can store in his memory thousands of melodies, some almost modern in their rhythm, others centuries old, some unutterably sad, others vibrating with the joy of life. We were insatiable: every now and again one of us would hum a melody which he considered "his very own" and implore our friend at the grand piano to play it, and I wonder if his many triumphs on the concert platforms of Europe and America brought him as much satisfaction as our enthusiastic gratitude. For a few short hours we were home once more : gone was the War with its agonies, all barriers had fallen, the world was at peace again and we were free Hungarians in a free Hungary. . . . " Lights out." " Come on, boys, closing time," booms the jovial voice of the Cockney sergeant at the door : the lid of the grand piano descends with a slam. I thought of Daudet's Alsatian schoolmaster who at the sound of the Prussian bugles dismisses the last French class : " Allez-vous-en ; c'est fini."
After the cheery bustle and excitement of the eagerly awaited visits, Christmas Day brought a painful anti-climax to most prisoners : the two hours spent with their families only increased the bitterness of the separation on a day like this : it was only human nature to forget the millions who, spending Christmas in the trenches, were infinitely worse off. Even the Kitchen Committee's supreme effort to provide a real Christmas dinner fell flat : the men did justice to the generous fare and although, thanks to the efficiency of subterranean communications, whisky under the thin disguise of " cold tea " made its appearance in an endless variety of cups, all attempts to conjure up the real Christmas spirit were in vain. Our German friends sang the popular war songs, but somehow these English walls refused to echo the oft-repeated refrain of " Gloria and Victoria ". Those docile, harmless civilians clearly thought more of peace and goodwill. Besides, the word " victory " had long lost its meaning. Whoever won the War, the present generation would only know bitter defeat.
The day of my departure arrived: true enough that physically I was in a much better shape than on the day of my arrival some two months ago, but I was utterly destitute of hope. My many friends and well-wishers gathered round me, and we talked of meeting again after the War, but the horizon was darker than ever and it seemed so utterly futile to talk about the future.
THE 30th of December, 1916-a dark and dismal morning. Like a crowd of unwilling emigrants, we assembled in the messroom with our meagre belongings spread out on the long tables to be searched by the military police : for the last time we are counted as we pass through the familiar gates and march down the road leading to the railway station. Closely guarded, we line up on the platform: we board the train, the armed escorts distribute themselves one to each compartment and the train steams out. We are on the way to Liverpool.
We travelled in unbroken silence: the escort, with his rifle between his knees and puffing the inevitable cigarette, was evidently conscious of our numerical superiority and was not to be caught napping. His fears were unfounded ; as a proof that they harboured no bellicose intentions, my companions dropped off to sleep one after the other: sitting at the window, I watched the landscape sliding past; it seemed unfamiliar, yet friendly in the pale December sun. I found myself wondering why it was that all these people in the busy towns and the sleepy picturesque villages were free to come and go as they pleased, where was the barbed-wire ? . . . I woke up with a start. We had arrived.
After a hasty meal at the docks, we were marched on board a small passenger steamer plying daily between Liverpool and Douglas. Accommodation was reserved for us aft with a rope marking the boundary between the ordinary passengers and ourselves : they crowded to the rope to have a good look at us, and seemed somewhat disappointed to find that we were, after all, a drab and uninteresting lot on whom the power and majesty of the armed escort seemed to be wasted. There was clearly no thrill to be got out of us.
Interest soon flagged, only to be revived by the frolics of a tiny mite, who had arrived on board hugging a huge coloured indiarubber ball. She probably thought that the rope was put there for a game of ball and soon the ball came sailing over the rope. There were many children on board and in a twinkling our enclosure was invaded by a crowd of youngsters scampering about and screaming with delight. The parents were forced to cross the " frontier " to recapture the straying flock and there was a delightful " mélée " of friend and foe, even the austere guard turning a benevolent eye on this breakdown of the " war-spirit ".
A piercing north-easter and heavy showers of sleet met us when we reached the open sea, and passengers and prisoners alike sought shelter below deck. The inevitable epidemic of seasickness soon drove me up on deck, where I had a long chat with a friendly civilian ; he was a native of the Isle of Man and forgetting at times that I was not being taken there for the purpose of sight-seeing, he launched into an enthusiastic description of the island in general and the old town of Peel in particular, impressing on me at frequent intervals to be sure and not miss the many spots of historical and architectural interests He assured me that although winter on the Riviera was preferable to the Isle of Man, the superb spring would make ample amends for any little hardship the winter might inflict on us. He was a friendly little man and I felt nearly tempted to ask him if he knew how to get away unobserved from his earthly paradise, but it seemed ungracious to indicate any hurry to leave such a charming spot.
The morning found us rather haggard and worn, our guard were in no better shape and our arrival in Douglas was not a very cheery affair. We were marched to the station and entrained for Peel, where we arrived in the evening in pouring rain. We were now on our last lap; gathering up our belongings, we trudged off, drenched to the skin, in the direction of the camp and even the sight of the tall barbed-wire fences did not lessen our thankfulness for a dry shelter.
After the usual formalities we were distributed to the various camps : my new home was Camp III. As it was mercifully dark, camps and compounds conveyed little to us: I was taken to one of the many army-huts, each divided into three sections with a double row of bunks ranged alongside the wall. My first thought was that I was back in the fo' c'sle, only on dry land. The sea of mud round the camps provided a substitute for the missing element.
A hefty, weather-beaten Frisian met the newcomers with a handgrip that would have done credit to a bear: he introduced himself as the " captain " of the hut. He was the skipper of a German trawler captured soon after the outbreak of the war : he and his crew formed the nucleus of the hut's complement. The skipper maintained iron discipline, the same as on board ship, but the resultant order and spotless cleanliness were a joy to behold. He told off his own steward to look after me and I was admitted to the " home-circle " without any ceremony. I liked these quiet, well-behaved men: their slow and deliberate talk in a gruff " patois " was both restful and reassuring.
As we were still in time for the New Year's Eve festivities, we made our way to a large but where the inmates of our compound had assembled for a sing-song. One of the officers made a short speech wishing the men a safe return to their homes in 1917. He made a friendly reference to the newly-arrived draft and expressed his regret that they had found the Isle of Man in such an inhospitable mood.
Waking up on the 1st of January, 1917, I soon discovered why the camp at Knockaloe inspired such dread amongst the inhabitants of the Alexandra Palace. Here internment was reduced to its simplest elements: barbedwire, huts and mud. There were no " frills ", no panorama of London stretching for miles, which in itself was an element of qualified freedom, no permanent buildings and no visitors, it was the home of make-shift, grim, cold and monotonous. The incessant drizzle outside supplied the key-note of our existence. In a sense, it was almost a replica of the prison-camp at Shkotovo : it gave one the same feeling of utter isolation, a complete severance from the outside world. No wonder that so many men degenerated here by degrees into something near a state of savagery: the decent majority struggled hard to keep afloat in a sea of hopeless despondency-many went under, insanity claiming not a few.
I felt instinctively that come what may I had to summon up all my reserves of courage, and my first step was to find congenial companions. Dr. Hagen stayed behind in hospital and Leuthold was sent to another camp: communication with him was out of the question. Here in my but I found a friend of Dr. Hagen's, an Austrian doctor with whom I had had many a chat at the Alexandra Palace. Dr. Strom had a healthy mind in a weak body which was often racked by malaria which he had contracted in the Dutch Indies, where he spent many years in the Dutch Colonial service. He was an authority on tropical diseases and a storehouse of interesting anecdotes, professional and otherwise. Cheery to a degree, he had only one bugbear: the Austrian Consul in Java, of whom he talked with vicious hatred, for encouraging him to return to Europe after the outbreak of the War, without giving him due warning of the risk he ran. Whenever the shoe pinched, which happened often enough, Dr. Strom would heap elaborate curses on the head of the absent consul.
Arrested in Aden towards the end of 1914, he was one of the oldest inhabitants of Knockaloe, and he soon initiated me into the mysteries of the camp. On the subject of escape he was very reticent at first, but when our acquaintance ripened into intimate friendship and he knew that I thought of little else, waking or dreaming, he would stop the torrent of my elaborate theories with a half-amused growl: " I have diagnosed your trouble, my friend,-like all men with a single idea you are becoming a nuisance mind you don't lose your sense of humour and proportion ". Wise enough words, but not what I wanted to hear. " Let's have one of your yarns about Java, doctor," I would reply, "it's no use talking to you about getting back to the Continent, your heart is still in Java ".
I was trying to comfort myself with the proximity of Ireland, but could see no ray of hope : there was a veritable forest of barbedwire round the camps, a strong guard and elaborate precautions against any attempt to escape. Keeping fit in body and mind was my self-imposed task now: I took as much exercise as the sodden condition of the ground would permit and plunged into a course of studies. In addition to English, I took up Turkish and Spanish in succession but, to my shame, I must confess that I was a source of disappointment and aggravation to my teachers. Before the War it cost me a great effort to learn German, which was the Army language of the Monarchy, and it never entered my head that one day I should possess an assorted knowledge of Russian, English, and heaven knows what other languages.
I was weak not only in languages, but in another and much more important compulsory subject-patience. As the weeks went by and America's entry into the War became an accomplished fact, my restlessness revived, and I was continually revolving imaginary plans of escape, all to be rejected in turn.
The food question was becoming rather acute: my German comrades, who would comment with glee on the reported submarine sinkings, looked glum enough when in place of the full army ration which had formed the basis of the camp diet, the hated salt herrings made a more frequent appearance on our bill of fare. Tea and porridge for breakfast and tea; bully-beef or frozen meat, but mostly herrings for dinner : a rather heroic diet, to say the least of it.
The Austrians and Hungarians who, as in the Alexandra Palace, formed a small and rather inarticulate minority, were at last stung into action and at one of the indignation meetings of the Committee protests were raised against the same treatment being meted out to us as to the Germans - it was the Germans who were waging unrestricted submarine warfare, so why should we be penalised for it ? I took part in the debate and proposed that the General commanding the camp should be requested to forward our application to the Home Office asking for reciprocal treatment in our favour ; we considered ourselves entitled to the same treatment as British subjects enjoyed in Austria and Hungary. We asked to be sent back to England, suggesting a regime approximating the privileges granted to British subjects in our respective countries. A rather naive request under the circumstances, as shewn by the reply which was communicated to us by the G.O.C. a few weeks later. He informed the Committee that the Home Office was prepared to sanction the segregation of all Austrian and Hungarian subjects in one compound, where they would continue to receive the same food and treatment as their German Allies. It was a complete fiasco: segregation would have meant that many destitute compatriots who managed to earn a few pence by waiting on well-to-do Germans would lose their only source of income. We could only refuse.
It was evident that reciprocal treatment was a dream, there was no reply from Vienna, for some unfathomable reason my case appeared to be shelved by both the home and British authorities. " Interned for the duration of the War." Revolution had swept away the old regime in Russia-some thought that the end of the War was in sight : I didn't. Firm in the belief that a way could be found, I was busy scheming once more. This belief was presently exploited by an unscrupulous rascal.
I was indiscreet enough to mention to one or two that I was hobnobbing with the idea of getting to Ireland where my friends in New York had powerful connections. One day one of the German stewards in the neighbouring camp approached me: having lived for many years in Dublin, he was confident of tracing my friends' connections - it was sufficient to give him the names and addresses in New York and a few pounds, and I could safely leave the rest to him. Pressed to go into details, he adopted an air of profound mystery and told me that without absolute secrecy nothing could be done. As Dr. Strom had predicted, in my childish eagerness I had lost all sense of proportion and fell into the trap. After his first visit, he would not come near me, ostensibly so as not to attract attention, but grimy scrawls containing mysterious hints of good news being on the way, coupled with requests for further remittances continued to reach me. I sent him all I could spare until I discovered that he was merely pulling my leg: brought back to sober reality, it tickled my sense of humour to see that while he had decked himself out in a gorgeous suit bought with my money, I had become as shabby as he had been when we first met. As a matter of fact he knew that my remittance from the Swedish Legation was due at the beginning of each month and he timed his "good news" accordingly. I deserved no sympathy and got none.
With the tightening of the submarine blockade, the food question assumed paramount importance. The camp authorities would no longer allow the sale of foodstuffs in our canteens which opened only once or twice a week, selling limited quantities of cigarettes, tobacco, soap, thread and similar articles. On the other hand every encouragement was given to food production and extensive fields adjoining the camps were placed at the disposal of prisoners willing to cultivate allotments. There was no lack of enthusiastic volunteers, who under the tuition of experienced market-gardeners achieved surprising results. Rabbit breeding was another useful hobby fostered by the authorities and what with dogs, Manx-cats, singing birds of every sort and description, some of the huts resembled a menagerie. In sunny weather rows of cages were hanging outside the huts until one day a fanatical worshipper of freedom liberated the captives, much to the wrath of the owners. Personally, I thought it a gracious and humane idea who would come and open my barbed-wire cage ?
The food shortage illustrated once more the efficiency and inventiveness of the Germans. They were in the front-rank of market-gardeners and rabbit-breeders and now that the canteen ceased to sell food, a number of Germans set up as stall-holders, offering sandwiches and meat-pies for sale. I was a regular customer until I noticed an ominous thinning in the ranks of the Manx cats but most of my comrades were not so observant and these fellows did a roaring trade. What is more, they discovered a new source of supply and produced a very tasty seagull-pie there were thousands of these birds constantly hovering about the camp ready to swoop down on food and these enterprising caterers were catching them by the dozen with long string tied to the bait.
Amongst the many dogs my hut boasted of an interesting pet, a rough-haired mongrel of mysterious ancestry, which belonged to one of the seamen, or rather the dog had adopted him when he was working on a farm close to Peel. The dog took a great fancy to him and followed him to the camp, only to be claimed next day by the farmer. The dog kept on dividing his time and affections between the farm and the camp, and in the end the farmer decided to put an end to the nuisance by presenting the deserter to a farmer friend of his who lived near Liverpool. After a few days the dog reappeared once more in the camp, having evidently crossed back to Douglas as a stowaway, and this time the farmer washed his hands of him. He became a permanent guest in our hut and as we all had numbers, each of us being known officially as Prisoner-of-War No. -, the dog was also invested with the dignity of being called by his own number.
Letters and parcels were the only connecting link with the outside world and it is hardly surprising that, thrown entirely on our own resources, gambling was rife in the camps. The military authorities waged a ceaseless war on the professional gamblers, but like the innumerable rats which infested every hut, their fellow vermin thrived and battened on the rank and file of prisoners whom gambling at all hours of the day drew like an irresistible magnet. Mostly waiters in pre-war days who had learnt their trade in shady night clubs, these professionals amassed small fortunes and lived on the fat of the land: disdainful of the ordinary rations, they had mysterious sources of supply of all kinds of luxurious food-stuffs ; over-dressed and overbearing, they considered themselves the " fine fleur " of the community and were treated as such by their numerous toadies.
Every now and again the military police would swoop down on a but where gambling was in progress and march off the offenders to the cells, but some of the non-commissioned officers succumbed to the temptation of substantial bribes ; besides, the gamblers had an elaborate system of signalling worked by their confederates and if a but was raided, likely as not an innocent card-game was found to be in progress. The better elements were powerless against this plague : there was an uninterrupted stream of gold flowing into the coffers of these parasites : fed by the remittances reaching the camp from relatives abroad and the earnings of the gullible habitués of the gaming-table.
Prisoners over forty-five who were in poor health or otherwise disabled were now being exchanged, and although I was well below the age-limit, I persuaded myself that here might be a loop-hole to get away. Adopting a strict diet of chewing tobacco, which I swallowed in large chunks, I had good hopes of collecting the necessary symptoms of cardiac disease and nervous debility. Coached by Dr. Strom, I was making what we both considered, excellent progress. So one fine morning I went on the sick list and submitted myself to examination by the camp doctor. What with nicotine and excitement, I had a splendid palpitation of the heart and felt weak and shaky enough to pass any medical examination; encouraged by the sympathetic manner. of the jovial old army doctor, I went so far as to faint in his arms. After a very thorough examination, the old boy patted me on the back. " I am happy to tell you," he said with a mischievous twinkle behind his thick spectacles, " that your case is not incurable. The cure which I suggest is both simple and efficacious: all you have to do is to smoke tobacco instead of eating it."
MY monthly remittance from the Swedish Legation, who had taken charge of Austro-Hungarian interests, was paid by the Camp Bank which, staffed by competent and reliable prisoners, worked under the supervision of the military authorities. On these rare occasions prisoners from the various camps and compounds who had otherwise no chance of coming together, excepting concerts, etc., met and swapped news. I was chatting with a few fellows when I noticed a shabby individual with a bushy beard, who was eyeing me rather closely. Mutual recognition was almost instantaneous ; it was Jutay, from whom I parted in Peking. I had not heard a syllable from him since and felt convinced that, more fortunate than myself, he had reached home and the Front long ago.
There was no time to exchange confidences ; he told me in a few words that he was in Camp II. "Send an application to the Home Office," he suggested in a hurried whisper; " tell them that I am your cousin and ask to be transferred to my camp." Our respective escorts made further conversation impossible: I gave Jutay a brief nod and we parted.
I regarded his appearance as a happy omen: we were certainly birds of a feather, and if we joined forces once more, who knows but that history might repeat itself, and in any case it would be great to be together with an Army comrade. I did not relish altogether the thought of leaving Dr. Strom, who with his unfailing good humour and cheerful philosophy was the best of companions, but he himself urged me to go and drafted my application to the Home Office.
Within a fortnight I received a favourable reply, and at the end of May I was transferred to my new home : there was no vacancy in Jutay's hut, but I found a temporary billet close by and was actually given a cot to sleep in, instead of the hated narrow bunk.
Jutay's story was both brief and simple. " You remember," he said after the first greetings, " that I have always been fond of tinkering about with machinery. Well, I got down to Shanghai, like yourself, and our people put me on to the chief engineer of a Dutch passenger boat who found me a job in the engine-room. All went well until, steaming up the English Channel, we were pulled up and ordered to proceed to Southampton, where the devils received me like a long-lost son: they had everything pat about me, knew who I was, where I had come from and all the rest of it. Oh yes, they were quite nice and sympathetic, but the long and short of it was that they packed me off under a special escort, and here I have been stuck for the last six months."
When the well of our reminiscences had run dry, Jutay produced his last parcel from home. "'Look here," he said with pardonable pride, pointing to a familiar shaped bottle, " you know what this is real old Tokay, older than you or I. My people took the risk of sending it, and I pleaded with the Censor till he let me have it, like a good fellow. To-night we are going to have a real good feed to celebrate our re-union, and you shall have Hungarian music as well. I have asked young Pataky, who plays the fiddle divinely ; and so he ought to, considering he used to be the star turn of the Budapest Conservatoire. And he is a good lad into the bargain."
The captain of my hut made us free for the evening of his own special quarters, which were curtained off and boasted of a table: Pataky brought his fiddle, and forgetting our troubles and tribulations, including salt herring and porridge, we attacked the boar's head which was Jutay's contribution to the feast. We sat long in the night, sipping our Tokay and listening to Pataky's fiddle; he played soft and low, so as not to disturb the other inmates of the hut, and once more I revelled in the strains of the music which unlocked the prison gates and led us home.
Next morning I discussed with Jutay the all-important question of escape. The recreation and sports ground of Camp II was situated on a steep slope: the coast of Ireland was plainly visible from the top on clear days. Lying on the grass I confided to Jutay my firm belief that, once we could reach Dublin, it should be comparatively easy to establish contact with my Irish friends in New York, who would provide us with the necessary means to get home. I had heard that a fishing-smack could reach the nearest port on the Irish coast in less than a dozen hours.
" It is all very well," interrupted Jutay with a sceptical smile, " but are you going to fly over the barbed-wire, and how about the sentries? This isn't Shkotovo, you know."
" Very likely not," I answered somewhat heatedly, " but the word 'impossible' is missing from my dictionary: there must be a way, and it's up to us to find it."
Similar discussions were the order of the day throughout the summer: the sight of the open sea kept me in a state of subdued excitement and once again I was obsessed by the idea of breaking out of this cursed camp. But even my unreasoning impatience had to bow to the evidence of insuperable obstacles supplied by the formidable belts of barbed-wire fences and entanglements which, strongly reminiscent of the Front, amounted to veritable fortifications: compounds, individual camps and the whole complex, as such, had each its own protecting belt of barbed-wire, and it was sheer folly to look for a gap, particularly as the vigilance of the sentries, who were relieved every two hours, was unceasing. Darkness held out no better hopes of escape ; the camp was swept by powerful searchlights throughout the night : no, one would have to find a stratagem to get away in daylight. So much was clear to me, and I concentrated on the problem from that angle, secretly hoping that the unexpected would bring a solution.
I was sunning myself on the top of the hill one morning when a man whom I knew by sight as the skipper of a captured German trawler sat down by the side of me. He started talking about the submarines which were probably lurking in the smooth waters in front of us and we had the usual conversation about the destruction wrought by the U-boats, and their effect on the probable duration of the War. All of a sudden he turned to me and said
" I have noticed for some time that this spot has some attraction for you. I suppose you are fond of the sea ? "
" Well, I like it well enough to look at," I replied cautiously.
" But would you risk a trip to Ireland ? " he queried with a serious look on his face. Throwing caution to the wind, I said rather vehemently, " Nothing better."
"Very well, then," he said. "We can talk about it, but not now-it's time to go in. Let's meet here to-morrow morning."
" Can I bring a friend-I vouch for him." Nodding briefly, he strolled away, and I rushed off to tell Jutay about our talk.
Next morning we met our friend in a corner of the compound and, pretending to be deeply immersed in a game of draughts, we talked in undertones. He told us that he and his mate had been planning to escape for many months: the mate was a first-rate chap, both he and the skipper knew the Irish coast like their own trousers-pockets and two members of their old crew were ready to go with them through thick and thin. The skipper added that he had managed to hide his instruments, and it would be child's play to navigate a small boat across to some quiet spot on the Irish coast. Captain Fabian agreed that we should have to work out the plan in every detail. " As luck would have it," he added, " they are asking for volunteers to work in a quarry near Port Erin, which appears to be the most convenient spot for commandeering a sailing vessel later on : the mate is going to join the working party and will smell out the land."
We made the acquaintance of the mate, a tall, silent fellow called Schmidt, and several conferences took place, with the result that he went to the quarry whenever possible, and eventually brought back the report that it would be a simple enough undertaking to steal a sailing-ship at Port Erin and sail her across to Ireland, a matter of a few hours, granted favourable wind and weather. Both he and Captain Fabian were, however, agreed that with the autumn gales in the offing, we should have to wait till next spring, that is 1918.
The beginning of April was tentatively fixed for our attempt: we had unfortunately the long winter to live through, but we were going to have ample time to give careful consideration to every conceivable detail. We had a starting-point-Port Erin-but we had to work, so to speak, backwards. Schmidt thought that he had got to know the lay of the land sufficiently to act as our guide, once we were outside the camp. But how to get there ? All we knew was that an answer to this riddle would have to be found during the winter, and in the meantime we had something to live for.
Once more the routine existence of the camp claimed us. There was precious little to brighten our drab, monotonous existence like the rest of suffering, war-weary humanity we felt that we had reached the limit of endurance, yet it looked as if the War would go on for years. True enough that Russia had ceased to count as a belligerent power, but the submarine campaign failed to bring about the promised capitulation of the Allies, and next spring millions of fresh and well equipped Americans would take the field.
Even Christmas failed to rouse the prisoners from their apathy: marooned in their huts, every day had to be swallowed like a dose of nauseous medicine. Parcels from Germany and Austria practically ceased to come through; only a few Hungarians whose people were prosperous farmers received a little food every now and again.
In our daily discussions with Jutay, and Captain Fabian, we seemed to be turning in a vicious circle. Captain Fabian thought that we could hide amongst the clumps of thick bushes which dotted the recreation ground; they would be choked up with dead undergrowth and leaves in the early spring ; if we could manage to escape detection till after dark, when the prisoners were marched back into the compound and the sentries who were posted at close intervals withdrawn, the coast would be clear. To get over the single barbed-wire fence afterwards would be easy. True enough there were strong outposts at each corner of the camp, ready to sweep the ground in front of them with their machine-guns, but that was a risk we had to take. There was, however, an important flaw in this proposition : prisoners were counted at the compound gates both in the early afternoon when they were marched into the recreation ground and counted again in the evening when they returned to the compound. It was essential that our escape should remain unnoticed for at least twenty-four hours. There were endless debates round this vexed question, till one day, soon after the turn of the year, Jutay called a meeting.
" I've got it," he announced with pardonable pride. " You know there are quite a number of Germans in our compound who do clerical work in the office and carry messages between the office and the various huts ; well, all these fellows have free passes, and pop in and out of the gate all day long. Money talks louder this winter than it ever did, and I am perfectly sure that we can find a half-a-dozen amongst this lot who will take a little risk for money. Here is the scheme: when the prisoners line up for the count just outside the gate as usual, these half-a-dozen free-pass holders will go through the gate as if they were on the way to the office, and then they will just drift back one, by one and hang about ready to join the procession when the count is over. Very well, let us suppose there will be three hundred prisoners going into the recreation ground; these will be counted and logged as three hundred. But in reality there will be three hundred and six in the recreation ground including the six free-pass fellows. When the time comes for the prisoners to be counted in, we six fellows will stay hidden in the bushes, but the tally will be correct nevertheless. There are so many changes nowadays, with officers and guards going to the Front and new fellows taking their places, that they have no time to get to know the faces of the free-pass fellows. Well, what do you think of it ? "
It seemed like the egg of Columbus, and Jutay became the recipient of enthusiastic congratulations. Having got over this formidable obstacle, all other minor details offered no difficulty: it was decided that it should be left to the discretion of each of us to bring as much food as he could conveniently stow away in his pockets, but we would each strap on a specially constructed capacious canvas-belt which would contain our iron-ration, consisting of oatmeal and coarse sugar, which was considered a good stand-by in case of a hitch causing loss of time.
The date fixed for the attempt was drawing near at last: remembering that Sunday proved to be our lucky day in Shkotovo, Jutay and I favoured the first Sunday in April, and our companions consented. We had sounded the free-pass men, and Jutay who financed the enterprise, advanced the necessary funds. He was also successful in timing the arrival of a parcel from home which was to contain an unusually generous allowance of solid food, so as to make it practically coincide with the eve of our departure. It was found to contain a huge smoked haunch of venison, which we divided between us.
It seemed as if "our" Sunday would never come, but come it did, and brought ideal weather with it. For once, everything worked like clockwork: we attracted no attention at the gate, although we looked bulky enough, but a new sergeant took the count, and he took no more notice of us than of the six " duplicate " prisoners, who played their part admirably. In the recreation ground we kept away from one another during the afternoon: as usual, most men were absorbed in cards or having forty winks in the warm sun, and the sentries trudged to and fro the sentry-boxes with an air of profound boredom. When the light began to fail, my comrades disappeared in the bushes one by one: we had rehearsed this part previously and everything looked quite normal from the outside, when I crept into my own hiding-place.
We soon heard the familiar bugle-call and saw the men trooping back, shepherded by the narrowing circle of sentries and military police. We could see them filing through the compound gates: they were counted . . . the gates were shut . . . all was well. The minutes crept on: a fresh westerly breeze was gathering force and driving masses of dark clouds across the sky. Presently it got pitch-dark and I crept forward cautiously towards an empty sentry-box which had been selected for our rendezvous. We waited anxiously till the customary signal from Camp Headquarters announced that all four camps were closed for the night : another welcome indication that our absence had not been noticed.
Crawling silently on all fours we set off, itching to get outside the range of the machineguns. It did not take us long to discover that Schmidt who was to be our guide, knew only the general direction towards the sea the working party to Port Erin always travelled by train and having no large scale map, we had to take pot-luck. We had not advanced very far when a stone wall topped with barbed-wire barred our way, one of the many field-enclosures which made our progress a difficult and painful obstacle race in the darkness. We crossed a number of fields, climbing over the walls as best we could the wind had reached gale force, our hands were torn and bleeding, and muttered curses announced fresh casualties. I fared a good deal worse than my companions, having twisted- my ankle in tumbling off a wall. To add to the list of my troubles, I kept dropping the precious parcel with the haunch of venison which meant an anxious hunt in the dark each time.
Crossing the railway line, we struck a wide road which we followed till day-break, when we thought it more prudent to seek shelter in the corner of a field where some thick bushes offered a convenient hiding place.
We could not possibly move on in broad daylight, so, hastily swallowing our breakfast, four of us settled down for a nap in the bushes while the other two kept watch. The loss of a whole day was a very serious set-back Schmidt had to admit that he did not know a bit where we were, his only defence was that in any case we could not risk crossing in the gale which was steadily increasing in violence.
We set off again after dusk across ploughed fields, pastures and meadows ; towards midnight we saw many lights twinkling in the distance, but Schmidt assured us that it could not possibly be Port Erin. Towards morning we crossed a shallow pond so as to leave as little trace as possible : our escape must have been noticed long ago and without a doubt soldiers and detectives were tracking us with blood-hounds. We found a thicket on the edge of a ploughed field : we were torn and bruised, showers of sleet and rain had soaked us to the marrow and although a really dry shelter was out of the question, we were thankful for a respite from the weary plodding and climbing in the night.
Before long a farmer arrived with his horse for a day's ploughing with a shaggy sheep dog at his heels : to our consternation he came quite close to us, but after staring at us for a while he decided that we were not worth a bark and, much to our relief, showed no further interest.
We spent the day keeping a sharp look out ; about noon the sun shone out spreading a little welcome warmth but the sight of a party of soldiers and civilians and dogs, going in the direction of the pond we had crossed before day-break drove us back into the shelter of the thick undergrowth. We lay there till dark, hardly daring to breathe; at last the farmer decided to call it a day and we were left alone.
Once more we trudged off in the dark. My swollen ankle gave me a lot of trouble and I was hard put to it to keep up with my companions. At last Schmidt recognised a landmark and declared that we were nearing Port Erin. Leaving fields and walls behind us, we climbed a steep hill, battling against the wind, and the morning found us looking down into a small harbour-Port Erin. Weary to death, it cost us a great effort to collect enough branches to build a rough shelter, where we slept the whole day, exhausted beyond words.
We spent two days in our shelter watching the harbour and listening to the howling of the storm which continued to lash the sea. It was little comfort to hear our seafaring companions declare repeatedly that crossing in a storm like this would be flying in the face of Providence: our morale was sinking rapidly, the haunch of venison and our stock of tinned food were a thing of the past and we were driven to munch our iron rations.
On the third morning we found the sun shining over a smooth sea, but it was no use-there was a grim-looking torpedo-boat lying at the harbour-entrance. She must have arrived during the night and her presence spelt the end of our adventure. Hungry and dazed, we spent the day silent and disconsolate: words were useless, we had gambled with Fate and Fate won.
When darkness fell, we strapped on our empty belts and moved off towards the town in single file : we must have had a hazy idea that we wanted to be near the sea but were past caring what happened to us as long as we could have food. " Halt, who goes there ? " Schmidt, who walks in front answers, " Friend ". An electric torch held by a young officer flashes out: " stop where you are and put up your hands," he answers and we are surrounded by an armed patrol. We have called the tune and now we shall have to pay the piper.
IT seemed quite natural to find myself in a cell with one of my companions. The officer commanding the small detachment at Port Erin seemed rather surprised at our sudden appearance: the authorities made sure that we had got away in a boat and were very likely lying at the bottom of the sea. A telephone message announced our capture to the commandant at Knockaloe and next morning we left for Peel by train under strong police escort. I must put on record that they did not handcuff us until we arrived in Peel, where we were handcuffed together in pairs ; I had to pair off with Schmidt, and as he was many inches taller than I we looked like an Alsatian and a foxterrier on the same lead.
Our party attracted a good deal of attention on the platform, but when the camp gates closed behind us we certainly had the whole stage to ourselves. We were marched to the cells, only to be called in turn before the Major commanding our camp. We were to give a full and detailed statement of our escape, but we had pledged our word of honour that we would guard our secret, come what may, and I am proud to say that we remained faithful to our word. We got over the barbed-wire fence surrounding the compound-the Major dismissed this fairy tale with open contempt and pressed us to tell the truth, but we stuck to our guns our clothes, torn to shreds, and our bodies, covered with cuts and scratches, were our best proof, what other proof was needed ?
In the end we were told that we should be court-martialled and were taken back to the cells ; the most painful feature of the prison régime was that we were placed on a diet which was strongly reminiscent of Scotland Yard and soon we were sighing for the flesh-pots of our camp, the contents of which were fancifully coloured by our hungry imagination. I found some relief in the lucky circumstance that Jutay was put in the cell opposite to mine. We were at least able to talk when the guard patrolling the corridor was out of earshot and every morning we went over the menu of the imaginary dinner which each of us enjoyed in his dreams. I accorded distinct preference to roast goose and spring chicken done in the Hungarian style and never omitted to specify the exact vintage of the Tokay which was the leitmotif of the banquet, whilst Jutay who was a crack shot and expert angler, babbled of all kinds of fish, roast partridge and jugged hare, being careful to include a bottle or two of choice red wine, the product of their own vineyard at home. After these superb flights of imagination we were literally brought back to earth, as the next item on the programme was scrubbing the floor of our cells.
After a few days, I was sent for to be interviewed by an official of the Swedish Legation. At his request I was left alone with him : he assured me of his sympathy and expressed the hope that thanks to his intercession our sentence would not exceed one month's hard labour. He thought that he could secure my belated transfer to Donington Hall, where I should be distinctly better off. I fully appreciated that he could not do any more and thanked him accordingly.
During our fortnight in the cells, the camp commandant sent for me repeatedly : he made me sit down, offered me a cigarette and pressed me in the friendliest possible terms to tell him the truth, man to man. Each time I referred him to our first statement, and at our last interview I reminded him that like himself I was an officer : was it presumption on my part to say that I was only acting as he would act, if the parts were reversed ?. His silence was eloquent enough.
Through the camp " wireless ", which functioned even in the cells, I learnt that the unexpected presence of the torpedo-boat at Port Erin was quite unconnected with our escape. There had been an outbreak of submarine activity off the Isle of Man and the torpedo-boat had been one of the convoy escorting food ships to Liverpool. What did it matter now ? In the silence of my cell I had ample time to court-martial myself, and the sentence was harsh enough: I was condemned to loss of hope. It was crystal clear that during all these months, nay, years, I had been tilting against wind-mills, like Don Quixote: barbed-wire held me fast and there was only one thing to do-submit.
At last the court-martial assembled under the presidency of a staff officer : we were to be defended by a solicitor. After the usual formalities, the first question was whether we pleaded guilty or not. For my part, I answered through the interpreter that as I had been taken prisoner on a neutral ship in flagrant breach of international law, I was perfectly within my rights to try and secure my freedom: the question of guilt did not arise, nor did I wish to be defended by an English civilian who could not possibly identify himself with my attitude. The Court retired and, returning after a very brief absence, pronounced sentence of one month's hard labour, reduced to a fortnight in consideration of our preliminary imprisonment.
Every day during that fortnight we were escorted to the sewage farm near Peel and set to digging shallow trenches: our guards were rather lenient on the whole and their humane treatment was all the more welcome, because what with the hardships experienced during our brief spell of "freedom" and lack of nourishment, we were a feeble and dispirited crew.
One night a party of about 20 men were brought in to the cells, suffering from real or assumed insanity: they were to be transported to England the following morning. One of them, who was put in a cell next to mine, spent the night howling like a caged beast and hammering on the door. I had dropped off to sleep after listening to his row for hours and was awakened by a military policeman who told me to look sharp and get dressed; I jumped into my clothes and when I stepped out in the yard, found the party of lunatics lining up. I was told to step into the ranks when the sergeant spotted me and chased me back to the cells, cursing his subordinate who had mistaken me for the vociferous gentleman next door. An almost pardonable mistake, considering the state I was in.
My ankle although no longer swollen kept me in excruciating pain, but my repeated requests to be sent to hospital were refused I was told to wait till we were sent back to camp. We were, of course, to be separated, each of us being sent to a different compound I was sent to Camp IV, where I arrived leaning on the arm of a decent old territorial who gave me a furtive pat on the back when we parted.
I found the food situation more acute than ever : for one thing, I could no longer share Jutay's parcels ; in fact, I heard soon afterwards that he applied for transfer to the privileged camp at Douglas, and was eventually repatriated from there. My only source of extra food were the parcels which my new steward, a married man with an English wife somewhere in the Midlands, shared with me: they seldom contained anything else but dried vegetables, but in our state of chronic hunger I was glad to be allowed to buy my share.
The tide had turned in France ; the Germans were retiring to the Hindenburg line and the writing was plain on the wall. I was informed by the Camp Commandant that I could renew my application to the War Office in Vienna and advised me to hurry up my uniform as well, so as to be transferred to Donington Hall without further loss of time, but now it seemed that my next transfer would either be home or, as I thought in my moments of black despair, I should share the fate of my comrades who had fallen victims of the Spanish 'flu which was now decimating the camps. Another fashionable disease had found its way through the barbedwire: one day we woke up to find an imposing red flag waving from one of the huts, but the " Reds " who had been sickening for heroic " action " for some time past, were given short shrift by the Commandant and the " movement " was nipped in the bud.
Once more the rainy season drove us indoors. I had been feeling very much " below par " ever since my return to the camp and spent days lying on my cot: I was racked with pain and could hardly put my left foot to the ground. In the end I attracted attention and was sent to the camp hospital on a stretcher, where the doctor diagnosed my trouble as acute sciatica and advanced nervous debility. I felt happy enough in my ward ; for one thing, I had enough to eat and my neighbour, an Hungarian youngster, helped me to forget my self-centred despondency. He, poor lad, had already spent many weeks in hospital: he had an obstinate bronchial affection, was losing weight rapidly and one day he confided to me that he had guessed the truth long ago. " It is my lungs right enough," he told me, " I could stand a chance at home, but here . . . " I plied him with optimistic talk about the end which was now really in sight and often we would discuss our home-coming in every little detail: he lived in Budapest, and often he would take me through every room of his house perched on a hill which commanded such a wonderful view of the Danube: I knew every bit of the furniture, his gun hanging behind the door-perhaps next winter . . .
One day I woke up to find his cot empty he had been taken to the special huts up on the hill which were used as a sanatorium for tubercular patients. He was doomed, poor boy and I often think of that silent gun hanging behind the door ...
I was nailed to my cot for weeks ; the ward was full of 'flu patients, isolation was not to be thought of. It was sad to watch the losing fight of so many who, worn out with four years' agony behind barbed-wire, went down when freedom was on the horizon at last. In the cot next to mine an elderly man lingered on for weeks : his only son was in the British Army and when his father was sinking, the lad was sent for : the old man was delirious, he thought the soldier was there to take him back to camp and he died pleading for " just another day or two ".
In spite of the many privileges, I was desperately anxious to leave the hospital, I had started to hobble about, when I went down with the 'flu. I made a very slow recovery, I was a shadow of my former self, steeped in apathy: the German retreat in France continued, the Monarchy was breaking up ... my world was dying.
Interest in life flickered up when the doctor who had taken a fatherly interest in me told me that a medical commission was coming from England.
" I am going to recommend you for repatriation," he added, " and I think they will pass you. You must not misunderstand me: your leg will get better in time, you will be back in the saddle before you are much older."
I thanked him for his good intentions yes, I wanted to go home, but as for the saddle ...