History

Meet the POW Who Voluntarily Returned to Captivity

#POW #WWI #WorldWarI

During World War I a British officer was released from a German POW camp to visit his mother. The release was conditioned on his promise that he return after his visit. He kept that promise and exemplifies the principle that an officer’s word is his bond.

Captain Robert Campbell, a 29-year-old member of the 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment, was taken prisoner on August 24, 1914 in northern France. He was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Magdeburg, northeast Germany. It was there that he received word that his mother, Louise, was dying of cancer.

Campbell petitioned Kaiser Wilhelm II for permission to visit his mother. The Kaiser gave his assent, conditioned upon Campbell’s word to return to Germany and imprisonment. Campbell promised to do as the Kaiser asked. He was able to spend a precious week with his mother, and then, feeling honor-bound to keep his word, returned to Germany and remained a prisoner of war until the conclusion of hostilities in 1918.

Campbell’s mother died during his second imprisonment at the camp in February 1917.

His word did not preclude him from trying to escape, however. As soon as Campbell returned to the camp he began planning his escape. He and a group of other prisoners spent nine months digging their way out of the camp. They made it as far as the border with the Netherlands before being captured and sent back.

The same sense of honor that compelled Campbell to keep his word to the Kaiser also drove him, as an officer, to try to escape.

Campbell was the only known British officer who was granted compassionate leave from imprisonment. The practice came to an end after Britain blocked a similar request from German prisoner Peter Gastreich, who was being held at an internment camp on the Isle of Man.

After the war Campbell returned to Britain and continued to serve in the military until 1925. He re-enlisted in 1939 when his country was once again thrown into a world war. He served as the chief observer of the Royal Observer Corps on the Isle of Wight.

He died in the Isle of Wight in July 1966, at the age of 81.

The remarkable story of Captain Robert Campbell can be found in Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War, by Richard van Emden.

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