This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of the Humanities Texas e-newsletter as part of a larger feature titled American Prisoners of War: Firsthand Accounts from the Civil War to Vietnam. We share it again this month in honor of the centennial of America's entry into World War I.
Lieutenant Pat O'Brien was one of the first Americans to fight in World War I and the first American-born pilot to escape as a prisoner of war during that conflict. As a young man, both fascinated with flight and determined that America was not entering the war soon enough, O'Brien travelled to Canada in 1916 to enlist as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. O'Brien was shot down over German lines in 1917 and spent a month in a prisoner of war camp before making a daring escape, after which he spent two months evading capture behind enemy lines before tunneling under an electric fence to rejoin his own forces.
O'Brien subsequently enjoyed a great deal of fame throughout Britain and America for his exploits. He wrote a popular book, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison (1918), about his experiences, was honored by King George V, toured America as a highly requested speaker, and appeared in a starring role in a silent film. O'Brien took his own life in 1920.
The following excerpts were selected from Pat O'Brien's autobiography, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp. The full text of Outwitting the Hun is made available online by Project Gutenberg.
I shall not easily forget the 17th of August, 1917. I killed two Huns in a double-seated machine in the morning, another in the evening, and then I was captured myself. I may have spent more eventful days in my life, but I can't recall any just now.
. . .
That night my "flight"—each squadron is divided into three flights consisting of six men each—got ready to go out again. As I started to put on my tunic I noticed that I was not marked up for duty as usual.
I asked the commanding officer, a major, what the reason for that was, and he replied that he thought I had done enough for one day. However, I knew that if I did not go, someone else from another "flight" would have to take my place, and I insisted upon going up with my patrol as usual, and the major reluctantly consented. Had he known what was in store for me I am sure he wouldn't have changed his mind so readily.
As it was, we had only five machines for this patrol, anyway, because as we crossed the lines one of them had to drop out on account of motor trouble. Our patrol was up at 8 P.M., and up to within ten minutes of that hour it had been entirely uneventful.
At 7:50 P.M., however, while we were flying at a height of sixteen thousand feet, we observed three other English machines which were about three thousand feet below us pick a fight with nine Hun machines.
I knew right then that we were in for it, because I could see over toward the ocean a whole flock of Hun machines which evidently had escaped the attention of our scrappy comrades below us.
So we dove down on those nine Huns.
At first the fight was fairly even. There were eight of us to nine of them. But soon the other machines which I had seen in the distance, and which were flying even higher than we were, arrived on the scene, and when they, in turn, dove down on us, there were just twenty of them to our eight!
Four of them singled me out. I was diving and they dove right down after me, shooting as they came. Their tracer-bullets were coming closer to me every moment. These tracer-bullets are balls of fire which enable the shooter to follow the course his bullets are taking and to correct his aim accordingly. They do no more harm to a pilot if he is hit than an ordinary bullet, but if they hit the petrol-tank, good night! When a machine catches fire in flight there is no way of putting it out. It takes less than a minute for the fabric to burn off the wings, and then the machine drops like an arrow, leaving a trail of smoke like a comet.
As their tracer-bullets came closer and closer to me I realized that my chances of escape were nil. Their very next shot, I felt, must hit me.
Once, some days before, when I was flying over the line I had watched a fight above me. A German machine was set on fire and dove down through our formation in flame on its way to the ground. The Hun was diving at such a sharp angle that both his wings came off, and as he passed within a few hundred feet of me I saw the look of horror upon his face.
Now, when I expected any moment to suffer a similar fate, I could not help thinking of that poor Hun's last look of agony.
I realized that my only chance lay in making an Immermann turn. This maneuver was invented by a German—one of the greatest who ever flew and who was killed in action some time ago. This turn, which I made successfully, brought one of their machines right in front of me, and as he sailed along barely ten yards away I had "the drop" on him, and he knew it.
His white face and startled eyes I can still see. He knew beyond question that his last moment had come, because his position prevented his taking aim at me, while my gun pointed straight at him. My first tracer-bullet passed within a yard of his head, the second looked as if it hit his shoulder, the third struck him in the neck, and then I let him have the whole works and he went down in a spinning nose dive.
All this time the three other Hun machines were shooting away at me. I could hear the bullets striking my machine one after another. I hadn't the slightest idea that I could ever beat off those three Huns, but there was nothing for me to do but fight, and my hands were full.
In fighting, your machine is dropping, dropping all the time. I glanced at my instruments and my altitude was between eight and nine thousand feet. While I was still looking at the instruments the whole blamed works disappeared. A burst of bullets went into the instrument board and blew it to smithereens, another bullet went through my upper lip, came out of the roof of my mouth and lodged in my throat, and the next thing I knew was when I came to in a German hospital the following morning at five o'clock, German time.
I was a prisoner of war!
The hospital in which I found myself on the morning after my capture was a private house made of brick, very low and dirty, and not at all adapted for use as a hospital. It had evidently been used but a few days, on account of the big push that was taking place at that time of the year, and in all probability would be abandoned as soon as they had found a better place.
In all, the house contained four rooms and a stable, which was by far the largest of all. Although I never looked into this "wing" of the hospital, I was told that it, too, was filled with patients, lying on beds of straw around on the ground. I do not know whether they, too, were officers or privates.
The room in which I found myself contained eight beds, three of which were occupied by wounded German officers. The other rooms, I imagined, had about the same number of beds as mine. There were no Red Cross nurses in attendance, just orderlies, for this was only an emergency hospital and too near the firing-line for nurses. The orderlies were not old men nor very young boys, as I expected to find, but young men in the prime of life, who evidently had been medical students. One or two of them, I discovered, were able to speak English, but for some reason they would not talk. Perhaps they were forbidden by the officer in charge to do so.
In addition to the bullet wound in my mouth, I had a swelling from my forehead to the back of my head almost as big as my shoe—and that is saying considerable. I couldn't move an inch without suffering intense pain, and when the doctor told me that I had no bones broken I wondered how a fellow would feel who had.
German officers visited me that morning and told me that my machine went down in a spinning nose dive from a height of between eight and nine thousand feet, and they had the surprise of their lives when they discovered that I had not been dashed to pieces. They had to cut me out of my machine, which was riddled with shots and shattered to bits.
A German doctor removed the bullet from my throat, and the first thing he said to me when I came to was, "You are an American!"
There was no use denying it, because the metal identification disk on my wrist bore the inscription, "Pat O'Brien, U.S.A. Royal Flying Corps."
Although I was suffering intense agony, the doctor, who spoke perfect English, insisted upon conversing with me.
"You may be all right as a sportsman," he declared, "but you are a damned murderer just the same for being here. You Americans who got into this thing before America came into the war are no better than common murderers and you ought to be treated the same way!"
The wound in my mouth made it impossible for me to answer him, and I was suffering too much pain to be hurt very much by anything he could say.
He asked me if I would like an apple! I could just as easily have eaten a brick.
When he got no answers out of me he walked away disgustedly.
"You don't have to worry any more," he declared, as a parting shot; "for you the war is over!"
I was given a little broth later in the day, and as I began to collect my thoughts I wondered what had happened to my comrades in the battle which had resulted so disastrously to me. As I began to realize my plight I worried less about my physical condition than the fact that, as the doctor had pointed out, for me the war was practically over. I had been in it but a short time, and now I would be a prisoner for the duration of the war!
The next day some German flying officers visited me, and I must say they treated me with great consideration. They told me of the man I had brought down. They said he was a Bavarian and a fairly good pilot. They gave me his hat as a souvenir and complimented me on the fight I had put up.
My helmet, which was of soft leather, was split from front to back by a bullet from a machine-gun and they examined it with great interest. When they brought me my uniform I found that the star of my rank which had been on my right shoulder-strap had been shot off clean. The one on my left shoulder-strap they asked me for as a souvenir, as also my R. F. C. badges, which I gave them. They allowed me to keep my "wings," which I wore on my left breast, because they were aware that that is the proudest possession of a British flying officer.
I think I am right in saying that the only chivalry in this war on the German side of the trenches has been displayed by the officers of the German Flying Corps, which comprises the pick of Germany. They pointed out to me that I and my comrades were fighting purely for the love of it, whereas they were fighting in defense of their country, but still, they said, they admired us for our sportsmanship. I had a notion to ask them if dropping bombs on London and killing so many innocent people was in defense of their country, but I was in no position or condition to pick a quarrel at that time.
. . .
One practice about the hospital which impressed me particularly was that if a German soldier did not stand much chance of recovering sufficiently to take his place again in the war, the doctors did not exert themselves to see that he got well. But if a man had a fairly good chance of recovering and they thought he might be of some further use, everything that medical skill could possibly do was done for him. I don't know whether this was done under orders or whether the doctors just followed their own inclinations in such cases.
My teeth had been badly jarred up from the shot, and I hoped that I might have a chance to have them fixed when I reached Courtrai, the prison where I was to be taken. So I asked the doctor if it would be possible for me to have this work done there, but he very curtly told me that though there were several dentists at Courtrai, they were busy enough fixing the teeth of their own men without bothering about mine. He also added that I would not have to worry about my teeth; that I wouldn't be getting so much food that they would be put out of commission by working overtime. I wanted to tell him that from the way things looked he would not be wearing his out very soon, either.
My condition improved during the next two days and on the fourth day of my captivity I was well enough to write a brief message to my squadron reporting that I was a prisoner of war and "feeling fine," although, as a matter of fact, I was never so depressed in my life. I realized, however, that if the message reached my comrades, it would be relayed to my mother in Momence, Illinois, and I did not want to worry her more than was absolutely necessary. It was enough for her to know that I was a prisoner. She did not have to know that I was wounded.
I had hopes that my message would be carried over the lines and dropped by one of the German flying officers. That is a courtesy which is usually practiced on both sides. I recalled how patiently we had waited in our aerodrome for news of our men who had failed to return, and I could picture my squadron speculating on my fate.
That is one of the saddest things connected with service in the R. F. C. You don't care much what happens to you, but the constant casualties among your friends is very depressing.
You go out with your "flight" and get into a muss. You get scattered and when your formation is broken up you finally wing your way home alone.
Perhaps you are the first to land. Soon another machine shows in the sky, then another, and you patiently wait for the rest to appear. Within an hour, perhaps, all have shown up save one, and you begin to speculate and wonder what has happened to him.
Has he lost his way? Has he landed at some other aerodrome? Did the Huns get him?
When dark comes you realize that, at any rate, he won't be back that night, and you hope for a telephone call from him telling of his whereabouts.
If the night passes without sign or word from him he is reported as missing, and then you watch for his casualty to appear in the war-office lists.
One day, perhaps a month later, a message is dropped over the line by the German Flying Corps with a list of pilots captured or killed by the Huns, and then, for the first time, you know definitely why it was your comrade failed to return the day he last went over the line with his squadron.
I was still musing over this melancholy phase of the scout's life when an orderly told me there was a beautiful battle going on in the air, and he volunteered to help me outside the hospital that I might witness it, and I readily accepted his assistance.
That afternoon I saw one of the gamest fights I ever expect to witness.
There were six of our machines against perhaps sixteen Huns. From the type of the British machines I knew that they might possibly be from my own aerodrome. Two of our machines had been apparently picked out by six of the Huns and were bearing the brunt of the fight. The contest seemed to me to be so unequal that victory for our men was hardly to be thought of, and yet at one time they so completely outmaneuvered the Huns that I thought their superior skill might save the day for them, despite the fact that they were so hopelessly outnumbered. One thing I was sure of: they would never give in.
Of course it would have been a comparatively simple matter for our men, when they saw how things were going against them, to have turned their noses down, landed behind the German lines, and given themselves up as prisoners, but that is not the way of the R. F. C.
A battle of this kind seldom lasts many minutes, although every second seems like an hour to those who participate in it, and even onlookers suffer more thrills in the course of the struggle than they would ordinarily experience in a lifetime. It is apparent even to a novice that the loser's fate is death.
Of course the Germans around the hospital were all watching and rooting for their comrades, but the English, too, had one sympathizer in that group who made no effort to stifle his admiration for the bravery his comrades were displaying.
The end came suddenly. Four machines crashed to earth almost simultaneously. It was an even break—two of theirs and two of ours. The others apparently returned to their respective lines.
The wound in my mouth was bothering me considerably, but by means of a pencil and paper I requested one of the German officers to find out for me who the English officers were who had been shot down.
A little later he returned and handed me a photograph taken from the body of one of the victims. It was a picture of Paul Raney, of Toronto, and myself, taken together! Poor Raney! He was the best friend I had and one of the best and gamest men who ever fought in France!
It was he, I learned long after, who, when I was reported missing, had checked over all my belongings and sent them back to England with a signed memorandum—which is now in my possession. Poor fellow, he little realized then that but a day or two later he would be engaged in his last heroic battle, with me a helpless onlooker!
The same German officer who brought me the photograph also drew a map for me of the exact spot where Raney was buried in Flanders. I guarded it carefully all through my subsequent adventures and finally turned it over to his father and mother when I visited them in Toronto to perform the hardest and saddest duty I have ever been called upon to execute—to confirm to them in person the tidings of poor Paul's death.
The other British pilot who fell was also from my squadron and a man I knew well—Lieutenant Keith, of Australia. I had given him a picture of myself only a few hours before I started on my own disastrous flight. He was one of the star pilots of our squadron and had been in many a desperate battle before, but this time the odds were too great for him. He put up a wonderful fight, and he gave as much as he took.
. . .
From the Intelligence Department I was conveyed to the officers' prison camp at Courtrai in an automobile. It was about an hour's ride. My escort was one of the most famous flyers in the world, barring none. He was later killed in action, but I was told by an English airman who witnessed his last combat that he fought a game battle and died a hero's death.
The prison, which had evidently been a civil prison of some kind before the war, was located right in the heart of Courtrai. The first building we approached was large, and in front of the archway, which formed the main entrance, was a sentry box. Here we were challenged by the sentry, who knocked on the door; the guard turned the key in the lock and I was admitted. We passed through the archway and directly into a courtyard, on which faced all of the prison buildings, the windows, of course, being heavily barred.
After I had given my pedigree—my name, age, address, etc.—I was shown to a cell with bars on the windows overlooking this courtyard. I was promptly told that at night we were to occupy these rooms, but I had already surveyed the surroundings, taken account of the number of guards and the locked door outside, and concluded that my chances of getting away from some other place could be no worse than in that particular cell.
. . .
Rising hour in the prison was seven o'clock. Breakfast came at eight. This consisted of a cup of coffee and nothing else. If the prisoner had the foresight to save some bread from the previous day, he had bread for breakfast also, but that never happened in my case. Sometimes we had two cups of coffee—that is, near-coffee. It was really chicory or some cereal preparation. We had no milk or sugar.
For lunch they gave us boiled sugar-beets or some other vegetable, and once in a while some kind of pickled meat, but that happened very seldom. We also received a third of a loaf of bread—war-bread. This war-bread was as heavy as a brick, black, and sour. It was supposed to last us from noon one day to noon the next. Except for some soup, this was the whole lunch menu.
Dinner came at 5:30 P.M., when we sometimes had a little jam made out of sugar-beets, and a preparation called tea which you had to shake vigorously or it settled in the bottom of the cup and then about all you had was hot water. This "tea" was a sad blow to the Englishmen. If it hadn't been called tea, they wouldn't have felt so badly about it, perhaps, but it was adding insult to injury to call that stuff "tea" which, with them, is almost a national institution.
Sometimes with this meal they gave us butter instead of jam, and once in a while we had some kind of canned meat.
This comprised the usual run of eatables for the day—I can eat more than that for breakfast! In the days that were to come, however, I was to fare considerably worse.
. . .
The sanitary conditions in this prison camp were excellent as a general proposition. One night, however, I discovered that I had been captured by "cooties."
This was a novel experience to me and one that I would have been very willing to have missed, because in the Flying Corps our aerodromes are a number of miles back of the lines and we have good billets, and our acquaintance with such things as "cooties" and other unwelcome visitors is very limited.
When I discovered my condition I made a holler and roused the guard, and right then I got another example of German efficiency.
This guard seemed to be even more perturbed about my complaint than I was myself, evidently fearing that he would be blamed for my condition.
The commandant was summoned, and I could see that he was very angry. Some one undoubtedly got a severe reprimand for it.
I was taken out of my cell by a guard with a rifle and conducted about a quarter of a mile from the prison to an old factory building which had been converted into an elaborate fumigating plant. There I was given a pickle bath in some kind of solution, and while I was absorbing it my clothes, bedclothes, and whatever else had been in my cell were being put through another fumigating process.
While I was waiting for my things to dry—it took, perhaps, half an hour—I had a chance to observe about one hundred other victims of "cooties"—German soldiers who had become infested in the trenches. We were all nude, of course, but apparently it was not difficult for them to recognize me as a foreigner even without my uniform on, for none of them made any attempt to talk to me, although they all were very busy talking about me. I could not understand what they were saying, but I know I was the butt of most of their jokes, and they made no effort to conceal the fact that I was the subject of their conversation.
When I got back to my cell I found that it had been thoroughly fumigated, and from that time on I had no further trouble with "cooties" or other visitors of the same kind.
As we were not allowed to write anything but prison cards, writing was out of the question; and as we had no reading matter to speak of, reading was nil. We had nothing to do to pass away the time, so consequently cards became our only diversion, for we did, fortunately, have some of those.
There wasn't very much money, as a rule, in circulation, and I think for once in my life I held most of that, not due to any particular ability on my part in the game, but I happened to have several hundred francs in my pockets when shot down. But we held a lottery there once a day, and I don't believe there was ever another lottery held that was watched with quite such intense interest as that. The drawing was always held the day before the prize was to be awarded, so we always knew the day before who was the lucky man. There was as much speculation as to who would win the prize as if it had been the finest treasure in the world. The great prize was one-third of a loaf of bread.
Through some arrangement which I never quite figured out, it happened that among the eight or ten officers who were there with me there was always one-third of a loaf of bread over. There was just one way of getting that bread, and that was to draw lots. Consequently that was what started the lottery. I believe if a man had ever been inclined to cheat he would have been sorely tempted in this instance, but the game was played absolutely square, and if a man had been caught cheating, the chances are that he would have been shunned by the rest of the officers as long as he was in prison. I was fortunate enough to win the prize twice.
One man—I think he was the smallest eater in the camp—won it on three successive days, but it was well for him that his luck deserted him on the fourth day, for he probably would have been handled rather roughly by the rest of the crowd, who were growing suspicious. But we handled the drawing ourselves and knew there was nothing crooked about it, so he was spared.
We were allowed to buy pears, and, being small and very hard, they were used as the stakes in many a game. But the interest in these little games was as keen as if the stakes had been piles of money instead of two or three half-starved pears. No man was ever so reckless, however, in all the betting, as to wager his own rations.
By the most scheming and sacrificing I ever did in my life I managed to hoard two pieces of bread (grudgingly spared at the time from my daily rations), but I was preparing for the day when I should escape—if I ever should.
It was not a sacrifice easily made, either, but instead of eating bread I ate pears until I finally got one piece of bread ahead; and when I could force myself to stick to the pear diet again I saved the other piece from that day's allowance, and in days to come I had cause to credit myself fully for the foresight.
. . .
The conditions of this prison were bad enough when a man was in normally good health, but it was barbarous to subject a wounded soldier to the hardships and discomforts of the place. However, this was the fate of a poor private we discovered there one day in terrific pain, suffering from shrapnel in his stomach and back. All of us officers asked to have him sent to a hospital, but the doctors curtly refused, saying it was against orders.
So the poor creature went on suffering from day to day and was still there when I left, another victim of German cruelty.
At one time in this prison camp there were a French marine, a French flying officer, and two Belgian soldiers, and of the United Kingdom one from Canada, two from England, three from Ireland, a couple from Scotland, one from Wales, a man from South Africa, one from Algeria, and a New Zealander, the last being from my own squadron, a man whom I thought had been killed, and he was equally surprised, when brought into the prison, to find me there. In addition there were a Chinaman and myself from the U.S.A.
. . .
Every other morning, the weather allowing, we were taken to a large swimming pool and were allowed to have a bath. There were two pools, one for the German officers and one for the men. Although we were officers, we had to use the pool occupied by the men. While we were in swimming, a German guard with a rifle across his knees sat at each corner of the pool and watched us closely as we dressed and undressed. English interpreters accompanied us on all of these trips, so at no time could we talk without their knowing what was going on.
Whenever we were taken out of the prison for any purpose they always paraded us through the most crowded streets—evidently to give the populace an idea that they were getting lots of prisoners. The German soldiers we passed on these occasions made no effort to hide their smiles and sneers.
The Belgian people were apparently very curious to see us, and they used to turn out in large numbers whenever the word was passed that we were out. At times the German guards would strike the women and children who crowded too close to us. One day I smiled and spoke to a pretty Belgian girl, and when she replied a German made a run for her. Luckily she stepped into the house before he reached her, or I am afraid my salutation would have resulted seriously for her, and I would have been powerless to have assisted her.
Whenever we passed a Belgian home or other building which had been wrecked by bombs dropped by our airmen, our guards made us stop a moment or two while they passed sneering remarks among themselves.
One of the most interesting souvenirs I have of my imprisonment at Courtrai is a photograph of a group of us taken in the prison courtyard. The picture was made by one of the guards, who sold copies of it to those of us who were able to pay his price—one mark apiece.
As we faced the camera, I suppose we all tried to look our happiest, but the majority of us, I am afraid, were too sick at heart to raise a smile even for this occasion. One of our Hun guards is shown in the picture seated at the table. I am standing directly behind him, attired in my flying tunic, which they allowed me to wear all the time I was in prison, as is the usual custom with prisoners of war. Three of the British officers shown in the picture, in the foreground, are clad in "shorts."
. . .
Despite the scanty fare and the restrictions we were under in this prison, we did manage on one occasion to arrange a regular banquet. The planning which was necessary helped to pass the time.
At this time there were eight of us. We decided that the principal thing we needed to make the affair a success was potatoes, and I conceived a plan to get them. Every other afternoon they took us for a walk in the country, and it occurred to me that it would be a comparatively simple matter for us to pretend to be tired and sit down when we came to the first potato patch.
It worked out nicely. When we came to the first potato patch that afternoon we told our guards that we wanted to rest a bit and we were allowed to sit down. In the course of the next five minutes each of us managed to get a potato or two. Being Irish, I got six.
When we got back to the prison I managed to steal a handkerchief full of sugar which, with some apples that we were allowed to purchase, we easily converted into a sort of jam.
We now had potatoes and jam, but no bread. It happened that the Hun who had charge of the potatoes was a great musician. It was not very difficult to prevail upon him to play us some music, and while he went out to get his zither, I went into the bread pantry and stole a loaf of bread.
Most of us had saved some butter from the day before and we used it to fry our potatoes. By bribing one of the guards, he bought some eggs for us. They cost twenty-five cents apiece, but we were determined to make this banquet a success, no matter what it cost.
The cooking was done by the prison cook, whom, of course, we had to bribe.
When the meal was ready to serve it consisted of scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, bread and jam, and a pitcher of beer which we were allowed to buy.
That was the 29th of August. Had I known that it was to be the last real meal that I was to eat for many weeks, I might have enjoyed it even more than I did, but it was certainly very good.
We had cooked enough for eight, but while we were still eating another joined us. He was an English officer who had just been brought in on a stretcher. For seven days, he told us, he had lain in a shell-hole, wounded, and he was almost famished, and we were mighty glad to share our banquet with him.
We called on each man for a speech, and one might have thought that we were at a first class club meeting. A few days after that our party was broken up, and some of the men I suppose I shall never see again.
. . .
There was one subject that was talked about in this prison whenever conversation lagged, and I suppose it is the same in the other prisons, too. What were the chances of escape?
Every man seemed to have a different idea and one way, I suppose, was about as impracticable as another. None of us ever expected to get a chance to put our ideas into execution, but it was interesting speculation, and, anyway, one could never tell what opportunities might present themselves.
One suggestion was that we disguise ourselves as women. "O'Brien would stand a better chance disguised as a horse!" declared another, referring to the fact that my height (I am six feet two inches) would make me more conspicuous as a woman than as a man.
. . .
The idea of making one's way to Holland, a neutral country, occurred to every one, but the one great obstacle in that direction, we all realized, was the great barrier of barbed and electrically charged wire which guards every foot of the frontier between Belgium and Holland and which is closely watched by the German sentries.
This barrier was a threefold affair. It consisted first of a barbed-wire wall six feet high. Six feet beyond that was a nine-foot wall of wire powerfully charged with electricity. To touch it meant electrocution. Beyond that, at a distance of six feet was another wall of barbed wire six feet high.
Beyond the barrier lay Holland and liberty, but how to get there was a problem which none of us could solve and few of us ever expected to have a chance to try.
Mine came sooner than I expected.
I had been in prison at Courtrai nearly three weeks when, on the morning of September 9th, I and six other officers were told that we were to be transferred to a prison camp in Germany.
One of the guards told me during the day that we were destined for a reprisal camp in Strassburg. They were sending us there to keep our airmen from bombing the place.
. . .
Some days before I had made up my mind that it would be a very good thing to get hold of a map of Germany, which I knew was in the possession of one of the German interpreters, because I realized that if ever the opportunity came to make my escape such a map might be of the greatest assistance to me.
With the idea of stealing this map, accordingly, a lieutenant and I got in front of this interpreter's window one day and engaged in a very hot argument as to whether Heidelberg was on the Rhine or not, and we argued back and forth so vigorously that the German came out of his room, map in hand, to settle it. After the matter was entirely settled to our satisfaction he went back into his room, and I watched where he put the map. When, therefore, I learned that I was on my way to Germany, I realized that it was more important than ever for me to get that map, and, with the help of my friend, we got the interpreter out of his room on some pretext or another, and while he was gone I confiscated the map from the book in which he kept it and concealed it in my sock underneath my legging. As I had anticipated, it later proved of the utmost value to me.
I got it none too soon, for half an hour later we were on our way to Ghent. Our party consisted of five British officers and one French officer. At Ghent, where we had to wait for several hours for another train to take us direct to the prison in Germany, two other prisoners were added to our party.
In the interval we were locked in a room at a hotel, a guard sitting at the door with a rifle on his knee. It would have done my heart good for the rest of my life if I could have got away then and fooled that Hun, he was so cocksure.
Later we were marched to the train that was to convey us to Germany. It consisted of some twelve coaches, eleven of them containing troops going home on leave, and the twelfth reserved for us. We were placed in a fourth-class compartment, with old, hard, wooden seats, a filthy floor, and no lights save a candle placed there by a guard. There were eight of us prisoners and four guards.
As we sat in the coach we were an object of curiosity to the crowd who gathered at the station.
"Hope you have a nice trip!" one of them shouted, sarcastically.
"Drop me a line when you get to Berlin, will you?" shouted another in broken English.
"When shall we see you again?" asked a third.
"Remember me to your friends, will you? You'll find plenty where you're going!" shouted another.
The German officers made no effort to repress the crowd; in fact, they joined in the general laughter which followed every sally.
I called to a German officer who was passing our window.
"You're an officer, aren't you?" I asked, respectfully enough.
"Yes. What of it?" he rejoined.
"Well, in England," I said, "we let your officers who are prisoners ride first class. Can't you fix it so that we can be similarly treated, or be transferred at least to a second-class compartment?"
"If I had my way," he replied, "you'd ride with the hogs!"
Then he turned to the crowd and told them of my request and how he had answered me, and they all laughed hilariously.
This got me pretty hot.
"That would be a damned sight better than riding with the Germans!" I yelled after him, but if he considered that a good joke, too, he didn't pass it on to the crowd.
. . .
Before our train pulled out our guards had to present their arms for inspection, and their rifles were loaded in our presence to let us know that they meant business.
From the moment the train started on its way to Germany, the thought kept coming to my head that unless I could make my escape before we reached that reprisal camp I might as well make up my mind that, as far as I was concerned, the war was over.
It occurred to me that if the eight of us in that car could jump up at a given signal and seize those four Hun guards by surprise, we'd have a splendid chance of besting them and jumping off the train when it first slowed down, but when I passed the idea on to my comrades they turned it down. Even if the plan had worked out as gloriously as I had pictured, they pointed out, the fact that so many of us had escaped would almost inevitably result in our recapture. The Huns would have scoured Belgium till they had got us and then we would all be shot. Perhaps they were right.
Nevertheless, I was determined that, no matter what the others decided to do, I was going to make one bid for freedom, come what might.
As we passed through village after village in Belgium and I realized that we were getting nearer and nearer to that dreaded reprisal camp, I concluded that my one and only chance of getting free before we reached it was through the window! I would have to go through that window while the train was going full speed, because if I waited until it had slowed up or stopped entirely, it would be a simple matter for the guards to overtake or shoot me.
I opened the window. The guard who sat opposite me—so close that his feet touched mine and the stock of his gun which he held between his knees occasionally struck my foot—made no objection, imagining, no doubt, that I found the car too warm or that the smoke, with which the compartment was filled, annoyed me.
As I opened the window the noise the train was making as it thundered along grew louder. It seemed to say: "You're a fool if you do; you're a fool if you don't! You're a fool if you do; you're a fool if you don't!" And I said to myself, "The 'no's' have it," and closed down the window again.
As soon as the window was closed, the noise of the train naturally subsided and its speed seemed to diminish, and my plan appealed to me stronger than ever.
I knew the guard in front of me didn't understand a word of English, and so, in a quiet tone of voice, I confided to the English officer who sat next me what I planned to do.
"For God's sake, Pat, chuck it!" he urged. "Don't be a lunatic! This railroad is double-tracked and rock-ballasted and the other track is on your side. You stand every chance in the world of knocking your brains out against the rails, or hitting a bridge or a whistling post, and, if you escape those, you will probably be hit by another train on the other track. You haven't one chance in a thousand to make it!"
There was a good deal of logic in what he said, but I figured that, once I was in that reprisal camp, I might never have even one chance in a thousand to escape, and the idea of remaining a prisoner of war indefinitely went against my grain. I resolved to take my chance now even at the risk of breaking my neck.
The car was full of smoke. I looked across at the guard. He was rather an old man, going home on leave, and he seemed to be dreaming of what was in store for him rather than paying any particular attention to me. Once in a while I had smiled at him, and I figured that he hadn't the slightest idea of what was going through my mind all the time we had been traveling.
I began to cough as though my throat were badly irritated by the smoke, and then I opened the window again. This time the guard looked up and showed his disapproval, but did not say anything.
It was then four o'clock in the morning and would soon be light. I knew I had to do it right then or never, as there would be no chance to escape in the daytime.
I had on a trench coat that I had used as a flying coat and wore a knapsack which I had constructed out of a gas bag brought into Courtrai by a British prisoner. In this I had two pieces of bread, a piece of sausage, and a pair of flying-mittens. All of them had to go with me through the window.
The train was now going at a rate of between thirty and thirty-five miles an hour, and again it seemed to admonish me, as it rattled along over the ties: "You're a fool if you do; you're a fool if you don't! You're a fool if you don't; you're a fool if you do! You're a fool if you don't—"
I waited no longer. Standing up on the bench as if to put the bag on the rack, and taking hold of the rack with my left hand and a strap that hung from the top of the car with my right, I pulled myself up, shoved my feet and legs out of the window, and let go!
There was a prayer on my lips as I went out, and I expected a bullet between my shoulders, but it was all over in an instant.
I landed on my left side and face, burying my face in the rock ballast, cutting it open and closing my left eye, skinning my hands and shins and straining my ankle. For a few moments I was completely knocked out, and if they shot at me through the window, in the first moments after my escape, I had no way of knowing.
Of course, if they could have stopped the train right then, they could easily have recaptured me, but at the speed it was going and in the confusion which must have followed my escape, they probably didn't stop within half a mile from the spot where I lay.
I came to within a few minutes, and when I examined myself and found no bones broken I didn't stop to worry about my cuts and bruises, but jumped up with the idea of putting as great a distance between me and that track as possible before daylight came. Still being dazed, I forgot all about the barbed-wire fence along the right-of-way and ran full tilt into it. Right there I lost one of my two precious pieces of bread, which fell out of my knapsack, but I could not stop to look for it then.
The one thing that was uppermost in my mind was that for the moment I was free, and it was up to me now to make the most of my liberty.
After jumping from the moving train, Lieutenant Pat O'Brien spent the next seventy-two days evading capture while walking through Germany and occupied Belgium until reaching the border of Holland O'Brien ultimately tunneled under a nine-foot electric fence in between German patrols in order to cross out of enemy territory. You can read the full account of O'Brien's escape in his memoir, Outwitting the Hun, which is made available online by Project Gutenberg.