Friday, 26 January 2018

The Great Escape

Arthur Leggett of Chester-le-Street, enlisted with 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (8DLI) in 1911. At the outbreak of war, he volunteered to go abroad, and went out to Belgium in April 1915, and into the Second Battle of Ypres. He was injured and captured by the Germans during fighting at Boetleers Farm. 
Photograph of Arthur Leggett from the DLI Medal Collection
Private Leggett spent some time in hospital recovering from his wounds, he then spent the next several years being moved around different prisoner of war working camps. On 28 February 1918, he was sent Wermelskirchen, about 70 miles from the border with neutral Holland. On 3 April, along with his friend Private Martin ‘Micky’ Lavin, of the Cheshire Regiment, he escaped (their third attempt).

According to an account in the Chester-le-Street Chronicle of 17 May 1918, in order to make preparations ‘they volunteered to be sent from the camp to a working party in the forest who were felling trees’. Unfortunately, they were sent further away from the border with Holland. However, Leggett and Lavin got hold of two pairs of dungaree overalls, which they hid, along with their food, in the forest. 

The article goes on to say that on 3 April, ‘leaving off work at 4 o’clock for tea, they slipped back into the woods… Placing the overalls over their prison clothes, and blacking and smearing their faces with grease, they appeared to be workmen just returning home… All through the night they travelled across country, not daring to show themselves or to approach main roads…’ At 6am, they stopped to sleep, carrying on travelling that evening.

Leggett and Lavin had a map and compass, and this night followed a highway to a town. As they passed through, the pair saw the town guard approaching, ‘Whistling snatches of The Fatherland, they passed without any notice being taken’. They carried on, travelling by night, and sleeping in the woods by day. On the fourth night, they followed a railway line to near a depot. Having a sit down, they fell asleep, and awoke just in time to avoid being seen by a sentry, this made them decide not to follow a railway again. 

Due to the water they were drinking (whatever source they could find), they became ill and spent an evening in a barn instead of travelling, but felt well enough to move on in the morning. The next stop was at one of the towns where Private Leggett had been a prisoner, so he knew the area. They had 140 marks with them, and planned to take a train. For the time being though, they slept in a wagon where they again narrowly escaped recapture. The next morning ‘Private Leggett… obtained two workmen’s tickets for a destination which would take them past a barrier that was considered the real obstacle in their plan of escape’.

Once situated in a train compartment, Leggett and Lavin had yet another narrow escape. A party of French and Belgian prisoners entered, and their German guard was known to both men. They pulled the caps down and pretended to be asleep, and once again went undetected. On arrival at their destination, and back on foot, they again decided to travel at night. The two soldiers were now nearing Holland so were extra vigilant and careful.

As they approached the border, the men ascertained where the German sentries were, and managed to crawl past them. They kept going until morning and approached a house, asking the time of day, and receiving an answer in German, Leggett and Lavin feared they hadn’t reached Holland, then a lady in traditional Dutch dress appeared. They had made it. 
A village in Holland 1914-1918 IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 88212)
The lady clothed and fed them (their first proper meal in several years), and allowed them to rest. Then the soldiers reported to the British Consul. Here they were looked after for a few days before being shipped home. 

Arthur Leggett received a warm welcome back in Chester-le-Street. He arrived at the right time to attend an evening of entertainment in aid of the DLI Prisoners of War Fund. The opportunity was taken by the organisers to present Leggett with a gold watch. An article in the Durham Chronicle (17 May 1918) reports ‘Private Leggett said he could not say how grateful he was that night for the manner in which he had been welcomed home. He was only sorry that the rest of the Chester lads were not present with him’. 

The Chester-le-Street Chronicle article was accessed via the digitisation project of Chester-le-Street Heritage Group

You can read more about Arthur Leggett on Durham at War

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