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TRAPPED IN BELGIUM
By HARRY BEAUMONT
ON the morning of the 24th August, 1914, the first day of the Retreat from Mons, I have a very hazy recollection of being put out of action by the combination of a German shell and a brick wall. I was picked up about twenty-four hours later and taken to a hospital by Belgian civilians. I was put to bed there suffering from a slight wound in the groin, and concussion from which I recovered in a week.
The hospital was at the pit head of a colliery in the village of Wasmes, about seven miles south west of Mons, and the staff consisted of one nurse, two doctors (both very old) and a few voluntary workers of both sexes. The leader of this little band was named D'Capiaux, a young Belgian engineer who had been educated in England, and spoke very good English.
There were about forty British patients, most of whom were officers and N.C.O.'s, and there was also one German patient, a Prussian. Things were very disorganised just then, and it was some days before the Germans noticed our hospital. They were too busy elsewhere; but they soon took over control, and we British automatically became " Prisoners of War." They made the Belgians responsible for supplying us with food and medical comforts, but there was very little of either available. Most of the patients were in a pretty bad way, and six out of eight amputation cases died of tetanus. A German doctor used to come visiting, and after one of these visits a few men were transferred to prison camps in Germany; but I always managed to be absent when he came round, so I stayed on.
The hospital was unguarded, as every man was supposed to be incapable of escape, and the responsibility for our safe custody was placed upon the Belgians.
The hospital authorities gave me the job of nursing one of the British officers. He was totally paralysed, and the Belgians could do very little for him. I nursed him until he died about three weeks later.
Doing this kind of work made me helpful to the Belgians and they used to give me the tip whenever the German officer came visiting. He always commenced at the officers' building, and by the time he arrived at our end, my bed was rolled up and stowed away in the storeroom and I was well hidden in the scrap iron yard.
I went on dodging this fellow up to about the second or third week in October; then, one day, he checked the roll and suddenly discovered there was one man in that hospital that he had never seen. He was in a terrible rage and ordered the Belgians to search the colliery and produce me. They knew, of course, where to find me, and I was taken before him. He glared at me, and in very good English said, "Why have you been absent from this hospital every time I've visited it?" I made the first excuse that came into my head: "I didn't know you were coming. I'm fond of fresh air and spend most of my time in the grounds." He said: "Fresh air! Fresh air! You'll get all the fresh air you want very soon! I shall send you to Stettin-on-Oder!" I said: "Thank you," and returned to my ward with something to think about.
I made up my mind there and then that I was not going to Stettin, but I had not the slightest idea what to do about it. Next day the answer came without my seeking. Lance-Corporal Arthur Heath, of my regiment—who was one of the patients—had got very friendly with a Belgian and his wife by the name of Neusy, who used to visit the hospital. Heath took me into his confidence. He told me that if he could get to the Neusy's house they were going to look after him, and get him out of the country when he was well enough.
He was shot through the thigh, and could not walk. Someone therefore would have to carry him from the hospital to the Neusys' house, and I was the man he chose to do the job. I said I would do it, but would the Neusys look after me too. Heath said he did not know, but thought it would be all right. We then started getting ready. Heath practised walking up and down the ward with a couple of sticks, and I looked round for a civilian suit.
Our ward was opposite the gas retorts and the stoker used to come in about 8 o'clock every night, change into overalls, and hang his suit up near the door. He worked until about 3 o'clock in the morning, and would then fall asleep until it was time to go home; so that suit was mine for the taking. On the 26th October we were suddenly ordered to be in readiness to proceed to Germany at 10 o'clock on the following day, so there was now no time to be lost and we fixed 4 o'clock in the morning as the time for our escape. We arranged that as I was to do all the hard work, I should go to bed and Heath would keep awake and rouse me about ten minutes to four.
I have already told you that one of the patients in the hospital was a Prussian and this Prussian was in our ward. He was badly wounded, and seldom went to sleep, and I was very much afraid that he would see us going and give the alarm. But a funny thing happened. That night he beckoned me to his bedside to help him turn over, which I had often done before. As soon as I had made him comfortable, to my surprise he gripped me by the hand and placed his finger on his lips. This was his way of telling me that he knew what was going on and would keep silent. It was decent of him; we were just brothers in distress.
At ten minutes to four I was roused by Heath, who quietly left the ward on his crutches. I saw him clear and then went to the stokehold and bagged the stoker's suit. I emptied everything out of the pockets and tied them up in a bundle in the old chap's red handkerchief and left it on the hook beside him. I did not want to rob him of more than I could help. He was still dreaming about the end of the War, when I crept away.
I joined Heath at the gate. He had discarded his crutches for his sticks, which had been put there for him overnight.
The Neusys' house was about four miles away, and we had a rough sketch of the road to it on a sheet of ordinary notepaper. I carried Heath on my back; but it was no fun for him either as he was in great pain. At every turn of the road we struck a match and consulted our map. I well remember those matches; they were the old-fashioned twinklers of the "wait a minute" kind. After two hours, we reached our destination, which was the second house with iron railings in the Rue Calvary in the village of Petite Wasmes. We hadn't been able to warn the Neusys that we were coming and we found the outer gate was locked. So I scaled the wall and threw some gravel at the bedroom window. After two or three throws Neusy put out his head, and in a few moments we were inside.
Emil Neusy was a heavily built man with a fresh complexion and a jolly disposition. His wife Marie was a slim little woman with the heart of a lion. They seemed pleased to have us, and soon made us comfortable; but the difficulty was conversation. They knew no English, and we knew no French, so we had to talk to one another with our hands, which was a very slow job. However, we were not allowed to rest for long. At about 9 o'clock a Belgian from the hospital arrived in a very excited state, and the Neusys at once hid us behind some thick curtains. They then invited him into the room, and after a long and apparently heated conversation, he left the house again. Neusy went out soon after and came back with a cab and took Heath away. I followed almost immediately, led by Neusy's son, a boy of thirteen, who took me to some woods and told me to stay there until he came back for me. After dark that night I was collected and taken to a café on the outskirts of the wood where I found Heath, who had also spent the day in the woods.
We spent several days together in the woods, returning to the café at night for food and shelter. Heath still suffered great pain from his wound and found it very difficult to move about.
By this time German patrols and the Belgian police had got tired of searching the district for us, so we moved by easy stages to the village of Paturage, where we were put up for a time by a Madame Godart, a friend of the Neusys. We returned to the Neusys' house at the end of November.
By this time the food shortage was acute. Everyone was rationed, except us of course— but we had many friends by now and never went short.
We were already beginning to pick up a certain amount of French, which eased our position considerably, and Heath had been attended by a doctor and his wound was now on the mend.
One day Neusy showed me a British rifle and several rounds of ammunition which he had souvenired from the battlefields. I did not think it was a wise souvenir and said so, and advised him to get rid of it. I told him that if the house was searched it would be his death warrant and possibly that of others as well, and although he would not take this seriously at first I never let the subject drop until the rifle was eventually cemented into the wall under the window-sill of the front bedroom. The room was then repapered to remove any traces of tampering with the walls.
Just before Christmas 1914 the Germans began to realise that there were a good many British soldiers being hidden by the Belgians in occupied territory, so they issued a warning through the Local Authorities that any British soldier who gave himself up before a certain date would be treated as a prisoner of war; but that if he failed to surrender and was caught he would be shot as a spy whether in uniform or not. It also warned the inhabitants that the penalty for harbouring the enemy was death. I never saw this order, but it was discussed by the Neusys, and they decided to take the risk. So we sat tight.
About the middle of February, 1915, Marie received a visit from the mayor of the district. He said that it had come to his knowledge that two English soldiers were hiding in her house, and that as he was responsible for his district being clear they must go. He said he did not care where they went so long as they left the district. The same night I left for Paturage to live with Madame Godart again. Heath preferred to stay where he was.
A fortnight later a neighbour of the Neusys came round to me there and between fits of weeping told me that the Germans had taken Heath. This was very bad news, and as soon as it got dark that night I moved to a place called La Bouverie, about five miles distant, to the house of Madam Godart's mother. This old lady was eighty years of age. At dawn the next morning there was a terrific banging at the front door. I naturally thought the Germans had come for me, and was half-way out the window when I heard the voices of Heath and Emil Neusy.
Heath had not been caught after all, and this is what had happened at the Neusys' house. At 9 o'clock the previous morning, two German detectives had entered by the back gate. They had given the correct secret signal, which was the opening of the gate three times, which automatically gave three peals on the bell in the kitchen. They had then walked straight into the house, covered Marie Neusy with an automatic and said: "You've got English in your house." Marie had denied this at once, although Heath was in bed in the room above. However, the detectives had wasted no time in argument; one remained with Marie and the other started searching the house. Luckily for Heath he began from the cellar. Heath had heard their conversation and knew he was in a hole. He had no time to put on his clothes, so in only his shirt and socks he climbed out of the landing window and dropped on to the roof of the scullery, which jutted out from the kitchen. Unfortunately the slates of the roof gave way with a fearful crash and Heath nearly came through into the scullery. The German in the kitchen at once rushed to the back door. So did Marie. She got there first, turned the key in the lock and put her back to the door. There was a brief struggle and then the German pushed her aside and opened the door. Unfortunately—or fortunately—this was the moment chosen by Heath to jump off the roof. He jumped on top of the detective and they fell to the ground. Heath was up first and raced down the garden, zig-zagging from side to side, his shirt flapping in the wind. The German who was still on the ground, fired four shots at him, but never got a hit. Heath jumped a low wall into the neighbour's garden, at the top of which was another wall—a high one with glass on top. He leapt at this, but missed his hold.
By this time the German was after him and had reached the bottom of Neusy's garden, only a few feet away. He covered Heath with his automatic and said: "Hands up." Heath took no notice. He decided not to be an Englishman at any price. The German gave the order again, this time in French and up went Heath's hands.
Meanwhile the German inside the house had reached the landing window and saw what was happening outside. He at once started to shout orders to the one in the garden, who turned round to reply. This gave Heath another chance. He made one more leap at the wall, gained a hold, and was over the top. The German in the garden turned round just in time to see his last leg disappearing. He had one more shot but was far too late.
Heath had then done a record sprint across a ploughed field, down a lane, and through a forge, until he came to a cottage. The back door stood invitingly open, so in he went and locked the door behind him. The good lady of the house came down from upstairs and had a bit of a shock to find a stranger with no trousers on seated in her kitchen. However, he explained his position, and she soon fixed him up with one of her husband's suits. Heath had left the house at dark and gone to Madame Godart's, where he found Neusy. They had remained there until next morning, when they came to me.
Marie Neusy was arrested and taken to Mons, where she was committed for trial. The Germans ripped her house to pieces and took away several hundred francs. They didn't, however, find that rifle, and for all I know it's there still. They left word with the maid that if Emil Neusy came to Mons for his money he could have it. He went next day and they arrested him too.
After a few days at La Bouverie, we returned to Madame Godart, where we anxiously awaited the result of the trial. Marie smuggled a letter to us from her prison, concealed in a piece of bread, in which she said we were not to worry about her, for what she had done was for her country and not for us. These were brave words from a woman who was expecting her death.
But when the trial eventually came off, the first witness, who was Marie's maid, a girl of only twelve, stated with great presence of mind, that the man who had escaped was a Belgian, and that he was the lover of Madame Neusy, and stayed in the house when the master was away on business. As soon as Neusy heard this he jumped up in court and demanded a divorce, and acted the part of the wronged husband so well that as the Germans had no evidence to the contrary they had to accept the story. Marie was sentenced to one month's imprisonment for obstructing the police, and Neusy was charged the costs of the trial.
A few days later we were visited by D'Capiaux, the engineer from the hospital, and I learnt what happened there when we escaped. He said the Germans were furious, and fined everyone connected with the hospital, and removed all the prisoners into Germany. He then told us that he had made arrangements to get us away. He took our photographs, and presented us next day with a certificate of identity, which changed our nationality to Belgian. This certificate was an absolute forgery, but complete in every detail even to the police stamp. He had even gone so far as to append our signatures without ever having seen our handwriting.
In a few days a guide came for us and we left for Brussels, where we were taken to a hospital. The matron in charge of this hospital was Nurse Edith Cavell. I'm afraid I can't tell you much about Nurse Cavell. She was very busy all the time, and so we didn't see very much of her, but she seemed a very homely woman with a smile and a cheery word for everyone.
Brussels was teeming with Germans, and here under their noses were at least a score of helpless British Tommies waiting to be smuggled across the frontier.
Excerpted from Tunnelling to Freedom and Other Escape Narratives from World War I by Hugh Durnford. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted December 26, 2004