Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Losing Fight

Prisoners in German POW camp, WWI

British Captain Claude Templar made thirteen escape attempts from German prisons and POW camps in World War I.  The account of his defiant efforts, Poems and Imaginings (1920), including poems and extracts from his letters, is one of the strangest memoirs of the First World War.*
           Templer joined the 1st Battalion of Gloucesters on the Western Front in November of 1914 and was captured on 22 December while reconnoitering a German trench. First taken to Lille, he was sent to the German POW camp at Hanover-Münder, “suffering from concussion and slight shrapnel wounds in his legs which had festered owing to neglect and blood-poisoning caused by the disgusting quality of the extremely insufficient food provided.” 
Claude Templer
            By April of 1915, he had recovered and planned an escape attempt with 7 Russian officers. The men dug a hole in the wall of the former factory where they were being held and crawled through an air shaft that exited beyond the barbed wire of the camp. They were free for a week and had nearly reached the Dutch border before they encountered “some peasants who regarded them with suspicion,” whereby “one of the Russian officers lost his nerve and shrieked and ran away.” Chased by villagers, Templer ran for two miles until caught from behind. Swinging at his pursuer with an empty bottle, Templer was nearly lynched by the crowd, and was saved only by the appearance of a policeman who took him into custody. 
            Moved to Bischofswerda and then Torgua camp, he plotted escape attempts at each location, but was transferred before he was able to put them into action. Arriving at Burg Camp, he immediately began to dig a tunnel. He worked with another British officer, but their plan was discovered in September of 1915, and they were sentenced to Burg Gaol for one year and one week “for damage to public property and the theft of a plank.”
            Templer attempted four escapes from Burg Gaol: “contriving to steal keys,” he escaped into town before he was recaptured. Then working with others to craft skeleton keys, a group of men escaped from their cells to the roof, where they attached a rope made of torn sheets to a chimney. The makeshift rope broke, sending one of the men plummeting into a water-butt in the courtyard below, and the plot was discovered. Templer also attempted to escape by sawing through the  iron bars of his cell window and by drugging the gaoler, “but owing to the inferior quality of the drug, this also proved a failure.” As punishment for his persistent defiance, he was transferred to Magdeburg Civil Gaol, where he helped another officer to escape, despite his own confinement in a cell one yard wide by four yards long.
British POWs in German camp
            Transferred again in April 1916 to the fortress at Wesell, his escape attempt only got him as far as the moat. Ordered back to Magdeburg Camp under guard, Templer took advantage of a stop at a rural train station, attacked his guard, vaulted over a wall, stole a bicycle, and “scorched down the road for dear life.” Putting fifteen miles between himself and his pursuers, he concealed the bicycle in undergrowth and hid in a wood near the Dutch border.  Twenty-four hours later, he was recaptured, taken to Burg camp and again court-martialed. While the Germans complimented him for his “military method of escape,” they imprisoned Templer again in a cramped cell at the prison, this time with “no exercise, no parcels and no smokes.” After serving his time, he was again returned to Magdeburg camp, where he again began to tunnel. 
          While waiting for his own opportunity to gain freedom, he assisted in another British officer’s escape plan, creating a forged pass. In March of 1917, along with all British officers, Templer was transferred to Augustabad Camp. Held in a lodge outside camp for his failure to comply with camp discipline, Templer tried to escape by removing shutters from the windows, only to find a sentry waiting for him with a fixed bayonet. Undeterred, he tried again the following night, this time eluding the guard and putting as much distance between himself and the camp as he could until he was able to hop aboard a cargo train. Attempting to jump from the train as it neared a station, he sprained his ankle and was recaptured. 
WWI postcard appeal for POWs
            Transferred to camp at Ströhen on June 10, 1917, Templer was imprisoned for five weeks. When released in mid-July, he immediately planned an escape with two other British officers. Tunneling through the floor of the camp bathroom to the barn-outhouse that lay below, the men slipped into the lower barn on August 20th, supplied with food, compasses, and a small map. They remained there until dark, when alerted to their absence, the Camp Commandant arrived where they had last been seen – the bathroom.  Unaware that the men were hiding just below in the barn, the Commandant gave search parties specific directions for the hunt – detailed instructions that the men were able to overhear.  
            Under cover of a violent rainstorm during that night, silently in stockinged feet, the men crept past a sentry who had taken shelter in the entrance of the barn. Knowing where the search would be made, they eluded patrols, and traveled nine nights until reaching the Dutch frontier. Along the way, the escapees were nearly attacked by a bull as they attempted to milk a cow in a field. Swimming the river Ems at midnight and crawling through barbed wire fences on the other side, they finally reached freedom. Returning to England in September of 1917, the escapees sent the Commandant at Ströhen “a post-card assuring him of their safe arrival and asking him if he ‘would be kind enough to forward on their letters to the new address!’”
            Almost immediately, Templer requested permission to rejoin his regiment; he returned to France in late March of 1918.  On the night of June 4th, he organized and led his men on a raid on the German trenches, and returning to the British lines with “his victorious company,” Captain Claude Templer “was struck by a chance shell and instantaneously killed on the field of honour.” Germans returned approximately one-third of Templer’s POW writings; among them was the following poem:

The Losing Fight

If fortune knocks you down and has you beat,
Don’t give up hope. Don’t strike that Kismet pose,
But keep your head and get up on your feet
For fortune’s blows must be returned by blows.

Destiny at the finish of your fight
Awards the irrevocable decree,
And it is only then that you’ll be right
In saying, “I must bow to destiny”.

Therefore fight on until the closing day,
No matter if your cause be won or lost.
‘Tis not defeat or triumph, but the way
In which you’ve fought your fight that matters most.

Fight on and may it be your joy to see
Dawn pressing hard upon the heels of night;
They only gain the final victory
Who learn the way to fight the losing fight.
            —Claude Frank Lethbridge Templer

Two months before his death, in April of 1918 shortly after returning to the Western Front, twenty-two-year-old Claude Templer, wrote in a letter home, “I resolve to be a worthy warrior.  To fight to the finish, to love to the finish, to sacrifice everything but never honour. And to do all this with no hope of payment, but as a volunteer, just for the beautiful poetry of it all.” His name appears on the Loos Memorial to the Missing. 
 *Unless otherwise noted, all information is taken from Templer's Poems and Imaginings. 

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