Within four walls: a classic of escape
by Major M. C. Harrison DSO MC and Captain H. A. Cartwright MC
republished by Pen & Sword Military, 2016 in facsimile from 1930 Edward Arnold & Co original
Hardback ISBN 978 1 47832 757 8
306 pages, illustrated, no index
Cover price £25
Reviewed by Chris Baker
I would imagine most readers of this website will have seen the WW2 film, “The Great Escape”: a sanitised version of reality, but an engaging tale. The film includes many tricks of the prison camp escaper’s trade: perfectly forged documents; disguises; military uniforms modified to resemble civilian clothing; tunnels, bribing guards, and the rest. The attempts at escape that took many months of toil and care; the others that were opportunist and spur of the moment. One could be forgiven for believing that such things were fantasy and something confined to WW2, but in “Within four walls” we have what amounts to a primer and do-it-yourself guide to such things. A timely one, too, given that the original book was published just nine years before the second global conflict.
The book is essentially the joint memoir of two British officers who were taken as prisoners of war very early in the war. They write in a matter of fact style: rather stiff upper lip and decidedly superior to their dull-witted captors. To some extent this glosses over the terrible deprivations, hardships and frustrations that they endured in captivity. Both men spent much time essentially in solitary confinement, often in very cramped and often unsanitary conditions, but the book does not dwell overmuch on misery. When they were with other men, they were among few Britons and spent much more time with French and Russian prisoners (and if they had a generally low opinion of Germans, the Russians came even lower down the league table).
Incarcerated at a variety of locations, but mainly Torgau, Berg-bei-Magdeburg and Ströhen, both men made numerous attempts to escape. Every device that appears in “The Great Escape” appears in “Within four walls”: these officers were not without resourcefulness and patience. They make it clear that their mission was often stymied by informers and spies within the camps (many of which were fellow POWs) and by resistance and non-co-operation by those prisoners who though escape was mad and negative. They called the escapers “maniacs”, and in turn they are referred to as “scoffers”.
There is a difference to the experience of WW2 in that the men made for neutral Netherlands and Denmark. This opportunity of course did not exist when Nazi Germany occupied continental Europe. The many times that the men broke out of captivity and spent many nights on the move towards the border, hiding up by day and mainly living off portable supplies of food they called “mobilisation stores”, are described with great tension, feeling and, often, despair as something gave them away. Eventually both of the authors made it to the Netherlands and home.
Pen & Sword has subtitled the reprint as “a classic of escape”. It really is. A book that is genuinely hard to put down and well worth reading. It also contains some interesting sketch plans of the various locations, as well as photographs and cartoon-like sketches of the men and certain situations in which they found themselves.
I have briefly examined records to determine exactly who the officers named in the book were.
Lieutenant Henry Antrobus Cartwright, 4th Middlesex Regiment. Wounded and captured at Mons, 23 August 1914. In the Second World war, he was employed by MI9, working to organise escapes of POWs from German captivity. One of the two main authors of the book.
Lieutenant and Adjutant Michael Charles Cooper Harrison, 2nd Royal Irish Regiment. Wounded and captured at Le Pilly, 20 October 1914. The other of the two main authors of the book.
Lieutenant William Crawshay Loder Symons, 1st Wiltshire Regiment. Wounded and captured at Caudry on 27 August 1914. Escaped in 1917. Died in a flying accident at Thetford on 30 May 1918. Three of his brothers also lost their lives in the Great War.
Second Lieutenant Gilbert Stuart Martin Insall, 11 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Shot down 14 December 1915. Nine days later the “London Gazette” carried the citation of the Victoria Cross, awarded for his action of 7 November 1915. He escaped on his third attempt and after returning to Britain was posted as a Temporary Captain to 50 Squadron in January 1918.
Captain Claude Frank Lethbridge Templer, 1st Gloucestershire Regiment. Wounded and captured east of Festubert, 21 December 1914. Escaped at his thirteen attempt on 29 August 1917. Rejoined his battalion and was killed in action by shell fire near Cambrin on 4 June 1918. This brave and resourceful man has no known grave and is commemorated at the Loos Memorial.