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Gravesend prisoner of war returns to German camp after visiting dying mother

PUBLISHED: 16:00 25 January 2014

Army Captain Robert Campbell

Army Captain Robert Campbell

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Rarely in World War One were relations between the warring nations so cordial, but the story of one Gravesend prisoner-of-war illustrates an instance where the Germans, at least, saw sense.

Meeting the enemy: The Human Face Of The Great WarMeeting the enemy: The Human Face Of The Great War

In 1916 Army Captain Robert Campbell requested permission to return home to see his dying mother from the Kaiser Wilhelm II – and to his great surprise the German Emperor agreed, but on one condition: he returned to his captors afterwards.

Incredibly, Campbell kept his word and returned to Germany after spending two weeks’ compassionate leave in Kent with his mother Louise, who was dying of cancer.

After travelling via boat and train, Campbell reached his mother’s bedside on November 7, where he spent a week.

He then kept his promise by making the long journey back to the POW camp in Magdeburg, north-east Germany.

Richard van EmdenRichard van Emden

His mother died three months later the following year.

This heart-warming story came to light, thanks to historian Richard van Emden, after he discovered correspondence between the British Foreign Office and their German counterparts in the national archives in west London.

Mr van Emden had been researching for his latest book, Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War.

There was one more twist to this amazing story, though. Mr van Emden said that as soon as Capt Campbell returned to the camp he set about trying to escape.

A general view of a poppy field in Bottesford, NottinghamshireA general view of a poppy field in Bottesford, Nottinghamshire

He and a group of other prisoners spent nine months digging their way out of the camp before being captured on the Dutch border and sent back.

According to Mr van Emden, Campbell felt the same sense of duty to try and escape as he had felt when he returned to camp after his compassionate leave.

“It is an absolutely superb story,” said Mr van Emden. “Certainly in terms of the stories included in Meeting the Enemy, it is right up there.

“I love finding stories that people think are incredible and which I can prove happened. It was certainly a unique case.”

After Campbell had returned to Germany, two more POWs – one from each side - attempted to repeat the feat by requesting permission to see sick relatives.

However, Peter Gastreich, of Cologne, and 4th Manchester Regiment’s Bushby Erskine from Cheltenham both saw their requests rejected.

After Erskine’s request – the latter of the two - had been rejected in October 1917, the British Foreign Office said: “In one case the Germans permitted a British officer (Robert Campbell) to visit this country on parole, but without consulting us.

“This case has since been used to support applications for German officers to visit Germany, which could not possibly be entertained.”

At the conclusion of the war Campbell returned to England. He retired from the Army in 1925, but rejoined the ranks 14 years later when the WWII broke out.

Once again Campbell’s fortuitous nature came to the fore as he survived a further World War and returned peacefully to the Isle of Wight in 1945.

There he served as Chief Observer of the Royal Observer Corps. He died in Britain in July 1966, aged 81.

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