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Forces War Records Blog

TALE OF CHIVALRY: RELEASED BRITISH WWI CAPTAIN WHO RETURNED TO PRISON TO FULFIL PROMISE TO KAISER

Blogger: GemSen If you had actually managed to convince the Kaiser to release you from a German Prisoner of War Camp during WWI would you return? No need to answer that. Rather amazingly, Captain Robert Campbell went back and stayed true to his word after he was, to his astonishment, allowed two weeks compassionate leave to visit his dying mother in Kent on the condition that he returned.
British soldiers walking through the trenches of WWI. Picture from the Forces War Records library. British soldiers walking through the trenches of WWI. Picture from the Forces War Records library.

Aged 29, the British officer, Capt Campbell had been leading the 1st Bn East Surrey Regiment when his battalion got attacked by the Germans in North West France, just weeks after Britain declared war on Germany in July, 1914. He was seriously injured and spent two years in the Magdeburg Prisoner of War Camp before hearing the news that his mother Louise Campbell was close to death. Writing to the Kaiser he begged to be allowed to see his mother one last time and to his amazement and relief he was given permission. The Kaiser allowed him two weeks’ compassionate leave, including two days travelling in each direction by boat and train, but only if Capt Campbell promised as a British Army officer to return. After spending time at his mother’s bedside, in Gravesend, Kent, the British Army captain returned to the German camp and remained in captivity until the end of the First World War. His mother passed away a few months later. Such an act of wartime honesty is quite remarkable. I doubt many people would have returned — hence my question at the start being a rhetorical one. The story was uncovered by Historian Richard van Emden after reading correspondence between the Foreign Office and their German counterparts —told in his book, Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War.  The book looks at personal contacts between Britons and Germans and their feelings towards each other as the First World War progressed. Mr van Emden said such an act of chivalry was rare even a century ago and told the Daily Mail: “Capt Campbell was an officer and he made a promise on his honour to go back,’ he said. ‘Had he not turned up there would not have been any retribution on any other prisoners. What I think is more amazing is that the British Army let him go back to Germany. The British could have said to him, “You’re not going back, you’re going to stay here." He said of Capt Campbell’s amazing story: “I think it is such a unique example that I don’t think you can draw any parallels.” After the war, Capt Campbell was released and returned to Britain where he served in the military until retiring in 1925. His military career was far from over though and on the outbreak of the Second World War he rejoined his regiment in 1939, serving as the Chief Observer of the Royal Observer Corps on the Isle of Wight. He survived that war too and died in Britain in July 1966 aged 81. During his research, Mr van Emden's discovered that there was high respect between pilots fighting above the lines. The narrow cockpits of the day meant that pilots did not carry parachutes because they were too bulky so if their aircraft went down or caught fire, they faced the choice of burning alive or jumping out. Apparently German pilots made it a habit to find their victims, dead or alive. If dead, they sent details of their names and burial sites across British lines. If found alive, they would invite them for something to eat in their mess. Fighting during World War I was brutal and both sides were living through the horrors of trench warfare. Both sides suffered loss, death and misery. It didn’t mean that it was a war without chivalry and humanity though — the Christmas truce is a prime example.
The Christmas Day Truce showing British and German officers together. Picture from Forces War Records library. The Christmas Day Truce showing British and German officers together. Picture from Forces War Records library.

Source: Daily mail Looking for more interesting wartime stories? Why not delve into our ‘historic documents’ library and read some of the interesting war diaries that we get sent – there’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there. Forces War Records are fortunate to receive such amazing real life war stories involving lashings of courage, and now you can read some of them – completely free of charge. Why not log on to Forces War Records and search our vast collection of records to find out more about your own ancestors  – there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered and remembered…
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