Lieutenant H.W. Medlicott (1895 – 1918)
Some details of his adventures in the great war collected from various sources
Letter from Major M.R. Chidson regarding exploits in Germany
15th. May 1936.
Dear Colonel Medlicott,
I was very glad to hear from you and I am only too glad to do anything I can in the way of supplying you with information about H.W. Medlicott. Nevertheless, it is evident to me that I unintentionally gave you a false impression of how well I knew him. In fact I was only in the same camp with him for a few weeks, so far as I recollect, and we were far from knowing each other intimately. It was during this time, however, that he made the escape of which I gave you some account, and which I was by chance, an eye witness. However, I will do my best to tell you what I can.
First of all I should like to explain that Medlicott’s name was very familiar to me long before I first met him, which was, I believe, about the end of 1917 in Holzminden Camp. The reason his name was familiar was that he had become an almost legendary figure among the prisoners of war, known as the man who had escaped more often than any other and whom it appeared impossible to confine. He was equally well known to the Germans – It was quite usual to find that his name was familiar even to the Junior other ranks of the German camp staffs in camps to which he had never been sent.
When he arrived in Holzminden I think that all the rest of us felt that our morale had been raised by the fact of his coming among us alone; he proved to those of us who had tried unsuccessfully to get away that the thing was possible; even more he proved that it was impossible for the Germans to confine a determined man. The Germans themselves felt a corresponding loss of moral and it was often said that Camp Commandants used to try to pull strings with the object of preventing Medlicott from being sent to their camp.
I doubt if anyone ever learnt much from Medlicott himself of his escapes; he was not a talkative man, evidently realised the profound truth of the saying that three people can keep a secret – provided that two of them are dead – and had, I believe, only one close friend in the person of a man called Walter or Walters, who was in the Queen’s I believe.
I will now try to give you some account of what I saw when Medlicott got out of Holzminden camp and in order to do so I must describe the camp first. The outer perimeter consisted of a dwarf brick wall, some fifteen or eighteen inches high, out of which rose an iron paling about six feet high. To the top of the iron railing there were fixed iron standards, inclined inwards, about two feet six inches or three feet long, to which were attached three or four strands of barbed wire running lengthways and parallel to the ground. Round most of the perimeter and inside it, about three or four yards from the railings and wire, was a row of short wooden posts on top of which ran a single strand of plain wire, about three feet from the ground. The space between this wire and the main fence was called the neutral ground and we had been warned that to enter it was forbidden upon any pretext whatsoever and that the sentries had orders to shoot anyone doing so, without a challenge.
As I said, the wire marking the neutral ground ran round most of the perimeter: the exception to the general rule was in the space between the two main barrack blocks: these were large brick buildings, the length of which ran parallel to one side of the camp, their outer walls being some three yards from the main fence. There was a gap of some fifteen yards between the ends of these two blocks and the single wire marking the neutral ground ran between the corners of those two blocks furthest from the fence. Thus to reach the fence from the centre of the camp where we exercised, if one wished to approach it between the two barrack blocks, involved crossing a stretch of neutral ground some fifteen yards wide, a distance equal to the breadth of the two blocks of barracks.
The camp was patrolled by sentries both inside and outside the perimeter. Two of the inner sentries had their beats between the outer walls of the barrack blocks and the main fence and their beats met at a point mid-way between the ends of the buildings, exactly in the centre of the wide piece of neutral ground which I have described. At this point the sentry outside the fence had a longer beat than the others and, if I remember rightly, used to go the whole length of the camp, at one corner of which and outside it was the guard room.
To have attempted to scale the fence in broad daylight had appeared to the rest of us an absolute impossibility. Medlicott, however, did not share this view. He evidently agreed that it would be impossible to do so at any point on the three sides of the camp which were free from buildings, but he successfully did it between the ends of the two main blocks. I actually saw him do so and will try to give you some impression of what I saw.
One Sunday afternoon, about half-past three, I was in a room at the outer corner of one of the main blocks, with windows which commanded both the wide piece of neutral ground and a certain length of the outer fence. I had no idea that Medlicott was contemplating escape. Suddenly I saw him and Walters duck under the single strand of wire marking the neutral ground and run quickly across to the main fence. They did so at a moment shortly after the two sentries patrolling the main fence inside had met on the neutral ground and had turned outwards and away from one another: the sentries were perhaps thirty yards apart, at the moment when Medlicott and Walters crossed the space between the ends of the two main buildings, and were walking away from one another. it was Sunday afternoon and very quiet.
Medlicott and Walters went straight up to one of the brick pillars which stood up at intervals along the dwarf wall supporting the iron fence. They were dressed in old Burberries and had no hats. Medlicott climbed up the railings high enough to reach the strands of barbed wire which were carried above the top of the fence and cut either two or three with a pair of wire-cutters which he took out of his pocket. At this moment, though I could no longer see the two sentries inside the main fence, he apparently thought that they had either heard the twang of the two wires when they were cut (The wires you will realise, were only a few feet from the heads of the sentries and it was very quiet) or else he may have seen one of the sentries look back. Anyhow both Medlicott and Walters “froze” for a moment then with extraordinary silence first Medlicott then Walters went over the fence, through the gap cut in the barbed wire and dropped silently to the road outside the fence. Here they stood close against the pillar and from their pockets took out Homburg hats: Medlicott unfolded his, dented in the crown to his satisfaction, put it on and then took out a cigarette case and lighted a cigarette with a perfectly steady hand! At this moment they must not have been more not than thirty or forty yards at the most from both of the two sentries and between them, and, moreover, both these sentries were due to turn inwards and towards them literally at any moment.
Having thus “disguised” themselves as well as they could they started to stroll slowly along the road as if they were out for a Sunday afternoon walk, thus drawing nearer every moment to one of the two sentries, who by this time had turned and was returning on his beat and who was separated from them by an open iron fence at a distance of a few feet. Having gone only a short distance they wandered off the road on to the fields and at this moment the alarm was given by a sentry at the opposite side of the camp, perhaps eighty or a hundred yards away. One can only assume that this sentry had seen Medlicott and Walters at the moment of their crossing the fence, as they would then have been visible to him in the gap between the ends of the two barrack blocks. Owing to his distance from the point at which the escape had taken place and from the guard room, coupled with the fact that the two sentries across whose beats the line of escape had led were unable to see the sentry who gave the alarm, being hidden behind the barrack blocks, some appreciable time elapsed before these latter sentries and the guard could discover on whose account the alarm had been raised.
During this time Medlicott and Walters first quickened their pace to a fast walk across the fields and then broke into a steady jog trot, but at no moment was there the slightest suggestion of them racing for their lives and without consideration of their original plan. The ground over which they had to pass rose slightly and they clearly intended to make for some wooded country some half to three-quarters of a mile away. As soon as they had been spotted all available men in the guard room turned out and formed a line of skirmishers who extended perhaps a hundred yards and followed after the two prisoners firing occasionally, I believe. Still the two escapees kept on steadily and without any sign of loosing their heads: one civilian, who had been walking across the fields came towards them but sheered off on them threatening him.
Not long afterwards a second line of troops in extended order appeared on the crest of the rising ground up which Medlicott and Walters were making their way: I assume that they came from another camp in that direction and had been called out by telephone by our camp. Still the two men went on though by now they were between the two lines of enemy troops who were rapidly approaching; only when the two lines of troops were nearly at point blank range did Medlicott and Walters hold up their hands as a signal that they gave up in the face of overwhelming odds.
I have never before attempted to write a descriptive account and I am afraid that the above very bald version fails largely to give you any adequate account of the affair. That it failed was simply bad luck in that the failure was due to the observation by the last sentry in the camp who might have been expected to notice the attempt at escape. The ordinary man, of whom perhaps a hundred and fifty of us in the camp at that time, would never have realised that there was any possibility of escape at all on the lines indicated: Medlicott not only saw the possibility but put it into practice with a coolness which was staggering to anyone watching as I was. In the early stages of this attempt he was continually in a position in which at any moment he was liable to be shot at the shortest range without any line of retreat or any sign of cover and in spite of this his movements and bearing showed no indication of haste or even that he appreciated the enormous risk he was taking.
After their recapture we never saw either Medlicott or Walters again: This was usual as would-be escapers who were caught were kept under arrest until their dispatch to another camp. We did hear of them, however, and I give the following account of what I have always believed to be the true story of their end for what it may be worth, having learned it myself merely by hearsay.
The story runs that on arrival in their new camp and after serving the time of imprisonment to which they were sentenced in the normal course for their last unsuccessful attempt, both of them were formally warned by the camp commandant firstly that escape from his camp was impossible, but secondly that if they should achieve the impossible and get out, they could understand that they would never get back alive.
They did, in fact, escape and were re-captured, but they never were brought back alive. I heard that they were re-captured at a long distance from the camp and were brought back to a railway station near it by train. On being re-captured they would naturally have been searched and any maps, compasses and food found on them would of course have been taken by the Germans. The mere loss of these things would in itself have been sufficient to deter experienced escapers such as they were from making any further attempts during the return journey, or, even if that should not be admitted, it is obvious that if they made such an attempt at all they would have made it at the earliest possible moment after their re-capture and would not have waited until they were far from the neutral frontier for which they had been making.
In fact, however, so I heard, the German authorities in the camp from which they escaped, announced with delight one day to the remaining prisoners that Medlicott and Walters had been re-captured. A day or two later the bodies of the two officers were brought to the camp and the Germans stated that both of them had made a sudden dash for freedom whilst being marched from the railway station nearest to the camp, where they had been brought by train, to the camp itself and, after having ignored several challenges of the guards in charge of them, had been shot down.
The statement was transparently improbable, not only for the reasons stated above, but also owing to the extreme improbability that both would have been killed by rifle fire outright. As a result it is said that the senior British Officer in the camp requested formally that the bodies should be seen by himself or other British Officers and examined by a medical officer: this was refused, without any reason being given, though I believe that permission was given for the faces of the two dead officers to be seen for the purposes of identification. It was also alleged and commonly believed at this time that a British soldier who was employed as an orderly at the camp in question succeeded in visiting the mortuary and examining the bodies and that he later testified that both had numerous bayonet wounds.
It is now some nineteen years since the above events took place and I am sorry to say that I cannot recall the name of the camp from which the last escape was made nor of any officer who was in it with Medlicott and Walters: presumably official records of Medlicott’s death would show this and I think it is likely that an advertisement in the “Times” would produce several replies from brother-officers who knew Medlicott., both in this and other camps. I am under the impression that a Court of Enquiry even was assembled at the camp whence the last escape took place, under orders of the senior British Officer and unknown to the Germans, of course, and if this was so it is quite likely that a record of its proceedings would eventually have been smuggled out of Germany. That Medlicott was murdered in cold blood because he was a nuisance was a matter of common acceptance among the officer prisoners of war at the time of which I write and we reached our conclusions upon evidence which would have satisfied any unbiased court. I personally, however, made no particular effort to remember the details of his case as to me at that time it represented only one more, particularly flagrant, example of the brutality which one had learned to expect at the hands of one’s captors.
I myself have never met a more fearless or unassuming man than Medlicott: his escapes often succeeded only owing to their literally incredible daring. Only a man of very unusual modesty would have resisted the temptation to rest on his laurels long before he reached the almost inevitable end, since, young though he was, he already was a figure known to every officer prisoner of war by repute, if not personally. Even at the time when acts of gallantry were commonplace all over the world and when examples of devotion to duty were frequent, Medlicott stood out above other men and was a constant, if unconscious inspiration to his comrades.
I hope that the above very inadequate account of my personal recollections, of H.W. Medlicott may be of some value to you for your family records, but I feel little doubt that there must still be many of his fellow prisoners of war who knew him far better and for much longer than I and that you could, from them, obtain a more adequate account of the quite extraordinary doings of the bravest man whom I personally have ever known.
“The Escaping Club“
In this book which is written by A.J. Evans (Formerly Major in the R.A.F.) we have some extraordinarily interesting references to the career of Lieutenant H.W. Medlicott.
The author is able to speak of the life of a prisoner of war with the more freedom as he himself was held prisoner, not only in Germany but also the “unspeakable” Turk. His references to Medlicott are casual and scattered throughout the book, though one chapter which describes a particularly daring attempt at evasion is named “The Escape with Medlicott”.
Major Evans describes several of Medlicott’s escapes and the accounts which he gives agree very closely with those on pages 58 and 59. He met Lieutenant Medlicott at Fort 9, Ingolstadt, Bavaria, which was used by the Germans as a place of detention for all those “bad cases”, namely officers held prisoner from the Allied armies, who had given great trouble by their repeated attempts to escape.
The gaolers apparently lived in a state of nervous tension, and little wonder, for they never knew at what hour of the day or night they would be required to give chase after an escaping prisoner. They were subject to continual thefts and every outburst of rigour on their part was received with undisguised merriment by their prisoners.
From Major Evans’ narrative it is clear that with Medlicott, escaping was not only the main objective of his life but the thought ever present in his mind. Only a man of iron nerve and indomitable courage could have carried on after the failure of so many attempts at escape, failure due to sheer ill-luck in every case.
We read here of wires cut and sentries evaded in broad daylight; of a drawbridge fixed from a bedroom window so that Medlicott could jump across a prison wall on to the open road beyond the prison (miraculously he carried out this plan). On another occasion Medlicott and Lieutenant Buckley endeavoured to escape by being concealed beneath the rubbish when it was carted out of the fort (compare page 59). A German civilian who was hunting the rubbish heap for food discovered the prisoners by tugging at the end of Buckley’s Burberry, which was evidently to the Germans a treasure of great worth.
On this latter occasion as indeed on most of the others mentioned by Major Evans, the gaolers received the returning Medlicott with open hostility and attempts at violence. Even German officers and N.C.Os. do not appear to have restrained themselves in every instance from acts of cruelty towards prisoners who had attempted to escape.
In the chapter which is entitled “An escape with Medlicott”, Major Evans describes the monotony of prison life during the German Winter when owing to the presence of ice on the moat round Fort 9, prisoners were debarred from using the inner courtyards. There was shortage of wood and oil for lighting purposes.
The spirit of Lieut. Medlicott, instead of being depressed by such adverse conditions, was spurred to greater exertions. Some Frenchmen were endeavouring to cut their way through the bars of the latrines and Medlicott and Evans offered to assist them in order to have even this remote chance of escaping on to the frozen moat.
After many difficulties, including the discovery of the Frenchmens’ work by the Camp Commandant, Medlicott and Evans had removed every obstacle in the nature of bars and wire and were waiting their opportunity to slip through the hole at the moment when the sentries should be at the far end of their respective beats. This waiting must have been a nerve racking business. At last came the right moment. The escapers struggled through the hole which they had made and ran across the moat (they had put socks over their boots to prevent themselves from slipping on the ice). Whilst making their way up the bank at the farther side of the moat they were fired at but owing no doubt to the bad light and the effect of cold on the sentries fingers, they were able to get away without even being grazed by a bullet.
This evasion did not last long. Within less than half an hour Medlicott and Evans were challenged by an N.C.O. In the words of Lieut. Medlicott “It’s no good, call out to him”.
On returning to the fort the would-be escapers were objects of hatred to a number of sentries who might have suffered considerable punishment had the escape been successful. Major Evans says: “For a few moments things looked very ugly. I was all for conciliation and a whole skin if possible, but it was all I could do to calm Medlicott, who under circumstances of this sort only became more pugnacious and glared round him like a caged animal.”
The prisoners at Fort 9 were indeed an Escaping Club, but none among them had quite the persistency and reckless seizing of every chance however slight to escape which Medlicott exhibited.
His captors filled him with a bitter and unchanging hatred. It is interesting to contrast a story like his with the talk of those who now say there was no hatred between the opposed combatants of the War.
From this book there is little doubt that that unnecessary hardships were imposed upon the prisoners in Germany, that they were treated with great injustice (e.g. Major Evans’ account of the military trial at which Medlicott and he were sentenced to six weeks and six and a half months solitary confinement respectively) and finally that they were exposed to brutality of the worse kind.
Major Evans was one of the fortunate few who escaped from Germany. He parted company from Lieut. Medlicott before the latter came to his dastardly end, but he gives the fullest support to Major Chidson’s account.
Major Evans on the first mention of Lieut. Medlicott adds in a melancholy note: “Lieutenant Medlicott R.F.C., was later murdered by the Germans on his tenth attempt at escape.”
In 1931 the B.B.C. organised a series of talks by men who had escaped from prison camps during the War. The escapers were of different nationality, some being British and some German. Later on, in 1932, the talks were published in book form under the heading “Escapers All”.
Major A.J. Evans contributed to a section of this work. His chapter was entitled “Exploits of the Escaping Club”, and in it he refers to Lieutenant Medlicott’s attempt to cut a passage through the bars of the latrines, to which reference has been made above.
“Escapers All” which is a valuable addition to the literature of Escape is published by the same publishers as “The Escaping Club” (John Lane, The Bodley Head Ltd.)
Details concerning Lieut. Medlicott’s career from the Records of the Air Ministry
After having served for a time as 2nd. Lieut. R.A., Harold William Medlicott was appointed 2nd. Lieutenant (Flying Officer) in the Royal Flying Corps (as it was then), 14th. Aug. 1915. He later became Lieutenant (Aeroplanes and Seaplanes) Royal Air Force.
From December 1914 to August 1915 Lieut. Medlicott’s postings were: South Farnborough, No. 2 Squadron, B.E.F., Home Establishment, No. 2 squadron. B.E.F. He was mentioned in despatches on the 30th. November 1915 from the commander-in-chief of the British Army in France for gallant and distinguished service in the field.
On the 10th November 1915 Lieut. Medlicott was reported missing and later was stated to be a prisoner of war in Germany. The accounts of his attempted escapes have been given with some effort and detail above. In the official records the following report is inserted:
“Attempted (in company with Captain Walters) to escape from Bad Colberg, Germany and recaptured at Romhild. On way back to Colberg both again attempted to escape and were shot and mortally wounded.
“Died 21st. May 1918.
“(The deceased Officer was reported to have been buried on the Colberg Road near Milestone Halderg)”.
“He was mentioned in the London Gazette of 16th December 1916 for valuable services whilst in captivity and noted in the official records of the Air Ministry.”
The Author of “The War in the Air” says:- “What I say there (i.e. ibid. pp 151-2) is endorsed in a personal letter sent to me by Sir Edgar Ludlow Hewitt, written from the Staff College in 1926. He says:
“I remember being very impressed with the exploits of an officer in No. 2 Squadron, whose name was Medlicott. At the time when there was a certain amount of disgust at the superiority of the Fokker over our own aircraft, Medlicott shot down a number of enemy aircraft from his lumbering old B.E.2c. His success against superior types impressed us considerably at the time.”
Signed H.A. Jones.
Extract From “The War in the Air” Vol. II. Chapter III. page 151. (No official history of N0.2 Squadron was published.)
“…………….In the flights, now becoming common, over the trenches, the B.E.2c., although few claims can be advanced for its fighting capabilities, more than held its own. One B.E.2c. pilot, Second Lieutenant H.W. Medlicott, of No. 2 squadron, showed remarkable resource in many such attacks. On October 11th 1915, he was working with Lieutenant H.B. Russell as his observer near Vermelles, when he saw and attacked a German two-seater. He got into position under the German aeroplane to give his observer a clear field of fire from the front seat over the top of the propeller. After a sharp encounter Medlicott saw that his enemy was in trouble, and manoeuvred his B.E.2c to shepherd him towards the British lines where the German pilot eventually landed. The enemy observer, it was found had been shot in the leg.
Lieutenant Medlicott on the 10th of November 1915, with second Lieutenant A. Whitten Brown as observer, left on his B.E.2c. on reconnaissance to Valenciennes. Two other B.E.2cs. from the Squadron which went out to escort him ran into rain and snow and had to turn back. Medlicott went on alone but failed to return, and was later, with his observer, reported prisoner. It is in keeping with his character that on the 21st May 1918, in a determined effort to escape from Germany he was shot and killed. His observer survived to navigate the first aeroplane to cross the Atlantic. This flight, which won the £10,000 prize offered by the London “Daily Mail”, took place on the 14th/15th June 1919, the pilot being the late Captain Sir John Alcock.”
I have thought it right and fitting to give in as ample a form as possible the account of the war service of this gallant officer. That he was my kinsman (though I am proud of the blood connection) is not the essential point. His unswerving loyalty to his duty no matter what the consequences to himself were in the best tradition of British military service.
(Further details relating to HW Medlicott can be found on the feedback page.)