Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The British Character

The British take great pride in the stoic perception of their national character. This has recently been given attention in BBC's latest documentary series 'Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip - An Emotional History of Britain'. (For US readers, this may be available on BBC America.) The series wittily traces the emotional history of the British, and how they came to develop their characteristic sangfroid. Personally, I have always found it well and hilariously presented in the Zulu War scene from 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life', in which British officers go about their daily business while savage hand-to-hand combat rages around them. In my current research on the life of FW Harvey, I have come across a great, but little known example of the British national character. In this story that national character works well for British soldiers, and mis-perception of it worked against their enemy.

Lieutenant Harvey spent the end of the Great War in a POW camp, having been captured while conducting a reconnaissance of German trenches (self-admittedly underestimating the risk) alone on 16 August 1916. The following anecdote is from his post-war book Comrades in Captivity:

Lieutenant Harvey, DCM

On arriving at Gütersloh I was told [by a German officer] that from this camp only one officer, a Russian, had ever succeeded in getting 'away and over.' The prisoners, and especially the Russians, said the interpreter, frequently tried, but were always caught and punished for their foolishness, in addition to getting restrictions put upon the freedom of the camp generally. The Russians were particularly foolish. The French also occasionally so... 'And the English? I inquired. 'Ah, they are good - so - like sheep.'
It would probably have surprised the insolent Hun to learn how at that time certain of the sheep were patiently engaged night after night in driving a tunnel from under their fold, a tunnel which would, when completed, be sufficient to liberate half of the camp. (Harvey, pp. 52-53)

Indeed, the book goes on to describe how the British prisoners were constructing a tunnel of nearly the same calibre of that used during 'the Great Escape' at Stalag Luft III during the next war, all under the guise of being 'sheep' and playing by the German's rules. This included using bed-boards to build tunnel supports, a garden-hose ventilation system for the tunnel, distributing sand with special cloth tubes hidden in one's trousers and casually spilled out on the earth above, stockpiling of civilian clothing, and many other ingenious techniques which would awe the general public when depicted in 'The Great Escape' over half a century later. Unfortunately, the British prisoners were moved to another camp before the tunnel could be completed. Liberation of half of the camp may have been overstatement, but the tunnel certainly would have allowed a large number of prisoners to get away.

This is a lovely example of this British stoicism. While their foreign friends make attempts to escape based upon spur of the moment opportunities, but with little planning, the British 'get on with it' and patiently and methodically work together for the greater good. When the British prisoners were informed that they were to be moved, it was decided after much debate to hand the tunnel over to the Russians who would remain. Many officers argued that after having been perceived as 'sheep' for so long that it would be a blow to national pride not to attempt to use the tunnel in desperate bid for escape, even though its terminating point was only now just outside of the wire and directly in view of the sentries. But again, British stoicism prevailed and after a vote the decision was made to 'lay aside all personal and national ambition for the sake of "the Cause".' (Harvey, p. 135) Upon arriving at their next camp however, the British wasted no time in beginning tunneling operations anew.

This example fits well with the idea that in times of adversity, the British are likely to carry on unperturbed by their hardships, with little outward show of bravado, masking a deeper capability to overcome their troubles with hard work, discipline, and not a little bit of a 'stiff upper lip'.

Source: FW Harvey, Comrades in Captivity: A Record of Life in Seven German Prison Camps, New Edition (Coleford: Douglas McLean Publishing, 2010) [Originally published in 1920 by Sidgwick and Jackson]


  1. Fascinating story. Would these activities then go on to inform PoW training for WWII? In other words, is the plan so similar to the Great Escape because it was based on the attempt at Gütersloh?

  2. That is something that I have wondered about Ben, and may become a theme in my research. I have no evidence as of yet to draw that connection, but I think there are two possibilities. One is that the WWI escape stories somehow made it to WWII officers, who then mimicked those same techniques. The second is that in order to conduct an escape via a large and deep tunnel, then one must overcome the same obstacles as those in the past did, and would have similar tools available to do so. So the later escapes may have been similar due to independently inventing the same techniques and tools.