Reviews by Poiema

'Brother Bosch', an Airman's Escape from Germany

by Gerald Featherstone Knight

My knowledge of WWI is shallow, so shallow in fact that I did not realize that the reference to "Bosch" in the title was a derogatory term used by the British to describe the Germans. "Bosch" or, alternately, "Boche", is a slang word from the French. Loosely translated it means "head" or "cabbage", and so came to be associated with the idea of pig-headedness or stubbornness. Thus, when the Brits desired to put the "kibosh" on the enemy, it meant they desired to stop or squelch them.

I love learning history via first-person accounts, and Gerald Featherstone Knight has an exciting story to tell. He is winsome in the telling, somehow managing to make the adventure a huge romp rather than a grim war story. By turns, he is both humble and proud. Humble, when recounting his own feats relating to his escape from a German prison camp, but proud when speaking of his English heritage. He has a very obvious sense of superiority over the Germans, often expressed humorously:

"..we reached Hanover and were marched off through some of the main streets to an unknown destination. The town is all right; it is the people that spoil it."

"The Germans put an illuminated Christmas tree in the dining hall, but unfortunately counteracted their display of good feeling by decorating the large portraits of the Kaiser and Hindenburg, who stared down at us from the walls and quite spoilt our already nasty food."

As you might ascertain from those quotes, the humour is typically British: subtle sarcasm that "jabs" the enemy. I am quite sure that Mr. Knight's humour just might have been his saving grace, being one of the weapons in his arsenal to keep despair at bay and ultimately deliver him mentally unscathed in spite of harrowing circumstances.

The author's prison camp escape required a long journey, mostly traveling by night and hiding in the daylight. He swam canals, took refuge in hay stacks, endured the elements, and suffered privation. Here he gives the recipe for eating the last of his rations:

"I sat down and dissolved my last Oxo cube in a mug of cold, greenish canal water. The meal is prepared as follows: First suck your middle finger until it tastes clean, then stir the Oxo until it is dissolved (this usually takes about half an hour). Before drinking the concoction it is necessary to remove any dead fishes that may be floating on the surface, and also make certain that none of the Oxo is wasted by remaining underneath the finger nails."

Ultimately, his surreptitious journey and its accompanying miseries ended when he crossed safely into Holland. In the final account, he gives a nod to God's role in his escape, but even God does not escape his humour:

"Of all my escapes this was the most inexplicable. To what was it due? Certainly not to my own initiative alone. Man's extremity is indeed God's opportunity. Supreme in the world of red tape, far above the ken of misguided mortals, lives an omnipotent being--the Censor. In imagination, he sits in a huge armchair, wreathed in tobacco smoke, casually sorting, from piles of manuscript, the sheep from the goats. The former are destined to be smothered in official stamps and coloured inks, while the latter are cast ignominiously into the gigantic waste-paper basket. Though this little sheep, in particular, may have a little of its wool shorn off, I trust that it may eventually avoid the rubbish heap."

I suspect the sensibilities of some modern readers might be offended by Knight's racial superiority, but if you can forgive that fault you are in for a interesting read. This is a short memoir, less than 100 pages. It is a human adventure story that merits the time it takes to read it.

Reviewed on 2011.05.06

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