[Paul Collins is founder and editor of The Collins Library, a project dedicated to the reprinting of unusual, out-of-print literary works. The most recent title, To Ruhleben — And Back, follows the adventures of Geoffrey Pyke, who, as a teenager in 1914, convinced a London newspaper editor to let him travel to Germany as a war correspondent. Captured by German troops, Pyke was imprisoned at Ruhleben, a German internment camp, from which he eventually escaped, making his way home to write this travelogue at the age of twenty.]
[Paul Collins is currently on tour in support of his memoir, Sixpence House, which recounts his time spent living in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, known as the “Town of Books.”]
Modern sentry-going, as the reader probably knows, does not follow the old system in its entirety. With the possible exception of one cordon, the guards do not walk up and down, but stand perfectly still, their bayonets ready, listening. This I surmised would be the case here. I had evolved, during the course of two months, two especial methods of crawling, one which I called the crab-crawl, by which one could proceed in one direction, and yet keep one’s eyes fixed on a sentry in any other. The second method, which I dubbed the caterpillar method, had sheer speed, combined with a modicum of invisibility, for its purpose, and depended on lifting the knee at a certain point in the movement. I had practised these openly in sight of the whole camp, and had said they were part of a system for the curing of weak heart of a Dr. Sörgersund, a Dane, whom I invented.
Following the first method, we moved off very slowly, our boots hanging from our mouths. It will be a long time before I forget the precise taste of boot blacking. I know that as we went slowly on, the boot would sometimes drag against something on the ground, and I would feel that the blacking was getting mixed with the sweat which was streaming down my face. It was vitally important that we should arrive clean, for I had heard of a Russian officer who after escaping had been caught, merely because he appeared somewhat dishevelled. Suddenly I saw a light. “The little man with the dog,” I whispered. “Run!” We risked the fifteen extra sentries and, changing quickly to the caterpillar method, simply raced on hands and knees as fast as we could go.
It was a false alarm. We spent close on two hours crawling about two hundred yards. We had purposely described a large semicircle, and had now arrived in line with the race-course. Near here we knew there was the road we were aiming at. As we were about to get up on our feet a huge fence of wire-netting surmounted by the usual barbed wire arose out of the darkness. For five minutes we lay perfectly flat, not even whispering, both waiting to see if it was guarded by a sentry. Then we got up, and my friend climbed on to my back, and, putting his feet into the interstices of the wire, climbed over. The agony of listening to the noise he made, and his pitiable appeals to me, when my turn came, not to rattle the wire so frightfully, is one of those hundred incidents that can be left to the imagination.
Now we moved along fast, almost at a run, for the sentry, if there was one, was now behind us, and, though we were showing up dangerously against the sky-line, we stood a fair chance if he tried to shoot us through the fence. We had hardly got out of earshot when we found ourselves opposite another fence, the biggest we had yet come across. It was something worse than tall. Instead of having the barbed wire on the top of the poles, the former was carried on brackets that leant backwards at an angle of forty-five degrees. As I was the taller, my friend got on to my back, and, with a great deal of difficulty, got over, and dropped softly to the other side. It was then my turn. I pulled myself to the top, but could not get my leg over the barbed wire. I had to let go.