Canadian History in the News: The past is always a part of the present. This blog series looks at current events and stories that have a Canadian history element to them and I offer my opinion on the subject.
Maj. Pete Anderson, his wife, Mary, and their children. Anderson is believed to be the only Canadian officer to escape from a German prison camp during the First World War. Provincial Archives of Alberta. [Source]
During the First World War, 3,842 Canadians were taken prisoner by enemy armies. Most made it home post-war, however scores died from pneumonia, typhus, and starvation due to the poor conditions and limited resources within the prison camps. Of these POWs only one man, Major Peter Anderson, managed to escape. The Edmonton Journal detailed his story earlier this month. This guy was a boss. Not only did Anderson bust out of the camp, he successfully travelled across Germany to get to safety in Denmark despite encountering German officials along the way. He also did all this while wearing his officer uniform. If that’s not enough after he got back to England, Anderson wrote a smug letter to the prison camp officers and then went right back to fighting for the Canadian Forces. So who was this guy and how exactly did pull off his great escape?
Major Peter (Pete) Anderson was born on the island of Funen in Denmark on April 24, 1868. He thought about immigrating to Australia, but decided to move to Canada in 1888 because he felt the country was “second to none in opportunities for a young man.” He ended up becoming one of Edmonton’s most successful businessmen before the First World War. Aside from establishing one of the biggest brick works in the city (Anderson Brickyard in Strathcona, South Edmonton in 1901), he was also a militia officer with the 101st Edmonton Fusiliers. When the war broke out, Anderson enlisted immediately with the Canadian Infantry 9th Battalion.
Anderson ended up having the worst 47th birthday ever; he was taken prisoner on April 24, 1915 during the catastrophe that was the Second Battle of Ypres. That battle marked the introduction of chlorine gas by the German army. Not only did the Canadian forces suffer major casualties, but it was the absolute worse battle with regards to POWs. Around 1,400 Canadians were taken prisoner that day. He was sent to a prison camp in Dresden, Germany, but Anderson ended up only being there for about five months. He was ready to bail along with some imprisoned Russian officers two months in, but he eventually realized they were all talk and no action, so he set about escaping by himself.
So how did he do it? According to his memoir, one September evening after the prisoners daily time outside in the yard was over, he hid inside a well while all the other prisoners went back inside. When it sounded quiet enough, Anderson lifted off the well’s heavy iron lid and quickly hurried over to where he had buried some of his personal belongings, including some money he had saved.
After he got his belongings, Anderson then had to climb over several high barbed wire fences and sneak past a number of rows of sentries who were armed with rifles and bayonets. Somehow he managed to stay hidden in the darkness despite electric spotlights shining all over the place. “The sentries can’t hear and smell like a moose and have no eyes in the back of their heads.” The escape took him seven long hours, from 6 pm to 1 am.
After all that Anderson spent the next five days travelling by night only and staying hidden during the day. He also made sure to keep away from the roads. He did not have a map with him, so he just kept walking straight. Eventually he was able to get his hands on a black raincoat, umbrella, and cap and was able to cover up his officer’s uniform. This enabled Anderson to now travel more freely with less fear of being recaptured. He still preferred to travel by night though. He bought a train ticket to Frankfurt, then one to Berlin, (“Gall, eh?” Anderson wrote in a letter to his friend). From there he went to Hamburg, followed by Flensborg. Once there he simply walked across the border into Denmark and was a free man. Authorities in Copenhagen helped him get back to England.
Anderson’s story of escape became famous at the time—partly due to the fact that he wanted to rub it in to the Germans. He wrote taunting letter to those in charge of the prison camp, calling it a “hotel” and saying the camp was fine, it’s just that there wasn’t enough “elbow room” for him, before detailing how he got out. He also made sure to mention that he “travelled by trains like a gentleman.” This fame led to him being received by the King and Queen when he was in England. Following that, he went straight back to fighting. He eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and went back to Edmonton post-war to raise his five kids with his wife, Mary Allen.
Front cover of I, That’s Me. The Memoir of Officer-Escaper Major Peter Anderson, DSO & Bar 1914-1919. CEF Books, Ottawa, (2009).
If you would like to learn more about Anderson, he published a memoir titled, I, That’s Me. It provides a more in-depth look at his time in the army, reveals his opinions about the war, discusses his efforts during Ypres, and contains the full letter that he wrote to the German camp officials. It can be a hard book to find, but fortunately it is available to read online here thanks to the Alberta Heritage Digitization Project.
Do you have any favorite POW escape stories from WW1 or WW2? Feel free to share them in the comments. Thanks for reading!
Anderson, Peter. I, That’s Me. The Memoir of Officer-Escaper Major Peter Anderson, DSO & Bar 1914-1919. CEF Books, Ottawa, (2009). Accessed from http://www.ourfutureourpast.ca/loc_hist/toc.aspx?id=4131
Canadian POW Statistics from Morton, Desmond, When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War, Random House of Canada, Toronto, ON, (1993). Accessed via “Prisoners of War,” at http://www.canadiansoldiers.com/procedures/prisoners.htm
“Lieutenant Colonel Peter Anderson” Canadian Great War Project. http://www.canadiangreatwarproject.com/searches/soldierDetail.asp?Id=80789
Zdeb, Chris, “Day in History, Dec. 4, 1915: Canadian officer wrote friend of his escape from German war camp,” Edmonton Journal. December 4, 2015. Accessed from: http://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/day-in-history-dec-4-1915-canadian-officer-wrote-friend-of-his-escape-from-german-war-camp