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The Escape Artists

Prison breaks have an eternal fascination, especially if they involve Allied servicemen escaping from a German camp. Now, to rival Steve McQueen landing in barbed wire as he tries to flee the Nazis in "The Great Escape," Neal Bascomb brings us the true story of a more successful breakout, this one from World War I.

The similarities between The Escape Artists and Paul Brickhill's 1950 book, upon which the McQueen movie was based, are striking. The heroes are British or Commonwealth officers. Most had broken out of prison before, so the Germans had concentrated them in a new camp where escape seemed to be impossible. Both groups escaped through a tunnel, and in both cases it turned out to be too short. Both involved dozens of men, some of whom made the "home run" to freedom. And both got a movie, though "The First Great Escape" (2014), a British documentary, is little known compared with the fictionalized Hollywood epic of 1963.

Holzminden is an industrial town on the Weser River, halfway between Hamburg and Frankfurt. In 1913, in the countryside east of the town, the German army built a camp consisting of two barracks inside a high stone wall. Four years later, it became a prison under the control of Capt. Karl Niemeyer, whom Mr. Bascomb describes as "a tall, beetle-browed German officer smoking a cigar" who spoke a comical brand of American-accented English and was possessed of a savage temper.

"There was not enough food to eat and not enough fuel to heat the stoves," Mr. Bascomb says of the prisoners and their dire conditions, though of course the same was true of almost everyone in Germany toward the end of the war. Indeed, the officers in the camp, thanks to food parcels from home and from the Red Cross, were probably better fed than their guards. Another hardship, we're told, was that the "British enlisted ranks who were to serve as orderlies were just arriving." Ah, that a gentleman should be deprived of a manservant! In the end, Holzminden was home to more than 500 officers and 100 "other ranks" to polish their boots, tidy their rooms and do other chores around the camp.

The story is slow to unfold: Mr. Bascomb, the author of several other works of popular history, introduces us to Holzminden on page 95 and to the tunnel on page 135-but with the tunnel the pace and interest pick up. Twelve officers did the digging, while others forged identity papers and tailored civilian suits and German uniforms for the post-escape part of the plan. (The orderlies helped as well, since the tunnel began in the enlisted quarters.) The claustrophobia was awful for the diggers working 9 feet below ground, in an oval 18 inches wide and 14 inches high. (The dirt from the excavation was hidden in a chamber beneath some stairs.) The air was bad and the labor exhausting, often with a rat for company and always the chance of being buried alive. Progress of about a foot was about all that could be managed in a night.

The work seems to have begun in October 1917. By February 1918 the diggers (now numbering 13) were beyond the stone wall. By May they had covered 120 feet, obliging a digger to crawl 20 minutes to reach the face and even longer to crab back to the cellar, his air supplied by a friend pumping a bellows in the chamber beneath the stairs. In June the diggers believed that they had reached a field of rye where they could emerge unseen. But when they sent a probe to the surface, they were still 20 feet short. It was July 21 before the final gap was made good.

The 13 diggers were first in line for the breakout on the night of July 23-24, 1918. They were followed by dozens of other officers (the "ruck"), with each man's priority determined by the contribution he had made-but also by rank, it seems, since the camp's senior officer was first among them. This was Lt. Col. Charles Rathborne, shot down during a bombing raid on Freiburg. "Broad-shouldered, thickset, and of medium height," as Mr. Bascomb describes him, "Rathborne had soft features and a welcome smile." He also had his own plan for reaching the Netherlands.

Twenty-nine officers got out before the tunnel collapsed near the exit, forcing the rest to squirm backward the entire distance, in air increasingly drained of oxygen. Half-unconscious, the last men back were dragged by their heels.

The Dutch border lay about 120 miles to the west, but those who made the run probably covered double that distance, through forest and fields and bogs, swimming a river and a canal and avoiding towns except for the clever "madman" supposedly being returned to an asylum by his two uniformed guards. Averaging 10 miles a day, nine men completed the westward run and were welcomed as heroes by the Dutch. Nineteen were captured and returned to Holzminden.

Then there was Lt. Col. Rathborne, who headed south instead of west. Fluent in German, he walked to the university town of Gttingen and caught a train to Fulda, thence to Frankfurt, Cologne (where he got a shave and a haircut), and Aachen, before crossing the frontier into the Netherlands on foot. Before returning to England, Mr. Bascomb tells us, he sent a taunting telegram to Capt. Niemeyer.

Holzminden has since doubled in size, expanding north and east to surround the former prison. The original barracks are still there, with another between them, housing an armored battalion of German Army engineers. Roughly 180 feet to the east, there's a McDonald's restaurant not far from where the tunnel came out.

Mr. Ford is the author of " Cowboy: The Interpreter Who Became a Soldier, a Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam," published in May. This review appeared in the September 28, 2018, print edition of the Wall Street Journal as "Keep Calm and Keep Shoveling."

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