Amazing True Story: WWI POW Temporarily Released on Condition He Return

In 1916, Captain Robert Campbell of the British army was given two weeks leave, a fairly common practice even in time of war. The unusual part: the leave was granted by his German captors.

Wounded and captured in France in 1914, Campbell had spent two years in the Magdeburg Prisoner of War Camp when he received word that his mother was dying. With apparently nothing to lose, he wrote to Germany’s leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, requesting that he be allowed to visit her before it was too late. Amazingly, the Kaiser granted his request. There was one condition: he must return in two weeks. The only guarantee required was his professional word as an officer.

Campbell not only made it home, but also honored the agreement. He remained in prison until the war’s end in 1918. And while Campbell’s personal commitment to return is noteworthy in itself, it’s also amazing that the British army let him return. (Read the full Daily Mail article here.)

Campbell’s story certainly invites a few reflections:

1. WWI was marked, among other things, by modern advancements in weapons that enabled human slaughter on a scale almost unimagined up to that point. In some ways the carnage of that war represented the very worst that human beings had to offer. And yet, in the midst of this hellish conflict, the better part of human nature was not completely lost. This all points to the reality of what Blaise Pascal called the “greatness and wretchedness of man”: that humanity, though now deeply scarred by sin still retains some of his original God-given glory. Campbell’s story certainly illustrates this through his integrity and the compassion of his captors.

2. On a similar note, it’s always impressed me that history has no shortage of examples of warring factions voluntarily placing restrictions, rules, and obligations upon themselves as they conduct a conflict—limitations that are designed to preserve human dignity and worth more than to contribute to victory over the enemy. And often, violations of these rules—also common—are met with deep moral outrage. (Witness the current alarm over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against the country’s resistance movement.) This underscores the fact that human beings can’t escape their God-given sense of morality even in the often desperate times of war. Indeed, those fighting are often doing so under a firm sense of moral obligation.

3. One wonders if Capt. Campbell’s story is a fluke event or whether it more broadly reflects an era in which certain values were more common. In other words, are we less likely to see such commitment and compassion today in the Western world than we would’ve been nearly a hundred years ago? No doubt there are many virtuous people living now, just as I’m sure there were many scoundrels in 1916. But would such a thing even be possible in a modern conflict? And if not, what has changed? 

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