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Trail Blazers: Lest We Forget

Trail Blazers is a weekly feature in partnership with the Trail Museum and Archives
Remembrance Day services will take place from Rossland to Trail and the Beaver Valley on Saturday, Nov. 11. Photo: Unsplash

Quarantine Camp

Enchede, Holland

21 April, 1918

Sunday was day [sic] appointed for making our get away from that undesirable land and preparation was duly carried out on that day.

Toward evening the bars on the washroom window were tested and found to be not so strong as we anticipated but made an awful row.

After appell (roll call) at 7:30 we returned to our quarters near the top of a large stone building 4 stories high and waited for perhaps an hour and a half till traffic on road outside was stopped.

Meanwhile, the door was being but open by Phil while we kept watch or played on the doodle-sack to make a noise. After a series of bangs it opened, and we hurried down the stairs into the washroom.

We waited and watched there for about an hour then proceeded to finish off the windows. It took us a considerable time but the door came open with a bang and we slipped out into the square.

The guards being engaged in conversation by the cookhouse.

Cutting the wires was easily and quickly done and we were soon on our way from the formidable ‘Piesberg Steinbruch.’ The pace at first was more or less terrific, till we had crossed the canal running from Osnabruck to Bramche when we slowed down to a forced march pace.

We, as our luck was, struck a moor road in our direction. On this we made excellent progress and covered a few kilometers before daylight reminded us to find a hiding place.

This was easily done being at the time in open moor.

The place we selected was a small clearing of trees by a swamp. Chef at once produced gruel and we ate heartily on eggs and bacon. The day passed as days do…and in attempts to sleep with exception of toward evening when we were observed by a farm laborer who evidently mistook us for other farmers and wanted us to return with him.

He was about 300 yards away.

At last he gave up waving to us and went off alone much to our delight. The following night we started off at about 8:30 along the same road which led us to the large canal which runs between the two rivers Ens and Weser.

Crossed this and with a little maneuvering struck a road that led us in the desired direction – north west. On this we followed nearly all night till some glaring lights stopped us and we made a detour.

The next hour’s walk was wasted as we had to retrace our steps as fast as we could beat daylight. We did it and got settled down in a very poor spot for our day’s rest. However like the previous day, we were unmolested.

The next night was not so good, as roads always led in the wrong direction.

We got along thought and not so bad considering the obstacles, meeting people, etc. I think though we made as the crow flies about 10 kilometers. We were landed in the morning in the worst country I’ve seen for some time.

Pasture land with about 2 feet of water covering it. Lakes everywhere. I stepped off the road and went to my neck.

No cover seemed to be had so we struck out on the moor. There to find no cover in the waft of trees so we set to work to make cover. This done, chef produced as usual the gruel.

Toward morning we found ourselves in a large newly cultivated field in which we had to constantly watch our compass to keep from going in circles. Day break brought us to its edge, a small plantation of pines in deep heather. A beautiful spot for hiding.

A place to move about in without being observed was what we always looked for. The sun came out and we spent not too bad a day. Being on the edge of a wood allowed us to start a little earlier than usual so at about 8:15 we were prepared to make another advance toward the better land. For a good half the night we followed wood roads and made good progress, halting occasionally for a few minutes rest.

Later on we got on lower country which was almost impossible to across country, swampy and pasture lands with about 6” to 1’ of water all over it so we stuck to roads, one leading us in a westerly direction which was now what we were traveling. I think we were observed once during that day but no one came to see us.

We had to recline all day as to sit we were exposed. The sun dried us out and we fit as ever to tackle our next obstacles which we know were the canal and river.

The evening started it. Half an hour after starting we were wading knee deep through marsh land, falling in holes and all sorts of disagreeable things. But the spirit was there and we trudged along soon to find ourselves by the railway showing on our map. Crossed this and with some difficulty succeeded in crossing a deep ditch full of water which brought us alongside the canal. Here we were confronted with how to cross it. Frank and I rustled a few sticks which we thought would float our clothes but when we had spent an hour doing so found our raft would hardly float itself. So dressing again, for we had already undressed, we abandoned this idea and proceeded to go up the canal to find something else. About two hundred yards from us lay a large canal boat with a small boat attached to the end of it. This we immediately were bent on having, Phil, getting into it cautiously and started cutting the rope. While waiting a phantom rose from the canal boat, a man’s head and shoulders and after a short pause disappeared again. When I gave the order to beat it Frank and I went up the bank like wild cats and shortly after we heard Phil bounding from the small boat. We went down the canal. Phil went up thinking we had gone in that directions, so there was great fear for a while we had got separated. However, we went up the canal and met Phil strolling down to find us, informing us that he had been up to the bridge he had previously crossed and found one on it. So after considerable encouraging I consented.

Phil was so confident it was safe that he offered to cross it first and if captured to warn us. It must be remembered that my two previous attempts to escape had been foiled in crossing a bridge so I wasn’t easily to be led to one now. Phil led boldly on and we found nothing to hinder us. We also found that if we had swam the canal we had an almost impossible count travel in, as we crossed two others and numerous large ditches which meant swimming all of them. I might tell you when we found we could not cross the canal the first time our spirits were not very high, but now these obstacles over we felt like new men and decided to lie up in the first good spot we found. Phil, knowing the country, found for us the desired spot and we settled down satisfied with our night’s work. The day was very disagreeable. The morning it poured rain but lit up toward noon and by evening, we had our effects fairly dried out.

The next evening or the same evening, we had to start later than usual being close to a village which we knew to by lying close to the river, the bridge over which we intended to avoid. So about 10:30 we were again en route bearing south to strike the river a half mile or so from the bridge. About ¾ hour brought us to is, where we paused for a short time to ascertain as to whether the other side just discernable was patrolled or not. Being too dark to see much, we decided to get over. So we collected a few sticks for Frank and I to use as a hand rest, put our coats and jackets in our sacks and were ready. Our boots being tied around our necks. Phil was in first while we waited anxiously to hear him stop swimming. Some hard splashing and some puffing told us he had reached the other bank. So in we got, pushing our skiff in front of us. The current bore us downstream a little but didn’t hinder our progress very much. I had about half the float, the small half, which caught the current and was detrimental to my progress. Frank, who was near the end of course being downstream got his end too far forward and finally abandoned it altogether leaving it to me. Being diagonal with the small end nearest the shore we just left. So I was pushing it against the stream. I thought it was going to be the ruination of me in my attempt to get it turned completely around, which I finally did, swimming on my back with my pack under water. Still splashing, I touched mud and with an almost superhuman power, drew myself from the water about ‘all in.’ Phil and Frank awaited me as anxiously as we did when Phil made his debut.

No time was lost. Wringing our clothes and putting our boots on we hurried away from the river with high spirits. Winding our way over plowed fields for a considerable distance until we struck a road which led us through a small village. Took our bearings and took the first road leading that direction but gradually dwindled and finally left us wandering. How we should have crossed this country without this road I don’t know, as it was nothing but lakes. Finally we could find no trace of a road and the fern started. It was almost pitch dark and the ground full of great holes where peat had evidently been cut out years before. Everywhere was spongy and every hole we stepped in. Frequently was the call of help heard from behind, returning to find Frank with one or two feet stuck in some hole. ON we went. First Phil went splash in some hole. If I missed, Frank found it for me and I found another one. On, still on. The falls in pits and holes were too numerous to remember. Many a laugh have we had since over the same night. There was nothing in sight but moor and bog.

We struggled like this a good part of the night. Later on we struck more even ground, though no dryer. It was just like a sponge with a little heather. About this time, we sighted trees on our right front. Dawn was breaking and could see the holes now. Considering whether we should like up or not, we finally decided we should take the chance of reaching the trees which stood in front of us. For the next hour and a half we travelled as fast as we could, striking the trees we had in view when it was quite light and found a spot with no trouble. Making a good bed of heather we got down for the day. The clouds hung low all day and threatened rain. We were soaked to the skin and dried out only what the heat dried out. Sleep was almost out of the question but we passed the day without a murmur, knowing we were close to our goal. The following night, our final one, was started on about 8:30 and had no fear being seen in this desolate land. Again we struck water and much not for long, now taking a due north-west course for the frontier. This lasted for an hour or so, crossing a small patch of cultivated land. We once more struck out and our troubles again started. Stumbling along, we observed a light to our right and shortly after struck our last canal. Crossing the road, we weighed it up and found it to be a small one, retreating again. Just in time. We saw a light coming down the road toward us. Crouching down in the ditch alongside, waited till it passed. Getting our overcoats in our sacks again, we were ready. The light again appeared coming back, so we climbed the bank and retreated a short distance waiting till he had gone by as before, getting down again. Frank plunged in and was over. Phil next and I last. It was done easily and we were in a few moments again across. The same country was in front of us. And stumble we did. But these were mere trifles considering our big prize.

So we plowed on. We stuck to the right at a row of trees that were not far, following it for a while. For the next while, the country was gradually changing, full of big ditches and sort or pasture land. Being fooled so often by following these waterways to find a crossing, we decided north-west was the only way and on we got. None of them taking us higher than the thighs. I am sure we had to get through dozens of these small canals.

At last we struck a line of trees. Just as we approached it, struck another large stream or ditch. It took considerable time to get over this one, about 10 or 15 minutes. Got on the patch between the trees and passed quick by, over and out into the field.

I get anxious now when I think how we hesitated there by those trees. Although there were no guards there, we were almost certain it was the border so quickly drew away from it. Having a few more canals to cross we at last struck a road going north.

So we decided to take it and turn westward as soon as we could. Nothing could tire us now, with our good idea that we were over the dividing line. It was hard to Phil to see the road. He was mistaking trees for men, etc. There was a drop in the road in front which of course Phil found. We followed this road for a long way, striking a small village with a road running at a right angle to ours. This we took.

We again judged by the neatness and cleanliness that we were at our goal. I tell you we felt fine and ate a bar of chocolate while we were going along…

Bilson and his mates made it to Holland and eventually to England by May 1918.

He left Liverpool on June 22 for Canada and was officially discharged from the army on Oct. 29, 1918, in Vancouver just prior to the end of the war.

He returned home and carried on a productive, influential, and full life in Trail.

To read Bilson’s letter in full visit:

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