'My nerves conjured up soldiers everywhere'

14 May 2019 by Claire Hunter

John Mott

Lieutenant Colonel John Eldred Mott MC and Bar.

When John Mott was captured at Bullecourt in April 1917, he was determined to escape.

He wrote a hidden message in saliva in a letter to his brother and became the first Australian officer to successfully escape from captivity in Germany during the First World War, travelling more than 130 kilometres through enemy territory to safety.

His tale is told at the Australian War Memorial as part of the Great escapes exhibition, which features stories of Australians who attempted to escape from prisoner of war camps during the First and Second World Wars.

Exhibition curator Jennie Norberry said the exhibition features great escape stories of bravery, daring and luck.

“Luck played an important role in many escapes,” Norberry said.  “But not all escapes were successful; sometimes people got away, and sometimes they didn’t … A lot of the times prisoners were recaptured because it was not just difficult to escape from the prisoner of war camp; there was also the challenge of making it through enemy territory to safety.”

John Mott’s story is particularly remarkable.

Born in country Victoria, Mott enlisted in August 1915 at the age of 38. A captain in the 48th Battalion, he was severely wounded in the neck during the fighting at Bullecourt in April 1917 and survived alone for three days in the bottom of a trench before he was discovered by the Germans. He was taken prisoner and eventually sent to the British officers’ camp at Ströhen in Germany.

“We have a letter that he wrote to his brother while he was in captivity,” Norberry said.

“When it was donated, he explained that he had inscribed an invisible message to his brother asking for materials for the escape.

“It was achieved by writing with a new writing nib dipped in saliva, and then his brother Arthur – and this is the bit we don’t quite know because it’s not documented – knew to go apply a diluted solution of ordinary ink over the page to bring the message out …

“You can see where the wash has been applied over the top of it, but that’s the thing that is a little mysterious; how he knew to do it to look for the hidden message in the first place.”

Mott's letter to his brother
John Mott's letter to his brother.

John Mott wrote a hidden message in this letter to his brother Arthur.

The letter was addressed to Lieutenant Arthur Mott, of the Australian Flying Corps, and was sufficiently innocuous to pass the German censors, but between the lines Mott had inscribed his hidden message asking for materials for an escape and how to get them into the camp.

“Dear Boy,” Mott wrote. “Send me in a food parcel, and repeat occasionally, a small illuminated compass and a small light but efficient wire-cutter. If I don't get them in one parcel I may in another.”

He asked his brother to mark the parcels with a special symbol, as well as the articles the items were packed in, so that he would know where the materials were hidden.

“The Germans open all our parcels and we place the tins (unopened) in a locker in the tin room,” he wrote. “Then when we want anything out we select the tins and take them to a counter where the Germans open them. We are not allowed to take anything out of the tin room but in the tin room we can examine our stuff undisturbed. A cake or small tin of biscuits properly sealed would be a good thing to pack the wire-cutters in and the compass could be packed in almost anything. We are not confined to tins only but I think I can safely leave it to your ingenuity.

“I should like also if you can get them, small maps of the country within 100 miles of the Dutch frontier. If you get this all right I will be able to tell you a bit more, but if they find this out I will most likely get six month's jug. They have bayoneted three or four officers in the camp alone in the last three months. So long.”

“Mott was taking an enormous risk if he got caught,” Norberry said.  “But despite all that, he actually got away by stealing a key, and unlocking the gate.”

A signed studio portrait of Lieutenant Henry Chester Fitzgerald (left) and Lieutenant Colonel John Eldred Mott MC and Bar (later Lieutenant Colonel), the first Australian officer to escape from captivity in Germany.

A signed studio portrait of Lieutenant Henry Chester Fitzgerald, left, and Lieutenant Colonel John Eldred Mott MC and Bar (later Lieutenant Colonel), the first Australian officer to escape from captivity in Germany.

On the night of 26 September 1917, Mott and another Australian, Lieutenant Henry Fitzgerald, crept out of the barracks and used a key Mott had fashioned from a piece of steel plating to unlock the gate to the wire enclosure, all without rousing the suspicions of the sentries.

“The bedtime bugle was the signal to dash through the lines of sentries, laden-with packs and food, between the outbuildings,” he later wrote. “We reached a potato field, every moment expecting bullets from the guards … [but] there was no sign of pursuit.

“We hurried forward, floundering and falling in the black bog. Avoiding roads and farms, we covered miles and miles past sleeping villages. At daybreak we lay down in a wood exhausted, regardless of the rain.”

For the next six days, Mott made his way towards the Dutch border, avoiding roads and resting in the woods during the day to avoid detection.

"The guards at the prison had evidently sent out warnings, and we were twice almost recaptured,” he wrote.  “We doubled on our tracks, trudged along watercourses, and walked backwards to deceive our pursuers and dogs. Once we were surrounded in some brushwood, and our chance of escape seemed a million to one against. The wind rustling the long grass enabled us to crawl on our stomachs into another thicket. Then we cleared away, expecting at every cross-road to meet the guards. One night we awoke and heard the regular, soft thuds of footsteps nearby. They proved to those of a damned old cow chewing the cud.”

On the fifth night, disaster struck.

"Packing our wet clothes, boots and food on our backs in the darkness, we jumped into the icy water,” Mott wrote. “Half-way across we heard the cry 'Halt,' but did not heed it. We reached the bank, staggered forward and fell into a muddy ditch. We heard the sentries shouting as we rushed into the forest. I lost my dear old pal. I waited a long time for him, and I suppose he was recaptured.”

They had been spotted by a German bicycle patrol as they prepared to cross the Ems River near Schüttorf.  Fitzgerald was recaptured and spent two weeks in solitary confinement at Ströhen, but Mott was able to outrun the patrol and eventually made it to safety.

John Mott

Informal portrait of Captain John Eldred Mott MC and Bar (later Lieutenant Colonel), the first Australian officer to escape from captivity in Germany, taken the morning after he reached Holland. Captain Mott is wearing the clothes in which he escaped. The fence in the background is the dividing line between freedom and captivity.

“Having wrung out my clothes, I set off downheartedly through the lonely forest,” Mott wrote.

“Shivering with cold, I stumble in the blackness of the forest for two hours till I came to a sheet of water 250 yards wide. It was hopeless for me to try to swim it as I was weak from my wounds, which had not healed. I was unable to raise my right arm above the shoulder.

“I sat on the bank like a great kid, downhearted. After a rest I explored and found a narrow stretch. I jumped in and swam. My boots, which were on my back, floated off, but I recovered them. In trying to replace them I sank, and was nearly drowned. I took the laces in my teeth. Then the bundle slipped under my neck.

“At last I reached the bank, and caught the branch of a tree. Unable to raise myself, I lay in the mud until I recovered strength. When I proceeded I found that I was on an island, with another wide stretch of green, slime covered water ahead. I was overjoyed at finding a boat, and I jumped in, but found that it was chained and padlocked to a tree, and I was unable release it.

"Hopelessly I walked into the water but found it shallow, and waded through it to the other bank. Then felt that I was walking on air, for knew this to be the last of the rivers.”

He was now just three miles from the border.

“I stood all day swinging my arms and stamping my feet to minimise the cold and to help me forget my hunger, for my food had sunk in the river,” he wrote.  

“I hoped that for the last night there would be a hurricane, but it was clear starlight, and the slightest sound seemed like thunder to me. I took off my boots and crept the last two miles, stopping and watching for sentries, thinking that every bush was enemy.

“My nerves conjured up soldiers everywhere.”

He eventually slipped past the German sentries and bloodhounds, negotiated an electrified fence and crossed into the Netherlands on 26 September 1917.

Mott rejoined the 48 Battalion in the field in 1918 and received a Military Cross for his actions on 8 August 1918. He received a bar for his escape from captivity and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.

He died in England in 1933.

Great escapes is now on display in the Research Centre Reading Room.