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.”