Escape compass : Private H West, 51 Battalion, AIF

Accession Number RELAWM16503
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Personal Equipment
Physical description Brass, Glass
Location Main Bld: First World War Gallery: Western Front 1917: Prisoners of War/Gallantry
Maker Unknown
Place made Germany
Date made c 1917
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918

Compass with a brass body and glass top. The interior compass face is fitted with a floating arrow and is marked in graduations of two degree increments, with every twenty degrees marked in black numerals. The German abbreviations for north, south, east and west as well as north-east, north-west, south-east and south-west are present.

History / Summary

This German compass was acquired by 2464 Private Hugh West during his time as a prisoner of war in Germany in exchange for food parcels.

West was born in Victoria in 1891 and was a miner on enlistment in Perth, Western Australia, on 21 July 1915. He embarked for Egypt aboard HMAT Themistocles on 13 October as a member of the 28th Battalion, 5th Reinforcements. He was taken on strength by 'B' Company, 51 Battalion at Tel-el-Kebir on 3 March 1916 and proceeded to France, disembarking at Marseilles on 12 June.

On 3 September, during a dawn attack against Mouquet Farm, West was hit in the back by a piece of shrapnel and knocked over. When he got up he found that his company had continued on to its objective. West then joined up with men from 'C' Company and captured several German trenches. West and about ten others were in one of these trenches when the Germans counter-attacked. Nine of the men were wounded or killed, with West and the remaining man taken prisoner.

West was taken to a billet behind the lines for two days before being taken to Cambrai where he remained for three weeks. He was then sent to Dulmen camp on 26 September where he stayed for two weeks before being sent to work in a stone quarry at Wulfrath. While at the quarry West became ill and was moved to Friedrichsfeld Camp at the end of January 1917. He stayed at Friedrichsfeld until the end of March when he was sent to Hiesfeld to cut firewood. West escaped from there on 9 June but was recaptured on the Dutch/German border by a German sentry on 16 June. He was taken back to Friedrichsfeld and put in a cell for fourteen days with only bread and water. He was then put to work at Walsum Paper Factory on 4 August.

On 9 September West borrowed a pair of pincers from a German sentry telling the latter that he required them to mend his boots. West arranged with Private Thomas Mullen, West Yorkshire Regiment, to escape that night at about 9 pm. West cut through the wire fencing around the camp and the men escaped. Just after they had got away the men met two German women who gave the alarm but as it was dark West and Mullen managed to evade capture. Using West's map and compass the men went north east until they reached the River Lippe then proceeded due North for the Dutch/German border, which they successfully crossed on 13 September. The men were quarantined for twelve days before arriving in England on 4 October.

West was then employed as a waiter in the Sergeants' Mess of the 13th Training Battalion, whilst his application to be discharged was considered. Approval was granted on 29 March 1918. He was discharged from 13 Training Battalion on 6 April and marched out to No. 2 Command Depot, Weymouth. He returned to Australia aboard HMAT Arawa on 15 September 1918 and was discharged on 10 November 1918.

West is thought to have been the first Australian to make a successful escape from a German prisoner of war camp in the First World War. He was duly awarded the Military Medal 'in recognition of gallant conduct and determination displayed in escaping, or attempting to escape, from captivity'.