Archie Bowman

A Professor In Prison: The Story Of A WWI POW

Archie Bowman

In his latest book, Hamish Ross, who helped the Forces Network tell the story of SAS leader and pioneer Paddy Mayne, explores the unusual life of Archie Bowman. It gives an insight into a lesser-known aspect of the First World War – the experiences of those imprisoned behind enemy lines.

To pick up the book, visit Pen and Sword Books and enter the code ABFN25 upon checkout to receive a 25 percent discount off the regular retail price. 

Article by Hamish Ross.

When it erupted in late March 1918, the German Spring Offensive knocked the Allies completely off balance.

One of those caught up in it was Archie Bowman, a lieutenant in the 10/11 HLI (Highland Light Infantry). He found the April 9 order to surrender at what was, by then, the Battle of Lys, hard to stomach. He recalled:

“My vote was cast for a fight to the finish, but Mr Cuthbertson who was in command ordered the surrender. I do not blame him. He is a splendid fellow, and was wounded in two places. But to me the act of surrender was almost unendurable.”

Surprising words? 

Even more surprising is that they came from a man who wasn’t even a professional soldier. 

Just three years earlier, he’d been the Stuart Professor of Logic at Princeton University, in New Jersey.  

As a Scot in a neutral country, he certainly could have stayed put. But instead, he chose to apply for leave of absence to join the British army. Despite the new-born baby at home, Archie had his wife’s full support.

First World war
The SS Tuscania, on which Archie crossed the Atlantic with his family to Glasgow, where he joined the HLI (Glasgow University Archive)

Going off to war was not the result of some boyish enthusiasm. Years earlier, as a young assistant lecturer at the University of Glasgow, he’d spent summer vacations studying in Germany - in Berlin, Heidelberg and Leipzig. 

He’d become aware that the country was sensing its new industrial strength, and that there was a militaristic culture dominant in the civil service and in the universities. To Bowman, it foreshadowed war.

Preparing to do his bit, he joined the university’s OTC and, in July 1910, he was commissioned into the TA.

But his job intervened and, in 1912, he went to New Jersey to teach at Princeton. His academic habits were to follow him into the military, though not in the way he’d expected: 

“I (wanted a unit where I) could generally work up a genuine control over my men — a control based on mutual knowledge and respect.”

But the Army, with so many experienced personnel in France, needed men qualified for a training role. Because of his time spent with the TA, he fit the bill. 

In his civilian life he had taught only the academically minded; now, at the huge base at Catterick, he had a very different constituency of learners hailing from all walks of life. In other words, there were far more working-class men than he was accustomed to. 

Though, in the end, this proved to be a non-issue:

“I find soldiers a splendid audience, and enjoy lecturing them immensely. Altogether my relations with the rank and file are extraordinarily happy. When at the end of a lecture I put questions, the men respond with eagerness and intelligence that would surprise you.”

western front
Early military training, preparing men for trench warfare (Glasgow University Archive)
BEF British Expeditionary Force
Bowman, second row centre, with a group of training officers (Glasgow University Archive)

There was another cadre, though, that he had a low opinion of: middle-ranking officers drafted into service by the War Office. He called them ‘the curse of the army’. 

His boss, a major, was one of them. He had a Boer War ribbon and had been in the Boxer expedition, but his main aim was to avoid work and he welcomed Archie “with open arms because I can relieve him of the impossible task of lecturing”.

Panic ensued one day when word came that a general was to visit the battalion. 

At once the colonel ordered that every company be engaged in an activity during the visit.  Archie’s major proposed his company should be on a route march, but that was overruled. Holding off until the very last moment, as the general’s entourage was heralded, the major went to the colonel and Archie found that:

“…suddenly, without a moment’s warning, I was ordered to march the company off and lecture them. When I asked for a subject, I was told anything would do, but I was to draw some ‘damned diagram’ which would make an impression on the general.”

Having to improvise, Bowman was, naturally, very nervous…

“…but once I got started, I found I had every detail at my finger-ends — including figures — and the natural logic of the subject carried me from sequence to sequence… Suddenly the major’s voice rang out, 'Attention' and I had to pause momentarily while a misty cavalcade of senior officers filed in in a dreadful silence. I had a dim image of a grey figure in a gold-braided cap, and a voice instructing me to, 'Carry on’… all I know is that when I finished I was surrounded by a group of silent and attentive Tommies: but generals, colonels, majors, staff and other captains, and even subalterns had vanished on their rounds.”

British soldier first world war
Bowman with his son Ian before being sent to France (Lydia Bowman collection)

Bowman’s academic skills also came in handy whilst incarcerated as a POW. 

He once described morale at the balance of spirit over circumstance and, at Offizier-Kriegsgefangenenlager Rastatt, a POW camp in Baden, he clearly rose to the challenge of keeping his own spirits up. His correspondence with his wife Mabel shows just how he managed to make the most of the otherwise trying circumstances:

“I am in absolute topping form, and though a prisoner, am as busy as the day is long. Ever since I was taken I have acted as interpreter and intermediary between the English officers and the German authorities, and in that capacity I have a great deal to do here…”

For him, camp life meant dealing with any random issues that might arise up to and including interviewing the general in charge from time to time. 

Meanwhile, his regular duties normally consisted of: attending to the canteen whilst the day’s purchases were being arranged between English and German authorities; dealing with pay issues; and translating complaints. (He must have hoped that the Germans subscribed to the idea of not shooting the messenger!).

World war 1 prisoners of war
Rastatt Prison Camp in Germany (Bundesarchiv-Bildarchiv)

In many ways, being this busy presumably helped his morale. It’s clear from his earlier letter to Mabel, before regular correspondence had been established, just how much he cared for and had worried about her:

“If I only were sure that you knew by now that I am alive and well, I’d be positively happy. I long to hear from you and to know, Dear Heart, that the agony of your suspense is over. How much more awful it is for you than for me. Neither the battle nor the horrors of the succeeding night nor the imprisonment that now holds me can approach the sum of your sufferings.”

Bowman’s university background also made him a source of camp entertainment:

“The demands on me for lectures are simply enormous, and the appreciation of the men almost pathetic. They waylay me night and day with entreaties and offerings of thanks. I even get presents of food. Have lectured on Russia and Germany and twice on America, and practically everybody turns out to hear. I am also newspaper-translator, general authority for referring all such questions as the possible duration of the war. And when you consider that in our compound alone there are 600 to 700 officers all mixed up together behind barbed wire you can understand that my position here is no sinecure.”

world war 1 prisoners of war
‘All mixed up’: a hodgepodge of prisoners from Britain, France and Portugual (Bundesarchiv-Bildarchiv)

Bowman also took to chronicling his experiences. His account went from the initial bombardment at the battle of the Lys, to the ensuing action, the encirclement, the surrender and then the forced march on Le Fort de Mons. 

British soldiers called this prison the Black Hole of Lille, an ironic reference to the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta in which numerous British prisoners of war died after being stuffed into a tiny cell on the night of June 20, 1756. 

Bowman’s account was written in verse and published after the war as Sonnets from a Prison Camp. But this was almost lost when, without warning, on May 12, 1918, his notebook was confiscated and he was marched to a makeshift prison camp in Hesepe, Westphalia in north-western Germany.

He was back to improvising, lecturing on the German language, “on psychology without any books, on Shakespeare’s tragedies… (giving) a long course of philosophy… all without any books”, according to one fellow prisoner, the future Bishop of Southampton, Reverend Arthur Karney.

He also became chief negotiator when a committee formed to transport the POWs to a permanent camp. (They’d have perished in Hesepe’s makeshift conditions once winter came).

Throughout this process he formed an affinity with the camp commandant: Captain Hohnholz. 

As Archie later told Mabel: “The Commandant has been very kind & has exerted himself to recover my poems from Rastatt… I am deeply grateful… for his efforts and for his sympathy.”

He later reiterated his gratitude in the forward to his account of the war:

“It ought to be a pleasure to acknowledge generosity in an enemy; and I wish to express my indebtedness to Captain Hohnholz, Commandant of the Prison-Camp at Hesepe, to whose kindness I owe it that I am able to offer the sonnets as they stand for publication.”

It’s interesting to see that the chivalry between enemies that existed in the skies was also present in prison camps. It is reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s 1937 film ‘La Grand Illusion’, where aristocracy is the basis for a common bond between enemies; the real-life Bowman and his commandant connected as fellow academics - Hohnholz was a professor of history.

This is a theme that continued for Bowman beyond the war’s close. He found himself deployed with the British Army of Occupation and stationed in Cologne. German civilians wishing to travel into any of the other occupied zones had to complete documentation and present themselves for interview. Bowman liked the work:

“I am beginning to have more to do with the people themselves, and this is what I want. A constant stream of all nationalities passes through our office, with all sorts of difficulties and complications. In fact, it is about the best work I’ve had to do in the Army.”

He also saw the effects of harsh economic conditions that had beset Germany during the war, and that would damage it during the inter-war years:

“They cannot re-equip themselves owing to the exorbitant prices. The result is large numbers have to wear out their uniforms — removing the buttons and other distinctively military emblems. Since leaving Cologne in November, I see a very marked decline in the conditions of life.”

former POW
Bowman with his family after the war (Marjorie Stewart Collection)

When he finally returned to the US, he was troubled by the isolationism that had taken hold. But then there was a breath of fresh air - a letter from Professor, formerly Captain, Hohnholz. It read:

“…I would have liked to have had more scholarly discussions with you; I have often wished for that, especially since our academic interests overlap — you are a philosopher and I am an historian and economist.”

It continued:

“Perhaps fate is on our side and we will meet again! If you, and I am certain this will be the case, return to Europe and want to take your family on a ‘pleasure trip’ to explore the place where the camp stood, then write to me, hopefully beforehand and I will be your guide. You and yours can then visit my wife and me here in our home in Vergesack-Bremen. You would be most welcome!”

Further down, Hohnholz referred to the trying conditions in post-war Germany, the beginnings of which Bowman had witnessed:

“…as a former Royal Prussian Officer and for a man of my social standing and of my age, in the prime of my life, it is emotionally a difficult task for me to adjust to the dreadfully changed outward circumstances of my beloved homeland.”

Yet, despite the war, Hohnholz also appears to have been Anglophile: 

“As much as I greatly respect my homeland and its devoted people, I have always felt a deep admiration for the greatness of English (and American) culture. As a historian, I have had ample opportunity to present the imposing unity of British politics to other Germans. I have always endeavoured to show my admiration for English politics and culture. How great it is for a people to say: ‘Right or wrong, my country’ or, ‘Britons never will be slaves’!”

Returning to Britain and to teaching at his old university in Glasgow, Bowman felt it his duty, despite his not being a pacifist, to take up the cause of world peace.

But taking up the cause took too much out of Bowman. With his health declining, Bowman would never get the chance to reunite with Hohnholz in Germany - his last public address was in the town where he had been born 53 years earlier - Beith, in Ayrshire. 

He called the talk ‘The World Situation and the Cause of Peace’.

Soon afterwards he became very ill and, on June 12, 1936, he died at home in Mabel’s arms. 

The strong affinity that had built up between him and Hohnholz, and perhaps other former enemies, was soon lost – swallowed up by an enormous counterforce: the next Great War in Europe.

For more, read ‘Archie Bowman: Foot Soldier, German POW and League of Nations Man’ from Pen and Sword Books. For a discount of 25 percent off the regular retail price enter the code ABFN25 upon checkout.

First world war POW

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