Until recently, my other half and I lived on site at a boarding-school in deepest, darkest Dorset. When severe snowstorms hit last year, closing local roads and downing power lines, the world beyond the school gates was summarily shut off. Although electricity in the main building was soon restored, thanks to an emergency generator, the same was not true for those of us living on the fringes of the estate: and at home, I faced the prospect of a very cold twenty-four hours until power would return.
It seemed as good a time as any to tackle what remained of my stack of Christmas books, and so, bundled in an unlikely assortment of layers, complete with babushka headscarf and mitts, I reached for a clothbound reprint of Geoffrey Pyke’s To Ruhleben – And Back.
Published in 1916, the book was reissued in America in 2003 by the Collins Library, a project dedicated to the reprinting of unusual, out-of-print literary works. Part travelogue, part eyewitness account of one of Germany’s first and most notorious internment camps, it not only illuminates a largely overlooked moment in modern history but is also a gripping, at times darkly humorous tale told by one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic personalities. Pyke’s is a ripping yarn of imprisonment and escape across hostile countryside, and I could have hoped for no better material with which to while away the hours in frozen isolation.
The author was just 20 and a student at Cambridge when he approached the Editor of London’s Daily Chronicle with the suggestion that they might like to make him their war correspondent in Berlin. Uninspired by his studies and unfit to join the military, Pyke had decided that he would become the only Englishman to infiltrate the German capital. To his surprise, the Editor agreed, and by September 1914 the young adventure-seeker was travelling across Europe on an American passport bought from a sailor.
It was a journey that makes today’s
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