Remembrance Day: Penticton’s prisoner of war

100 years ago, on his escape attempt from a prisoner of war camp, Penticton soldier Harold Sidney Kenyon was spotted by a German sentry.

Penticton Museum and Archives Dennis Oomen with the sweater that was worn by Penticton soldier Harold Sidney Kenyon.

Penticton Museum and Archives Dennis Oomen with the sweater that was worn by Penticton soldier Harold Sidney Kenyon.

100 years ago, on his fourth escape attempt from German prisoner of war camps, Penticton soldier Harold Sidney Kenyon and his fellow escapee were spotted by a German sentry.

They were 10 yards from freedom when spotted and ordered to halt. Kenyon was able to make a frantic escape across the border to the Netherlands, but Private Phaff was unable to evade the Germans.

The heroic tale of the soldier’s multiple escapes still has a physical presence at the Penticton Museum and Archives, where the sweater Kenyon wore during his escape remains today.

The sweater was hand-knit by Private Gordon Mellest, a fellow soldier in the 29th Battalion using wool salvaged from scarves and socks sent by the Canadian Red Cross in 1916 to prisoners.

The sweater provided warmth and disguise during his fourth and successful escape.

A full transcript of the account of Kenyon’s escape also sits in the archives, entitled “Prisoner of War Story of H.S. Kenyon written by Interrogation Officer of the British War Office after the questioning of Kenyon in London, April 1917.”

Private Kenyon enlisted in New Westminster on Aug. 15, 1914 in 104th Regiment New Westminster Fusiliers. He went to England with the 29th Battalion, proceeding to France with that regiment, forming part of the 6th Brigade in August, 1915.

It was on the night of April 19, 1916 during the fight for the craters at St. Eloi, which the debrief describes as being “stubbornly contested” that Kenyon was taken prisoner. He was part the bombing section along with 100 non-commissioned officers ordered to occupy two craters and “took a prominent part in the fighting that ensued.”

The heavy German bombardment of artillery and trench mortars overwhelmed the 29th Battalion. The commanding Lieutenant saw any resistance would not amount to much, ordering all men who could retreat to do so.

Clogged with mud, rifles and machine guns became useless and the soldiers had only 24 bombs to hold back the German attack. Efforts to get the machine guns were bogged and reburied by the explosions of German shells “falling thickly around the party.”

As the German forces approached, soldiers crawled from shell-hole to shell-hole heading toward the rear lines. Disoriented by “concussion and shell shock,” 41 soldiers, including Kenyon, were taken prisoner.

The group of prisoners marched 15 kilometres to the rear of the German lines. In four days, the prisoners were given one slice of bread and one glass of water, eventually ending up at the German’s Giessen POW camp.

The prisoners were split into different employment groups and Kenyon, along with six other Canadian POWs, were sent to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week at an iron ore foundry.

“(Kenyon) complained bitterly of the brutal treatment from the German guards, who, he asserts, on frequent occasions knocked our prisoners down with the butts of their rifles on the slightest provocation,” the debriefing officer states.

Breakfast was coffee and six ounces of bread. Lunch, vegetable soup made with little meat (and eventually none at all). Supper was simply “soup.”

Kenyon’s first attempt at escape occurred at midnight on Aug. 18, 1916. Under the dark of night and relentless rain, Kenyon left the foundry, unobserved with the aid of a compass. Passing silently through a few small villages, he travelled by night and lay hiding during the day. Kenyon would be apprehended by two civilians near Hollenlimberg and escorted by Germans back to the Giessen camp, where he was imprisoned for 14 days for his escape attempt. After his sentence was complete he remained at Giessen Camp for three weeks before being sent to the town of Staoudt for excavation work.

Kenyon refused to work in the dreadful, rainy conditions “whereupon the (German) officer drew his sword and struck him.”

After five more days in cells with nothing to eat and no blankets, Kenyon was returned to Giessen, with three other Canadian soldiers, to stand before a court martial. Kenyon was put to work in an iron foundry. Finding the work “very disagreeable” Kenyon attempted escape again after three days, seeking freedom across the Dutch border.

Accompanied by a British soldier named Clifford of the Royal Engineers, Kenyon eluded guards on the way to his daily work in the early morning of Oct. 24, 1916. Making his way past a footbridge and barricade without being caught, he found refuge in nearby mountains. Following his previous strategy of travelling by night and sleeping during the day, Kenyon was caught on Oct. 28 and arrested.

Kenyon was again returned to Giessen and imprisoned.

Two days later, after returning to work, Kenyon made another bid for liberty. He made it past the town of Haltern before he was arrested by a sentry on a railway bridge 10 miles away from Holland.

Reportedly Kenyon’s escape attempts were not coming face-to-face with Germany’s finest.

“The type of German soldier detailed to guard the inland roads and bridges is a very old class of men, probably Landstrum, for the most part ignorant and easily outwitted,” The Interrogation Officer states. “This particular sentry searched Kenyon and found on him a map, a compass and other articles which he promptly returned. Had Kenyon been able to speak fluent German, he does not doubt that he would have succeeded in passing this sentry unmolested.”

Again he returned to Giessen. Kenyon and four fellow prisoners, knowing the conditions that awaited them at the labour camp, climbed onto a roof through a small opening where they lay in secret for three days. They survived off of other prisoners sneaking them hot soup.

At one point, a German officer told the other prisoners that their companions had been re-captured at Wetslaw, a small town 15 kilometres away.

“This caused considerable amusement among the other prisoners, who knew Kenyon and his confederates to be hiding in the roof,” the Officer said.

They eventually had to come down and give themselves up as bad weather and “vile” conditions had forced their hand. Before coming down they all agreed to “meet in London on April 1.”

Now closely watched by German guards on his arrival to Husten, Kenyon made his final and successful attempt of escape on March 12, 1917 in the company of Private Phaff, also of the 29th Battalion.

Through the window in a small store house, the two made their escape. Travelling at night and laying low during the day, they would meet groups of civilians “who all passed unsuspectingly.” They eventually arrived at the border town of Winterjkz in Holland.

Kenyon was met by Dutch soldiers immediately after crossing the border and was sent to Rotterdam along with three French soldiers who had crossed the border on the same night. Handed over to the British 10 days later, Kenyon had finally escaped to freedom. Nearly keeping the promise he made with his fellow prisoners, Kenyon arrived in England on April 1, 1917. However, he arrived at Gravesend and not London.

Penticton Museum and Archives curator Dennis Oomen found this to be a peculiar part of Kenyon’s story, as the neutral Netherlands were under no obligation to send POWs back to England and in fact were obliged to disarm and intern every military man. The Dutch were in a peculiar spot in the First World War, with the nation compromising to both the German and English forces in different ways.

“Kenyon, who is looking remarkably well after his many hard experiences, is now with his Reserve Battalion at Seaford,” the British Officer said.

The harrowing story is not the end of Kenyon’s legacy, which remains today. Kenyon was actively involved in the construction business for decades working on many projects including the construction of the United Church on Eckhardt Avenue and Main Street. He settled in Penticton post-war after making a trip here “by motorcycle over roads that barely were passable by horse and buggy,” states an article in the April 2, 1990 Penticton Herald honouring Kenyon after his death that year. He formed a construction firm which eventually became Kenyon and Company and was responsible for the construction of Penticton’s city hall, library-museum and the original part of the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre, retiring in 1960.

One of Kenyon’s 13 great grandchildren is Matt Kenyon, general manager of Greyback Construction, one of the oldest and largest family-run firms in the B.C Interior.

Greyback is the current iteration of the family business Kenyon founded after returning from war in 1937 as Kenyon Construction. Greyback was created by brothers and Sid’s children Doug and Larry Kenyon in 1983.

The story has been passed down through generations and Matt was once able to read the firsthand account in the form of Sid’s personal journal.

“He had a diary of the whole thing, I read that at some point too, it was pretty crazy,” Matt said. “I didn’t really grow up around him so it was just stories that he was a good guy. (My father and grandfather) definitely all looked up to him for sure. Definitely had a lot of grit, probably why he escaped so much.”

As the centennial of the Great War continues until 2018, more artifacts from the area are on their way to Penticton.

The Royal BC Museum is bringing the British Columbia’s War exhibition to the temporary gallery at the Penticton Museum and Archives from January to May of 2017. For more information visit www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.