The three Choat brothers were from Clarence Park, South Australia and they had all enlisted in the 32nd Battalion. The 32nd Battalion was amongst several which suffered terrible losses at Fromelles in July 1916. Raymond and Archie were both killed in the battle. On that same day, Wesley was taken prisoner, yet he eventually managed to escape by crossing the border into Holland.
Dulmen prison camp
Wesley turned 21 when he was in the Dulmen prison camp. It was the day they received clothing supplies to begin hard labour. This involved building canals.
Wesley wrote that they were constantly starving, only receiving the barest rations of bread each day. The prisoners supplemented their meagre rations by picking fruit from trees and raiding vegetable farms. There was one kind farmer he recalled;
‘A startling discovery, a good and kind hearted German. The owner or lessee of this particular piece of ground was at least human, and sent his little girl across to us several mornings at breakfast time with 30 carrots, or one each, which we ate and appreciated as if they had been some of "Cadbury’s best".’
Wesley and two other men: an Australian and a Canadian escaped from the prison, pretending to be Belgian workmen. They made good progress through the German countryside, managing to catch trains, fool station staff and local police. They made it within three miles of the Dutch border when a sentry demanded their passports. They were searched and a prison coin from Dulmen camp was found on them. They were sent back to the camp. They had managed to get so far without being caught due to Wesley’s grasp of the German language.
They then started to plan their next escape attempt;
“My mate had procured a descriptive map and railway timetable, which we studied in every spare minute. Our plan of escape was to form three parties of two each. Two parties now had a map each, but only one of them had a compass, so that one of them would have to go along as we did on our first attempt, but the weather was colder, and the sky quite overcast, and not a star shone for us. Had it not been for my small compass, I fear we would still have been in "Hunland." I had to make a chart, so made a small tracing on notepaper of Railways and Waterways and principal towns, in this way our preparations quickly proceeded.”
Wesley and his mate James (Jimmy) Pitts, set off into the night, walking into the town of Dusseldorf to the railway station. They purchased their train tickets. It was mid-winter. The roads were snow covered and frozen. Ten miles from the Dutch border they could see the lights from Dutch towns.
Four days after they left Dusseldorf, they were over the border and in Holland;
“Outside one of the houses, on the main road, were a number of vehicles, I guessed that whoever owned them would have a name and a town printed thereon, so I went across and found one of the few Dutch names I knew. Then it was that I was sure we were at last on friendly Territory. I noticed a boy open a door so straight away, went up to him and asked for a drink. He referred me to his father, who was not satisfied with giving us water, but took us into his kitchen and gave us a drink of good Coffee, which although cold was to us most delicious, it being the first drink of real coffee we had tasted for 17 months. I then asked him if we were in Holland? "Yes" he said, and asked, "Have you come from Germany?" I replied in the affirmative, and said "We are English," at which he grasped our hands, seemingly over-joyed that we had been successful in our escape.”
Finally arriving in England at the beginning of 1918 Wesley and Jimmy were welcomed by the British military. They,
“received a cup of tea and sandwiches, then a corporal led … us to the Area Officer who gave us a hearty clasp of the hand, and a warm reception generally. His first words were, "I suppose you know there is no more France for you."
A mother's plea
Wesley’s mother, Alice wrote to the Department of Defence pleading that her son not be sent back to fight in France after his extraordinary escape. She had lost two sons and couldn’t bear to lose a third one. Her husband was ill and she had three younger boys she was struggling to support;
January 11, 1918
To the Secretary, Defence Department,
I received kind permission to place my petition before you by this day’s mail, No. 64283.
Oh kind sir, if it be possible I beseech you to allow our son Private Wesley Paul Choat No. 68, A Company, 32nd Battalion to be put in some (safe) corner on home service in England, or anywhere as long as he is safe, but Sir, I do implore you not to send him back to the Front. Please. Considering he was seven months in Egypt and then in the Battle of Pozieres, and then wounded and Prisoner since July 20th, 1916, now escaped and his two brothers Raymond and Archie were also killed in action on that same 20th of July 1916. They were good boys to us and used to do all that lay in their power to help us.
My husband is far from strong and I fear he will quite collapse if Wesley be sent to the Front again. I am not strong myself, I have to help with the housework, our boy 18 years has had much sickness and many Drs bills, the next boy, 13, has had meningitis and pneumonia three times, then there are two little ones, one eight and one seven, but if you could promise us the safety of Wesley, and we could feel that he would some day come home, to help us and look after us, we shall be so very thankful to you dear Sir,
I remain yours very respectfully
In 1920 Wesley was awarded the Military Medal;
In recognition of gallant conduct and determination displayed in escaping or attempting to escape from captivity…”
Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator, Research & Discovery
*National Archives of Australia, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920, Series No. B2455, Barcode: 3245275
Happily it was agreed that as Wesley was an escaped prisoner of war, he could be sent home to Australia.