Robert Campbell: Captain’s Honor, Kaiser’s Trust, and Son’s Love

When you think of a prisoner of war, or a POW, naturally you think of bleak and hard living, tough guards, and an uncertain future. Being a POW is no joke and certainly not something any soldier would ever want to experience. For Robert Campbell, a British Army captain in World War I, his experience was nothing like you imagine!

A promise can be strong and cannot be broken. Promises have ended love, started lives, and changed the world. And for a British captain, his promise made history. Captain Robert Campbell was captured by the Germans while fighting in France in 1914. What was rare was how he went from being a POW to returning home, only to return on his own to being a POW again. Captain Campbell marked his place in history for this strange situation as well as his strange willingness to return to Germany all because of a promise.

Captain Robert Campbell had already been in the British Army for eleven years when World War I broke out. Leading the First Battalion East Surrey Regiment, the captain was sent to the north of France to fight at the start of the war.

Becoming a POW

Only a week into fighting, Captain Campbell was gravely injured and captured by the Germans. After they treated him in a hospital, he was sent directly to a POW camp in Germany.

In World War I, between the years of 1914 to 1918, there were about 10 million civilians and military personnel who were caught and kept in POW camps. Captain Campbell’s story is not unique up until this point. What happened to him here happened to many, many people.

A Letter to the Kaiser

Two years after his capture, Captain Campbell received a message that his mother was dying of cancer. Upset, he wrote a letter directly to Kaiser Wilhelm II asking if he could return to Britain to see his mother before she died. It may have seemed like a long-shot, but he had to try.

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The Kaiser responded that Campbell may go home for two weeks to visit with his mother as long as he promised to return to Germany. The Kaiser had trusted that Captain Campbell would respect his word and his promise to return. And, even crazier, the captain kept his promise to return.

A Captain’s Honor

While it might seem extremely odd that Captain Campbell willingly left the POW camp only to return on his own terms, it seems even stranger that the British army would allow him to do so.

There seems to be no record as to why nobody tried to stop him from going back to the POW camp. It’s assumed that it was because he had to follow his word and a captain’s honor is held very highly. And perhaps it’s something we don’t understand in modern times, but this situation was even strange for the time period. One theory is that if he didn’t go back, no other POW could be granted the same leave.


The story was interesting after he went back to the POW camp. He and his fellow prisoners then spent nine months trying to dig their way out of the camp. They did make a tunnel that took them to the border of the Netherlands, but they were caught and had to return to the camp. He had to stay in the camp until the end of the war.

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POW Conditions

If we look at the conditions that Captain Campbell was living in, we may better understand the need to get out as soon as he could. But the issue is that historians don’t really agree on how the POWs were treated. Germany had over 300 POW camps for World War 1, and each POW was treated differently.

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There was still torture, denutrition, among other horrors of being a POW, but there was more as well. The Hague Conventions were signed in 1907 in Prussia and had said that POWs needed to be treated humanely, which explains the differences between camps.

The Double Standard

What makes Captain Campbell story even more remarkable is that it was not the norm at the time. In almost a mere circumstance, there was a German POW in England on the Isle of Wight. Peter Gastreich, just as Captain Campbell had, received word that his father was dying. He asked if he might be able to go see his father, but was denied.

The British prisoners of war department said that Captain Campbell’s circumstance was not a precedent. And if they had been consulted, they would not have accepted it. Just when we thought that would have been a little more civil, we are brought back to the reality that what happened with Captain Campbell was a one-of-a-kind circumstance.

After the War

At the end of the war, Captain Campbell was finally released from the POW camp. He left the Army in 1925 but joined up again when World War II broke out. After serving as the Chief Observer of the Royal Observer Corps on the Isle of Wight, Captain Campbell lived until the age of 81, passing away in 1966.

What happened to Captain Campbell? He was a “one-off.” There is no record of something similar happening anywhere else in history. The Army could have made him stay in Britain, but for some reason did not. This was just a unique story of a captain, a Kaiser, and a son’s love.

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While it is common knowledge that World War I had started with the murder of Franz Ferdinand, how Germany got involved is not always explained. Kaiser Wilhelm II was a good friend of Ferdinand’s and was upset by his death. He gave Austria German troops to use to track down the masterminds for the assassination. But the Kaiser did not keep tabs on them, sort of writing a blank check of to Austria to use against Serbia, where they thought the masterminds were. As a result, Austria made an ultimatum against Serbia which started the war. The Kaiser said if he had known what was going to happen, he would have never left his troops in the hands of Austria.