I found The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History by Margalit Fox on NPR’s Best Books of 2021 List. I found it listed under “funny stuff,” although I probably wouldn’t categorize this book that way myself.
This non-fiction story takes place during World War I, in a Turkish POW camp for British officers. We first meet Harry Jones. We learn how he joined the war, how he was taken prisoner, and how he came to be at the remote POW prison. Later in the book, we meet Cedric Hill, an Australian pilot who had practiced being a magician before the war and can make almost anything when he puts his mind to it.
The late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds was a heyday for spiritualism, and there were scammers having seances and pretending to get in touch with the deceased all over the world. The unrest and uncertainty of the war, along with great leaps in technology helped as well. If people could talk to each other across the world, why couldn’t they talk to the dead? Harry Jones made a Ouija board because he was bored, and he began to control it to trick his fellow officers and amuse himself.
At some point Jones joined forces with Cedric Hill, and the two continued to fake out their fellow officers. But then their captors showed interest, and the two began to use the “ghosts” to control their captors. Then they came up with an elaborate, long-term scheme to get themselves sent back to England.
This was a pretty fascinating tale. It’s hard to believe what lengths Hill and Jones took when convincing their captors of the ghosts, but it’s even harder to believe that the captors bought into it. ***SPOILERS*** The two had an amazing plan of escape, and if it had worked, they would have been nothing short of conquering heroes. However, their first plan fell through, so the two faked mental illness, spent months in a Turkish mental hospital, and were eventually sent back to England only a couple of weeks before the rest of the officers in their prison. Personally, I would have done the easier route and stayed in the Turkish POW prison until the end of the war. ***END SPOILERS***
One of the most striking aspects of this story for me was the incredibly disparate treatment between the soldiers and the officers. Ordinary soldiers were sent to a labor camp where the death rate was incredible. The officers all stayed in a couple of large, abandoned houses. It was crowded and could be cold, but they received a stipend and could shop for food in the town. They made skis out of floorboards and were allowed to ski around the neighborhood in the winter. They received care packages and letters from family–although the letters were often heavily censored and care packages rifled through. Their primary problems seemed to be boredom, a lack of purpose, and not knowing how long they would be stuck there. This book made me want to understand more how differences in class affected people in WWI. I felt like there was a lot there that was not explored.
On the whole, I found this book interesting and easy to read.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.