The Man they Couldn’t Cage: How One Officer Escaped During Both World Wars

The Man they Couldn’t Cage: How One Officer Escaped During Both World Wars

D.G. Hewitt - February 16, 2018

During both the First and Second World Wars it was the duty of all captured Allied officers to attempt to escape. And many did, indeed, try to obey this unwritten rule. History books are full of tales of daring-do and audacious break-outs, often carried out right under the nose of the enemy. A few remarkable individuals even managed to get back home and return to active service. None, however, could ever hope to match Henri Giraud, who not only pulled off a great escape during the First World War but then went and repeated the feat almost three decades later at the height of the Second World War.

Not that anyone who ever knew Henri would have been at all surprised by his exploits. After all, if anyone knew all about escape and evasion, as well as about the duties of an officer in wartime it was him, a man who dedicated his life to serving his native France. As soon as his studies were complete, Henri enrolled at the prestigious Saint-Cyr Military Academy, France’s number one military school, graduating in 1900. With three years of classroom learning under his belt, Henri was posted to North Africa to help the Third Republic hold its colonies in Tunisia and Algeria, a posting that lasted 14 years.

The Man they Couldn’t Cage: How One Officer Escaped During Both World Wars
Henri steadily rose up the ranks of the French army.

Taken Prisoner for the First Time

In 1914, war broke out between France and Germany and Henri was called home. His country had capitulated in the spring of ’14, but by the summer its leaders sensed an opportunity to strike back. The Fifth Army was ordered to launch a counterattack against the German Second Army, led by the feared General von Bulow. Henri, who by now had been promoted to the rank of captain, was tasked with leading his troops, mainly made up of men from North Africa, on a bayonet charge across no-man’s land.

Charging head-on into machine gun posts in the hope of getting close enough to the enemy to engage them in hand-to-hand combat was, as leaders on both sides of the war would soon come to realize, nothing short of suicidal. Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming odds, in August 1914, Captain Giraud led his men ‘over the top’ and into the firing zone, where they were shot down in their thousands.

The Man they Couldn’t Cage: How One Officer Escaped During Both World Wars
The Battle of St. Quentin, where Henri was wounded and captured.

In all, the French army lost 10,000 men during those two days alone and many more were seriously injured, including Henri himself. Left for dead on the battlefield, he was eventually found by German troops and became one of 2,000 prisoners they took from this battle alone. Along with his compatriots, Henri was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp across the border in Belgium. Surely his war was over?

Given the seriousness of his injuries, not to mention the fact he had already been serving his country for more than a decade, Henri may have been tempted to sit the rest of the war out. He’d certainly ‘done his bit’ for France. But the career soldier in him wanted to escape, and, thanks to a certain nurse, he didn’t have to wait long for a chance to give his captors the slip…

The Man they Couldn’t Cage: How One Officer Escaped During Both World Wars
Nurse Edith Cavell helped Henri escape into the Netherlands. The Independent.

The First Escape

Working in his camp was Edith Cavell, a British nurse who had come to realize she could do more than help prisoners recover from their injuries. By the time Henri had been captured, she had helped establish an escape route from Belgium into the neutral Netherlands. Henri soon asked Cavell for her help and, sure enough, two months after he had been captured by the Germans, he had broken out of the camp and was on the run.

Getting across the border was no easy feat, however, and Henri was required to use every bit of his cunning to evade the enemy. Slowly but surely, he made his was across the country, adopting an array of imaginative disguises, from travelling coal salesman to a circus labourer. Eventually, thanks to his ingenuity and ability to improvise, he made it into the Netherlands from where he travelled to England to re-join his army-in-exile. Captain Giraud would go on to fight another day, leading the 4th Zouaves regiment in several campaigns on French soil. For the Edith Cavell, however, the ending was not so happy. The nurse’s secret work was uncovered by the Germans and she was executed in October of 1915.

The Man they Couldn’t Cage: How One Officer Escaped During Both World Wars
Between the wars, Henri returned to lead French forces in North Africa. The Liberation Trilogy.

The World (and Henri) Goes to War Again

While many of his countrymen demobbed as quickly as possible once the war was over, civilian life evidently held little appeal for Henri. In fact, while the “War to End All Wars” may have ended, his remarkable soldiering career nowhere near over. In fact, just three years after the ink had dried on the Treaty of Versailles, Henri was back in action, this time in Morocco. It was here where he was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest military decoration. But once again, his African adventures would come to an abrupt halt. His country needed him back home.

Appointed the commander of the Seventh Army, Henry – by now General Giraud – found himself in the Netherlands in the spring of 1940. Here, he was tasked with halting any German advance through the Ardennes and, once again, he was determined to lead from the front, which is why he embarked on a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines.

The Man they Couldn’t Cage: How One Officer Escaped During Both World Wars
The fortress where Henri held was reserved for the most difficult prisoners. Kempinsky Hotels.

The Second Great Escape

The French scouting patrol was captured on 19 May and Henri soon found himself up in a military court. While he was acquitted of charges of war crimes, he was to be held as a prisoner of war at Koenigstein Castle, a high-security location reserved for high-profile Allied officers or men with a history of escape attempts. Clearly, this time getting away wouldn’t be so easy, but Henri was prepared to keep patient and play the long game.

Locked away in his castle, Henri prepared his getaway. From his cell, he studied German and committed a map of the surrounding area to his memory. He also made a 46-meter rope from beds heets, copper wire and anything else he could get his hands on. Then, having informed his family of his intentions in a coded letter home, on 17 April 1942, he made his escape, lowering himself down the sheer cliff of the mountain prison to his freedom.

Using his mental map for direction, he traveled overland to a nearby spa town, blending in by shaving off his mustache and donning a traditional Tyrolean hat. Once there, General Giraud met up with an agent from the British Special Operations Executive who provided him with fresh clothes, some local currency and new identity papers. The rest was up to Henri.

The Man they Couldn’t Cage: How One Officer Escaped During Both World Wars
A freed Henri, far left, advises the Allied leaders in Casablanca. Encyclopedia Britannica.

His initial plan was to make it to straight back to his native France by train – no easy feat since the German army was on high-alert for a tall 61-year-old French officer with a distinctive limp. Nevertheless, Henri took local trains, sometimes hiding in plain sight. According to one legend, he once narrowly missed being caught by the gestapo when a German officer travelling opposite him objected to a routine check of passenger IDs.

On another occasion, he boldly went straight past soldiers posted at a train station, blocking out excruciating pain to run without a limp in a successful attempt to appear like an ordinary businessman in a rush. However, even the quick-witted General Giraud couldn’t disguise his height so was forced to turn around and abandon his initial plan when he learned train guards in France were under orders to question anyone six feet or taller.

It was time, then, for Plan B, the train to Switzerland, a plan which he would have pulled off without a hitch had it not been for the tight security at the border. Undeterred, Henri headed into the woods and crossed the frontier on foot. But even now, securely in neutral Switzerland, his ordeal wasn’t over. The Germans, enraged that their high-profile prisoner had given them the slip once again, leaned on Switzerland to hand him over.

Despite the Swiss refusal, Henri felt it safer to move on again, this time to France. Switching between vehicles, Henri managed to drive back to his native land undetected and wasted no time reporting back for duty. He didn’t even waste time celebrating his new-found freedom with his long-suffering wife, instead posting her a simple telegram which stated: ‘Business concluded, excellent health. Affectionately, Henri,’ – the exact same message he had sent her 18 years earlier.

News of General Giraud’s audacious escape – his second from the Germans – was used to boost the morale of the French nation. Indeed, so annoyed with the Germans that the Gestapo even attempted to assassinate him but of course, could never get their man. Their loss was to be the Allies’ gain. Giraud would go on to assume leadership of the Allied Army of Africa and was at the table when de Gaulle, Churchill and Roosevelt met for the Casablanca Conference in January 1933.

Henri’s remarkable accomplishments, which he recounted in two volumes of memoirs, were recognized by France after the war. Henri entered into politics, though he remained a man of action, keeping his seat on the War Council right up until his death in March 1949.