Over three thousand Canadians were taken prisoner in the First World War. Prisoners were often subject to hellish conditions, being used as forced labour and subject to brutal punishments. Often men were denied access to proper medical care or even proper shelter. There was a strong desire to escape from prison camps and rejoin the fight but escaping from Germany to a neutral or allied nation was a near impossible task. Less then 200 Canadians were able to escape. One of those who managed to escape was Corporal John Dorman.
Originally from Ireland, Dorman’s family moved to Canada to escape poverty. They settled in Saskatchewan, where Dorman spent much of his youth. When the First World War broke out, Dorman was twenty-four and decided to enlist in the Canadian Army. After serving in Canada and England for over a year, Dorman was sent to France in late 1915. After nine months in France, Dorman was buried alive by a shell during a German offensive. He was knocked unconscious but regained it just in time to dig himself out, only to realize the Germans had captured his position. Injured and behind enemy lines, Dorman was taken prisoner and forced to march to a German POW camp.
Like most captive soldiers, Dorman longed for a chance to escape. In October of 1916, Dorman got his chance when he and his friends Corporal Holmes, slipped through the fence during the changing of the guard. Though injured, dressed as prisoners and unable to speak German, the two men evaded capture for five days as they headed for the Netherlands. Unfortunately, by the fifth day, Dorman’s wounds pained him so much that he was forced to surrender himself to the Germans. Dorman was separated from his fellow soldiers and kept under close watch. It was not until February of 1918 that Dorman got another chance to escape. This time, Dorman was healthy enough to flee the Germans. Traveling by night through woods and farmland, Dorman was able to reach the neutral Netherlands where he was able to board a British ship back to England.
Once in England, Dorman spent ten days discussing his escape with Allied command, providing intelligence on the state of Germany and the POW Camps. By that point, Dorman had been dealing with a large umbilical hernia for over a year, and was sent to hospital for treatment and recovery. Despite receiving an operation, the damage caused by having it go untreated for so long was too great to fix. Dorman was given a 30% pension. Dorman struggled to farm with his wound and eventually left Canada for Los Angeles hoping the weather would help. Dorman returned to Canada in 1924 to work for imperial oil, a job he was forced to quit due to his wartime injuries. Luckily, a colonel Dorman was friends with secured him a job as a bank guard which he held for three years before worsening health forced him to quit. It was after he left his job at the bank that a doctor finally diagnosed him with arthritis. The doctor believed the arthritis had been caused by the explosion back in 1916, but that it had gone undiagnosed as military doctors had only paid attention to the hernia. Although Dorman’s claim was supported by multiple doctors, his fellow veterans and employers, the pension board rejected his claim. Dorman, once a war hero, was forced to spend the rest of his life working as a janitor, with only a small 10% pension to compensate him for his heroism and suffering in escaping a German POW camp.
Click here to access John Dorman’s military service file at Library and Archives Canada