401659 Pte. Alexander Oliver was born in Jedburgh, Scotland, on 4th October 1896, and was one of three known children born to William and Agnes Oliver; the others being Agnes in 1899 and Margaret in 1900.

Records show that Alex, a 14 year old Message Boy, sailed with mother Agnes and just one sister, Margaret, from Glasgow to Boston, USA, on the SS Numidian, departing Scotland on May 11th and arriving in the US on May 21st 1911. They were to join William, who had previously travelled to the US, arriving into Ellis Island in August 1907. He was already living in Oregon, Ogle County, Illinois, USA, when his family finally followed him in 1911.

It increasingly looks like Alex specifically travelled to Canada to sign on with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, as he transitted from the US to the port of Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, in September 1915. He was an 18 year old engineer by the time he signed on in Sarnia on 7th September 1915.

Initially assigned to the 70th Battalion, Alex was transferred to the 33rd Battalion on 28th October 1915, which sailed for England, leaving Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the SS Lapland, in early Spring 1916.

After training in England the Battalion was shipped to France, whereupon they were transferred to the 4th CMR on 8th May 1916. Alex and his fellows joined the 4th CMR in the field on May 28th.

Alex would have gone straight into the thick of it as part of the 3rd Canadian Division, with the 4th CMR taking up positions in front of Armagh Wood, in the infamous Ypres Salient within a day or so. To their immediate left were the 1st CMRs, then the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). To their right was the 1st Canadian Division, with the 5th Battalion Infantry Brigade in touch with their immediate right flank. Thus, he was poised to be part of the 4th CMR's darkest day, on June 2nd 1916, when the Germans opened up an offensive on the 3rd Canadian Division's front, focussing their fire power on the 4th and 1st CMRs' front lines at Sanctuary and Armagh Woods, near Zillebeke, south-east of Ypres.

That morning some 192 men of the 4th CMR lost their lives in a murderous barrage that went on for five hours. After mines were sprung under the 4th and 1st CMRs at 1pm, waves of German soldiers poured over land that had been tilled flat and rendered defenceless by, to that time, an unprecedented storm of bombs and high explosives. Alex clearly and miraculously survived the initial attack unscathed, but was not in a position to fall back to the reserve line, held by the 2nd and 5th CMRs at Maple Copse, when the call came. He, and 349 of his comrades, were taken as POWs.

Initially reported as missing on June 2nd, it wasn't until official communication from the Germans was received, listing prisoners taken in June, that he was officially reported as a POW being held at Dulmen in Germany on July 11th.

From there Alex was sent to a camp in Münster in October 1916, where he remained for nearly all of the remainder of the war, for he daringly escaped on 2nd November 1918.

Australian researcher Darren Prickett takes up the story:

In November 1918, after over two years as a POW, Alex was working at a camp at Bergeborbeck, a northern borough of the city of Essen, Germany. There, he made the acquaintance of two Australians, 1057 Private Edward John Amy, 29th Battalion, and 1973 Private James Frank Bayes, 32nd Battalion. Both of the Australians had been captured on 20th July 1916, during the Battle of Fromelles.

The trio started planning an escape and obtained a compass, a map, and a small amount of German currency. They also modified their prison clothing to make it look like civilian attire. At 8am, on the morning of 2nd November 1918, the trio left their barracks and, dressed as civilians, made their way to a nearby railway station. James Bayes spoke German well and he bought three tickets to Borken, which was less than ten kilometres from the Dutch border. At Borken, the men got off the train on side opposite to the platform and crawled under another train that was standing beside their carriage. They then crept into some nearby woods where they hid until nightfall.

That night, when darkness settled in, they set off in a north-westerly direction towards the Dutch frontier, which they reached at 4am the following morning. They removed their boots and crawled across the frontier, dodging a number of German sentries along the way. Once they were safely clear of German territory, the trio replaced their boots and continued their journey on foot.

They were challenged by a Dutch sentry who advised them to report to authorities at the nearby town of Winterswijk, north-west of Borken. As directed, they handed themselves in to the Dutch authorities at Winterswijk. From there, they were sent on to Didam where they spent the customary fourteen days detention in the quarantine facility. After that, the trio were sent to the British Consul at Rotterdam. From there, they were despatched to England, arriving at Hull on 17th November 1918.

What an amazing trek to freedom. The rail journey from Essen to Borken was some 45km / 28 miles, and the foot journey to Winterswijk, around 16km / 10 miles to the north-west.

After repatriation, due processing and medical attention on his return to England, and then following time spent at Rhyl M.D.2 in Wales, Alex was returned to Canada on the HMT Scotian, leaving Liverpool on 25th March 1919, and arriving back in Canada, at St John, on 4th April. He was demobilised in Toronto on the 6th, whereupon he returned to Oregon, Illinois, via Detroit, shortly thereafter. Latterly it is believed that Alexander became a truck driver and lived with wife, Helen, in Rockford, Winnebago, Illinois, where he was to pass away on 30th August 1946.

Biography credits:

Many thanks to Darren Prickett for the POW details, whilst additional family and service particulars were provided by 4cmr.com