Top critical review
The Great Escape and More
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on June 26, 2021
"The Confidence Men" by Margalit Fox is a fairly thin read. The true story of two British prisoners of war in a Turkish POW camp during World War I is subtitled, “How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History.” And so, perhaps, it was, in a manner of speaking. Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill, two British POWs, spend months convincing first the other prisoners and then their Turkish captors that they could commune with supernatural spirits “beyond the living.” What begins as an entertaining diversion for their fellow prisoners gradually evolves into a plan to escape to freedom. Eventually even the Turkish camp commandant becomes involved when the two men promise that they can locate a treasure for him using the help of spirits that they converse with.
After endless schemes, planning and creating a plot too complicated for any Hollywood movie, Hill and Jones eventually convince the enemy doctors that they have jointly lost their minds and should therefore be released home. Instead, Jones and Hill’s entire elaborate plot to escape the prison camp and return to Allied lines ultimately lands them in a Turkish insane asylum in Constantinople. After being incarcerated there for six months, the two are finally released by the Ottoman government as war casualties, to be repatriated.
Was it worth it? Did they actually “escape?” Did all the planning; the knife-edged dangers, discomforts and genuine physical illness that they faced so that they could return to Allied lines pay off for them? Or was it all for nothing?
What they gained was little.
Hill is dispatched to England (before Jones is) on a British hospital ship on November 1, 1918—only 10 days before the General Armistice is declared ending World War I. Earlier, the defeated Ottoman Empire signed the Armistice of Mudros with Great Britain on October 30, ending the war between the two nations. It took effect the next day, October 31, the day before Hill’s sailing.
In addition to Hill and Jones’ adventure, Fox devotes perhaps half of her book to the histories of magic tricks, séances, Ouija boards, and other forms of supernatural entertainment. Her book is a fairly good primer on the arts of persuasion, techniques that stage magicians, con men, politicians and other illusionists use, together with an extensive look at psychological elements that cause people to believe whatever an “influence technician” wants them to. (These parts may be especially relevant today in helping explain why so many Americans, despite absolute proof to the contrary, still desperately believe that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Donald Trump.) However, while often interesting, these lengthy sections have little to do with Hill and Jones’ story except as background. They probably could be in a separate publication. It would be an enlightening read.
Finally, Fox makes several attempts to apologize for the “Orientalism, essentialism and racism that pervade many British memoirs of the period.” In this, she apparently wants to convince her readers of her own, modern, “woke” views while condemning men of a completely different age. In some places in her book, Fox is like a ballerina dancing through a minefield, being careful to assure her readers that she is no fan of Rudyard Kipling-style sentiments, still less of the British Empire. Fox displays a lack of empathy with the incarcerated British soldiers and airmen. They, after enduring incredible hardship in the primitive, deadly prisoner of war camps, were understandably unlikely to be especially “PC” about their Turkish guards in their memoirs.
Fox’s book is, to some extent, a retelling of Elias Jones’ original, first-person account, "The Road to En-dor: Being an Account of How Two Prisoners of War at Yozgad in Turkey Won Their Way to Freedom". A paperback version of the 1919 original was printed in 2014. Thus, you can read The Confidence Men—or go to the original source.