When dozens of German PoWs started compiling their stories about life in a prison camp in the Yorkshire countryside during the First World War, they could little have imagined that a century later dozens of people in the county would put years of work into painstakingly translating their words to bring them to a new audience.
But that process has just led to the publication of German Prisoners of the Great War: Life in Yorkshire Camp, the first English translation of the original book, Kriegsgefangen in Skipton, which was published in Germany in 1920.
The original writings – compiled by Fritz Sachsse, the senior German officer at the camp, and battalion commander Willy Cossmann, and involving contributions from more than 60 of their fellow prisoners – reveal both the harsh challenges of day-to-day existence, including a fatal outbreak of the Spanish flu, as well as some moments of levity – from their walks in the Yorkshire countryside and to a half-hearted escape attempt that ended in a local pub.
More than 100 years on, a collaborative translation of the original text, believed to be the most detailed account of life in a British PoW camp ever recorded, has been overseen by Anne Buckley, a lecturer in German and Translation Studies at the University of Leeds, who has also written a 10,000-word foreword to the new English translation to set the writings in context.
“It is a fitting parallel that 100 years later it is a collective effort that has produced the English version of the text,” she says.
“There are different voices in the German text and one of the challenges of the translation was to capture the different voices and characters of these men. Some were quite serious and others seemed quite good fun and someone you would enjoy going for a drink with.”
Buckley, who lives in Skipton close to where the Raikeswood camp was once located (the land is now home to a housing estate), first heard about the book in 2014 via her colleague Professor Alison Fell who was involved in the university’s Legacies of War project to mark the war’s centenary.
Staff at Skipton Library had told Professor Fell about an original copy of the book that was being kept in an old shoebox at the library.
Buckley’s local links and her German translation expertise led to her getting involved with the project, with translation efforts beginning in earnest in 2015.
“It became very clear this was probably the most detailed account of life in a British prisoner of war camp in existence.
“It really offers a new insight into the experience of First World War prisoners in Britain,” says Buckley.
“Before we started this work, the First World War camp was not known about by many people in Skipton at all. I didn’t know about it and I live around the corner.
“The interesting thing is nobody knows how long the book had been in the library or how it got there. We don’t know if it was sent by the Germans themselves.
“I’m not sure how well known it is that we had Prisoner of War camps in Britain. It is a forgotten part of local history.”
Around 30 people ended up being involved in the translation process, including a number of Leeds University students, some of whom have now gone on to become professional translators.
“This text was 100 years old, uses military slang and talks about concepts we don’t have any more like courts of honour,” Buckley explains of the challenges they faced. “It really wasn’t straightforward.”
Buckley was one of four editors who then double-checked the translations were accurate and consistent, working alongside university colleague Dr Caroline Summers and local experts Ada Whitaker and Alison Abbey.
Buckley took three months unpaid leave to work on the book, while her partner Triss Kenny combed through 48,000 Red Cross records to build up a database of the hundreds of prisoners who had passed through the Skipton camp.
The result of their collective endeavours to bring the past back to life is an account that is at once fascinating, enlightening, shocking and occasionally quite amusing.
The Skipton First World War PoW camp was one specifically for captured officers, who were afforded the privilege of going on regular local walks as long as they signed a temporary parole form promising they would not attempt an escape.
While such walks became commonplace, the first occasion was especially memorable when the elderly British officer accompanying them brought along a huge antique sword that reached from his shoulder to the ground.
“The first walk was particularly impressive in military terms because the accompanying officer had retrieved a huge sword from the armoury of his forefathers in order to defend us to the death,” the book recounts.
“The sword’s basket hilt was so large that it could not be worn at the side, It was therefore fastened to the hero’s left breast. Nevertheless, the tip almost reached the ground while the hilt protruded over his shoulder - a truly prodigious, awe-inspiring and terrifying murder weapon. Unfortunately, the bearer was a dignified elderly man, somewhat bowed down by the maturity of his years or the weight of his weapon.
“He brought the sword with him only once, probably because it became clear that the area surrounding Skipton was, after all, not as dangerous as had first been assumed.”
Their regular walks ended up allowing the prisoners to see local landmarks like the Norton Tower ruins and Broughton Hall and its authors remark they were greatly beneficial to the PoWs, saying “the varied beauty of this charming region delighted our eyes; the refreshing movement improved our posture”.
Buckley says one of the most eye-opening things about the book was the level of trust afforded to the prisoners.
“The officer class across Europe probably had more in common with each other than their own men. The gentleman’s word of honour that they wouldn’t escape was believed by fellow officers, even British fellow officers.”
However occasional escape attempts were made at other times from the camp. While most were stopped within minutes, in July 1918 two prisoners managed to evade capture for 16 miles - only to be captured when a landlady became suspicious after they stopped at a pub in Chatburn and pretended to be Americans.
But outside of the walks, the writings make clear that life as a Skipton PoW was generally a harsh existence.
Almost 1,000 Germans passed through the camp and hundreds were kept captive until almost a year after the war had ended as international negotiations took place about the repatriation of prisoners.
In early 1919, an outbreak of the Spanish flu hit the camp, resulting in the deaths of 47 prisoners after the people of Skipton refused to allow their treatment at the local hospital and with one doctor who did his best to provide a high standard of care to the prisoners reportedly being “called out to account” by his medical superiors for doing so.
The release of the men was delayed until October 1919 as international negotiations took place about the repatriation of prisoners.
“That was really hard for them because of the uncertainty and also not being able to provide for loved ones back home,” Buckley explains. “They were unsure how they would be received by fellow Germans as the Army had said anyone who allowed themselves to be captured should be treated as equivalent to a traitor or deserter. Those who weren’t professional soldiers knew they would be at the back of the line for jobs.
“There were mental health issues in the camp as time went on.”
In an indication of the mental strain the men were under, ten days before the camp was eventually shut one prisoner escaped and was found in a distressed state at Skipton railway station pleading to be put on a train to London.
The Raikeswood site had been used as a training base for the Bradford Pals but as with many such locations across the UK was turned into a PoW camp in the latter years of the war as a growing number of German soldiers were captured.
“The British started capturing Germans in large numbers at the end of 1917 and into 1918 and they needed somewhere to put them,” Buckley explains.
“There were 700 Prisoner of War camps in Britain in the First World War but only 18 were officer camps. At the non-officer camps, prisoners were made to work but the Hague Convention said officers don’t work and that applied to British officers in Germany as well.”
The final chapters of the book written by the German officers also provides an insight into the anger and disbelief they felt at the terms of the Treaty of Versailles following the war. Germany lost 13 per cent of its land and 10 per cent of its population as borders were redrawn – meaning when the prisoners returned home, some were no longer part of the German Empire they had been fighting for.
The book ends with a collective pledge by the soldiers to ‘Build the Fatherland anew!’ but as preliminary research into the stories of the men after they left the camp has revealed, what that meant in practice after the Nazis came to power differed greatly between individuals.
One former inmate Ralph Wenninger won military promotions under the Nazis and became the German Air Attache in London in the 1930s until the outbreak of war.
But Claus Lafrenz was removed from his office as a town mayor in 1933 after refusing to fly the Swastika and died in mysterious circumstances four years later.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Karl Plagge went on to save the lives of hundreds of Jewish people by issuing work permits to non-essential workers at a military vehicle repair factory he ran.
He was subsequently the subject of a 2005 book, The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews and was officially recognised by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, in the same year.
Buckley says the publication of the book is not the end of the research into the men kept at the Skipton camp.
“So many people have contributed to this work and it is carrying on because there is more to do. I would like to trace the families of the escapers because some of them sound like real characters.”
To buy the book or for more information, click this link.
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