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German PoW camp in the Dales finally gives up its secrets

Leah Stead from Upper Wharfedale School and Alan Roberts on the dig. Picture by Simon Hulme
Leah Stead from Upper Wharfedale School and Alan Roberts on the dig. Picture by Simon Hulme
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No-one in Skipton remembers, and few ever knew, that the boots of 900 captured German officers once thundered through the town.

Their footsteps were buried long ago beneath the foundations of the handsome stone semis and detached houses that make up the Raikeswood estate. But yesterday, their neatly-tended gardens began to surrender their secrets.

An archeological dig by historians and schoolchildren on their summer holidays unearthed the first concrete evidence of the wooden huts that once stood there.

It was beside the steps that run behind Clare Wycherley’s garage that the most surprising artefact was discovered. There lay the boundary of the prisoner of war camp to which the Germans had been brought exactly a century before.

On the other side of the wire, British officers stood guard. Which made the discovery of the head of a German Howitzer shell there all the more surprising.

Some hurried research drew her to the conclusion that it had been a souvenir of the British captors.

“That’s really the only explanation,” she said. “There’s no way a German prisoner would have been able to smuggle this into the camp.”

The Raikeswood camp was one of 500 or so to hold German prisoners during the First World War. “But this one was special,” said Robert Freeman, the project officer overseeing the dig for Craven Council. “It was one of only a few to hold exclusively officers.”

Anne Buckley, a lecturer at Leeds University, who has gathered and is translating diaries left behind by the officers, added: “There were 910 here in total, between January 1918 and October 1919. There were also around 120 non-officers who were basically their skivvies.”

Few in Skipton knew of the camp’s existence until the diaries were found in a store room at the local library. They will be published next year, but their discovery set in train a quest to learn more about what had gone on not far to the west of the town castle.

A field on the edge of the estate has been excavated during the last two summers and this week sees the first digs in what are now private gardens.

“We’ve had people offering up their plots up to us,” said Ms Buckley. “There’s just so much interest in what we’re finding here. And it’s wonderful that so many children are helping.”

Skipton’s selective education system means that pupils from the two grammars and the local comprehensive might not otherwise mix, she noted.

In Nina Wardleworth’s garden, a Wendy house and a tomato crop under glass overlooks the lawn from which fragments of brick and reinforced wired glass have been found. Her six-year-old daughter, Polly, helped dig them up.

“The centenary of the armistice will have a real significance for her,” Ms Wardleworth said. “She can now see a connection between the war and her own back garden.”

Ms Buckley said: “The story was lost. We want to write it back into the history of the town.”