Unearthed after a century: Remarkable story of forgotten PoW camp in the Dales

THEIR MEMORIES, like their footsteps over the Dales, had been lost in the winds of time.

Anne Buckley with the book of memoirs by German PoWs in Skipton. Picture: Simon Hulme

No-one in Skipton remem­bered, and hardly anyone ever knew, that the boots of 500 cap­tured German officers had once echoed down the high street.

It might have remained forever a closed chapter, but for the book of memoirs they left behind. Abandoned for a century in a shoebox in the town library, it opens a window on a wartime world of men far from home and of locals who likely had never seen a foreigner.

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Raikeswood, to the west of Skipton Castle, has for decades been a housing estate. But before the land was cleared in the 1920s it had been an army base.

Surviving pictures of the First World War PoW camp in Skipton

The soldiers who made up the Bradford Pals, the 16th and 18th Battalions of the West Yorkshire Regiment, were trained there. When they had been sent off to the Somme - 1,770 of them to die in a single hour - they put up barbed wire and shipped in enemy officers taken prisoner on the western front.

“Until the book was discovered recently, virtually no-one knew that there had been a First World War prison camp in Skipton,” said Anne Buckley, a lecturer at Leeds University, who is now helping to piece together its history. “There is lots of information about the experiences of British prisoners of war in Germany but very little about Germans here,” she said.

What her team is learning now comes largely from the 330 pages of diaries, sketches and poems the Germans smuggled out of Raikeswood. They were published in Munich in 1920 but no-one knows how a copy found its way back to Skipton.

Although the British were in charge, they appeared to accept the “word of honour” of the Ger­man officers that they would not try to escape, Ms Buckley said.

Surviving pictures of the First World War PoW camp in Skipton

“They were allowed to go for walks. At one point there were 150 men on the moors at Embsay,” she said.

“Local interest was quite high. The Germans spoke of an elderly guard with a sword over his shoulder and gave him the nickname of dragon slayer.”

She believes the officers wanted to document their captivity to show that they had used their time productively, for the benefit of the Fatherland.

“They knew that people were starving back home, Ms Buckley said.

Surviving pictures of the First World War PoW camp in Skipton

More than 900 men passed through Raikeswood. The first arrived in January 1918 and it remained occupied until October 1919, 11 months after the Armistice.

A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund will now help finance an English translation of the memoirs, as well as a web diary and an interactive model of the camp,

“Many people in Skipton know about the Second World War PoW camp on the other side of the town, but hardly anyone had heard of this,” said Rob Freeman, a project officer at Craven Council.

An archeological dig on the one part of Raikeswood that has not been built over, has produced uniform buttons and barbed wire but no trace of the old huts.

Surviving pictures of the First World War PoW camp in Skipton

“There were six huts in that field alone,” said Mr Freeman, who will oversee a new, week-long dig next month, with an open day for amateur excavators on August 6.

• The memoirs of the Germans held captive reveal intimate detail about day-to-day prison life during the First World War.

In one extract, translated by a team at Leeds University, an officer tells of his realisation that 1918 would not bring a longed-for end to the conflict.

He spoke of word spreading through the Skipton camp “like the twitching of an animal in the throes of death”, adding: “What if now it has all been in vain, even this spring’s final struggle?

“One army, one empire. How the tables could still turn.”

Another memoir tells how a camp song at Christmas “lets us forget our plight and glimpse a brighter future - the return home.”

Surviving pictures of the First World War PoW camp in Skipton
Surviving pictures of the First World War PoW camp in Skipton