Who exactly were the German POWs (part 2)?

In this post Alan Roberts continues the fascinating story of the research into the German POWs held in Raikeswood Camp, Skipton in WWI.

The first part of this article was intended to provide information about the various prisoners’ identities which were contained within Sachsse and Cossmann’s book, Kriegsgefangen in Skipton. It also gave details about the victims of influenza epidemic of 1919, and made reference to press reports about escaped prisoners.

The British War Office did of course keep records of the German prisoners which it held in captivity. Unfortunately, as reported in the first part of this article, these records were destroyed in a bombing raid on London in 1940, so the search continued elsewhere.

Several repeated attempts had been made to access further details of the Skipton prisoners using the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) First World War website http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/. Each attempt had proved unsuccessful. The website promised access to a card index providing details of every single First World War prisoner of war throughout the world. It had been assumed that the Skipton cards had somehow not been uploaded onto the site. Finally a successful attempt was made. There is however a knack to accessing the information: the cards are not arranged in alphabetical order, but rather in phonetic alphabetical order as perceived by the staff working in Geneva. For example Cossmann would appear under Kos…, and Kretschmer would be found under Krez… Each card gives each prisoner’s first and last names, his date of birth, his rank and the unit in which he served, together with one or more reference numbers which might well lead to other documents. In addition there might also be further cards recording requests for information which had been made by the prisoners’ families. The original letters from the families were destroyed after the war. These cards could also provide the families’ addresses, information about what the families believed had happened to their loved ones, and the results of the Red Cross inquiries.

The other documents that could be accessed by the website turned out to be pages from the missing British War Office prisoner of war lists – copies of the very same lists that had been destroyed in 1940. As a matter of course these lists had been sent through to the Red Cross in Geneva. Furthermore having accessed one page on line, it was possible to proceed to the following page and in this way investigate the whole of each document.

The prisoner-of-war lists were published each week, and consisted of three parts: a list of army personnel, a list of navy personnel and a separate list of the effects and particulars of deceased German prisoners of war. The main lists for both army and navy personnel contain a unique identification number for each prisoner, each prisoner’s surname and first names as well as his date of birth. Other details given were his rank, details about the unit in which he served, his home address and place of birth, his place of internment, the date and place of his capture, and details of any wounds or injuries sustained.

In addition there are various appendices attached to each list and these concern transfers to other camps, any repatriations to Germany, or any transfers to Switzerland or Holland. They also cover, amongst other things, admissions into hospital or discharges from hospital, reports on the prisoners’ health and any deaths. The appendix covering transfers has been particularly useful in identifying prisoners sent to Skipton. Here each prisoner entering the camp is given a Skipton serial number. We now have an unbroken sequence of Skipton prisoners from Skipton no 1 to 354 with a total of well over 450 Skipton prisoners so far identified. The highest number so far noted is 989 recorded in March 1919, while the last arrival took place in August of that year. When a prisoner left the camp for any reason, such as receiving treatment in hospital, then the prisoner did receive a new serial number when re-entering the camp at a later date.

This use of the ICRC website was one of the routes used to identify that same Willy Cossmann who was one of the joint editors of the book. Cossmann, himself has frequently been misidentified elsewhere. Willy Cossmann was a theologian who had already had one book published prior to the war. He decided to enter teaching and taught at the grammar school in Spandau in Berlin, both before and after the conflict. Hopefully it will be possible to relate more about Cossmann’s career in another article.

In October 2016 Scottish Power announced the discovery of a German U-boat which they had found when laying electricity cables off the Scottish coast. The news was printed in several national newspapers and also broadcast on BBC television. The U-boat had been identified as UB 85, and the captain’s name given as Gunther Krech – a former prisoner at Skipton Camp. Krech later died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. No ICRC records could be found giving details of his arrival or, dare one say it, departure from the camp. Unfortunately there was a break in the ICRC records extending from April 1918 to April 1919 – quite a big gap when the camp itself was only open for 22 months.

The search continued elsewhere. Reports on two inspections of Skipton Camp carried out by members of the Swiss Legation were found in Foreign Office files held in the National Archives at Kew. The latter of these two inspections conducted in February 1919 gave the names of the two German Senior Officers, Major von Kleist and Major von Bültzingslöwen. The earlier report from February 1918 had given the name of the German ‘sanitary officer’ as Dr Gunther. A complaint about the alleged mistreatment of wounded German officers in transit from Dartford to Skipton in August 1918 revealed the names of Captain Kühlewein and five other officers. Finally there was an inquiry about parcels which had been sent to a Lieutenant Kretschmer, and which had still not arrived after several months. One might think that might not be unusual in wartime conditions. The inquiry had however been made by Kretschmer’s father who was himself the commandant of two prisoner-of-war camps near Cottbus in Saxony and which did in fact contain British prisoners of war.

Yet further information could potentially be revealed by another volume held in the National Archives. This time it was an Admiralty document entitled Interrogation reports of survivors from German warships and U-boats. This showed that an officer previously known simply as v. Recum who had contributed a short section to the book about the provision of a dentist (page 123), was in fact a captured U-boat officer. As if to prove that nothing is straightforward, he also had an English mother. The document itself will be studied much more closely in the very near future.

It should also be said that all the names given by the various contributors to the book were in fact surnames and not nicknames. While this article was being prepared the missing ICRC files had miraculously appeared on line, and so the search continues. The details of the German prisoners are not so much an end in themselves, but are intended to provide the basis for further study.

The last few days have seen some really exciting developments. The first photographs of the camp have been sent in by the descendants of one of the British officers who guarded the prisoners. Shortly afterwards a letter written by one of the prisoners was also received. It was really rewarding to tell the person who contacted us who exactly the author of the letter was, where he was captured and where he lived. Who knows his family may well be living in that same village in the Rhineland to this very day!

If you have further information about the German prisoners, then please do contact us using the details which are contained within this website. We are always keen to receive new information.

Alan Roberts

January 2017