Who exactly were the German prisoners (part 1)?

One of our team, Alan Roberts, has been researching the German prisoners and the British guards. This is the first instalment of his findings:

Who exactly were the German prisoners (part 1)?

This aspect of the project arose from a simple desire to find out more about not only the officers and men who were imprisoned within the camp, but also about the British guards and other personalities who interacted with them. There will be another article focussing on the British troops at a later date. Some quite rapid progress has been made recently, and at times new discoveries are being made on an almost daily basis. We are however really keen to hear from other people from near and afar who may have information which may help us unravel the story of the camp and its inhabitants. Please use the contacts page which is to be found within this website.

The most obvious source of information about the camp is from the book itself. The two authors, or perhaps more accurately editors, Cossmann and Sachsse are remarkably coy about their own backgrounds. I suppose when compiling a book about captivity as a prisoner of war there must be a strong tendency to produce a list of heroic achievements, as if to somehow compensate for the indignity and shame of being taken prisoner in the first place. Remarkably the authors have resisted that temptation, and have restricted the war records of hundreds of officers and men to just four names.

These do include Sachsse himself. Along with another naval officer called Straehler, Sachsse was captured by a combination of British and Japanese forces while defending Kiautschou, a former German colony in China. Imprisoned in Japan both men escaped and after many adventures were discovered as stowaways on a ship sailing eastwards across the Atlantic. I really do not want to reveal too many details as someone will have worked hard at translating the text, and really the whole story is best read in its original context (page 120). NB. Online version of the book here: https://archive.org/details/kriegsgefangenin00sachuoft

Von Ledebur (page 120) was wounded fighting in German East Africa. Badly wounded he found his way to Skipton via Egypt and Malta. Several U-boat captains were imprisoned at Skipton, but only one, Wenninger is mentioned and his exploits only seem to merit just a single sentence (page 121).

A few other inmates have sneaked into the book. Nöhricke appears hidden in a poem about the distribution of parcels (page 49), and Zollner, one of the orderlies, organised a choir to sing humorous songs during Christmas 1918 (page 297). Duvinal is reported to have sung a song during the Christmas festivities at Colsterdale in 1917, but there is no record of him ever moving to Skipton (page 28).

A remarkably large number of prisoners contributed to the production of the book. We are told that there were 546 officers and 137 men imprisoned in the camp (page 231). Many of these provided illustrations, poems or pieces of prose. Six prisoners were named as poets, but some others wished to remain anonymous. 12 prisoners produced illustrations and almost 50 prisoners contributed pieces of writing which were included in the final text. Of course some prisoners contributed work in more than one area, and some contributed much more than others. Unfortunately prisoners only gave their surnames, or could some of them be merely nicknames e.g. Luckey (page 84)?

A further source of information was the list of victims of the influenza epidemic. This resulted in the deaths of 47 officers and men during February and March 1919. This list (pages 232 and 233) gives the surname, rank and unit of each of the deceased together with the name of the town in which each man lived.

Some of the deceased could be investigated more readily by virtue of the units or regiments in which they served. For example there were three U-boat captains, one U-boat engineer, and two pilots. One pilot was Franz Schulte who received some belated media attention when the Hindenburg flew over Keighley in 1936. There is also quite a strong U-boat fraternity and much helpful advice was received during the course of some initial online enquiries.

The Admissions Book for Keighley War Hospital (also known as Morton Banks Hospital) is available for inspection in the local studies section of Keighley Library. This book is a thick file containing handwritten details of each admission. The section concerning the prisoners of war is at the end of the ledger. Sachsse and Cossmann tell us that during the epidemic 91 officers and men from the camp received treatment for influenza there. In his booklet, Recollections of the War Hospital Keighley and its Auxiliaries 1916-9 the officer commanding, Lt. Col. William Scatterty records 105 German prisoners as receiving treatment there. However not all the prisoners came from Skipton camp, and not all were treated for influenza. One prisoner was recorded twice, and one was Belgian.

These records offer yet further details about the prisoners. Each patient was allocated an admission number. We have details of the unit or regiment in which each man served; sometimes the regimental number was also provided. We have each soldier’s rank, his first name(s), his initials and his surname. We are told his age, the ward in which he was treated, whether he was sick or wounded, the date of his admission to hospital and the date of his departure. For some patients the unfortunate result of the treatment received was recorded as simply ‘By Death’. Some of the prisoners had to return to the hospital for further treatment.

A detailed account of the influenza epidemic can be found in Sachsse and Cossmann’s book on pages 225 to 242.

Some of the patients recovered sufficiently to have their contributions included in the book. None of the deceased contributed to the book. This implies that material for the book was being prepared in the camp between March 1919 and the departure of the officers and men in October.

The British authorities would of course be expected to keep details of every foreign prisoner which it held in captivity. Unfortunately these records were destroyed by bombs which fell on the War Office records repository during World War II. Only two specimen lists survive in the National Archives and both are from the period before Skipton camp opened.

An escape attempt, which took place on Sunday, 30 June 1918, was reported in the local and national press (Craven Herald, West Yorkshire Pioneer and The Times) together with the names of the four suspected escapees. Further details will not be given here, but will doubtless be found on this website at a later date. After all who would want to spoil another good story? (See pages 112 to 114.)

 

‘The Craven Herald’ is a much-loved newspaper serving Skipton and the surrounding area. It was founded in 1853 and was one of the last 2 newspapers in Britain to feature a full page of advertisements on the front cover. It kept this format until 2009.’

This article continues in a separate section. Do persevere, as I have kept what are arguably the best bits till the end.

Alan Roberts

January 2017