WORLD War One historian, Alan Roberts looks at how Skipton and its prisoner of war camp had close links with the battle of Cambrai in November 1917.

"Great British Victory - 8000 prisoners."

These headlines from The Times celebrated the British achievements at Cambrai on November 20 1917 – almost a hundred years ago.

After years where progress was measured in yards, finally there seemed to be a major breakthrough. The advance of almost five miles was considered a record at the time. The Craven Herald chipped in with "Hindenburg Line Smashed".

This news was all the sweeter because not only was the 62nd (West Yorkshire) Division in the thick of the action, but also because amongst their numbers was the 6th Territorial Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment recruited from around the Skipton area.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig wrote: "The attack of the 62nd (West Riding) Division constitutes a brilliant achievement, in which the troops concerned completed an advance of four and a half miles from the original front, overrunning two German systems of defence and gaining possession of three villages."

Writing within days of the battle, 29-year-old Lieutenant Douglas Carruthers, a Skipton officer serving with the Tank Corps, was euphoric about the day’s success writing:"Did we not give the Hun something to think about? The Boche came out of their catacombs and dug-outs with their hands up and our little crew captured about twenty of them and how many of them were killed with my Lewis gun I don’t like to say."

Tanks had been used before with mixed results. This attack had been planned with the tank very much in mind. It was on firm ground not been damaged too much by shellfire and was to be a surprise attack, secrecy being vitally important.

The preparations had been taking place for weeks under cover of darkness and by day everything had to be returned to normal lest an inquisitive German plane spotted anything amiss.

And it almost worked. Two days before the battle Lieutenant Hegermann led a raid on the British lines capturing six men.

When questioned they revealed that a major British offensive was about to begin, but they did not know exactly where and when.

The commander of the German division was in a difficult position. His superior officers did not believe an attack was likely and refused to give him the necessary support. Furthermore there was precious little time. All he could do was to urge his men to be extra vigilant.

And Hegermann? His own account of the raid and the subsequent battle has recently been discovered in an archive in Potsdam near Berlin.

Around a hundred tanks advanced on his position crushing the barbed wire as they went. The weapons and ammunition his men were provided with proved incapable of stopping the tanks.

Hegermann himself was captured and eventually transferred to Skipton Camp. He was one of 73 officers and men taken prisoner that day and sent to Raikeswood.

That was yet another record. Many of the prisoners were captured from units immediately opposite the West Yorkshire Division. It is highly likely that soldiers from Skipton were involved in the capture of German officers who would later be imprisoned at Skipton.

And the other prisoners? 20-year-old Lieutenant Erich Dunkelgod was a prolific artist and drew many of the illustrations that feature in the diary the German prisoners kept about their experiences and is being translated buy academics at Leeds University. Willy Cossmann, one of its editors was captured the following day.

The British Tommies were exhausted after the day’s fighting. They had to spend a cold rainy night huddled under their groundsheets, and had to go again the following day. Progress was slower. The element of surprise had disappeared.

The Battle of Cambrai heralded the dawn of a new form of warfare where the advantage lay with the attacking forces. Fewer casualties were suffered for each yard of land captured, but the totals were still in the tens of thousands for both sides.

Private Edgar Greenwood of Skipton wrote home, "I have been wounded in the back just below the shoulder and I am expecting coming to Blighty soon… I got buried by a shell, but was got out in a few minutes by comrades. My pal, a Normanton lad, got hit in the leg and I helped him back."

Then there were the less fortunate ones who were killed from Bolland Street in Barnoldswick and Damside Cottages in Skipton, for example.

The offensive gradually ground to a standstill and the British were to fall victim to an unexpected German attack. Two weeks later the British had held onto some of the territory they had gained to the north of the battlefield and yet the Germans had been able to make similar inroads into British-held land to the south.

All in all the battle had been a costly draw, but a draw from which important lessons had without doubt been learnt.