A HUNDRED years ago on October 27, 1919, German Prisoners of War who were being held at Raikeswood Camp, in Skipton, began their trip home following repatriation.

This extract from the diary Kriegsgefangen in Skipton, written from smuggled notes and translated by a team of University of Leeds lecturers and members of Settle U3A German group, details the events of that time.

One of the German lecturers, Ann Buckley, writes:

A bright October morning dawns over the camp. The prisoners have shovelled down their porridge and drunk their coffee. Now individuals are strolling slowly to the sportsground. Others are sitting in the quiet rooms reading the newspaper that has just arrived. Then someone shouts: ‘Monday - departure!’

They hear this very significant word with indifference at first - it is bound to be another rumour. But someone who suspects it might be true decides to run out and he comes back beaming: ‘It’s true! Monday - departure!’ In the blink of an eye, the quiet room lies empty. A joyful throng fills the camp’s pathways.

It really is true! The senior German officer comes out of the commandant’s office with his cap on the wrong way round – this is the long-agreed sign. Then our captain himself appears as well and confirms everything – everything. This diarist finds himself quite unable to describe these hours.

He could speak of the happy faces of the prisoners, of their irrepressible flow of words, of their wild gesticulations, he could write about the jubilation in the barracks, the cheerful chatter accompanying the packing, but the inner jubilation, the rising and falling waves of joy, the images surging through our minds – he cannot and will not describe all that.

At midday there is a big gathering of the barrack captains. The administration is well prepared. The final arrangements are made. In the afternoon any large pieces of luggage must be handed in. Panting hard, the prisoners drag these into the Old Mess. There they are weighed, but the Tommies make no protests about the weight, which is often over the limit. Icankillyou experiences yet another attack of zeal and in the evening orders a check of the luggage that has already been handed in. The interpreters join us in performing a merry comedy. They make spot-checks: touching the lock with the key is enough to satisfy them.

Sunday passes in a blur of relentless activity. Here, there are prisoners – today even the laziest – dragging equipment to the collection point in room C. There, others are collecting food for the journey. The reinforced finance committee works hard all day. There are so many tasks waiting to be done: the payment of wages, winding up of the accounts, conversion of camp money into German notes. In the afternoon the prisoners receive their cash.

Once again the senior German officer gathers all the officers and men in front of the Old Mess. He thanks us all for our support in spite of many difficulties, enabling him to fulfil his duties, and in particular he thanks those who have made an effort to serve the common good. To everybody he gives his most heartfelt good wishes for the future. To the comrades who must return to occupied areas, he calls: ‘It is with shame that we have lost you; we will bring you back again with honour!’ Far over the barbed wire down into Skipton’s valley the German song Deutschland über alles! rings out.

The prisoners disperse. One of them takes one last glance into what was the quiet room, others wander through the camp, and many take a last walk around the sports field. It is not a painful farewell, but this patch of earth still holds many memories – and not just bitter ones. That is why one comrade stands high up on the sports field and gazes at the quiet valley, hazy in the evening mist.

In the evening in room A, from which all the tables have disappeared, the last religious service takes place. The sermon looks back again on our days of captivity and explains that we have endured much suffering, but that the righteous prevail in all situations in life. Thus our captivity may be a blessing, as it has provided the impulse for self-contemplation and given us a strong and clear desire to work for the future.

In the evening many prisoners sit together, still celebrating. Thoughts rush back and forth. In the camp garden a big fire is burning; it is fed with English tar barrels and tables which have served their purpose. Soon most of the prisoners go to bed. But our last sleep in Skipton is not at all restful. Around midnight someone dashes through the barracks: ‘Every prisoner can collect another 40 Marks - the rest of the camp’s money!’ – a pleasant, but untimely invitation.

Our Last Day

Early the next day, still in complete darkness, we get up again. Coffee is brewed for the last time. At 7.30am the companies are standing at the gate ready to march off. Our bugler plays once more – not a call to coffee: a German melody rings out over the deserted barracks, full of meaning. Icankillyou runs busily to and fro, full of charming kindness. The gates open, and once again the Yorkshire Boar tries to count us, in vain as usual, then we stride off into freedom. At a quick march we proceed through the town and board the train hurriedly. Soon it is carrying us through the Aire valley, into the morning heavy with rain. Via Keighley, where once again we quietly remember our dead comrades, we pass through Leeds, dark and overcast, and arrive in Hull at 11.30am. To our right the Humber laps against the quay. Slowly the train pulls alongside the quay. For a long time we stand at the window looking out for the ship from our homeland. Then comes a joyful cry: ‘The Lisboa!’ We hastily leave the train, a short pause, a last grim glance at Icankillyou. Then we are on board our ship, which was once laden with ore, but today is to carry its sons to the Fatherland. We are greeted joyfully by comrades from Redmires camp, who have already embarked.

At 1.30pm the ship casts off. The departure is without ceremony; no yearning holds us back. We stow ourselves and our luggage in the hold, and in the twilight we search for our bunks. We strike up conversations with the sailors to hear from German mouths what is going on at home. Many visit the little canteen, others send wireless telegrams to relatives. We get a good helping of beans from a German galley. Most of our comrades linger on deck. In the rainy misty greyness the inhospitable English coastline slips by. By late afternoon we are sailing on the open sea. A heavy swell makes the ship pitch and toss. Gradually, the spectre of seasickness grips the former prisoners. Quietly, one after another, we creep into the bowels of the ship and climb into our bunks.

Home Again

On Tuesday night we sail into the mouth of the Elbe, and at about 7am into the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Canal. Around 8am the ship anchors in Brunsbüttelkoog. We set foot on the longed-for soil of our homeland, welcomed by our dear compatriots. Soon we are sitting in a large hall, at tables spread with white cloths, and we gratefully accept the refreshments our homeland offers.

A strange feeling creeps over us as, led by their choir-master, little children sing beautiful German songs to us with their high pitched voices. Yes, we rejoice from the heart to be able to spend time with our own people once again after our long absence.

And yet this joy is subdued by something invisible, which stares us in the face everywhere and weighs heavily on our hearts, and by the words of the welcoming speaker: ‘You went to war from a proud, strong Fatherland, you are returning to a Reich which is crushed and broken to the core!’

But we pick ourselves up and pledge ourselves to the words that our senior officer addressed to everybody in his speech of thanks: ‘The Reich is shattered, we are returning to rebuild it!’

The train takes us into Lockstedt Camp. After a few days, we ex-prisoners, who have spent months and years together in joy and sorrow in an enemy country, go our many separate ways to our families and friends, to a new life and new work. However, the words of our former senior officer light our homeward paths as a pledge made by all of us:

‘We will build the Fatherland anew!’