THE German officers and men at Raikeswood Camp were facing the imminent defeat of their kaiser and his once proud empire. The new British commandant was a breath of fresh air. Eton-educated Colonel Hunter had left and RW.H. Ronaldson had arrived in his place, writes historian Alan Roberts.

The German officers recognised at once that Colonel Ronaldson was a soldiers’ soldier who fully understood their predicament. Ronaldson was a pragmatist and, not that they always saw eye to eye, here was a man they felt they could do business with.

Four years earlier, Ronaldson had led a daring night-time attack by Scottish and Indian troops on the German trenches. The attack was a complete success, but Ronaldson and his men had to face ferocious German counter attacks during the day and reinforcements had failed to reach the now beleaguered troops. Ronaldson was forced to withdraw his men, but incurred heavy losses.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes books and himself with links to Craven, described the outcome of the battle in his history of the war, ‘It had been a long and weary day with a barren ending, for all that had been won was abandoned’.

Two months later Ronaldson was wounded. The bullet passed through his left kneecap leaving a clean wound the size of a [silver] threepenny bit. For the rest of his life he would need to walk with the aid of a stick. For his heroism Ronaldson was made a Companion of the Bath (CB) in the King’s Birthday Honours List.

Pronounced unfit for service, Ronaldson still found himself in charge of 192nd Brigade with the temporary rank of brigadier general. A new divisional commander reported that Ronaldson’s zeal and qualifications were below those of his peers, and that the standard of training in the brigade was not up to scratch. Ronaldson protested that it was the first criticism he had received in over 30 years of service. A handwritten comment in his personal file intriguingly noted ‘if officers do not do as they are told they are unfit to command’, but further details are unavailable. Ronaldson was withdrawn from duty at the front and was left to await a new posting on half pay.

The offer of a position as commandant at Skipton Camp must have been appealing. Skipton was an officers’ camp. There were over two dozen airmen held prisoner there, and more U-boat commanders were imprisoned at Skipton than anywhere else. Ronaldson must have thought that this new posting would be short lived – after all the war was over, but the weeks turned into months and peace negotiations with Germany had not even started.

In spring 1919 the flu epidemic revisited Skipton Camp with deadly effect. Ronaldson had personally arranged for improved rations of meat, eggs, milk and tinned fruit. Overtures to have the prisoners treated in Skipton had proved unsuccessful, but it was agreed for them to be treated at Keighley War Hospital. Of 91 prisoners admitted to the hospital no fewer than 47 would die within the space of a very few days. This was from a total of 683 prisoners in the camp. Despite the high death rate the German officers had nothing but praise for the treatment they received at Keighley.

By midsummer the peace treaty had still not been signed. The Germans resorted to every imaginable ploy to highlight what they believed was the injustice of their position. They even constructed a bright red two-metre-high hot air balloon with typed messages attached presenting their arguments for an early release. The balloon landed in the garden of a Sheffield industrialist and was widely reported in the local and national press. .

The German officers singled out Ronaldson for particular praise. They said that they were fortunate to have an English gentleman in command of the camp. He was able to personally console a German mother who had written to him because she was extremely worried about her son. The hated roll-calls were held just once a day. Disciplinary hearings were carried out in a calm and objective manner. Suffice to say that Ronaldson was popular with the German prisoners. They said he was the complete opposite of his predecessor.

Drawings produced by Second Lieutenant Erich Dunkelgod have appeared on this page several times. Readers can now compare Dunkelgod’s drawing with a photograph (top, right) of Ronaldson himself.

He can be seen on the right-hand side of a group of three British officers at a funeral at Morton Cemetery. A group of German officers is standing on the far right of the picture.