On a bird’s eye view of the camp prepared by 2nd Lieutenant Julius Matthies from measurements provided by junior officer Oskar Meyer, a tongue of woodland can be seen extending towards the camp from the left. Immediately on the other side of the barbed wire and below a block of ten wooden huts lay the vegetable garden.

The German memoir Kriegsgefangen in Skipton reported that the garden was 400 metres above sea level, but in fact it was less than 160 metres. The plot was said to be 4000 square metres in area and at the end of April 1918 there were just 448 prisoners in the camp. With nine square metres available for each prisoner this was not going to produce a vast amount of food, but it would certainly supplement their diet with fresh produce. The first prisoners had arrived in mid-January and by the following month work had already begun on digging the ground ready for crops to be planted later in the spring.

Here fortune smiled on the German officer prisoners. Into the camp walked 2nd Lieutenant Wilhelm Ebert who at 32 years of age not only had widespread experience in horticulture, but was also a doctor of philosophy having studied various factors which affect the yields of oats. The climate he said was overwhelmingly damp: mild and overcast in winter, and damp, overcast and cool in summer. Skipton, he continued, was one of the least sunny parts of England. In his view the climate at Skipton made the land unsuitable for arable crops and only suitable for grazing.

And then there was the soil. The topsoil consisted of 15cm depth of fibrous loam which had already been dug over two years previously by the resident British regiments. This lay on top of a solid layer of damp clay. The top soil could not hold the rainwater which fell and quickly ran downhill. Local gardeners will no doubt recognise this all too familiar situation.

Ebert blamed the failures and the successes on the weather. He felt that the officers had been deceived by a remarkable spell of four sunny weeks at the start of May. In fairness Ebert and his fellow prisoners were on a hiding to nothing. It can take gardeners years to find out what will and what won’t grow successfully in their own gardens. Ebert and his team were taking a voyage into the unknown and were obliged to produce results. Wisely they hedged their bets and chose a wide range of vegetables to grow.

Tomatoes failed completely although they were planted facing south and were sheltered from the wind by the wooden huts. The pumpkins were given liberal quantities of manure from the stable, but did just as badly. Beans too were unsuccessful, but low-growing peas fared much better. All varieties of cabbage, beetroot, celery and greens produced good yields. Most successful of all was the crop of kale, but because cabbages had previously been grown on the site they were badly affected by pests.

Ebert undoubtedly knew his onions, but the crop itself was a disappointment. He ascribed the failure of these and other root vegetables to the condition of the soil. Salads and herbs seemed to thrive.

Work had begun on the plot with enthusiasm with many officers mucking in to help the small band of committed horticulturists. Unfortunately this did not last and the remaining die-hard gardeners became the butt of criticism from the majority of their fellow prisoners. Ebert concluded that the vegetable patch provided more than enough cabbage for the 550 officers who would eventually occupy the camp. This was at a time when fresh vegetables were difficult to obtain.

One of the enlisted men in the camp was also employed by the officers as a gardener. The enlisted men were originally intended to act as the officers’ servants and to perform various menial tasks about the camp. The peacetime jobs of many of the last men to enter the camp had been dutifully recorded by the British authorities. No fewer than four of these 45 men had been gardeners in civilian life. Elsewhere in the camp there was a barrack block which had been converted into a workshop for skilled workers. The latest arrivals had included two hairdressers, four tailors and one shoemaker. Two waiters guaranteed tip-top service for the officers at meal times.

Individual officers and barrack blocks created their own smaller gardens. Food was of course a priority, but many grew plants in order to soften the harsh appearance of the camp and make it seem more hospitable. Prisoners are expected to be defiant, and the occupants of one hut planted cress plants in the shape of an anchor and another set in the shape of a U-boat.

There was less enthusiasm for gardening in 1919. The officers firmly they believed they would be back home in Germany before the crops were ready. They would be sadly mistaken.

Almost every trace of the camp has disappeared from sight, but the Skipton climate remains the same, if arguably a fraction warmer. Similarly local gardeners are no doubt battling with the unforgiving soil, perhaps even in exactly the same spot where the Germans had tried with such very mixed results one hundred years earlier.