Researchers at the University of Leeds have recently made contact with descendants of more of the German PoWs held at Raikeswood Camp in World War One. Here Harriet Purbrick, a history student working with University of Leeds lecturer Anne Buckley, tells the story of one PoW - Friedrich Eppensteiner 

LETTERS and newspaper clippings kept by Friedrich Eppensteiner’s family have been used to construct a picture of his life in Tübingen as a popular secondary school teacher and sports enthusiast.

A letter written by him from Raikeswood Camp to his older brother Wilhelm (known as William) in America, has been provided by Eppensteiner’s great-niece and Wilhelm’s granddaughter, Cheryl Eppensteiner Chevalier, who lives in Michigan.

The letter, dated September 11, 1919, was written at the very end of his time in captivity. Eppensteiner reassures his brother that he expects to be out of captivity soon.

He adds: “We have had an exceptionally beautiful summer here, and recent days have been particularly splendid. It has made such a difference to easing the burden of captivity; being crammed into the wooden barracks when the weather is bad is unbearable.”

Eppensteiner, along with the 600 remaining POWs, only began his journey home from Skipton train station on October 27, 1919, almost a year after the Armistice.

Eppensteiner was one of a number of Skipton prisoners to carry the title ‘Dr’, having obtained his PhD in history in 1914. Following repatriation he decided to share his knowledge with the next generation and trained as a teacher. He taught history, German and foreign languages in a secondary school in Tübingen from 1925 until his retirement in 1946. A newspaper article announcing his retirement describes him as “an educator to whom many hundreds of his former pupils look with admiration and veneration” and says that “he has preserved to this day the youthful fire of enthusiasm for beauty and truth that he ignited in so many students.”

Eppensteiner also utilised his gift for teaching outside school hours by setting up French courses for the general public in Tübingen, and continued to refine his knowledge through study periods in France and the US.

It is clear from Eppensteiner’s entry in the book written by the Raikeswood POWs that sport was one of his greatest passions. Sport took on an even more significant role later in his life when, following his retirement, he became the chairman of the sports club in Tübingen and wrote essays and speeches on sport, leading to recognition from Württemberg sports associations.

As chairman, he also increased accessibility to disabled people, calling for a special sports league for disabled people. Most significantly, Eppensteiner continued to write about sport, releasing a major work on the history and theory of sport in 1964 (Der Sport), when he was 84.

Eppensteiner also took a great interest in local politics. He was leader of the local branch of the left-leaning German Democratic Party (DDP) and was voted onto the Tübingen local council in 1931.

However, he was one of many council members who lost their seats in 1933 due to the Nazi pratice of Gleichschaltung (the totalitarian Nazi takeover of state and society) simply because the DDP opposed the Nazi party.

The Nazis also succeeded in preventing him from becoming headteacher at the school he taught at. It then seems incongruous that Eppensteiner was a member of the National Socialists’ Teachers’ Union and he was placed in charge of the teaching of Nazi ideology at his school. However, research has shown that 97 percent of teachers were members of this Union as it was the only way of retaining their pensions and insurance.

Eppensteiner is likely to have resorted to teaching Nazi ideology because he was afraid for himself and his family; as a former member of the DDP and with a brother in America (an enemy country with which any contact was regarded as treason) he would not have appeared in a favourable light to the Nazis.

After the Second World War Eppensteiner went through a denazification trial, as did millions of Germans, and it was recognised that he had never been a party member. The hearing said that he was ‘not incriminated by his actions’ and he was given the category of Mitläufer (follower), the fourth of five categories.

Eppensteiner and his wife Frida had two sons, one of whom, Christian, was killed in Russia in 1941. The other son, Heinrich, had no children.

The book written by the Skipton POWs was published in Munich in 1920. An English translation containing research into the camp is scheduled to be published by Pen & Sword in February 2021.