THE Spanish flu pandemic hit Raikeswood’s WW1 prisoner of war camp twice. Many officers became unwell when the virus first struck, but there were no fatalities among their ranks.

Historian Alan Roberts takes a look at how Spanish flu was dealt with at the Skipton camp as it took its toll on the German prisoners.

Simple precautions had been taken: the wooden floors were scrubbed with Lysol, the windows were frequently opened to ventilate the barracks and the officers were encouraged to go on regular escorted rambles into the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately one of the guards Corporal John Burns succumbed to the disease and is buried in St Stephen’s churchyard.

The virus returned in February 1919 with devastating effects. Normally high mortality rates would be expected among the very old and the very young. Unusually the graph of mortality against age showed a very marked spike corresponding to previously healthy young people. This has been ascribed to what is known as a cytokine storm. This is where the immune system does more harm than good and ends up damaging the body’s vital organs. Young adults with the very fittest and best responding immune systems were the people who reacted worst to the virus. Furthermore social distancing was all but impossible with groups of up to 24 officers confined in cramped wooden huts overnight.

Forty seven German officers and men were to die. The pandemic did not discriminate. Sometimes the onset of the disease was so rapid that, even with a motorised ambulance, five of the victims were to die in the camp before they could be transferred to hospital at Morton Banks, near Keighley.

All prisoner of war camps were subject to regular inspections by officers appointed by a neutral power. Not only are there British and German accounts of the flu epidemic at Skipton, but the Swiss inspector Dr de Sturler recounted what had happened during a routine visit: “One officer suffering from influenza died quite unexpectedly from heart failure in camp and news had just come to hand that one officer at Keighley Hospital was in a very critical condition.”

Further details come from the German diary ‘Kriegsgefangen in Skipton’. There were 683 prisoners in the camp. Just over half the prisoners displayed symptoms of the virus. Most of these recovered, but 91 officers and men were admitted to Keighley War Hospital. Nearly half of those admitted died. Despite the high death rate at the hospital the German officers were truly grateful for the high standard of medical care they received. The hospital itself had originally been built as a fever hospital with the wards well separated from each other.

The hospital administrator Lieutenant Colonel Scatterty incurred the wrath of his governing body. When accused of being too sympathetic towards the German officers, he replied that he was more concerned about treating a patient’s illness rather than establishing his nationality.

The Germans were mortified at the loss of their former comrades. As battle-hardened soldiers they accepted that losses in wartime were inevitable, but felt that death by an unseen hand during peacetime was the cruellest of all fates.

The German diary recorded the course of the disease. Extra British and German orderlies had been brought in to provide much needed support. Meanwhile self-sacrificing German officers continually cared for their stricken comrades. They complained about the standard of care provided by the British medical staff. For example, it was alleged that clinical thermometers were simply not sterilised after use. One of the reasons for writing the diary had been to explain to the relatives of the deceased how their loved ones had spent their final months at Skipton. They were however spared the distressing details of those very last hours.

News of the catastrophe was quick to reach Germany. Second Lieutenant Rudolf Kober wrote to his parents, ‘We are experiencing a simply horrific period… So far twenty-six officers and nine enlisted men have passed away. Is that not terrible and so far away from home too?

Kober’s parents dutifully passed his letter on to the German authorities who urgently requested that an inquiry be conducted into the outbreak at Raikeswood. Dr de Sturler, himself a medical man, concluded: “It would be remiss of me not to place particular emphasis on my conviction that the British authorities and the doctors and nursing staff responsible have so consummately carried out their duties.”

The grief-stricken German officers at Skipton were deeply upset to find that they had not been consulted when the report was being compiled. A letter recently discovered in a government archive in Berlin confirmed that the German authorities had fully accepted the Swiss doctor’s report and its conclusions.

The British authorities had dutifully kept accurate records of all German deaths in captivity. The death rate in just a few short weeks at Skipton was among the very highest (if not the highest) in the whole country.

Scientists of the time knew that many infectious diseases were spread by bacteria. Extensive research was conducted into the causes of influenza. Several years were to elapse before the first viruses could be separated and identified. Much smaller than bacteria, the influenza virus was the cause of this particular pandemic. 101 years later we are again experiencing a pandemic, and again we are looking to science to provide the answers.