Many soldiers from Craven were captured by the Germans during WWI. Here is part three of historian Alan Roberts’ look into their treatment.

THE men from in and about Skipton imprisoned in Germany during WWI faced many challenges including severe food shortages, harsh working conditions and some extremely tough discipline.

Surprisingly some local prisoners praised the treatment they had received. They were among the sick and wounded who had been admitted to German hospitals. Lieutenant Tom Chapman of Skipton had been wounded in the leg and said he had been decently treated.

Private Clarke of Newmarket Street reported that the Germans treated their patients well. A painter in civilian life, Clarke had been suffering from rheumatism. He had been captured on the very first day of the massive German spring offensive of 1918.

Private Wright of Hellifield suffered from gunshot wounds to the chest and arms. He was held in no fewer than eight different camps. Food he said was scarce and of poor quality. He only received seven out of twenty-two food parcels which had been sent to him.

Some prisoners were so severely wounded that they were eventually repatriated. Lance Corporal Harrison from Barnoldswick spent the first five weeks of his captivity in Belgium. His fractured leg did not receive the proper medical treatment, and ended up several inches shorter after it was set in a hospital in Koblenz. He was transferred to a camp in the Harz mountains where he said British prisoners were ‘subjected to all sorts of petty tyranny with the avowed object of breaking their spirit’. Harrison was repatriated via Holland and arrived home looking bright and cheerful.

Private James Parkinson also of Barnoldswick received a hero’s welcome when he returned home in July 1918. He was well treated until he, like many others, persistently refused to carry out any work involving munitions. He was sent to Latvia to work on railway construction. ‘Most of us refused to work and laughed at the orders given by our taskmasters, even though we had to suffer for it.’ He became weak and emaciated owing to the poor diet and spent much time in a hospital which was ‘more like a pigsty’. He had his two front teeth knocked out. The best meal he received was ‘boiled potato peelings and it was a scramble to get even that’. His condition was so poor – he could not even stand up – that he was transferred to a hospital in Switzerland where the ‘free air’ and good hospital treatment helped to restore his health. After his sojourn in many different countries he returned to Barnoldswick ’the best place in the lot’.

Sadly not all prisoners returned home from Germany. A small percentage died in captivity: the pages of the Craven Herald from 1918 make grim reading. Months, if not years, spent in close proximity to their captured comrades were a breeding ground for disease. Many were wounded when captured, and the poor diet and arduous working conditions all wreaked their toll.

Private John Towler from Austwick died in hospital from meningitis. He had been with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, and was captured in the German spring offensive. He had previously been a farm labourer.

Nineteen-year-old Private Joshua Inman from Silsden died of wounds in a German field hospital in April. He had been a warehouseman at Messrs Berry and Fletcher.

Private John Riley of Crosshills died after a short illness just one month before the end of the war. Four beautiful wreaths had been provided by his comrades. He had been a prisoner for eighteen months and had always written cheerfully to his wife. He had been a butcher in Keighley.

Private Matthew Webster, a sniper with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment, reported seeing ‘an English lad’ brutally murdered by a German guard, because he felt too ill to work through lack of food. The guard was duly court-martialled, but ‘the only punishment he got was to be sent to the front’.

Two German officer prisoners escaped from Raikeswood Camp in Skipton. They were eventually caught in a public house near Clitheroe! Lieutenant Justus escaped from Colsterdale in the Yorkshire Dales disguised as a woman. He was apprehended before he reached the nearest town. The formidable obstacles presented by the North Sea and English Channel ensured that only one prisoner successfully escaped from Britain to Germany. Escape is never easy, but the final stage for British escapers was normally crossing a heavily guarded land border into a neutral country. Towards the end of the war there was a steady stream of prisoners who were making their own way home.

Bandsman Arthur Metcalfe from Cowling was captured in August 1914. Four years later his mother received a letter: ‘You will be happy to hear of my escape from Germany. Three of us made a dash for it, and after a very hard time got safely into this fine country (Holland)’.

Others were less fortunate. Their names can be seen recorded on the war memorials dotted around our district, and the prisoners who died in captivity in Germany lie in graves faithfully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.