Forty-seven German prisoners in Raikeswood Camp died in the influenza pandemic during spring of 1919. Historian Alan Roberts investigates.

FOR the 636 prisoners confined in Skipton by two lofty barbed wire fences it must have been devastating to watch their countrymen die a most horrible death. According to the German memoir ‘Kriegsgefangen in Skipton’ the villain of the piece was senior medical officer Major JC Pounden of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The medical treatment the German patients received was said to be slipshod. Temperatures were only measured once a day. The same thermometer was used for several patients without being sterilised. A lack of bedpans forced seriously ill patients to use primitive latrines in cold, wet and windy weather. The German officers wrote that they had no confidence in Pounden either on a personal or on a professional level.

So was Major Pounden (nicknamed Major Powder) a complete incompetent? The evidence would suggest otherwise.

John Colley Pounden had been born in south-east Ireland and completed his medical training in 1900. The South African War (or Boer War) had broken out just months earlier and Pounden was selected to become part of an elite medical team to staff the prestigious Irish Hospital.

Edward Cecil Guinness, Earl of Iveagh and chairman of the famous brewery, had undertaken to pay for the cost of staffing and equipping a 100-bed mobile hospital to be sent to South Africa. The hospital was exceptionally well equipped and clearly intended to provide the highest standards of medical care in arduous conditions. The patients would be accommodated in wards set up in ten portable marquees.

Contrary to expectations the vast majority of the patients were not suffering from wounds inflicted by the enemy. Instead they were more likely to have been the victims of disease. The most common disease treated was typhoid, then known as enteric fever. The Irish Hospital treated more than 672 cases of enteric compared with 114 cases of gunshot wounds. The mobile hospital was later considered to have been a complete success.

The British Army had not been paying adequate attention to providing its troops with sufficient clean drinking water. There was a neglect of the basics of sanitation. Of around 11,000 servicemen who died in South Africa, 60% of deaths were from disease and 40% from injuries sustained in battle. The warnings about the importance of cleanliness and hygiene brought back from the Crimean War by Florence Nightingale 50 years earlier had not been heeded.

That was to change. In 1912 a slim volume the ‘Manual of Elementary Military Hygiene’ anticipated the outbreak of the next war, and laid down the standards of hygiene and sanitation expected in the British Army. These standards were mandatory and backed by the full force of military discipline. These standards extended to Raikeswood Camp in Skipton which was furnished with underground sewers and supplied with mains drinking water.

The casualty figures for the First World War defy description. One slight crumb of comfort is that for the first time in a major conflict, deaths from disease were lower than those from enemy action. Progress had been made.

Captain Edgar Wellburn was Pounden’s second in command. Wellburn was medical officer for Health in Sowerby Bridge and responsible for the local small-pox and fever hospital. He had written scholarly articles on the causes of typhoid fever and on the importance of geology in practical sanitation. His specialism and passion was in fossils which resulted in a series of articles on the fish fauna found in sedimentary rocks in Yorkshire.

Dr Wellburn had acquired a large number of coelacanth fossils during his researches. These prehistoric fishes were believed to have become extinct over sixty million years ago. It would therefore have been a great shock for Wellburn, then in retirement at Great Yarmouth, to learn that a live coelacanth had been caught off the coast of South Africa in 1938. This ‘living fossil’ became a major news story throughout the world.

Returning to Skipton Camp, Pounden’s own experience of dealing with infectious diseases in wartime conditions would surely have stood him in good stead to deal with the deteriorating situation.

On the one hand there were German complaints about professional incompetence, and on the other there were two admirably qualified British doctors. Clearly an independent adjudicator was needed, and fortunately there was one. Prisoner of war camps were subject to regular inspections by officials from neutral countries. Swiss physician Dr de Sturler had been at Skipton on February 24 when one officer had died of heart failure and another was critically ill in hospital at Keighley. The German government later called for an emergency inspection into the events at Skipton. The German officers later complained that they had not been consulted. Dr de Sturler’s conclusion was however completely unequivocal.

‘It should be said that the doctors and nursing personnel worked under the most difficult conditions with the greatest imaginable enthusiasm and with genuine self-sacrifice, which justifies the belief that the mortality figures would otherwise have been significantly higher.’

Two days later the now vindicated John Pounden resigned his commission in the British Army. The whole affair must have been an unbearable burden for him.