Historian Alan Roberts writes of the Hindenburg’s journey over Keighley with the purpose of dropping flowers to be laid on a German PoW’s grave.

IT was 1936 and the huge German airship, Hindenburg, flew sedately down the Aire valley.

At just 75 feet shorter than the Titanic this must have been an impressive sight. Some residents still remember it. One man recalled seeing the airship on his way to the shop while a young girl from Bradford found the experience terrifying. The Hindenburg steered for Keighley and dropped a package containing a letter, a silver cross and some flowers. Signed Father Paul Schulte the letter asked for the flowers to be laid on the grave of his brother, prisoner of war Lieutenant Franz Schulte, who was buried at Morton Cemetery along with 46 of his comrades. The Keighley News reported that Franz Schulte had dropped more bombs on London than anyone else. Crash-landing in a field near Canterbury, Schulte was captured and eventually sent to Raikeswood Camp, in Skipton.

Catholic priest Paul Schulte had asked for the diversion over Keighley. In need of publicity and with the wind behind them on the return journey from America the airship’s captain was only too pleased to oblige. One year later and Frau Burgmann, the widow of another influenza victim, visited Britain as a guest of

the women’s section of the British Legion. She met one of the nurses working at Morton Banks Hospital where her husband Adolf had been admitted and had laid pine fronds from the Black Forest at his grave.

The departing German officers had paid for a monument to be built to honour their deceased comrades. Nearly twenty years later around 50 German civilians from all over Yorkshire had gathered there on a Sunday to pay tribute to their countrymen.

The Keighley News reported: ‘British and Germans stood side by side on Sunday silently praying that never again shall such a catastrophe as that which brought the two great nations face to face in battle overtake the world.’

Disturbingly the assembled Germans had raised their right arms in the Hitler salute. The previous day German troops had marched into Austria. Storm clouds were definitely brewing. Britain would soon be at war with Germany again. Fighting in the Second World War would continue until the whole of Germany had been liberated.

British troops who died in battle would be buried close to where they fell. In the First World War British troops did not reach German soil before the Armistice was signed. Many British soldiers were to die from their wounds in hospitals in Germany. Other prisoners of war died in industrial accidents labouring in steel works, coal mines and quarries. The most frequent cause of death was disease exacerbated by poor diet and fatigue.

After the Armistice the British Army was to occupy the area around Cologne in the Rhineland. Sadly Lance-Corporal Thomas Kirk, from Barnoldswick, was to die in an unspecified accident there in 1920.

The remains of the British servicemen who died in the First World War were exhumed and reburied in four large cemeteries including those in Berlin and Cologne. Similarly the dead from the Second World War were buried in larger cemeteries where their remains could rest in a well-cared for and respectful

environment. In Britain moves were afoot to exhume and rebury the German war dead at a new cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire.

The influenza outbreak at Raikeswood Camp had been devastating. The death rate was much higher than in the surrounding towns and villages. At Skipton nearly 50 German prisoners died from influenza in little over three weeks. The battle-hardened German officers were extremely distraught at the death of so many of their comrades from disease during peace time. They accordingly designed a suitable monument and paid for its construction.

Bradford Bereavement Services have dutifully kept records of the original burials and subsequent exhumations. Experts from Germany arrived in the 1960s to carry out the work. The original stone memorial was probably buried on site or else transported away for disposal. The bronze plaque with the names of the deceased would doubtless have been melted down afterwards.

The German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase is well-tended and peaceful. The gravestones are neatly laid out in rows. There are fir trees and even a picnic table. The conflict in Ukraine had just started when the site was visited earlier this year. The neat rows belie the chaos of war with which we are now all too familiar through our television news bulletins. The most chilling parts of the cemetery are the communal graves where the bodies of crewmen from four Zeppelin airships sent to bomb London are buried.

The Hindenburg too was to end in disaster. Less than a year after flying over Keighley it caught fire as it berthed in New Jersey. Despite the conflagration caused by the ignition of extremely flammable hydrogen gas and the high death toll, many people were able to survive the catastrophe.