Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

German Prisoners of the Great War: Life in a Yorkshire Camp

Anne Buckley, editor
Pen & Sword Military, 2021
Peter L. Belmonte

German Officer Prisoners at Skipton

In 1920 in Munich, repatriated German prisoners of war published Kriegsgefangen in Skipton (Prisoners of War in Skipton). The book recounts the experiences of German prisoners of war at the camp near Skipton in North Yorkshire, England. It is an account of what the men did, how the camp functioned, how the prisoners felt about their incarceration, and their attitudes toward the British and to the war in general. German Prisoners of the Great War: Life in a Yorkshire Camp, the English translation of the original work, edited by Anne Buckley, helps to make it accessible to a wider audience. Buckley, a lecturer in German and Translation Studies at the University of Leeds, rediscovered the German work in 2014 and set about creating a translation for publication. Thirty students at the University of Leeds translated the original German book, and Buckley, along with Caroline Summers, Alison Abbey, and Ada Whitaker, edited the translated text.

Fritz Sachsse and Willy Cossmann were the compilers and editors of the original book. Sachsse, a captain in the German navy and the senior ranking German officer in the camp, had the unusual distinction of being a prisoner of both the Japanese and the British during the war. After their release, the men gathered the diaries and other written accounts that comprise this book. They wanted the book to describe daily life in the prison and to demonstrate the resilience and continued patriotism of the prisoners. The nature of the book, and the way it was compiled, means that it is not a smooth chronology or history of the prison and prisoners. Rather it is a series of “snippets” written by various authors and assembled to tell various stories of camp events. Some of the men’s poetry is included, and wonderful sketches and drawings made by prisoners are sprinkled throughout.

The initial sentence of the discussion of the camp orchestra serves to illustrate the general tone of the narrative and is worth quoting:

If the attentive reader of the pieces collected in this book has gained an awareness of the crushing mental depression which is the inevitable fate of a prisoner of war, then he will also have come to understand the fervent longing, born of this, to plant a seed of the atmosphere of home amidst the bleak monotony of life behind a barbed-wire fence, a reflection of German scholarship, German art, and German humour. [p. 177]

Indeed, the difficulties experienced by POWs in general, such as shame, helplessness, and “emasculation,” are evident in the accounts. Also prevalent are hope and a sense of humor—those feelings which no doubt have helped prisoners survive throughout history.

Enlisted Prisoner Barracks at Eastcote Prisoner of
War Camp, Northamptonshire

Complaints about food quantity and quality were universal among POWs, and, indeed, among soldiers in general, and are prevalent here. Dissatisfaction with the British is a strong theme throughout the book; many of the Germans felt their captors treated them disrespectfully and harshly. Indeed, the book includes favorable mention of only a few British soldiers.

To show how the men wanted to improve themselves while in captivity, the book describes the efforts of men to obtain study material for various subjects. Men studied foreign languages, science, mathematics, law, business, and other subjects. Officer cadets whose studies were interrupted by the war sought to have a course of study that would enable them to attend university upon their return to Germany. Accordingly, teacher-captives petitioned Germany and were allowed to develop such a course, within certain parameters, that fit their needs. The final exam, shown in the book, would no doubt stump many modern-day college graduates.

The book is replete with information sure to please Great War students. There are entries from the garden administrator, the shower officer, a postal clerk, and others. Other sections discuss escape attempts, sports, efforts to cook in the barracks, the rationing and use of food and tobacco, etc. There are discussions concerning camp finance, musical, theatrical, and choir groups, and religious services (Lutheran and Catholic). All these accounts serve to illuminate one aspect or another of the German POW experience at the camp.

Influenza largely missed the camp in autumn 1918, but it struck with a vengeance in February 1919 when many German prisoners became ill and 47 died. The narrative at this point reflects disgust and anger at what the Germans felt was the indifference and incompetence of British medical staff. Germany signed the peace treaty in June 1919, but the prisoners remained incarcerated. This caused a deep bitterness among the men who couldn’t see why they were not freed. Particularly poignant are the accounts of several prisoners who slipped into insanity during this time. The men were finally repatriated on 27 October 1919, almost one year after the Armistice.

The camp inmate population seems to have averaged about 500 officers and 130 enlisted men. The enlisted men served as orderlies to the officers, and they cleaned the barracks and grounds and supplied labor for the various camp shops. Red Cross records allow researchers to identify 916 Germans as having been imprisoned at Skipton from 1917 to 1919, and a good number of them are listed by name, rank, military unit, and date of birth, in an appendix. In addition to the original German sketches and illustrations, 32 added photographs and illustrations enhance the text. This book is an important contribution to the historiography of World War I. Those with a general interest in prisoners of war will enjoy it. Those who have previously read accounts of British or American Great War prisoners will still be quite interested in the book, giving, as it does, another perspective.

Peter Belmonte


  1. Great review by Peter Belmonte, as always!

  2. Interesting that there were many more officers than enlisted at the camp. Must be doubly miserable for the enlisted to be tasked to do the officer's dirty work.

  3. Splendid review, Pete. I assume there were some camps--maybe many--where the enlisted men outnumbered the officers. It's interesting that the teacher-captives could communicate with Germany regarding academic coursework.