Until they realised in July 1918 that the Spring Offensive had failed and that Germany was facing possible defeat, the prisoners had assumed that they would return home to a victorious nation. There otherwise remained three options for return to the Fatherland during the conflict itself: an exchange with British POWs, repatriation on medical grounds and escape.

photo showing prisoners of war leaving camp through main gate

Prisoners leaving through the main gates of the camp© Courtesy of Peter Barry & Charles M Whittaker

 

A handful of the prisoners at Raikeswood Camp did return home either in exchanges or for medical reasons, but none of them managed to escape from ‘this island cage,’ as they called it (find out more about the Escape attempts). If, after the Armistice of November 1918, they expected to be repatriated before too long, that hope was soon to be crushed. For a start, there would be no repatriation of German troops until a peace treaty had been signed. The prisoners were quick to realise that they were being held in Britain as pawns and hostages. They were bitter and indignant. In the spring of 1919 thoughts of return to Germany were briefly blotted from their minds, as the scourge of the dreaded Spanish flu swept through the camp (find out more about the Spanish flu).

photo showing men sat around long tables in hall of palace at first world war peace treaty conference

Scene at the signing of the Peace Treaty in the Hall of Mirrors; Trianon Palace, Versailles, 28 June 1919.© IWM (Q 14996)

As spring passed into summer, there was still no movement. Then in June 1919 came the Treaty of Versailles, which the sickened prisoners and an incredulous German nation regarded as a monstrous travesty. An explosive atmosphere pervaded the camp. Pleading their case for repatriation, the prisoners sent letters to newspapers, pointing out among other things that their stay was a very costly expense to Britain. They claimed in their book Kriegsgefangen in Skipton that influential people such as Winston Churchill were sympathetic to their cause. The prisoners even built a paper balloon, which they stuffed with leaflets expressing their wish to be repatriated. The balloon found its way to Sheffield where it landed in the garden of a local businessman and the event was featured in local and national newspapers.

The leaflets contained a series of appeals, which were skilfully drafted to win sympathy for us and if they are really, as seems likely, documents of genuine human sentiment, entrusted to the air by German Prisoners of War, they represent the first attempt to ensure freedom through propaganda. The red and yellow pieces of paper are certainly composed in effective propaganda style, eg. “The housing situation in England is bad. Hundreds of people could be housed in our camps. So send us home!”

The Daily News, 20 August 1919

In August the camp commandant announced that the long-awaited day of departure had been set. It turned out to be a mistake, yet another sign to the prisoners of British duplicity. They had to wait until 23 October 1919, when with a few belongings and some money they boarded the German merchantman, the Lisboa. They also took with them concealed on their person extracts of personal diaries, which were later published into a book about life in the camp called Kriegsgefangen in Skipton. The Germany they returned to was a wrecked, bitter and disillusioned country. The camp prisoners vowed to ‘build the Fatherland anew.’