Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Memories of Raasay's WWI German POWs

A brilliant piece on Raasay by David Hayes of Inside Story - the island at the centre of the world - linked to an article I wrote many years ago about the German prisoners held on the island during WWI. 

It was a remarkable story, I had forgotten many of the details, and I don't think there is an electronic archive in the Sunday Herald going back to 2004 so I am grateful to Hayes for finding and recovering the piece.

Re-reading the interviews I think it is the incredible humanity and compassion of the islanders that shines through, particularly Jessie Ferguson, who risked being ostracised to feed the young Germans in the hope that someone would do the same for her sons imprisoned in Europe.  

Fragments of war History Forgot - Sunday Herald 07 November 2004

Locals on Raasay in the Hebrides risked their lives to aid suffering German POWs held in their midst. So why is their struggle barely remembered? By Torcuil Crichton

IN a shallow valley, in the middle of a dense English forest, they lie beneath neat rows of blue granite headstones, 5000 dead from two world wars.

Colin Lee has been tending the lines of heather-fringed gravestones for the past 20 years. “People living less than five miles away don't know this is here,” says Lee,drawing on a quiet afternoon cigar and scanning the rows stretching up either side of the slope.

It should be no surprise then that few have heard of the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof, the German war cemetery, at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire. 

Shrouded in birch, pine and larch, the remains of the German dead from both wars were collected from churchyards throughout Britain and re-buried in the purpose-built cemetery in the 1960s.

Each stone marks four graves, with two names on either side. There are no regimental markings to distinguish or disgrace the dead.

Many of the names are the common Saxon surnames of Britain and Germany, such as Brown (Braun) and Miller (Muller). Most of these were internees, innocent Germans who lived in Britain and were locked up on the outbreak of hostilities. The internierter” inscription on their graves lends a guilty air to the woodland clearing.

After conferring with his gothic-scripted ledger, Lee walks through the grass avenues to plot number 457. The shared headstone bears the names of Georg Kagerer and Paul Sosinka. The sight of those inscribed names closes a circle that has run from Staffordshire to Bavaria and to the Inner Hebrides.

The names that share the Cannock grave are also carved on a headstone on Raasay, where these first world war German prisoners spent their last days.

Raasay, a long sliver of an island in the lee of the Isle of Skye, was the location of one of the most unlikely prisoner of war camps ever and the setting for a remarkable story of how, away from the slaughter of the trenches, the spirit of human kindness triumphed over enmity.

High above the village of Inverarish, the only settlement of any size on Raasay, and tucked behind another copse of trees, is the cemetery. There are few visitors to the massive carved boulder that bears the names of the two German soldiers, but there are plenty of other reminders of the presence of almost 300 of their wartime comrades on the island.

The iron ore deposits on the island of Raasay were first identified just before the outbreaks of hostilities in 1914, and William Baird, the iron and mining company, opened a site, complete with a railway, a crusher, firing kilns and a huge pier.

With war came massive demand for shells and the iron ore to produce them, and, of course, a lack of civilian manpower to work the Raasay mines. In 1916, Baird arranged for the operation to be run under the ministry of munitions with the labour of German prisoners. This contravened the Hague Conventions, a shameful act which the British government later attempted to cover up by destroying most of the records in 1920.

It was only when the wage differential between island workers in the mines and the imported mainland labour led to a strike, that the illegal use of German POWs as strike-breakers became an issue. The story was taken up in the national press and raised in the House of Commons. A young Winston Churchill, minister for munitions, had to respond with embarrassing half-truths.

Hidden by the British government, mentioned in passing by most chronicles of the Hebrides and confined to the past with the last generation, the history of the Raasay POWs is fragmented.

The enormous concrete supports for the railway viaduct that carried ore from the mines to the pier head remain. They will last forever, but the story behind them has almost slipped through the fingers of time.

John Ferguson sits in his front room, wedged in between an upright piano and the welcoming fireplace. In his hands he is tumbling what looks like an aged white porcelain tube.

Hollow, about six inches tall, it has an intricate raised rose stem crafted on one side. Only the splayed base reveals that this vase is made not from fine clay but beef bone, carved by one of the German prisoners whose name appears in raised letters on the reverse.

It is an amazing piece of work, grotesque and beautiful at the same time, and Ferguson rolls it through his hands over and over again, summoning up the past.

“"You see, they were very skilled craftsmen, the Germans,”" he says, sifting through his memory for stories his father told him. "They were chosen for the work because of their trades. They could make anything from a needle toan anchor, and I've seen both on this island.”"

They also, he continues, made exquisite lacquered wooden jewel boxes. “And they made the jewellery to go inside them. "From a sovereign they could make a ring that would fit your finger beautifully.”"

Ferguson’'s house and mind are a treasure trove of artefacts and island stories. His late father, John Archie Ferguson, worked with the German POWs as a 14-year-old mining apprentice.

“"All that generation worked with the Germans,”" says John Ferguson. "“My father got on with them very well and he could speak German until his dying day. I think he looked on them as elder brothers."

There was a reason that the apprentice Ferguson and the prisoners developed a symbiotic attachment. One of his brothers was also a POW, in Germany, and because of that his mother was determined to keep the Germans boys on her doorstep, starving on half rations, alive.

Jessie Ferguson (née MacDonald) from Applecross must have been some woman. A widow with seven children, she had lost a young daughter to appendicitis when her two eldest sons went to war in 1914. Kenneth and Fergie were with the Broadford and Raasay B company of the Camerons infantry regiment.

Fergie, who lied about his age to join up with his brother, was captured fighting
in a rearguard action in France. He was the only survivor dragged out of a group of 30 dead and wounded soldiers by a German officer, his nephew recalls.

For three years Fergie Ferguson languished in a German prison camp, during which time his mother on Raasay made a deal with herself to feed the German prisoners in the hope that someone would deliver the same providence to her son.

“Everyone was living with the stress of waiting for a telegram coming through the door,” says John Ferguson. "She got sneers that she was feeding these dirty Germans and she put up with a lot, but she always used to say these are some mother’s children, and so I hope that someone will be looking after mine’.”"

More than 280 German prisoners worked the Raasay mine for a two-year period. There is one contemporaneous account by a rather stunned Australian serviceman, on leave in the land of his forefathers, coming across German uniforms he had last encountered on the Western Front, but the people who rescued the history were two oceanographers who stumbled across the disused Raasay mine workings in the 1980s.

Focusing on the technical challenge of the mine workings, Laurence and Pamela Draper managed to gather enough material for a slim but timely book on the subject in 1990. They collected first-hand accounts from islanders who are now dead, archive photos and superb surveys of the extensive mine workings.

Architecturally, Inverarish is a Highland village. Two rows of miner’s cottages, built by Baird, are now occupied by most of the 200 or so inhabitants of the island. During the first world war half of it was a prison camp surrounded by barbed wire. In the top section were the Germans, and in the bottom their military guard and British mine workers.

IN each corner there was a watchtower, just like you see in the films, says John Ferguson, and everyone was searched coming in and going out. And, just like the films, Ferguson’s father had long sausage-shaped sacks, sewn from flour bags, suspended inside his baggy trousers to smuggle oatmeal and flour into the camp for the Germans.

Separated from a military supply chain by miles of sea and rail, the Germans survived, barely, on half rations which arrived on a steam packet every three days. Life was not all bad, though. One photo depicts the Germans in celebratory mood in leder hosen and hunting caps, with costumes and instruments they must have made on the island. Apart from what they fashioned for sale, the Germans traded the contents of their Red Cross parcels. Prison tobacco and small luxuries became valuable commodities on an island suffering the privations of war.

“"As far as I can gather there was very little animosity towards the Germans,"
”says Norrie Gillies, whose house is a stone’s throw from the site of the former prison camp hall, now the island fire station. “"I suppose that was the case wherever people got to see prisoners as human beings, but life must have been pretty miserable for them.”"

Escape attempts ended in farce. Half a dozen prisoners rowed out to a fishing boat, but were unable to start the engine. Seasick and disgusted, they returned ashore and were captured cooking a rabbit not far from the camp. Others hid out until they were recaptured. “I’m sure they hadn't realised that they were on an island,” says Gillies.

Death was another escape. Georg Kagerer was killed by a roof-fall in the mines in May 1917; Paul Sosinka died of unknown causes the previous Christmas.

Early in 1919, before the prisoners could be returned home, another dozen succumbed to the fatal influenza epidemic that swept through Europe and the world that winter.

“"They couldn’t have been very robust by then,”" says Gillies. “"It’'s quite
tragic, because the war was over.”" While Kagerer and Sosinka were accorded a
headstone, the dozen others were given flat grave slabs.

Not long before the second world war began, recalls Gillies, the German
graves were desecrated. “"It was in 1936 or 1937, some people from one of the
universities came to the island for the day. There was a lot of anti-German feeling at the time, and somehow these people found themselves in the graveyard and they destroyed the German graves, smashed them completely." People on the island only found out weeks later when they had a funeral.

The team that came for the remains of the POWs in 1967 showed similar disdain for the burial ground. The two-ton carved boulder in memory of Sosinka and Kagerer was cast aside carelessly and only put back upright many years later by the islanders.

None of the former prisoners retained contact with the island, although they left behind clues to their identities. There is a postcard of one of the Germans in a tunic which John Ferguson has unearthed. Many more photos may exist.

"There was a Jewish hawker who used to come round the islands, and he would take photos with a camera he had,”" he explains. German prisoner records
were destroyed by Allied bombing in the second world war. In the upheaval of a twice-defeated and then divided nation, there is no trace of the prisoners’ side of the story.

The obelisk war memorial in Inverarish, meanwhile, is witness to the 22 men from the island who died in the first world war. Two out of three who volunteered never returned. It was an enormous loss for a small island.

Given Raasay’'s Free Presbyterian leanings, there is not usually an Armistice ceremony at the memorial. But the islanders will remember their dead, and some will still spare a moment for the Germans whose names are carved on the boulder high on the hill, the enemies who became their wartime friends.

The Raasay Iron Mine by Laurence and Pamela Draper is available from Raasay
Stores, Isle of Raasay

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