Camp Sport - Part 3

04/08/2020  -  3.07

(Introduced by) Anne Buckley

On 27 October 1919, almost a year after the Armistice which brought the First World War to a close, a group of 600 German prisoners of war boarded a train at Skipton railway station to begin their journey home. A number of the men carried with them written accounts, diaries, sketches and poems about their time behind barbed wire in North Yorkshire. Two of the prisoners, Fritz Sachsse and Willy Cossmann, compiled this material into a book entitled Kriegsgefangen in Skipton, which was published in Munich in 1920. A project to translate the book into English has been led by University of Leeds Lecturer Anne Buckley. The translation is due to be published in February 2021 by Pen & Sword and includes an introductory chapter containing research into the camp and the prisoners of war.

This third extract contains a description of sport in the camp and was written in the original German by prisoner Dr Friedrich Eppensteiner. Eppensteiner went on to have a career as a teacher after the war and published a book entitled Der Sport in 1964.

Alongside the games in the camp, athletic exercises became increasingly popular following the formation of the athletics society in April 1918. A sandpit was prepared for long jump and high jump, which unfortunately had to be made slightly too narrow because of the adjacent fistball pitch. A 400m track was marked out as well as was possible given the unsuitable terrain. We also obtained some simple equipment: a 7¼kg shot put, 2 discuses and 1 Schleuderball. With this simple set-up, the athletes in the camp were able to do their training, which, though falling short of the full range of events in the classical Greek pentathlon, nevertheless enabled excellent physical exercise for the attainment of both strength and beauty. There were various throwing, jumping and running exercises, in other words ancient forms of meaningful human movement in which the relative attainments of all participants emerge clearly and automatically. Thus they provide all the attractions of competitive sports, just as, of course, they constitute regulated elements of other sports, the effect of which on the spectator is akin to the enjoyment of art. 

Let us take another walk in our mind’s eye around our sports field on one of the beautiful July mornings when many men are participating in athletics training in the foreground.

We have barely gone through the narrow entrance when we see a Schlagball or cricket ball coming towards us, having been thrown from the area near the top football goal. Some comrades are training for the long-throwing competition by practising with the Schlagball. Complacently we observe the lovely arc described by the expertly-thrown ball against the sky. Nearby we then see the flowing movement of the limbs and torso of the thrower when he swings back his arm to take aim and transfers all his momentum into the small ball.

Next to this we see another type of throwing: the launching of the large, heavy leather ball with a strap attached. In this case, again, the strength of the arms alone is not sufficient to achieve a good distance: full power must be transmitted into the ball at the very moment it is launched via the rotational force of the body and the arms, while avoiding any loss of energy.

Yet another group of officers is practising throwing the discus. This throw requires even more energetic rotation around the axis of the body and constitutes excellent training for the abdominal muscles.

Participation in the various running disciplines was particularly enthusiastic. If one wished to find out in advance of the races what the competitors were capable of, one had to be an early riser! No other discipline generates so much excitement among the spectators, as here a person pushes himself to his highest speed and power in order to fight for victory. The pinnacle of this can be observed in the sprints, where within a few seconds the heart, lungs and legs must give everything they have got, while in the middle and long distance running events intelligent economy of effort and an awareness of the actions of one’s fellow competitors is necessary for success. Furthermore, running is an activity which requires extreme caution at any age, but particularly for those of more advanced years. It seemed to me that the many new sports enthusiasts in the camp did not always take their health seriously enough.*

* Those who wish to know more about the health parameters for athletic activities should refer to two good German works: F.A. Schmidt, Unser Körper, written for sportsmen and quite detailed; Hüppe, Die Hygiene der Körperübungen, less detailed but an excellent overview of the subject.

The greatest non-sporting interest, where the focus was exclusively on the winners, was generated by the relay races, which were not just about camaraderie and personal relationships, but also the element of risk involved in the handover of the baton. The amount bet on these team races was therefore especially high and indeed the totaliser played a major role in sport because of the conditions produced by camp life. It must, however, be said that all forms of betting must be regarded as an enemy of pure physical exercise and should be discouraged.

The third main group of physical exercises becomes apparent as we reach the sandpit on the upper sports field. We only see a small number of examples of triple jump and the standing long jump of the classical pentathlon. On the other hand, the normal long jump and high jump are being practised diligently, the latter not often with a straight run-up but with an approach from the side, the so-called ‘Scottish jump’. In the best examples of this the body of the jumper rolls over the string in an almost horizontal position, having pushed off the ground with the foot furthest from the take-off position so that the entire wonderful movement appears as a more purposeful and, for that reason, more beautiful run punctuated by a jump. We are struck by how short the run-up is; there should not be an excessive forward velocity; instead the momentum should be carried into the upward leap. In the long jump it is different – here, the take-off speed should be as high as possible, and so the run-up is long and the effort is apparent in the facial expressions, similar to those of the sprinters. So it is no surprise that the winner of the long jump and the sprint is often the same person.

Next to the sand pit we can see the shot put with the iron ball which, as with all the throws, demands a unity of strength and agility, and requires the maximum performance of the entire human frame.

The whole range of enjoyable yet seriously and keenly undertaken sports and games that have just been briefly paraded before our eyes came together gloriously in the camp sports festivals.

When, with the start of the good weather, the wish for a combined sports festival was expressed more widely and began to take shape, the compiler of this report held a lecture entitled ‘How shall we organise our camp sports festival?’ believing that a successful demonstration of camp games and traditional competitions, enhanced by universal participation and the presentation of awards, framed by an opening speech and a small post-event celebration, would encourage physical activity in the camp and promote an understanding of sensible sporting activity. Immediately before the first sports festival he held a second lecture entitled ‘Introduction to the camp sports festival from patriotic and educational perspectives.’

In total, three large sports festivals were held in the Skipton camp, or four if the tennis tournament is included. All of them were blessed with superb weather. The first major sports and games festival was opened by the senior German officer with an entertaining speech on the afternoon of Whit Sunday. The main events were on Whit Monday.

The second camp sports festival, on 27th July 1919, featured only athletics competitions but with a much wider range of events. Contributions from comrades enabled us to provide numerous handsome prizes with a total value of around £30.

The autumn competition on 7th September was a smaller affair, involving only the members of the athletics club who had not previously won prizes.

The tennis competitions that took place in October 1919 were similarly organised. Two tournaments were held, the second of which had handicaps. Unfortunately these provoked so much antagonism that even the spectators were affected by unease. However, a series of enjoyable matches took place, and the progress of some of the players during the tournament week was quite remarkable.

Camp sports competition flyer

Without doubt, sport was a ray of light in the lives of the prisoners of war, both individually and collectively. It would not be exaggerating to say that it was only through sport in our prisoner-of-war camp that some men experienced for themselves the benefits of habitual daily activity in the fresh air, within healthy limits, for the maintenance of physical fitness as well as for intellectual capability and for refreshing the mind; and that habitual physical activity within the limits imposed by one’s work can actually be considered a moral obligation of every citizen.

More attention will have to be paid to sport and games in post-war Germany, and they will have important functions to fulfil. What is most important, alongside the appropriate organisation of physical and patriotic development, is the German concept of sport as a schooling of the body to higher moral purposes. May I conclude by expressing the wish that every ‘Skiptoner’ who, as a father, educator or citizen, will one day have to concern himself with the issue of physical fitness or physical education, might be inspired by his own experience in the camp to adopt a positive attitude.”


Anne Buckley

Anne Buckley is a Lecturer in German and Translation Studies at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on the POW camp in Skipton, North Yorkshire, where more than 900 Germans were imprisoned during WWI. She has led a team of translators to produce an English version of the 330-page book, Kriegsgefangen in Skipton, which was written by a group of the German prisoners during their incarceration (German Prisoners of the Great War: Captivity in a Yorkshire Camp (Pen & Sword, forthcoming, 2021). She also worked with the Heritage Lottery Fund funded Craven and the First World War project to tell the little-known story of the camp to the local community. In relation to the project, Anne has presented the following academic conference papers: The Legacy of First World War Captivity: A case study of German POWs from a Yorkshire camp, at The International Society for First World War Studies Conference, University of Leeds, 2019; Paper kites and a red balloon: Coping strategies of German POWs awaiting release. 1918-2018: An International Conference, University of Wolverhampton, 2018; and Sherlock Holmes, Saint-Saëns and Schlagball: An analysis of the motivations for the camp activities of officer POWs in WWI using Raikeswood Camp, Skipton as a case study, at the New Research in Military History Conference, University of Cambridge, 2017. The twitter handle for the project is: @skiptonpow