Stop 6-The Forgotten Prisoners of Breary Banks

Breary Banks, as we have discovered in our research, has a vast and complex history. However, the Germans who resided here at the prisoner of war camp from 1917-1919 are often forgotten. In our audio guide therefore we wanted to dedicate a stop to them, telling their story of their time here at Breary banks in Colsterdale.

Below is a final draft of the script I have written for stop 6 of our audio guide-

 “As you walk, take each step slowly – this is where many more before you would have walked down to the chapel for Sunday morning service 100 years ago.

As the British Army moved out of Breary Banks here at Colsterdale, it became a German officer prisoner of war camp from 1917-1919. Life here at Breary Banks was very different from what one might imagine a prisoner of war camp to be. Even a delegation of Swiss inspectors regarded it to be one of the best camps in England. Although this didn’t stop the prisoners from deeply missing home and their fellow soldiers still fighting in the war. 

Continue walking down the hill and take in the vast landscape, the hills, the grass and the smells of the Yorkshire dales. While he was here, Johannes Rienau, kept a diary, writing details about his time as a prisoner here. Johannes regularly described the beautiful landscape of the area you see around you. On the 25th of November 1917 he wrote this entry:

“on the ice covered snow gleams the Sunday morning sun. A fairy tale splendor as if it was dusted with fine veil, the heights of Colsterdale lie within the wood. The bare rock, the green meadows and the grey human dwellings here before our eyes. And above all, there is a high, pure, blue sky. Astounded as yet we are prisoners! And yet there is a war!”

 For the 500 German men at Breary Banks, the terrors of the Western Front were quickly forgotten. Rather than fighting, the prisoners indulged in a variety of leisure activities such as chess, hockey, football and volleyball on the sports field here at the camp. They also had music and art classes and a library of 800 books! 

Though many enjoyed life here at Breary Banks, there were some German prisoners who were ever so eager to return to fighting, and newspapers from the time documented the bizarre ways that some of them attempted to escape. Heinz Justus, who was brought to the camp in 1917 attempted to escape dressed as a woman! However, he didn’t get very far and was picked up by guards and returned back to camp. 

If you look to the field on the left hand side, you may see some unusual concrete pilings within the grass. Do you know why they are there?

These are the remains of the foundations of the military huts built here at Colsterdale. These huts would have housed 21 German prisoners of war each, sat around, eating their dinner, opening up letters and presents from their family, and talking about how much they miss home.

To continue our story, carry on walking down the road till you reach the chapel. For a moment pause there and see if you can notice anything about the chapel. Can you tell when it was built? Then carry on around the bend in the road till you reach a wooden gate on the left.”


Sources used-

Brooke, C., 2014. How we fed lobster and game to PoWs at Christmas: Long-lost diary reveals German officers held in Yorkshire Dales enjoyed festive feast and were even given presents. Mail Online. (Online)

Familienkunde in Norddeutschland, Tagebuch eines Kriegsgefangenen in England. (Online)

Lucy Moore, N. P., 2015. Great War Britain Leeds: Remembering 1914-18. Leeds: Leeds museums and Galleries .

Nottingham Evening Post, Saturday 26th August 1917, Huns Officers Escape. The British Newspaper Archive. (Online)

Written by Jessica Chatburn


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